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 is 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 is 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.


(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.


(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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  1. Pingback: Ether: Where Self-Publishing Surveys Cannot Go ...

  2. 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 readers to find out if their reading needs are being served and what they’d like to see more of. I started writing for children several years ago because I didn’t find enough good literature for my middle grade nieces and nephews.

    • 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.


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

    • @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!


  3. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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,


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  4. 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 and gone directly to the reader consumer.

    I don’t think not explicitally calling this out means the initial survey is flawed — or that its implications are. Hugh’s point seems to be along the lines of look, if this self-publishing channel wasn’t open, people wouldn’t be making any money doing what they love. And thus making any money should be seen as a victory over making no money and reaching no readers that comes with the slush pile.

    But then proceeding to state that thus saying ‘self-published authors do not make much money’ is flawed doesn’t work for me. Sure — they would be making less — they would be making none — if they were stuck in the slush pile — that makes sense — but it doesn’t also mean that they are not ‘not making much’ by self publishing (how’s that for a mangled thought?). The two concepts can exist simultaneously. I suppose what we are looking for really is a definition of much — and Hugh is making the point that, in this case, ‘much’ itself is flexible and if you are making even $2 you are ‘making much’ because you are making more than you would with slush’s zero. But! I do think the idea of what is ‘much’ should still be pegged to ‘better than not making anything.” I think it should be pegged to, “can do this for a living, or a sizable chunk of a living.” And by that assertion – -which is certainy mine! — it remains the case that many self-publishers are not making much. And I also think comparing it to the one large set of data we have right now — the performance of the industry — is what we should do — both because it’s what we have and because it’s going to be one of our early yardsticks in the self-pub industry.

    Now there are reasons self publishers still ‘don’t make much’, and not having the data and not having the right metadata and not knowing what actually works out there in the darkness that is the current self-publishing market when it comes to data and performance is a big part of this. I do not think it’s a quality issue, outside of the cases where it obviously is. I think the tools are not there, to a large degree, for all the reasons we know (closed markets, secretive practices, etc). But I see the market as similar to what it was when blogs were first starting and people were first beginning to master the intricacies of web traffic. This market is going to continue to grow and more and more people will be making more and more money — I absolutely believe that. But I think it’s hugely important for authors to see that many are ‘not making much’ right now. Why? Because it sets expectations. I work with authors every day and I always try to set expectations — because it helps them produce better work, it helps them focus more, it helps them spend their limited resources, and it helps them make the right decisions about distribution, pricing, and other pieces. And we try and make these suggestions based on what we know about sales performance from the vast number of titles we’ve published at Vook, and based on what trad published authors make.

    And I think it’s crucial to actually stack self-publishing against traditional publishing. It’s best to face reality. The self-pub via digital industry is in its infancy — and many authors are not making much. And authors should understand that, so they can learn how to ‘do better.’ Is it, as Franzen said unhappily, all heading towards Amazon’s vision of an author, Amazon, and a reader — with everyone else cut out? Is that even Amazon’s vision? Who knows! I doubt it. But I am fairly certain it’s important to compare self-pub to the existing industry, at least as we start, because it is a useful bit of data and measurement, and it shows what value publishing can bring those authors who do survive the winnowing process; it sets a kind of bar. When self-publishing tools and options are able to surpass that value offer of publishers more reliably, we’ll be at the next level. But today authors should know how they’ll most likely perform. Not because it will keep them from self-publishing, but because it will put their success or seeming failure in the proper perspective — and, if publishers do come knocking because they like a self-published book — which is happening with rapidly increasing frequency — it will help these authors understand the value that publishers can still bring them today.

    A long post from me, please feel free to email me at Matthew@vook.com — we’re working on these issues day in and day out right now.

    • 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 hope we could possibly have for such a survey. What other goal even makes sense? Again: Such a survey should tell us HOW LIKELY YOU ARE TO MAKE MONEY DEPENDING ON HOW YOU PUBLISH. (Caps for emphasis, not for yelling. I don’t know how to bold in these comments).

      This is like a guidance counselor at school telling students how much they could hope to make for various careers. Writers need this sort of info in order to make good decisions. Telling them how much PUBLISHED authors make without taking into account HOW FEW authors get published isn’t just pointless, it’s misleading. It’s dangerous.

      We have a problem out there right now where people think they have two options after writing a book: (A) They can self-publish. (B) Their book is put on sale in a bookstore.

      But those aren’t the options. (B) includes a LOT of people who never get published at all. Ignoring this sets up authors to fail and to be disappointed. Why would we set this as a goal?

      Let’s focus on what our goal should be. Our goal should be to inform aspiring writers and industry experts on what authors can expect from various routes to publication. If you want to focus on the top 1% of traditionally published authors, cool. Let’s compare that to the top 1% of self-published authors. If you want to look at all self-published authors, that’s fine as well. But you have to compare that to all authors who CHOOSE to submit to the slush pile, no matter what happens after that.

      Otherwise, you’re saying, “Hey, author, if you decide to go traditional, you’ll automatically become a part of this small segment over here, and this is what you can expect from your career. If you go self, you can expect this.”

      Without an apples-to-apples comparison, there’s absolutely nothing good that can come of this survey. Additionally, I would love to see the “hybrid” category go away. How did those authors get their start in the industry? Where do they make most of their money? I suspect that pulling the bestselling indies out of the self-pubbed categories further perverts the results of this survey. Another complaint I’ve seen about the survey is that most of us bestselling indies never heard about it, because of where it was advertised. So there’s a chance that the data isn’t just being represented poorly, but that the data isn’t very good to begin with.

      • 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 the starting point we’re at is different. I don’t presuppose that authors think it’s one or the other — in my experience, authors think it’s self-publish or experience massive frustration trying to get a publishing deal. The few authors I speak to who think they are going to get a publishing deal are usually either deluded (rare though) or in fact do have leads and are weighing self-publishing as seriously as they weigh the publishing offer — but that is a tiny group, and, by this point, most of these authors are almost by default that informed.

        So — that was the point of my first comment — I think it’s accepted and understood how few authors get published. And I could be way off there — but that’s been what our experience with authors shows. Getting published is a dream, doing it yourself is a dream you can make happen.

        The final thing — hybrid needs to go, I agree. I get that as a designation, but . . . with the fluidity of how things are working, it doesn’t seem relevant.

        What I think is really interesting is not traditional publishing vs. self-publishing — I think that’s a big distraction. It’s marketplace data. That’s what’s key. Is self-publishing really just an Amazon or bust game? (And obviously I have data informed thoughts on this I won’t get into here) What are the other markets where you can win? How do you do that? What’s the best way to approach this new kind of business? Etc. Etc. Etc.

        What I always tell authors is — it is the BEST TIME in history to be an author — but if you’re going ot be anything, be a self-published ‘publisher’ — treat yourself seriously as a going concern (whether it be for profit or non profit, to reference your earlier point about the joy of the practice), but treat it as you would an operation — with the key piece that you are the board, the employees, and the editor.

        • 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, although it can be technically useful to have a shorthand for an author who is actively pursuing two or more routes at once. In the final analysis, though, I’d agree with you that it’s like anything on a spectrum: where does most of the work lie in the marketplace? That may well be the more telling characteristic about a given author — where the largest part of the career stands.

          Author Barbara Freethy presents an interesting case in this regard. I was interviewing her last month and, of course, we went over the fact that she had a really substantial backlist from traditional. The rights had been released to her, so she began re-releasing digitally and now has created new books atop that backlist in her status as self-publishing. Some might want to call her “hybrid” because that big backlist was originally traditionally published, of course, but I’d say she’s fully independent at this point, controlling all her properties, herself. I’d classify her as an example of a highly successful author who has transitioned her main position from traditional to independent without (as I see it) a lot of “hybrid” in between. Another scenario in which, I’d agree with you, the temptation to use the “hybrid” label might not be well-advised.

          It’s a rich period of change, really, and we can only be better for working through it with candid exchanges of perspective like this.

          Thanks, both of you, again,


          On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

          • 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 for literary production today. This is it.

          • @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. :)


            On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

        • 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 career decisions based on improperly presented material such as this. All they’ll see is that going the traditional route results in better earnings, which is completely wrong. This is important enough for us to speak up against. I think the fine folks at DBW agree by now and will want to correct these faults in future surveys and analyses. Hopefully they too would like to answer the question: If you are going to start a career as a writer, which direction should you choose? Because this is a daunting choice about which there is more misinformation than information.

          • 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 me. And also why it’s important to be clear about the revenue disparity. I think it comes down to our two different experiences — yours is more around showing authors self-pub is a viable path; mine is that I get the authors already convinced of that direction, and I need to inform them of the difficulties. That is really the crux of this. I’m in the business of getting people into self-publishing, and so, in a way, I think you want someone like me talking to the prospective self-publisher about how it works, because I’m not going to try to give you, the author, a bill of goods on ‘how you’re going to succeed.’ Instead, I’m going to try to help you to understand what success means and what you can do to achieve it.

            Actually — that resolves the issue for me. It’s a perspective question. I’m dealing with authors ready to or interested in self-pub, and I’m trying to help them make the right decisions, whereas, on a broader spectrum, there is still a battle to be fought to show the rest of the world how viable self-pub really is. But that just goes back to my first comment — we’re at the beginning of the blogosphere for self-publishing. To me it’s a done deal. Just as blogs enabled individuals to have their own businesses, self-pub is going to do the same for authors on a grander scale — ha — Hugh, you should be less eager to make the case we both agree to as you are radically increasing your own competition!


          • “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 kidding with your statement, but I think it’s important to note that authors do not compete with one another. We drive each other’s sales.)

            I totally understand a person in your position wanting to keep author expectations in check. I think this makes it even more important for me to convince you that this survey is harmful. Yes, it will lower expectations for aspiring self-published authors. But it overdoes it. We don’t need to lie to people to help them along their way. We can do it with truth.

            If someone is considering self-publishing, and they are coming from traditional publishing or have the dedication and skills to *eventually* make it through that gauntlet, then they shouldn’t be comparing themselves with the entire field of self-published authors. Anyone who takes this seriously, as a craft and as a profession, is already in the top 10%, say (a perfect survey would tell us more precisely. We’ll never get such a survey). If you look at hybrid earnings, those are people who started their careers with self-pub or who moved there after seeing the advantages of self-pubbing. Pulling these out of the self-pub categories further dilutes the truth, which is that starting a career in the self-pub realm is superior in the vast majority of cases to starting a career in the pro-pub realm.

            There are other advantages to going self-pubbed first that this survey doesn’t reflect. One is the long tail. Ownership of your work means you can promote it and discount it as you see fit decades from now. POD keeps your work in print forever. We have yet to see the full benefit of this, as the revolution is only a few years old. Signing away lifetime rights for books that never go out of print for LESS than publishers used to pay in the heydey is a very bad move. Then there’s the non-compete clause you’ll be signing, which makes absolutely no sense and NO AUTHOR should ever sign a contract containing one. Publishers shouldn’t even want these bizarre contraptions. Being able to publish several works a year is the greatest advantage a self-published author wields. I rank it right above being able to control price and give works away for free.

            These advantages would be borne out from an honest and broader survey. I would cast a much wider net, and I would get rid of the hybrid designation. What I would want to know is this: Does the average author have more of a chance to earn a living if they choose to self-publish or if they choose to traditionally publish? Think about this question. The author can choose to submit their work to the slush pile. Or they can choose to put their work up on the Kindle store. They don’t get to dictate what happens next. We shouldn’t artificially cull the results for them. We should average out the luck and the quality of the manuscripts and just show them what they can expect, on average, from the two routes.

            The limited window of availability of traditionally published books (3 – 6 months on dwindling shelves), the restriction on how many books they can publish, the high price of digital editions, the attitude of catering to bookstores rather than readers, the lack of skill with metadata and other deficiencies, the lack of real-time sales data and monthly payments . . . these are handicaps in the traditional world that will be readily apparent in a good study. These are also handicaps that will be readily apparent in due time.

            I applaud you for assisting authors in making rational decisions, and I’ve enjoyed this discussion. All my best.

      • 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 each book to its own category to determine whether or not that author is making any money.

        This would weed out the books that are in the slush pile, letting you compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

  5. 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.

    • @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 clear on that point as they lay things out in January.

      Do say hello if you’ll be at the conference. Good to have you and thanks again for your input. All the best,

      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

      • 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…

  6. 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 was a rigorous scientific study, rather than an after-the-fact blog post summarizing the results of a self-selected survey.

    • @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 clear, you’re making a very good point that pertains to any evaluative project of this kind.

      Thanks for that, and many thanks again for being with us.


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  7. 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 “I” really want to see….is let’s take the subset of self-published books that are of sufficient quality to be picked up but went self – and compare those people with the traditional published crowd – I know it’s not possible to get – but it would produce, I suspect, some fascinating results.

    • @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 at times like these to know how to make analysis more meaningful because, especially in the early going, we just don’t have ways into various pockets of info we need — as you’re demonstrating here pretty handily.

      The key, I think, is to struggle forward but NOT pretend, as Howey is warning us, that an element of our usual study regime is working.

      We’ll get better metrics on all this. (I actually think there’s reason to hope that big retail will, sooner than later, begin releasing some data to us. When I’ve talked directly to executives about this issue, they’ve listened very well. They do know the bind the industry is in on this. They don’t feel they can move yet, but they’re hearing us.)

      At the moment, I think we need, as I tried to say in the piece, to get better about saying it forthrightly and up front: We don’t have what we need in some areas and until we do, the last thing we should be doing is trading off an apple for an orange and hoping no one will notice.

      Thanks again for your good input, it’s quite welcome here.


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

      • 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 some picture that puts certain aspects into perspective. If Amazon, B&N, ibookstore, and kobo would transparently give Nielsen their data as long as it was co-mingled this would really tell us a great deal.

        My data is anything but scientific but I can say that as someone who has done both sides of the fence, and know a good number of authors in both camps…that I know more self-published authors that earn a full-time living wage than I do traditionally published ones. My gut tells that if you look at “professional” self-published authors (those that could get a contract if they wanted one) and compared them to those that are traditionally published what you would see is:

        * At the low end $5,000 – $10,000 is roughly the same % for both groups.

        * For the mid-list income earners (those making $60,000 – $150,000 a year) I think there will be more self-published than traditional

        * for the top end earners (those making $150,000+) there will be at least a 2 to 1 ratio for traditoinal.

        * for the mega earners (those making seven and eight figures) they will almost always be traditional, with only a few outlier self-published authors.

        I think what we can reasonably say that if done well self-publishing can be a viable route. Also the earnings per book gap is very attractive, especially to traditionally published authors who have readerships that care about “them” and not the imprint name on the spine. If traditional doesn’t reign in the profit sharing gap (like the $3 to every $1 on ebooks) they risk seeing some of their big earners shifting over – either as hybrids or fully self-publishing. Having publishers compete not just with each other…but with self-publishing will, in my opinion, be a good thing for authors.

  8. 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 or bypassed and it leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. Or, put another way, what if someone like J.K. Rowling stopped querying after her first rejections? It feels almost impossible to write or talk about traditional publishing compared to indie publishing without feeling the subtle, underlying implication that traditional books are “good” (hello, “gatekeepers”).

    • If it were possible, it also would be interesting to analyze writer income over time. When bookstores are returning the latest non-seller and the Big Five are hawking their freshest lists, some indie books are just taking off. Traditionally published authors can’t make money on books that are out of print or not widely available. (In fact, I tried to buy my friend’s book recently through the new Kobo indie-bookstore program, and discovered that this book wasn’t available for Kobo. Most self-publishing authors I know are selling across platforms.) The fact is, * most * books don’t sell well, traditional or indie. Indie authors, however, have a long shelf life and can actively promote their backlists with each new title.

    • Finally, I was surprised to hear that Hugh Howey does not use ISBNs. As I’ve researched self-publishing, it seems like a professional step. However, I don’t understand Bowker’s arbitrary, prohibitive cost. I also am greatly disturbed to see Bowker, the U.S. monopoly on ISBNs, offer a host of new services aimed at the indie author. I don’t mean this as an attack (the a-word!) on Bowker, who certainly have good data on book selling, but I don’t see how this can’t be a conflict of interests and confusing to some wanting to publish their own work.


    • 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 hampered anyone’s career not to.


      • 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!


        • 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.


          • 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.

    • 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 money writing and generate careers for themselves that DO pay. I think you might be assuming there’s a “message” behind the numbers there that someone from the traditional side of publishing is promoting via the survey, but my sense is that’s not the case. If the survey had asked the same income questions of classical dancers or stage actors or visual artists, etc., I think we might see a fairly similar outcome. If anything, I’d say think of it as a number to rise above! Like you, I think writers can — and certainly should be able to — make a living writing, although I’m not about to say that this might be easy. I dont’ see the DBW median figure on traditionally published authors’ income countering that. Stick to your guns — making a living from it is a great goal.

      Similarly, the idea you mention of an implication that traditional books are “good” and self-published ones may not be? — actually is completely predictable. Happy? Certainly not, especially if one is self-publishing. But this is the natural order of things. For decades the idea of a “good” book was simply something from the traditional industry. That was it. The only well-known way of going it otherwise was vanity publishing. Today, anybody with half a mind can understand that a fully professional, responsible approach by a dedicated author of talent and skill, working with good people for author services as needed, can produce just as “good” a book. However, I don’t think we should be surprised that what we (the world in general, not those of us in the industry day to day) imagine as “good” comes from what we’re used to seeing as the output of the traditional industry. That’s merely the example we’ve had for so long and, as we all know, traditionally made books aren’t perfect, either. All that’s needed here is time. It’s a lot to ask the world to turn on a dime and decide, “Hey, now self-published books can be just as good as traditionally published books” when the only thing “self-published” for so long were vanity press jobs. We know that many readers today are taking a special interest in self-published work — they’re aware of it and follow it as a specialization, often because they’re particularly happy with the direct contact they frequently can have with authors. This is great. But it’s still early days and this is still a subset (though growing) of the wider readership. Eventually, I think what we want is not a “special interest” in self-published work so much as a widespread interest in the best books without regard to how they’re made — and without glaring differences in production quality. I think we’ll reach this, too. It will take some years. And I’m back to “perfectly understandable.” Inside the industry, we’re ahead of the world at large. We need to realize the market will need to catch up with these ideas — and we need to spend that time learning what standards we want to see “new publishing” achieve, and how to get there.

      And by the way, there will always be gatekeepers. Even if we call them readers. :)

      Lastly, I’ll just pick up on your concerns about Bowker and its offerings to authors. One point I think you know but some may not is that Bowker is designated by the International ISBN agency as the US ISBN-distributing body. The international agency (based in London) decides what body is the licensed outfit in each country to offer ISBNs. I mention this only because some folks think, I believe, that Bowker invented the ISBN or made some sort of land grab to have the position of US agency for them. As I mentioned, in some countries, government cultural funding picks up the cost of ISBNs, in other countries writers or publishers pay for those ISBNs (or self-publishing platforms may provide them, as Hugh reminds us happens at CreateSpace, etc.).

      When Bowker first developed some additional offerings for authors, they pointed out that many writers would go to them for the ISBNs they needed and then ask, “What do I do next?” Bowker developed its SelfPublishedAuthor.com site in the wake of such questions. If you feel that the program creates conflicts of interest and would like to talk with someone from Bowker about it, I could put you in touch with someone who might be able to answer any questions you have. Just let me know. Personally, I don’t see a conflict of interest there because I don’t think of the provision of the ISBN as anything but a service provided for payment. You can simply get ISBNs and no additional services if that’s all you need or want. Since Bowker is a commercial outfit — profit is the goal, one assumes — the creation of products around the license they have to sell ISBNs, I think, looks logical to me. However, that’s just my take on it and, of course, I respect any differences you might have with that viewpoint. Do let me know if you’d like to discuss things with them, there are some great people there, happy to put you in touch if you’d like.

      And thanks again — such a faithful reader — for being here on this one and commenting. Totally appreciated, as ever!


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Andersonz

      • 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, famous authors who bring in big sales deserve to be well-paid. It’s confusing, though, that newbie author advances can vary so widely and not seem to correlate to subsequent sales, as reported in the news. I have no idea if this is something that’s seen in other arts as well.

        QUALITY: Again, you make some excellent points. I used to be prejudiced against self-published titles because the only ones I had seen (as a reviewer back in the vanity days) were awful. I’m excited by what’s happening now and, as you say, the ability authors increasingly have to create high-quality books. Yet, no one can deny that many low-quality books continue to be self-published. As someone who also worked for a NYC literary agent not too long ago, I have spent time with the slush. Unfortunately, whether they’re publishing themselves or hoping to be traditionally published, many writers send out their work too soon.

        BOWKER: Yes, I knew that Bowker had been chosen to be the sole source of ISBNs in the US but—perhaps strangely–I hadn’t understood that they were a commercial entity. (I guess I hadn’t given much thought to * what * they were!) Thank you for the additional information and clarification. I don’t think I need to talk to someone there, though I appreciate your kind offer.

        Although . . . do you know if Bowker sets the price for its ISBNs? It seems steep (even with the package deal). Unless I’m mistaken, they don’t DO anything with the ISBNs do they, other than collect information about the books published with ISBNs?

        I also understand that self-publishing authors don’t * have * to choose any of their services, but my concern about a possible conflict was that maybe authors might not know that. (Or wouldn’t realize that there are many things they can do for themselves that Bower and, granted, others, are offering.) When I started researching self publishing, though, I poked around their site and found helpful information.


        • @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 make the mistake of not realizing Bowker is a commercial entity. The assumption is that they’re a kind of government agency or some such, I think, which can cause confusion.

          In my experience of other arts, the advance is not really in play bec cause for authors it’s an “advance on royalties” which, as you know, the author must “earn out” before making any more money off a book. In most other arts, while payment for a large work (a canvas, a sculpture, an installation) will be made in stages, the last part on delivery, there’s no further relationship usually unless there’s a percentage of box office for a performing artist, perhaps. In film, of course, percentages are not uncommon.

          On quality, exactly. To me the greatest mistake is premature release of copy that’s really not ready. Some are starting to write of self-publishing, in fact, as very dangerous in this regard because without those “evil” gatekeepers to say, “No, this is really not ready yet,” lol, authors are too tempted to schlep their work into the marketplace before doing everything it needs. And yes, the prep authors do on their work can be woefully inadequate in the traditional as well as self-publishing setting, as you’ve seen. The only thing that might make self-publishing tougher in that regard is that no infrastructure (agents, editors, etc.) are readily in place to counter that — we have to depend on our authors to learn to slow down, invest in good, strong professional help, and seriously do what those other professionals normally do in the traditional setting.

          Thanks again!

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  10. 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 say, but this matches what Hugh points out. The traditional numbers don’t reflect the slush, while a huge portion of the self-pub numbers ARE the slush.

    What I’d love to see are the numbers for those who self-publish AND went through significant editing AND have a professional-quality cover. In other words, I’d love to see the self-published authors who treat this as their career and approach all the steps professionally. If we take out the hobby-ists, the arrogant, the can’t-be-bothered, and the excuse-makers, what do the income levels look like?

    That would be a more equal comparison between self-pub and traditional pub. Perhaps in future surveys, if someone checks the self-pub box, they could be prompted to answer additional questions about cover and editing. Now THAT would be interesting. :)

    • @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, in that without full reportage of sales (in either traditional or self-publishing settings), the precision of the sample setup could be challenging.

      As we’ve said in various ways in this discussion, a major part of the difficulty here is not a lack of willingness, necessarily, to create meaningful studies but a major lack of data on which to base them — and that, by the way, is not to say that there’s “bad data” being used now, just a dramatic *lack* of hard data faced by anyone working in this space who might want to establish the kinds of head-to-head, top-ranked sellers for comparative analysis.

      So at this point, we need to:

      (1) recognize the existing limitations — which are daunting, as your good idea brings to light;

      (2) be sure to clearly *state* those limitations whenever talking of what we do get in surveys, so there’s nothing inadvertently misleading about what is reported (and this is where I’m saying it’s the job of journalists like me as well as survey presenters to get these clarifications in place and keep stating them); and

      (3) work very hard to encourage some of those who could make more data available to do so — our major retailers at this point being the ones whose numbers are the most firmly held out of sight.

      It’s ironic, when you think of it, that an industry based on information is having as much trouble with this as it is. But, on the other hand, when types of information are your stock in trade, then maybe it makes sense that the disruption goes there. Your treasure is your most vulnerable factor, after all, and the digital disruption doesn’t mess around when upending an industry, as we’re learning.

      Thanks again for jumping in, great to have you. And I join you in hoping we see a strong, fully scientific study of just such ranked comparative analysis sooner than later — the results will be fascinating! Cheers,


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

    • 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.


  11. 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 and the man met him at a social event. He relayed the story of the audition and the result. The Master was surprised and said: “I tell everyone who auditions that. And if my saying that was enough to stop you, then indeed, you didn’t have enough fire.”

    The man was stunned. “But what about the survey?”

    The Master shrugged. “You wanna be average, listen to surveys.”

    • @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 it’s hard to remember to disclaim these things, to say, “Now be very careful with this part of our survey report because we have a major lack of input there, so the best we could do is create an approximation of what we’re talking about…” Yeah, very difficult to do well.

      Your point about the danger of surveys completely skewing what people may do in lives and careers is a really good one, and I think it’s one of the strongest motivations we all have in wanting to really sharply clarify the kind of material we’re being given as survey results. We need to remember that no one benefits from badly characterized data — and in publishing, I don’t think we have villains who for one reason or another want to present something as gospel when, in fact, it’s a skewed result without adequate foundation. But, as I say, disclaiming the shortcomings of a survey is not easy — but critical. And so I think Hugh Howey’s effort to raise this very crucial point about how we’re looking at self-publishing vs. traditional publishing for authors in this specific instance has a very palpable confusion built right into it. These are the things we need to discuss in the business.

      So thanks again for jumping in, much appreciated. Bests for the holidays if we’re not in touch again before –


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  12. 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.

    • @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!


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  13. 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 was state whether those who submitted and were rejected and then self-published should be entered into the hybrid model, and if so how that would pull down what appears to be the most flourishing way of doing things (you wouldn’t want to appear to be endorsing it as the preferred option by not subjecting it to due scrutiny).

    A further slight point on the way you would compare a similar percentage of those who self-publish with the percentage of traditional mss now covered – this remains more intractable than you allow when you talk of taking the top x% of self-published works because there is no way of knowing if the mss taken from slush really *are* the est-selling of the potential mss – indeed the success of many who are rejected and then go on to self-published success would suggest otherwise. In order to compare apples truly with apples, one needs to address all the complications, not just the most obvious.

    • @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 will be a non-issue and such information will be much more routinely available in many walks of life. But for now, that’s the situation.

      The real issue, then, is how we present what we do have, compromised and extrapolated as a lot of it is. The real key is much more aggressive statements of the methodology, limitations, and actuality of what we’re presenting — being careful never to put forward such hobbled findings as if they’re facts. The fact that in many cases of such surveys the respondents are self-selecting (volunteers responding to appeals to fill out the survey) is important — they’re not screened or vetted participants. That, too, needs to be clearly disclaimed and maybe repeated. (Last year in the States we had a big library survey done, and most of its respondents were library users responding to “take our library survey!” appeals — so, when most of them said they liked libraries, it could hardly be considered a scientifically obtained sentiment.

      Thanks again, Dan, great to have you jump in here!


      On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson

  14. 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! :-)

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  20. 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…


  21. 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…


  22. 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.

    I completely see the point Howey is making about the slush pile, I also
    think that the ground of the discussion needs some clarifying.

    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 the chance to either embrace or reject you.

    Put another way–there are two kinds of trad-pub authors:
    aspiring and published. There’s only one kind of self-pub author:

    So what are we really talking about here? The
    moneymaking potential for _all_ completed manuscripts whose authors have
    commercial aspirations, regardless of whether they’re published or not?
    If so, it’s fair to include the slush pile in the calculations. Or are
    we talking about the moneymaking potential for books _actually available
    in the retail marketplace for readers to buy?_ If so, it’s a different
    calculation, and including the slush pile is adding oranges.

    course, it’s apples and oranges anyway, because self-pub and trad pub
    are so different–not just in the way they work but in writers’ reasons
    for choosing them and using them. So while I’d like to see a lot more
    data–including surveys–on the self-publishing field, I’m not sure that
    self-pub/trad pub comparison surveys yield anything very meaningful
    about either method of publishing.

    • 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 the goal, then, becomes getting something that can compare publishing success on one pathway to publishing success on the other pathway.

      Of your options, then, it’s the moneymaking potential that’s at issue. And the trick here is to realize that when the entire slush pile is, in effect, published — as it is in self-publishing but not in tradtional publishing — unless care is taken to match a certain level of sales success on one side to a similar level of success on the other side, then you can badly confuse authors as to what their potential might be.

      As you can see in the table that Caby Smith has put together below and Hugh has commented on , it can be important to indicate that successfully selling authors in either mode, selfpub or traditional, can, in fact, be doing very well. But standard survey work of the kind we see this year in the DBW offering, compares *not* the the top-selling authors’ earnings to each other from both modes — instead, it compares the top-selling traditional authors to the whole spectrum of selfpub authors (which includes your Aunt Mathilde’s memoir that sold 15 copies).

      The highly successful selfpub authors I know have all said, to a person, that they weren’t contacted about participating in that survey in particular. And that may mean that none of the 150 authors Amazon tells us sold more than 100,000 copies (of a single title each) in 2013 has been factored into the results. http://bit.ly/1lkkwDg

      That, in turn, means that the survey is much likelier to reflect traditionally published success without reflecting corresponding success on the selfpub side.

      When offered as a guide to authors, then, this is very skewed information that — however inadvertently — says to authors, “No, there was no such success on the selfpub side in terms of author earnings to compare to what we saw on the traditional side.” That, of course, isn’t true — we know that there were successes, big sellers, in selfpub. Somehow, their success isn’t being counted and matched up to the success of traditional authors in this approach.

      Does that help?

      -p. )

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