Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go

12 December 2013 iStock_000009864589Small photog uyrk texted story image-2

Table of Contents

  1. Is Our Margin of Error Showing?
  2. If You Don’t Get It Yet: Let’s Try It This Way
  3. Quality of Data and Good Intentions Are Not in Question
  4. And Another Thing: Authors at Work
  5. Calling the Question

Is Our Margin of Error Showing?

Here comes another article on how very little self-published authors earn!…With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.

Hugh Howey in Paris during his recent two-month tour on the Continent. HughHowey.com

Hugh Howey in Paris during his recent two-month tour on the Continent. HughHowey.com

Hugh Howey has become an articulate commentator on publishing, as I said on Monday while interviewing him for this week’s #PorterMeets column in London’s The Bookseller. (It’s on the stands tomorrow, Friday.) And as his sales grow, so does this author’s ability to speak with sometimes uncomfortable precision to the establishment.

Digital Book World’s (DBW) Jeremy Greenfield used his Forbes spot earlier this week to promote a series of DBW posts by Dana Beth Weinberg previewing the coming Digital Book World Conference & Expo’s update of the always-interesting What Authors Want survey. It’s put together by DBW and Writers Digest’s (WD)Phil Sexton. (Info on the conference is at the end of this column if you need it; best advance prices end Friday.)

Greenfield headlined his survey teaser How Much Money Do Self-Published Authors Make? and his first line is: 

In short, not much.

DBW Conference 2014He writes that the coming DBW Conference update in January will tell us that “the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing.” And then he tells us about the other side of the fence, according to respondents to the survey, emphasis mine:

By comparison, authors published by traditional publishers had a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999 and ‘hybrid authors’ (those who both self-publish and publish with established publishers) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.

Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield

The basic shape of this information is not a surprise. Since its inception, the What Authors Want summary has told us with dependable consistency that respondents suggest hybrid authors do better than either traditionally-only published authors or self-published-only authors;  and that self-published-only authors make the least from their writing.

But look again at the word I’ve highlighted in Greenfield’s sentence: published. It’s the whole crux of the crucial point Howey now brings us.

Howey has gone to his blog page with a short essay, You’re looking at it wrong. He quotes Greenfield this way:

“At the high end of the spectrum, 1.8% of self-published authors made over $100,000 from their writing last year, compared with 8.8% of traditionally published authors and 13.2% of hybrid authors.”

And then Howey writes:

But that compares ALL self-published authors and only a small fraction of people who go the traditional route. I’ve been hammering this point home for years, but it still gets left out of these comparisons. When you look at earnings and sales figures for traditionally published books, you have to take into account the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile. Why? Because those are authors and books attempting to go that route.

His clearest statement of the problem:

With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.

I’m hunkering on this because Howey is right. And he’s “hammering” at something we need to confront head-on if we’re to benefit from such extensive survey work as DBW and WD are doing for us.

An important point to get into place right now is that nobody’s ox is being gored here. This is not an “attack,” just put that word away before you even say it. As Howey makes very clear, what we need in order to do this correctly isn’t available. Nobody’s bad or mean or evil here. So remain calm, no holiday hysteria is required today, don’t make me come over there with the defibrillator.

But. Howey is right. We have to stop leaving this truth out of such survey comparisons. And when I say “we,” mea culpa: I mean those of us who report it as well as those who present it without disclaiming this problem. We can’t, as Howey puts it, keep pretending the distinction isn’t crippling this element of survey interpretation.

I’m going to quote Howey at a bit of length because we’ve heard these types of stats from various authorities (not just DBW/WD) for quite a while; it’s time to really listen to the counterpoint coming from the other side of the cathedral:

Because these numbers are impossible to wrangle, we simply pretend the distinction doesn’t exist. A fair comparison would be to know (here’s the impossible bit) how many manuscripts are submitted to agents and how many of those are never self-published. These are part of the traditional equation. Period. If you’re going to count among the self-published works every copy/pasted Wikipedia article or rough draft that is just tossed out there with no love and no editing, then you’ve gotta lump the slush pile into the traditional tally. Plain and simple.

When you consider this, the 1.8% vs. 8.8% is pretty amazing. Especially considering the $100K traditional club are the people getting all the promotional energy and dollars from major publishers.

We cannot “simply pretend the distinction doesn’t exist” anymore.

Back to Table of Contents

If You Don’t Get It Yet: Let’s Try It This Way

The point Howey is making is a little tricky to get at first (which is why so many of us haven’t spotted it right away). Subtlety gives way to elegance as quickly as you grasp it, however. If you haven’t grokked it yet, this section of the column today is for you. If you have, jump to the next section and we’ll finish up.

Consider yourself an author with a book ready to go. We’re going to look at you first as a traditionally aspiring author, then as a self-publishing one.

Traditional

(1) If you wanted to be traditionally published, you’d shop your book to agents. Let’s say no agents liked your deathless prose, alas, and you ended up with one of those badge-of-honor piles of rejection slips and an intense interest in sharing my Campari.

(2) If I then came around doing this survey for DBW and Writer’s Digest, I wouldn’t even know to ask you how much money you’d made from that writing in traditional publishing. Why? Because you’d be invisible to me. If you shop your book around with no luck, it vanishes. This happens to most books. (If you didn’t know this yet, you’ll need that Campari now.) This is what Howey means by “the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile.”

(3) So your lack of income from your writing wouldn’t be counted in the survey. Because you weren’t published. And the only thing the surveys count on the traditional side are published books and their authors’ income.

Now, we’re going to do it again.

Self-Publishing

(1) Your book is ready. You’ve done everything people like me tell you to do to produce it beautifully: you’ve taken the time to write it well, not rushing it out prematurely; you’ve paid for professional developmental and copy editing and cover design; you’ve built an adoring community just ripe for that book; you’ve had it expertly rendered in every e-format in the digital firmament; you even have placed some POD copies in stores by taking lunch to the store managers and telling them how great they look. And yet, that book doesn’t sell. Nightmare Uno is in effect. Pricing experimentation, free promotions, blog tours, speeches at every Kiwanis breakfast within 400 miles, blurbs so good you cry when you read them, but…the damned thing won’t budge. It’s a dud.

(2) And oh, good, here comes Porter Survey Taker in his little necktie and vest sweater. Great timing. After punching me out simply for saying “Good morning” (and I don’t blame you), you then answer my question by telling me that no matter how many candles you light on the Altar of St. Amanda the Hocking, not even your mother will buy your book and thus you cannot show me one penny of writing income.

(3) Remember how when you tried to do it traditionally, the no-income thing meant it just vanished? No accounting of it was made of it in the survey, right?—because you didn’t get published, right?  Well, this time because you did get published, albeit self-published, your unhappy experience in the revenue department is counted on the survey.

Put crassly:

  • Bomb out as a traditionally aspiring author, and there’s no effect on surveys of author income.
  • Bomb out as a self-publishing author, and your flat-line is counted against the overall self-publishing earnings track record.

Howey wants us to understand that this is a double standard. He is not wrong. We cannot count the dollars made by traditional authors only if they get published, but count those made by all the self-publishing authors, no matter how they fare in the open market.

If we want to count all the self-publishing authors, then we need to count every hapless no-income-from-writing wanted-to-be-traditionally-published author who gets nowhere and ends up at the bar next to me discussing the superb color that Milan puts into Campari.

  • Our surveys are counting the self-publishing losers as well as winners.
  • Our surveys are counting only traditional publishers’ winners.

Back to Table of Contents

Quality of Data and Good Intentions Are Not in Question

As Howey’s exasperation came to light Wednesday in his post, the good Greenfield—my colleague on at the Live Tweet Command Center at every DBW event—may have misunderstood him. In a comment on Howey’s post, Greenfield wrote:

The only thing I don’t agree with is the quality of our data. It’s good. And I respect you for wanting to look at this from a different angle. We are looking at it from that angle, too. in fact, the first thing we published from this report was motivation as to why authors publish…and it’s not for the money!

On that not-for-the-money motivation question, Howey and Greenfield are in accord. But Howey was not questioning DBW’s data. Howey responds in his own comment to Greenfield, and I’m underlining the key phrase:

I don’t think the problem is with the data. The problem is that the data we need doesn’t exist. What we need is an estimate of how many books submitted to the slush pile make it out and into retail [in traditional publishing], and then compare all traditionally published works with that same percentage of self-published works.

See what he’s saying? Untold numbers of people (untold because we can’t track them) have no luck getting published traditionally. But a lot of people self-publish and then don’t sell well. Those are not untold, they are told, if you will: we count them, and we count them against the money-making capabilities of self-publishing authors. We don’t count the authors who fail to make it traditionally, so a far smaller number of writers in traditional—i.e. the ones who get contracts—are the only ones being counted on that side.

In our Monday interview for The Bookseller, Howey positioned the community of self-publishing authors as a Big Sixth force in the industry—the equal of one of the Big Five. This is why the inestimable Kat Meyer and I worked to put together a very large town-hall style panel at Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC Conference on the implications of self-publishing for the industry. (It’s covered here by Ether host and Scratch co-founder Jane Friedman at Virginia Quarterly Review, where she’s Web Editor.) At my request, both Howey and his agent Kristin Nelson joined us on that panel.

Howey sees a far more potent presence in the maturing self-publishing movement than the kind of imbalance these surveys are hobbled with. More from him in his comment back to Greenfield. I’m going to underline a sentence in which he says it really well:

Even if you just guessed at the number of [traditionally] submitted manuscripts that make it to publication being at 1% (which I think is awfully generous), you would immediately see a completely different landscape. Take the top 1% of self-published books and compare their earnings with traditionally published books. That would be something to behold.

“Something to behold” because that, in fact, would include his earnings. Howey, as you know, is one of the most successful of the global self-publishing network of entrepreneurial authors. As of the last figures I had, he was closing right in on his first one million units sold. And I can give you a quick rundown on some key elements of his career at this point:

  • Sand Part 1 by @HughHowey30 foreign publishers;
  • A two-month tour, meeting some of those publishers and many more readers on the Continent;
  • That New York Times bestselling trilogy (WoolShiftDust);
  • Part 1 of a new NaNoWriMo-written work, Sand, releasing on Sunday (yes, this Sunday, December 15);
  • WOOL: The Graphic Novel treatment releasing its first installment on February 11 in association with Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Jimmy Broxton;
  • A Vonnegut-vibed fan-fiction work coming to Amazon’s new KindleWorlds program (in which other writers are creating work based on his Silo Saga, by the way);
  • An editing-and-writing project, The Apocalypse Triptych, with the iconic science-fiction editor and anthologist John Joseph Adams for June;
  • Eight other books and at least seven short stories, all of it here and some of it available for you to read free of charge;
  • A special limited-edition hardcover release ahead of the Silo Saga books; and
  • That Hollywood option for which the screenplay has been written. He tells us in tomorrow’s The Bookseller #PorterMeets: “20th Century Fox is on board [although it’s] a long way from being green-lit.”

Howey and I differ, to some degree, on the question of ISBNs, by the way. In his tweet exchange Wednesday with Greenfield, he pointed out something we’ve gone over many times here and at Publishing Perspectives: we’re dependent on the ISBN as the standard identifier sold and tracked in the United States by Bowker.

As a journalist—I readily declare this bias—I’d like to see all authors put ISBNs on all their works. I think we need a clear, comprehensive vision of how much work is out there if we’re ever to understand the impact of the digital dynamic and self-publishing on the industry. I think authors should want to be a part of that vision, making sure their works are counted.

Absolutely, I would prefer self-publishing authors not have to buy their ISBNs. (It’s $250 for 10 in the States, and there are some holiday specials at Bowker at the moment.) In some countries, ISBNs are provided through government cultural subsidies, while in the States and the UK and other nations, they must be bought.

But either way, I don’t see ISBNs as a device of traditional gatekeepers, as some folks do. I say that without their consistent use, we don’t yet have a way to “see” all the work out there. And I think the effort to survey and understand our industry—the impetus for surveys in the first place—is meaningful, healthy, and important.

I fully agree with Howey on his call for sales data from the major retailers who currently hold these numbers in confidence as proprietary information. As long as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and others keep this information as trade secrets, we don’t know what we’re looking at. Obviously their corporate interests tell them they need to decline to report, and that’s perfectly legal. But that doesn’t help us understand and evaluate the industry’s output.

Amazon's Jon Fine speaks with author Boyd Morrison in late September at Writer's Digest West, where he talked about the 25 percent of 2012 Top 100 books on Amazon being self-published.

Amazon’s Jon Fine speaks with author Boyd Morrison in late September at Writer’s Digest West, where he talked about the 25 percent of 2012 Top 100 books on Amazon being self-published.

Check out these points from his comment back to Greenfield. They include that 25-percent-of-Amazon’s Kindle 100, which I reported in early October from Jon Fine’s presentation at Writer’s Digest West and Jane Friedman reported from his comments in her October piece from Frankfurt but our friends at the Guardian only caught up with last week.

Things we do know: 25% of bestsellers at Amazon, which sells more books than anyone else, were self-published in 2012. Those books make five times the royalty rate as their traditionally published counterparts. But they also retail for less than half as much. Still, you’re looking at a 2X or 3X earning rate. And you’re looking at a higher percentage of top-100 bestsellers among indie authors as you have for most major publishers. Someone did this with the top 300 fiction titles and found the percentage of indies to be even higher than 25%. It gives me the impression that a comparison of all traditional books to the top 1% of indie books (a fair comparison of the two routes to publication) would be a trouncing for indie authors.

Back to Table of Contents

And Another Thing: Authors at Work

Howey has a second reason the standard survey’s comparison of traditionally published (only) authors’ earnings to (all) self-published authors’ earnings don’t work. This is the softer issue, but if you’re a book person at all—if you realize that “the product” is actually the result of a creative drive to self-expression—you must take it into account. This time, the emphasis is Howey’s:

Hundreds of thousands of voracious readers with a dream of writing a novel sat down and did just that. They wrote out of love and passion, just like a kid goes out and dribbles a basketball for hours every day or kicks a soccer ball against a garage wall. Of these hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of their bills from their hobby. These are part-time artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love.

This is the argument with which Manhattan in the aggregate has the most trouble dealing: the love-of-art argument. it’s one of the reasons the industry! the industry! talks more about itself than about its books. Publishing’s business infrastructure is not set up to handle the peculiar, humid aesthetic desires on which its very existence is founded.

Almost every individual player in the industry I’ve met loves books, loves the authors who write them, knows exactly what I’m talking about here, and reveres the inexpressible effluvium that gathers every now and then to produce genuine literature’s greatest moments. But the business isn’t about that. This is the case in many businesses based in art: film, museum work, dance, music, publishing is not alone in this.

But the business is running the surveys. And those surveys, Howey tells us here, are missing the boat not only on the technical point of how it compares earners but also on the actual impetus to write.

There are tens of thousands of authors out there now making $20 or $100 a month doing what they would happily do for nothing. In fact, if you told me I had to pay a monthly “writing fee” for the privilege of making stuff up and pounding it into my keyboard, I would do it…Many self-published authors are doing much better than not-earning-a-penny. And this revolution is only a few years old! Just wait until more and more talented writers forego the slush pile altogether and skip straight to self-publishing. Or when more authors jump from traditional to self-publishing. These numbers are going to look better and better for indie writers.

Back to Table of Contents

Calling the Question

As hearty as he is hardy (his level of output and career management is astonishing), Howey is doing our summation for me today, emphasis his:

Two things to keep in mind: The number of authors going the traditional route is not reflected by those who happen to land an agent and then go on to get published; their number includes those in the slush pile who do not go on to self-publish. This is a fact that must be dealt with.

And there we have it. The man has called the question. “A fact that must be dealt with.”

Remember, this is not anti-surveys, it’s anything but anti-DBW, and it’s fully pro-clarity in publishing. Nobody gets up in the morning eager to confuse somebody with survey comparisons that don’t work. Everyone’s doing her and his best with what data is available.

But at the least, surely, this requires disclaimers about such survey interpretations, disclaimers that none of us is making very well so far.

So I’ll call that question with Howey, and willingly: How shall we deal with this, folks? 


Both DBW and Writer’s Digest are verticals of David Nussbaum’s F+W Media, which this year is staging the Digital Book World Conference & Expo January 13 to 15 at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers, we’re back at Seventh Avenue and W. 53rd this time. Register by tomorrow, Friday, midnight when a round of price breaks expires. You’re most welcome to use my code PORTER14 to save 5 percent on a full registration or a Total Access pass. Our hashtag this year is #DBW14.  Back to Table of Contents


Wool trilogy Random House covers

Cover artwork for the Silo Saga by Jason Smith, Random House UK.

Main image: iStockphoto – uyrk


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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
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80 Comments on "Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go"

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[…] In Writing on the Ether at JaneFriedman.com, Porter Anderson covers the points author Hugh Howey makes about author-earning surveys in publishing.  […]

Kim
2 years 1 month ago

As someone who works with data all day, I’m fascinated with the discussion of both survey methodology and interpretation that’s the center of this article. I attempted traditional publishing but ran into praise for my writing and concept while receiving rejections linked to agent “excitement” (or even rejecting a ms because a similar but not that similar book was “so huge!”–counter-intuitive to me) and then recently moved into self-publishing, I wonder how I’ll fare in the “hybrid” cohort. This just demonstrates how much survey research is an art rather than a science. I’d love to see a similar survey of… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

Hey, Kim,

Great of you to read the Ether and comment — and sorry for the slow response today … felt like Monday on a Thursday, lol.

I agree with you on the interest in surveying readers. You’re likely familiar with Goodreads, but if not, they’re a huge (20 million members) platform for readers and authors, designed primarily for readers who want to exchange info and ideas about their reading, much to learn there.

Many thanks again, great to have you.

-p.

On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

Morgyn Star
2 years 1 month ago

Porter, thank you. You’ve given writers more information and tools for decisions than I’ve ever seen in one place.

2 years 1 month ago

@morgynstar:disqus g

Hey, Morgyn.

Do feel free to come by and fling kind comments at me ANY time you’d like, you’ll always be welcome. :) Seriously, you’re too generous. As you can see from today’s post, for example, I’m only as good as the great people working in this industry I cover. It’s really thanks to Hugh Howey and Jeremy Greenfield and the DBW and WD teams and Jane Friedman and so many others that I have anything to cover. So it’s to them we owe the thanks.

You’re very generous, thanks again!

-p.

LJO
2 years 1 month ago

Wasn’t there actually a category for “aspiring author” in the survey, and wouldn’t that take into consideration the folks in the slushpile, those seeking representation, etc?

2 years 1 month ago

No, some aspiring haven’t finished any books yet…and some are aspiring and going traditional and others are aspiring and going self. It’s been awhile since I did the survey but we should be able to discard all those who haven’t finished a book…then add the “aspiring” from that group to the two different routes – and then we might have some data worth looking at.

Bottom line….I would love it if the raw data were posted so that we could slice and dice it a few different ways.

2 years 1 month ago

Really interesting idea, Michael, the idea of having the raw info from the survey supplied. Thanks again.
-p.

2 years 1 month ago

Hey, thanks for jumping in and special thanks to Michael for following up. I’ve been tied up in meetings today, but just wanted to say welcome and thanks for engaging and carrying on the discussion here. Much appreciated,

-p.

On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

matthewcavnar
2 years 1 month ago

This is a roll over from me rambling at Porter unhelpfully on Twitter. But here’s where I’m missing the connection — why is it so important to address that counting all self-published and all traditionally published but leaving out the mass of those who never make the leap from the slush pile such an important implication, instead of one that’s already accounted for in the terminology we’re using — which I believe it is? ‘Traditionally published’ means the author has survived that winnowing process that is the slush pile/agent submission experience whereas self-published means the author has circumvented that process… Read more »

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

Let’s try this question: What should the point of these surveys be? Should it be to brag about earnings? If so, then it is brilliantly concocted to paint an unfairly favorable picture for traditional publishing. Let’s use only those earning money from that route and compare them to ALL members of a different route. This seems silly to me. What’s the point of that? I have an idea about what a survey like this should be useful for. It should tell us about market conditions so that aspiring authors can make the best choice possible. I don’t see what other… Read more »

matthewcavnar
2 years 1 month ago

Hugh, I think we have different starting points. I don’t know of any authors who think that a traditional publishing career is going to happen easily, or that it’s a straight shot. I think very few people do think this. I don’t think it’s a dichotomy — you self publish or you get a deal. Most authors do not think they are going to get a deal at all, or are coming to self publishing after they realized that was not going to happen. Again, this is based on the thousands of authors we’ve worked with — so I think… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

You know, the great thing about having a madly busy day, is that you can return to your own Ether in the evening and — lo and behold — everybody has had a wonderful debate! Thank you both, Matt and Hugh, for this really stimulating exchange. (And Matt, you were hardly rambling on Twitter this morning, lol. I was just about to be sucked into said busy day and realized I’d be leaving you in limbo in the Tweeterie — thanks for jumping over here to comment.) I’ll just add, Hugh, that I’m having qualms about the “hybrid” terminology, too,… Read more »

matthewcavnar
2 years 1 month ago

Porter — thanks for inspiring all of this. You’ve certainly influenced me to make time outside of business to be more candid and clear about these issues in a public forum. I take for granted that in our business we have a deep understanding of how self-publishing and the ebook (and POD!) markets work and how sales actually function. These years are a huge turning point for authors — the return of the 15th century incanabula — and there is much, much, much, much, much yet to be done. The Internet and self-publishing world is the Paris of the 1920s… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@matthewcavnar:disqus

Matt, great to have you!

And we all have to thank Hugh Howey for the inspiration here — his fresh(er) eye on the industry is invaluable in spotting issues and concerns that many others don’t pick up on. The resulting discussion is always worth stopping and taking a look: when Hugh flags something, I pay attention.

Glad to have had you along, thanks for your own contributions to the mix and see you at Montmartre. :)

-p.

On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

The fact that you and I know these truths about how difficult it is to get published is not reflected in the results of this survey. If it requires insider knowledge to make sense of these results, then the results themselves add nothing to our understanding. I want data that teaches me something, not data that requires me to already know a lot of stuff in order to mentally correct or parse it. The more I dwell on this survey, the more I find it worse than merely wrong; I find it harmful to aspiring artists. People will make poor… Read more »

matthewcavnar
2 years 1 month ago

Well, I just don’t think it’s limited to you and I. I think authors know it’s hard — and a broad cross section of them. You’re presenting it as if the choice is clear cut — pursue self-publishing or pursue trad pub. And most authors who come to me, and that is many good authors who, five years ago, would not have been able to do this themselves, don’t really have much hope for trad publishing. Even the ones who may have been successful with it in the past now are more interested in taking direct control. That’s fascinating to… Read more »

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

“Hugh, you should be less eager to make the case we both agree to as you are radically increasing your own competition!” Ah, but I don’t have competition! :) I have colleagues. A good book increases the chance of a reader picking up another book, rather than going to the cinema or doing something else with their time and money. I want more people writing and publishing, and it’s a selfish urge. Books are my passion. If I was into opera, I’d try to convince more people to go see them, to take singing lessons, etc. (I know you were… Read more »

rac speal
2 years 1 month ago

I think we need to go one step back. Why not first consider the reach of a particular book (i.e. the number of readers that book has reached divided by the number of readers an average book in that genre should have), then multiply that number by 100. The divisor would be a little bit harder to determine, but since you’re talking about the average reader reach, not all possible readers, you could still get a fair picture. Then you could use the resulting number to separate the books out into categories (i.e. bestsellers, medium sellers, etc) and then compare… Read more »

Harold Underdown
2 years 1 month ago

You raise a good point, but there’s another problem with the survey–response bias. The only data the survey reports is the data reported to it by the people who responded (of course). And people who have succeeded are both more likely to have been reached by the survey (because they are plugged into the whole world in which the survey was circulated) and more likely to respond once reached (because they have succeeded).

So it seems to me that there is under-reporting on both sides of the equation. The problem is, of course, we just don’t know how much.

2 years 1 month ago

@haroldunderdown:disqus Hello, Harold. Sorry not to have gotten back to you more quickly today, it’s been a busy one. Thanks for your input. As I was just saying to Gareth (the comment above), a self-selecting survey base is something DBW and WD are careful to announce as part of their methodology when they present their results at the conference. You’re absolutely right that a survey sample built on voluntary response of this kind is one that must state that factor clearly (in whatever field and setting the analysis is offered) and I know that the DBW14 folks will be quite… Read more »

Harold Underdown
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks. It’s good that they are transparent about that, but whether or not they announce that, we still have to be cautious about conclusions drawn from such a survey…

2 years 1 month ago

Indeed, you’re very right. The important thing is to use what we know of surveys as guides to our thinking, not as demonstrations of certainties. Thanks again, Harold!
-p.

Gareth Skarka
2 years 1 month ago

Excellent points, even with the article very politely leaving out another two major problems with DBW’s survey: 1) The self-selection bias of the data (authors who were aware of DBW and chose to respond), and (even bigger) 2) DBW’s increasingly transparent pro-industry bias. …and DBW is certainly aware of the problems with the survey, otherwise they wouldn’t have felt the need to try to give it the air of authority by having a CUNY sociology professor do a blog post examining the results, yet give it the headline “A Social Scientist Separates Fact From Fiction”… as if the whole thing… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@garethskarka:disqus Hello, Gareth. Great to have you weigh in today, thanks for reading and for commenting. In the past, I think DBW and WD have been careful to state their methodology on the What Authors Want survey work, particularly in the area of self-selection by respondents. This, as you suggest, is a very serious element of any survey work of this kind and is a key criterion for those of us looking at parsing the work as presented. So I know that when the group presents what they have in January, they’ll be sure to make the self-selection component very… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

A very good article. This is definitely a tough nut to crack. I wrote an article about the whole comparing apples and oranges for Amazing stories back in June (http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/06/publishing-lets-stop-comparing-apples-and-oranges/) and it brings up a lot of the same points raised by Hugh and yourself. It seems to me we can do two things. 1. add in all the slush pile people to the traditional numbers. 2. remove all “hobby writing” (those titles that were published with no intention to earn money – either as a bucket list fulfillment, personal menoir, or a family history for a reunion. The data… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@michaelsullivan:disqus Hi, Michael, Good to have you, thanks for the input. Yeah, agree completely that the ability to compare the “self-published by choice” instances, as you say, to those who stayed inside the traditional track. Alas, as you point out, this isn’t gettable, either, but we’d at least be seeing a very interesting comparative set. We probably are, for the moment, at a stage without a clear, actionable answer to all this. And, of course, these things occur all over our economy as digital disruptions redirect and challenge things in new ways, hardly just in publishing. But it’s not easy… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

Thanks for the warm welcome. I’ve actually done some guest posts for Jane in the past. For a long time now there has been the promise of getting ebook data into bookscan. Of course this isn’t the full answer as bookscan misses so much data – but at least it should miss data relatively uniformly. By looking at two authors published in the same format from the same publisher you should be able to see their relative sales and while you don’t know if that is 50% of total sales or 75% of total sales it does provide at least… Read more »

Kellye Crocker
2 years 1 month ago

Another great Porter post! Thank you! A few thoughts: • I find it interesting that the median income range for traditionally published authors (below $9,999) has drawn little attention. Probably because writers (aspiring and “aspired”), as well as publishers and the industry! the industry! folks consider it “old news” that most writers can’t make a living writing. But not all of us agree! • I do agree with Michael, however, that it would be interesting to track (if possible) the authors who could have published traditionally but chose self-publishing instead. Obviously, there are occasions when certain books get traditionally published… Read more »

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

Hey Kellye, I use the free ISBNs provided by CreateSpace for my POD books. I just don’t use any ISBN for my digital works. Many self-published authors don’t, as there’s no real need for them. I did have a few assigned by my agent when those digital works went into the library system, as they were required at that point. But focusing on ISBN registrations to report the number of books written or sold has not been useful for quite some time. A growing segment of books (both titles and sales) simply don’t use them. It doesn’t seem to have… Read more »

Kellye Crocker
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks for the info, Hugh. I appreciate it and will look into this more for myself.

By the way, I really like your blog, have enjoyed following your career, and love that you speak out for writers. I haven’t read your books yet, but they’re definitely on my tbr list. I was talking to some people on Twitter recently and they raved about them. That’s what writing is about–connecting with readers!

Best,
Kellye

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks! Well, I could recommend a bunch of other books to shift above mine on your TBR list. Thanks for the kind words. Agree on connecting with readers! Amanda Palmer had some great things to say about this in an interview yesterday. Worth Googling after if you can.

-Hugh

Kellye Crocker
2 years 1 month ago

My TBR list already is LONG, lol! But, as I always say, it’s a good “problem” to have. I’m a writer, but always a reader first. And I love connecting with people about good books and helping to spread the word.

I agree with what you said earlier in the comments, that authors are not competitors. The whole self-published vs. traditionally published “debate” is silly; book people should work together to promote books as a great investment for people’s time and money.

2 years 1 month ago

Hey, Kellye, I see you’ve had a good exchange with Hugh, and I just wanted to get back to you on a couple of other points, and thank you for reading and commenting, too. RE: that median income number on traditionally published authors (who respond to the survey), I don’t think it means — or is meant to mean by anyone — that writers can’t make a living writing. In fact, remember that Writer’s Digest, which is half the producing cohort behind the What Authors Want survey each year, is very much aimed at helping writers find ways to make… Read more »

Kellye Crocker
2 years 1 month ago

Hi Porter! Your ability to engage with those of us who comment never fails to stun me. I can’t imagine the time you spend–and that’s on top of the reporting and analysis you do. It’s really impressive! So: WRITER PAY: I guess the frustration you may have read in my comments was that there are so many mid-list authors who do not make a living from their books. Along those lines, I think you make a good point about dancers, visual artists and the like. Still, I’m puzzled by the disparity in the advances paid to traditionally published authors. Obviously,… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@kellyecrocker:disqus Hey, Kellye, Thanks for your kind words. It’s a scramble and one I’m constantly tweaking and adjusting to try to handle, I have to say. I’m asking Bowker about the setting of the price on ISBNs. While I think they do set the price, it’s very, very similar to that paid by authors in the UK, making me think the international body may, in fact, be in sway on this, will let you know. I’m glad you found some useful material there. Some real good people are working on the selfpublishedauthor.com site and its comparatively new. I think many… Read more »

[…] Jane Friedman posts an article on her blog examining Hugh Howey’s response. […]

2 years 1 month ago

What strikes me most is the example you gave of a self-published author doing everything right and still not selling. I know that happens, but I also wonder how many of the not-selling self-pub authors are those who received rejections from the slush pile and decided to self-pub–even though they should have stayed in the slush pile. 😉 In other words, the self-pub component includes all those who might not “deserve” to make money. I follow enough agents on Twitter and I’ve sampled enough self-pub books to know that failure is sometimes deserved. I know that’s a mean thing to… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@Jami Gold:disqus Hey, Jami! Super of you to join us on this one, thank you. I think that what you’re suggesting, in fact, relates very well to what Hugh Howey is saying, a matched comparison based on performance in the marketplace — or at least on percentage, as he has said, a top-1% vs. top-1% comparative analysis. What would make such a study possible, of course, would be a fit-to-purpose survey sample. In other words, a research company would [re-screen and select the respondents based on the desired factors. Of course, we immediately could see problems in the selection process,… Read more »

Kellye Crocker
2 years 1 month ago

Jami,
Love your idea of adding survey questions to delve deeper into the self-published people’s experience!

I agree hat it’s striking when a self-published author does everything right and still doesn’t sell. And, of course, the same thing happens with traditionally published authors. It’s frustrating . . . I guess the hope is that good books eventually find their readers…even if it’s down the road and a new book triggers interest in the backlist.

Best,
kellye

Bob Mayer
2 years 1 month ago

There was a young man whose passion it was to play the violin. As soon as he could as a child, he played. He practiced. In his teens, the Master came to town. The young man wrangled an audition in front of him. He played. When he was done, the Master shrugged and said: “Not enough fire. And the survey says you won’t be able to make a living as a violinist.” The young man was crushed and put away his violin and went into another line of work, never playing again. Years later the Master passed through town again… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@disqus_pulfedR2HO:disqus Hey, Bob, Thanks for the parable here, terribly interesting line, “You wanna be average, listen to surveys.” Might even be funny if it weren’t so apt. Of course, it’s the nature of surveys to try to flatten data into something understandable. I can’t cast aspersions on them all, there’s a place for them, in that we do need to know what’s happening in sectors of society, life, business, careers, etc. But doing them well is not easy or inexpensive and doing them without full and strong data makes us create compromises and “good enough” comparisons (which aren’t good enough)…and… Read more »

Christine Powell Gomez
2 years 1 month ago

Porter, that was an excellent post, thank you. Too many times I’ve looked at the numbers and felt disheartened. You helped to put things in prospective when it comes to comparing traditional to indie pub. Now I have something to keep in minid when looking at the data coming from both sides.

2 years 1 month ago

@Christine Powell Gomez:disqus

Hi, Christine,

Thanks so much for reading and dropping a note, great to have you and really glad you’re able to get a better handle on how to look at survey material. Lots of confusing and sometimes even contradictory info out there for authors right now — perspective is the key. All the best with it, and thanks again!

-p.

On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

eightcutsgallery
2 years 1 month ago

Very interesting piece. To take the second point first, are you aware of this book http://www.sharing-thebook.com/ by Philippe Aigrain which makes some very interesting points based coming from the open source model – his primary focus is precisely on those people making $20-$100 a month. It’s a very interesting take on things from an academic standpoint. On the first point, just two further clarifications to the excellent points made: – you rightly say that “traditionally published” should include all of those who submitted manuscripts and did not go on to self-publish. What you didn’t, as far as I saw, do… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

@eightcutsgallery:disqus Hey, Dan, thanks for these thoughts and the Aigrain reference, as well. One of the points Hugh Howey makes — and I would want to make, as well — is that the kind of data required to make such selections (as you ask, which MS from the slush pile really is the best selling?) simply is not available to us now. The nearly-twin problems of tracking deficiencies (whether by ISBN or another identifier/means) and retailer trade secrecy (reporting no sales figures) add up to a fairly catastrophic lack of transparency at this point. I’m confident that one day this… Read more »

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

I think this sums it all up rather nicely.

2 years 1 month ago

@hugh_howey:disqus

Much appreciated, sir — all thanks to you getting the ball rolling on an important issue too many of us hadn’t fully addressed.

-p.

On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

2 years 1 month ago

I really enjoyed reading the article and the comments by Mr. Howey and Mr. Cavnar. I fall in the Cavnar camp. But the thing I’ll remember most is the part about praying on “the Altar of St. Amanda the Hocking.” Haha! Good one! :-)

2 years 1 month ago

Thanks, Lexa –
Don’t forget the incense. :)
-p.

[…] post by Porter Anderson over at Jane Friedman‘s, Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go” in which he notes Jeremy Greenfield’s article on how much money self-published authors […]

[…] more to the point, an article from Jane Friedman’s blog, Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go, has these […]

[…] Read the full post: JaneFriedman.com […]

[…] Anderson on Jane Friedman Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go “Howey wants us to understand that this is a double standard. He is not wrong. We cannot […]

Caby Smith
2 years 1 month ago

Although
it is true that we may not know the number of books rejected by
publishers, there is a commonly accepted figure that 95-98% of the books
submitted are rejected… this means that, along with the 1.8% figure
for self-published authors you mentioned, it IS possible to compare the
percentage of authors who make 100k+ per year…

Hugh Howey
2 years 1 month ago

This graph does in a flash what my words can’t do in pages. Very nice.

Caby Smith
2 years 1 month ago

Although
it is true that we may not know the number of books rejected by
publishers, there is a commonly accepted figure that 95-98% of the books
submitted are rejected… this means that, along with the 1.8% figure
for self-published authors you mentioned, it IS possible to compare the
percentage of authors who make 100k+ per year…

Guest
2 years 1 month ago

My comment doesn’t seem to have posted–apologies if this is a duplicate… Really interesting and provocative post, Porter, as always. I agree completely about disclaimers, interpretations, etc., and the limitations of such surveys in general. However…while I completely see the point Howey is making about the slush pile, I also think that the ground of the discussion needs some clarifying. When you self-publish, you skip the middleman and make your book available directly to your end market: readers. When you’re in the slush pile, on the other hand, you’re making your book available _only_ to the middleman. Readers never get… Read more »

2 years 1 month ago

Victoria Strauss Hey, Victoria! Thanks for leaving this note, and sorry you had trouble posting — and then getting it to recognize you. (Oddly the email alerting me to your post identified you, not “Guest,” so it’s really strange that Disqus didn’t attach you to the main comment, lol.) In terms of what we’re talking about here, my main concern has been — and I think this is Hugh’s as well — that incompletely constructed and weighted survey work can produce results that can mislead authors who are trying to decide whether to self-publish or try the traditional route. So… Read more »

Victoria Strauss
2 years 1 month ago

The comment above is from me–didn’t mean to post anonymously.

Dylen Durret
2 years 1 month ago

I’m a self-published author who supports himself by selling rough deepthroat pornography while I work on novels:

http://cityofsingl.es

[…] expressed. For more on that controversy, led by author Hugh Howey, see our coverage here in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] expressed. For more on that controversy, led by author Hugh Howey, see our coverage here in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] expressed. For more on that controversy, led by author Hugh Howey, see our coverage here in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] expressed. For more on that controversy, led by author Hugh Howey, see our coverage here in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] comparing the earnings of only published traditional authors to all self-publishing authors in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go with a battery of nearly 60 comments following […]

[…] WRITING ON THE ETHER | Author Sur­veys | JANEFRIEDMAN.COM […]

[…] You might remember last month’s post (can it only have been last month?) Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] You might remember last month’s post (can it only have been last month?) Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] You might remember last month’s post (can it only have been last month?) Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] at Jane Friedman’s Writing on the Ether series, Porter Anderson dissects the DBW survey in detail, and it’s fascinating and informative and drives home another big point, made by author Hugh […]

[…] Hugh Howey’s response to that survey (along with a link to a rundown of this discussion by Porter Anderson).  Later, Chuck discusses the latest big news-splash author turning down a major traditional deal […]

[…] and traditionally published authors’ earnings. That controversy is extensively covered in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. Results of that survey have now been packaged by DBW under the title What Advantages Do […]

[…] and traditionally published authors’ earnings. That controversy is extensively covered in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. Results of that survey have now been packaged by DBW under the title What Advantages Do […]

[…] and traditionally published authors’ earnings. That controversy is extensively covered in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. Results of that survey have now been packaged by DBW under the title What Advantages Do […]

[…] She’s responding, of course, to Howey’s own charge, in which he was joined by many, that the DBW-WD survey had compared the earnings of only successful (thus published) traditionally produced authors responding, while factoring in the entire range of sales (so many of which are less happy) by self-publishers. That one we covered in December, in Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go. […]

[…] mistakenly faulted the Author Survey for not surveying authors waiting in the slush pile when in fact we had. He contended that, as a result of ignoring these aspiring authors (which we did not), we […]

[…] when the survey’s presentation triggered objections from many in the self-publishing sector.Articulated with special concern by the self- and traditionally publishing author Hugh Howey, the 2014 survey’s interpretation […]

[…] Frustrated with what they felt was a skewed and pro-industry picture presented at the Digital Book World in 2014’s “What Authors Want” survey, Mssrs. Howey and Guy set out to find a way to demonstrate that self-publishing is a viable route to earnings potential for authors. The result is the Author Earnings assessments, which many in the self-publishing community have defended as proof that their pathway to publication can be as good or better, financially, as the standard trade publishing route. Those fans, again, will be chuffed. […]

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