Posted by stevemosby on February 12th, 2014
This report on author earnings by Hugh Howey has been creating waves today, which is understandable because it contains a fair few pieces of statistical dynamite: that self-published ebook titles on Amazon outsell traditionally-published ebook titles in terms of units; that ebooks account for 86% of the top 2,500 genre bestsellers on Amazon; that in terms of most income brackets, self-published authors are better off than traditionally-published authors on Amazon; … and so on. I mean, basically you should read the report. Read the report, feel the explosion. The usual suspects remain aflame. Konrath’s been quoting scripture.
I’ve downloaded the raw data and had a brief look, albeit with a four year old hanging off my leg. I’m not a statistician (and I await the opinions of those that are) but here are some quick thoughts. There will be no snark in this post, and for the record I have nothing at all against self-publishing, and I admire writers that pursue that path.
I’m going to assume that the data gathered is correct, which is to say that the rankings, price and publisher details are right. This still leaves one obvious problem in that this is a one-day snapshot, taken late-January. So a minor point first: people do give Kindles for Christmas, and people then play with them. I might be wrong, but I’d expect ebook sales to increase post-Christmas and then tail off a little. As I said, a minor point.
More serious are the sales numbers, which are calculated at 7,000 sales for a #1 Amazon ranking, 4,000 for a #5 ranking, 3,000 for a #20 ranking, and so on – all the way down to 1 sale a day at a ranking of #100,000. As far as I can tell, and despite the links in the report, these are arbitrary numbers. The problem with calculating the influence of self-publishing, and also of ebooks, is the lack of hard data (especially from Amazon), but while the report gives the illusion of providing hard data, it appears to be as built on guesswork as anything else we’ve had. The guesswork may actually be reasonable – and the snaphot interesting from a particular angle – but it’s a hell of a thing to then extrapolate from a book’s estimated one day’s sales to a yearly income for writers that then drives an ideological conclusion. Let’s recognise the foundations might be suspect before we stand on the tenth floor shouting and stamping too fucking hard. This data may be sound but I’m not 100% convinced that it is.
The major problem I have is with Howey’s conclusion.
“But as marketing falls more and more to the writer, and as self-published authors close the quality gap by employing freelance editors and skilled cover artists, the earnings comparison in our study suggests a controversial conclusion: Genre writers are financially better off self-publishing, no matter the potential of their manuscripts.
Consider the three rough possibilities for an unpublished work of genre fiction:
The first possibility is that the work isn’t good. The author cannot know this with any certainty, and neither can an editor, agent, or spouse. Only the readers as a great collective truly know. But what we may simplistically, and perhaps cruelly, call a “bad” manuscript stands only a slim chance of getting past an agent and then an editor. To the author, these works are better off self-published on the open market. They will most likely disappear, never to be widely read. But at least they stand a chance. And those who fear that these titles will crowd out other books are ignoring the vast quantities of books published traditionally—or the fact that billions of self-published blogs and websites don’t impede our ability to browse the internet, to find what we are looking for, or to share discovered gems with others.
The second possibility for a manuscript is that it’s merely average. An average manuscript might get lucky and find an agent. It might get lucky a second time and fall into the lap of the right editor at the right publishing house. But probably not. Most average manuscripts don’t get published at all. Those that do sit spine-out on dwindling bookstore shelves for a few months and are then returned to the publisher and go out of print. The author doesn’t earn out the advance and is dropped. The industry is littered with such tales. Our data shows quite conclusively that mid-list titles earn more for self-published authors than they do for the traditionally published. And the advantage grows as the yearly income bracket decreases (that is, as we move away from the outliers). It is also worth noting again that self-published authors are earning more money on fewer titles. Our data supports a truth that I keep running into over and over, however anecdotally: More writers today are paying bills with their craft than at any other time in human history.
The third and final possibility is that the manuscript in question is great. A home run. The kind of story that goes viral. (Some might call these manuscripts “first class,” but designations of class are rather offensive, aren’t they?) When recognized by publishing experts (which is far from a guarantee), these manuscripts are snapped up by agents and go to auction with publishers. They command six- and seven-figure advances. The works are heavily promoted, and if the author is one in a million, they make a career out of their craft and go on to publish a dozen or more bestselling novels in their lifetime. You can practically name all of these contemporary authors without pausing for a breath. We all like to think our manuscript is one of these. And from this hubris comes a fatal decision not to self-publish.
Why is that decision fatal? Our data suggests that even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”
There are a number of obvious issues with this (for example, where in these definitions do we find the traditionally-published author who doesn’t get dumped but doesn’t hit the stratosphere? He or she exists in good numbers, but is a bit lost or ignored between the second and third scenarios posited here). But what bothers me most, even more than the importance of sales and money over quality, is an implied argument that I see again and again – that the experiment of publishing a book can be repeated with hindsight. “Look at your sales figures! If you’d self-published, you’d have earned x% more!”
The reality is that publishing anything is a unique path. If you have a book, and you’re trying to decide whether to self- or traditionally-publish, there is only the apparition of help for you in these figures. It might be that you traditionally-publish and sell 100 copies, and would financially have been better off self-publishing. It may be that you sell a million copies through traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that you’ve left money on the table simply because those million sales if self-published would have netted you more. You can’t say what might have happened had you chosen a different route – whether you would have got those 100 or those million sales or something different. This is one problem I see with Howey’s piece (and numerous others). The number of copies a book can sell is not some intrinsic part of its make-up. The way you choose to sell it, and what happens along the way, will play a huge part and can’t be discounted.
So finally to me. My latest book, Dark Room, is currently available on Kindle at £3.99 and is ranked around 30,000. I have six other books at around the same price, and they’re generally ranked a lot lower: in the hundreds of thousands at best. That’s fairly standard for me. My Amazon rankings have generally been shit. It’s been used against me in arguments before: Leather’s made a few barbless barbs; Konrath himself has said “Just noticed your Kindle sales on Amazon. Ouch. No wonder you’re so bitter.” (He also called me an anonymous coward, before banning me for signing off with my name).
But listen. I’m British and it’s vulgar to talk about money, so let me take a deep breath. I’m traditionally published, write slightly less than one book a year, and I’m not a big name, and those are my shit Amazon rankings, and yet my average earnings from writing for the last five years have been £72k a year. Not huge, not small. It’s a comfortable living: one I doubt very much I would have had if I’d self-published. You won’t find me on Howey’s spreadsheet. As intriguing as the data is, it’s worth considering what else you might not.