Earning the Authors a Say

20 February 2014 iStock_000011862511Small photog UygarGeographic texted story image


Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Ah, but the verbiage is less heated this time.

The claims are more cleanly stated.

And, more importantly, the focus of the intent is sharper.

As an exercise in industry conversation generated by authors—as opposed to one spurred by the corporate sector—Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings.com project probably is unparalleled.

18 February 2014 iStock_000027456753Small photog catalinr texted story imageShould you need to catch up, we can offer you our initial interview from February 11, A Call for Writers to Organize: Hugh Howey Interview; a follow-up here on the Ether from February 13, Howey’s Convention: “Organized Advocacy”; and an Issues on the Ether writeup about reactions at Publishing Perspectives, Do Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings Add Up?

One very early report this morning is talking of “traditional-publisher vitriol.” That’s a reference to what is a cheap sideshow to the real importance here.

Your time is being wasted by those who say the point or the “fun” of this development is self-publishing and traditional publishing  forces lambasting each other. You have to wonder how much salable material such people might produce in the time they spend trying to insult each other. They could be a lot more productive.

If anything, this outing will disappoint them.

Author EarningsThe Author Earnings report lodged on the site overnight and dated February 19 should come as an almost genteel follow-up.  It’s called The 50k Report for its approximately 54,000 ebook titles sampled in another scraping of Amazon.com book pages,

Much shorter and quicker to go over than the initial report, this edition takes into account information interpreted from approximately 11,000 titles in genre fiction; 900 in literary fiction; 30,000 in non-fiction; and some 10,000 in children’s (not YA) fiction.

Howey has, since the first report, adopted a more frequent use of the term “spider” for the software his still-unnamed associate is deploying. And this time, he includes a short explanatory note on how this digital arachnid does its work:

The spider works like this: It crawls through all the categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories listed on Amazon, starting from the very top and working its way down. It scans each product page and parses the text straight from the source html. Along with title, author, price, star-rating, and publisher information, the spider also grabs the book’s overall Amazon Kindle store sales ranking. This overall sales ranking is then used to slot each title into a single master list. Duplicate entries, from books appearing on multiple bestseller lists, get discarded.

Dear AuthorCritics will not be mollified to learn that, again, this is a single day’s snapshot. The complaint about one day’s view being extrapolated to a year’s performance is probably the single most frequently heard retort to the effort’s mode. One of the most adamant denunciations of  Howey’s approach, Sunita’s How (not) To Lie With Statistics at Dear Author,  Terming the one-day snapshot of the first report as a “cross-section,” she writes:

Cross-sections cannot give you trends. Trends need more than one data point. You cannot determine a trend from a single observation. If a book is #1 today, that doesn’t mean it will be #1 tomorrow. You cannot infer anything about the past or the future from a single data point in the cross-section.

This time, Howey addresses the one-day element of his observations, himself:

As before, our spider is looking at a snapshot of sales rankings for one particular day — in this case February 7, 2014. Extrapolation is only useful for determining relative market share and theoretical earnings potential. Our conclusions assume that the proportion of self-published to traditionally published titles doesn’t change dramatically from day to day, and the similarity of this dataset, collected 9 days after the previous one, lends that assumption some support. By comparing successive reports over the coming months, we will be able to answer the day-to-day variance question more completely.

And as you think about points of interest from this new report, the over-arching goal is good to recall: This is an effort to fortify the opinion that self-publishing may be a more financially viable route for authors to take than some have believed or said it was in the past.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

It’s Howey’s belief that authors may be misled by what he sees as wrongly assumptions and/or assertions that more money is always to be made in traditional publishing than in self-publishing.

Yes, there are flaws in the approach and there are plenty of people eager to tell you that. He is one of them.

Yes, there is a crippling lack of actual sales data here because the major retailers decline to release it.

But there is also a shift in the discussion, what Dublin-based observer Eoin Purcell calls “the start of more mature conversation around change in publishing.” His comments appear in my write-up of our #PorterMeets interview in The Bookseller, on the stands in London on Friday.

Tracy Bloom

Tracy Bloom

And it was just yesterday that The Bookseller carried the first report I saw of self-publishing author Tracy Bloom being signed to a four-book contract by Random House UK’s Cornerstone (under its Arrow division). Such stories as Cornerstone buys four from self-published Trace Bloom give new interest to the question of whether an author will, actually, do better in such a traditional deal than in self-publishing.

Certainly, Bloom feels the path from self-publishing to traditional deal, brokered by agent Araminta Whitley at London’s LAW Ltd, has been right for her. She’s quoted by The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi, saying, “I have learnt a huge amount during the process and I’m now delighted to be joining Arrow who I know have the skills and expertise to bring my writing to an even greater audience and help take my career to the next level.”

At the same time, the logic of what Howey and his associate are demonstrating in their work rings right for some, even if the methodology and some of its assumptions can’t overcome that fundamental lack of actual sales data. Coolest heads remind us that the Bloom case is a perfect example of how both self-publishing and traditional publishing can be of use to the same author, potentially to many more.

As Purcell puts it, it’s essential for self-publishers to understand that traditional publishing doesn’t have to die for self-publishing to succeed.

The result, then, is that authors face a more deeply explicated range of options.

And for your consideration, meanwhile, here are  some of the highlights from Howey’s new report, in short-form:

  • Of this second report’s areas of genre fiction, literary fiction, children’s books, and non-fiction, genre fiction appears to account for some 70% of the whole. 
  • In genre ebook bestsellers, the AuthorEarnings report shows those self-published and those traditionally published roughly even in unit sales. 
  • Also in genre ebook bestsellers, the report sees “indie authors as a group making more than traditionally published authors,” in part because self-published authors make higher royalty rates than publishers provide.
  • Self-published authors, the report says, “capture 22% of the total share of earnings in non-fiction.”
  • Similarly, “e-literature and e-literary fiction…pay better for self-published authors than the traditionally published”

Because some have complained that using the top-selling titles for his reports skews Howey’s estimates, this report also tries removing the top 1,000 bestselling Amazon ebooks in the sample. Howey writes:

Frequently, self-publishing success stories are explained away as rarities. If this is true, once we remove the top 1,000 from consideration, we should see the needle move toward the traditionally published mid-list authors who are making a steady living further down the charts…Once we look below the Top 1,000, indications are that the indie midlist is healthy indeed. Or it could be that we’re glimpsing the rising swell of tomorrow’s new Top 1,000. All of this remains to be seen.

A Barnes & Noble scraping is next, Howey writes, in the ongoing series, and his report again offers .xslx downloads of the numbers used in this analysis.

Questions for you:

Do the observations coming out of the AuthorEarnings.com reports surprise you about the relative strengths of independent and traditionally published work? How closely are you following the introduction and/or reactions to AuthorEarnings? And for all the difficulties in mounting a study when actual hard sales data is not available, do you think the AuthorEarnings material is showing self-publishing to be, as Purcell termed it in his interview with me, “a clear, viable, and sustainable alternative” for authors?

https://twitter.com/JonnyGeller/status/436081709277523968


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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

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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24 Comments on "Earning the Authors a Say"

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JosephRatliff
2 years 6 months ago
I wish some folks would quit worrying about what this data is NOT, and focus on what this data IS. It’s the first viable attempt at using available data from Amazon (and B&N next) to paint a true(er) picture of the publishing industry itself. So what if it doesn’t paint more than a day’s picture? Actually, since Amazon’s sales overall are fairly consistent (unit and $$$) on a day to day basis (Amazon isn’t a startup), there’s something to be said for basing the one day’s worth of data on a consistently reporting data set, no? (I might be totally… Read more »
Porter Anderson
2 years 6 months ago
@JosephRatliff:disqus Hey, Joseph, and thanks for the input here. I know how you feel about naysayers on the AuthorEarnings material, but we have to remember that skepticism is healthy in these things. It’s probaly more important than it might be, too, since, of course, the actual data we need cannot be had. In such a situation, as we work with what we do have — and Howey and his associate are doing one committed job of producing it — I think it’s probably right to keep a wary eye on everything and look to the trends as the most important… Read more »
JosephRatliff
2 years 6 months ago
I’m 100% with you Porter, and another excellent Ether. Be skeptical, yes, 100%… not everyone knows Hugh (neither do I, personally), and anyone should look at the data with a skeptical eye for sure. I suppose my main beef is with the comments that resemble “The data doesn’t show ______, and it should…” or “This data cannot be right because it doesn’t show long-term trends, it’s only a snapshot of one day’s worth of sales…” etc… So what? Focus (with a skeptical eye) on what the data DOES show. Heck, it’s the first deep analysis of what IS available that… Read more »
William Ash
William Ash
2 years 6 months ago

Unfortunately, we simply don’t know what the data are and what they represent. I think it is great that someone is taking this on and have at least come up with one method of mining data from a retailer. But this particular sample is simply too limited, too uncertain.

JosephRatliff
2 years 6 months ago
I get what you’re saying William, but… “too limited” for what? “too uncertain” for what? The data has presented its given points… maybe not for what some folks want to know (or want to hear in terms of the limited scope of truth it presents), but it has its own value (which is “very” valuable). One day’s snapshot is good enough to determine a general idea (not specific, not scientific) of what is going on, I can’t imagine “more days of data” being all that different when you consider this is based on Amazon’s website, an established company with consistent… Read more »
William Ash
William Ash
2 years 6 months ago
Joseph, even before these data, we knew that self publishing was a viable method for authors. These data reflect that to some degree. The trouble is that there is no more we can take from that. Personally, I am looking for useful data on self publishing–I am a self publisher. In my other life, I do work with data. I think people have to be very careful to too read much into them–certainly annual income cannot be extrapolated and Konrath’s analysis is way off base. Unfortunately, there are folks on both sides trying to use data to validate a position–data… Read more »
Porter Anderson
2 years 6 months ago
I get what you’re saying, Joseph, and you’re not wrong, of course. I do think publishing is laboring under an unusually bad kind of blindness here, so I’m prone, I think, to have a bit more patience for the “what it doesn’t show” commentary. It’s like the auto industry suddenly having no serial numbers on cars, so no way to track them and “see” them in circulation, ascertain their ownership history, repair history, the works. Not sure I’ve ever seen a case of an industry so blindfolded. Still, as you say, as long as what a study’s indcations are couched… Read more »
JosephRatliff
2 years 6 months ago
Sorry to belabor the point Porter, but what you are eluding to (to me) is exactly the point of AuthorEarnings.com (again, to me). I’m wrong, you’re wrong, we’re all wrong about publishing… but we’re all “right” as well. People keep changing the discussion to where there is a “right” and a “wrong”… making their case if you will. There is no case to be made. This isn’t a trial, because Hugh has earned enough respect to add to this discussion in this way, and to me, his project comes with an inherent value because of that trust he has rightfully… Read more »
Porter Anderson
2 years 6 months ago

Exactly, Joseph, exactly.
Thanks!
-p.

Bob Mayer
Bob Mayer
2 years 6 months ago
Any self-pubbed author who signs a trad deal needs to be interviewed two years later to see what they say (I can think of one or two who signed a couple of years ago to great hullabalo and seem to have disappeared into, hmm, let’s say the Ether). If they have no experience in traditional publishing, then what they say at signing has little meaning as they’re pretty much clueless of what’s going to happen. They envision large print runs, book tours, NY Times bestseller lists, yada yada. Reality might be a bit different. Sort of like artillery: looked good… Read more »
Porter Anderson
2 years 6 months ago

@disqus_pulfedR2HO:disqus

Hey, Bob,

Thanks for jumping in here, and yeah, the rights issue is becoming so clearly important. In fact, did you see Howey’s write on that from a couple of days ago? You might enjoy it, it’s here, headlined, “Our Eggs Don’t Break” — a pretty enlightening look at how important this issue really is for authors. http://bit.ly/MChiAP

And right on the rhetoric, too. Cooler is better, every time.

Thanks again!
-p.

Alan Tucker
Alan Tucker
2 years 6 months ago
People will believe what they want to believe. How many times have you changed a strong opinion you had about something when presented with a contradictory argument? You may be swayed by a meaningful presentation, but probably only if you were on the fence about an issue or not really convicted in your belief. Bill Nye’s debate/discussion with Ken Ham a couple of weeks ago regarding evolution vs. creationism may have been entertaining and informative, but how many people’s opinions were changed by one speaker or the other? I would guess the number is extremely close to zero. Big publishers… Read more »
Ernie Zelinski
2 years 6 months ago
I agree. You are totally right in saying, “People will believe what they want to believe.” Indeed, self-delusion is one of the greatest creations of the human mind. You also say, “The real hope with the AuthorEarnings reports is that fledgling authors will now have some facts to examine when it comes time for them to make a choice regarding what to do with their work.” By stating this, however, you are assuming that all “fledgling authors” have the critical thinking skills to properly examine the so-called facts (whether true or not). My guess is that most do not. Somewhat… Read more »
Alan Tucker
Alan Tucker
2 years 6 months ago

This sounds like you’re taking the position that all newbies are dumb, so why bother helping them? Of course, not everyone will avail themselves of information or help when presented, but some will. Isn’t it better to offer help to a few than refuse to help any?

Porter Anderson
2 years 6 months ago
Hi, Alan, Thanks for your input here. To some degree, you’re right, of course. Someone talking to me recently posited the difference in those who are willing to be led and those who must be convinced. The latter make it very hard and, for the most part, are not those who are open to being helped. In whatever mode or moment they stand, we can wish them well and realize that change is not what they’re interested in. Time and market conditions will take care of them. I feel sure that what can be offered by the AuthorEarnings initiative —… Read more »
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[…] The germ for this post and some of the text come from a comment I left on Jane Friedman’s blog post here. […]

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[…] Just When You Thought It Was Safe Another @authorearnings bombshell that’s going to have the naysayers tearing out their hair… http://t.co/H9lYF3dURH — Barry Eisler (@barryeisler) February 20, 2014 Ah, but the verbiage is less heated this time.  […]

Greg Strandberg
2 years 6 months ago

For those making a couple hundred bucks from their books each month or less, this is inconsequential.

There’s some good viewpoints here, but I can’t help but think many authors reading these things should just keep writing and tune it out.

I think the majority self-publishing are not thinking too much about the traditional route and just want to get their work out. Things like these reports might help us out down the road, but right now they’re a distraction from writing and publishing on Amazon.

Porter Anderson
2 years 6 months ago

Hey, Greg –

And if you need to tune out these carryings-on, buddy, that’s totally good and fine and exactly what you should do.

Ironically, the intent of what’s in these reports is a reassurance for you that you can be just as successful in your self-publishing as you could be traditionally publishing. But that’s not anything to worry about if it’s distracting.

Stay focused, and all the best with it-
-p.

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[…] Earning the Authors a Say by @Porter_Anderson via @JaneFriedman – More excellent coverage on what is shaping up to be a publishing revolution led by authors. Very interesting stuff … […]

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[…] Here’s Porter Anderson’s take on the Author Earnings reports from Writing on the Ether. […]

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[…] uniting to fight for fair treatment and compensation from the industry traditional publishers. A recent article posted on Jane Friedman‘s blog, journalist Porter Anderson discusses a report published by […]

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