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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 at 8:50 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


18 Responses to “some quick thoughts on that report on author earnings”

  1. Andrew Shaffer Says:

    I read a quote in the Times that 7 out of 10 books don’t earn out their advances, which means that the royalties on that spreadsheet aren’t relevant to 7 out of 10 traditionally-published authors. Factor in subsidiary rights (film options, foreign sales, audiobooks, etc. which seem much easier to get if you’re traditionally published), and I’d say that data doesn’t say as much about “author earnings” from where I stand. That’s just my view. Perhaps someone can explain where advances fit in, in the form of a 20k word blog post? 🙂

  2. John Self Says:

    I would have thought that earnings of £72,000 a year from writing would have put you in the very high centiles. Even from all earnings, it puts you close to the top 10% of households (a household income of £57,000 pa puts you in the top 20%). So you may be more huge than you think.

  3. stevemosby Says:

    John – I’m very lucky, but I’m definitely not huge. You won’t find me in Smiths or the supermarkets; I’ve never made an English-language top-ten; I’m not a well-known name. I make a good living as an author, but the point is that I’m totally outside of Howey’s statistics because he’s focusing on Amazon ranking where I’m in the 100,000s.

  4. John R Says:

    Ramez Naam I think probably raises most of the other objections, chief of them being Amazon’s overall book market share in the US being only 30% and thus there being a potentially large skew in assumed relative earnings caused by missing a great many sales in print, in this comment (and replies to others further down). The same kind of skew that would account for low rankings and high earnings.

  5. Stuart Neville Says:

    I have all sorts of questions about the value of this report, but like you, Steve, I’ll start off by saying that I have nothing against self-publishing. It’s proven to be a valid way into making a living as a writer, and anyone who can make a go of it deserves the rewards. The biggest problem with self-publishing is that its self-appointed chief spokesperson is a raging arsehole.

    Like you, I was struck by the shaky foundation of guesswork that it’s built on. Simply picking numbers out of the air based on sales ranking – particularly given that rankings may not be based on sales, and even if they are, not always over similar periods* – isn’t the sort of data I’d bet my house on. I was also at a loss to see the relevance of the opening statistics about star ratings.

    Here are some other factors worth considering:

    1) As has been asked already, how can a vague snapshot of just one, albeit significant, retailer’s sales rankings possibly be seen as representative of the wider market?

    2) Given that the one retailer “analysed” also happens to be the dominant retailer of both ebooks and, more importantly, self-published ebooks, wouldn’t one expect a skew towards those sectors of the market?

    3) As for royalties earned, does the report take into account that trade-published ebooks are often discounted by Amazon – often to below cost – and that the author’s royalties in those cases would be a percentage of the retail price, not the selling price? I know that some of my books have been sold in that way, and in some cases below cost, but I still earned royalties based on the full price.

    4) Why are independent trade publishers (presumably including my own US publisher) segregated from the “Big 5” companies? They are still trade publishers operating in the same market with similar contracts, methods, editorial standards, and so on. They are a significant proportion of the business, particularly in the US, and I see no reason why they are fenced off other than to skew the (already fudged) numbers.

    Probably the biggest question for me was why was the Digital Book World report published in December ( barely publicly discussed by many in Konrath’s circle, and when it was, dismissed as being just a bunch of meaningless statistics? Even though it was written by a named social scientist and based on actual numbers from 5000 actual authors? Yet somehow an analysis based on guesswork derived from some form of screen-scraping code is rock solid proof that the publishing sky is falling.

    The survey from December found that the mean income of trade-published authors was double that of their self-published counterparts. The mean income of “hybrid” authors was higher again, proving that the Them & Us stance taken by Konrath et al isn’t helping anyone.

    You’d think those findings would have been great for Konrath to “fisk”, wouldn’t you? Nope. Not a mention until I brought it up in his comments section. When I did, he dismissed it, as did most of the others. Its chief flaw cited was that it didn’t count writers who were trying to be trade-published but not succeeding. This point falls on its arse when you consider that: 1) The survey had an “aspring author” category for those who were unpublished. 2) It’s fair to assume that many who couldn’t make it the traditional route turned to self-publishing. 3) Should the survey have also counted those people who’ve thought about writing a novel but haven’t quite got around to it yet?

    I came back with a comment raising those very questions, and also challenging Konrath on some other issues that he has avoided on his blog. Of course, he deleted my comments. Twice. I’ve seen a few comments on his blog wondering where all the “naysayers” have gone. Well, at least some have just been deleted because Konrath couldn’t make valid counter-arguments.

    Anyway, apologies for the long comment here. I should probably just write a blog post about it, but I lack Steve’s courage in that regard (and also in sharing the income figure he did). Let me restate, this is not about the validity of self-publishing. I think everyone’s moved past that debate. It’s about the stances being taken by certain individuals, the fomenting of division and bitterness. Konrath has denied espousing a Them & Us view, but it’s self-evident in his blog posts that’s how he wants people to see things. I don’t believe that’s helpful to anyone.

    *To clarify this point: There has been speculation that rankings are partly influenced by star ratings. I’m not sure I believe that. What I do know is that the frequency of sales ranking updates are determined by ranges of numbers; simply put, a book in the top 1000 will update more frequently than one placed 1001-5000, so trying to guess sales numbers from rankings seems an approximation at best.

  6. Stuart Neville Says:

    Addendum (and after this, I’m done, honest):

    One thing worth bearing in mind in these discussions is how US-centric they tend to be. Not just in terms of the difference in market penetration of Amazon, ebooks and self-publishing between the US and UK/Commonwealth, but also in non-English markets, both in translation and in native languages. There’s a worldwide market that’s being left out of this debate, one which makes up a fair chunk of my own sales.

    Oh, and I should clarify, the “raging arsehole” I refer to above is of course Konrath.

  7. peter winship Says:

    Interesting, Steve. I didn’t trust the figures either. Your earnings are heavily influenced, I would imagine, by the big German thing? Which is another way his model leaves things out – you can have fairly lacklustre ‘home’ sales (amazon included) but get a big boost every now and then from abroad. My own sales have been poor all round, but boosted frequently by foreign sales and TV rights deals. I’ve made more from rights deals (that, so far, never got further than that) than from selling books.

  8. peter winship Says:

    The worst assumption throughout it all, for me, is that sales equals quality – I think he states this – that the arbiter of quality is the buying public out there. If everything were pure and free of interest then this democratic idea would be lovely. No more gatekeepers and no more class barriers etc. But when people sell millions of books, whether by the self-published or traditional method, they (normally) do so on the back of an advertising and marketing effort (whether traditional, which costs a lot, or otherwise, using social media, word-of-mouth, etc, or both)which distorts the perception of the book, maybe even creates the perception of it, structuring the conditions under which judgments can be made about it. I’m not bashing any particular drum here – I’m not sure whether I think all standards are interest driven, or whether there is a possibility of an objective standard. Certainly there’s no reason to think that the gatekeeping methods of one hundred years ago (class-driven, for sure) were any purer. But I think we shouldn’t just gleefully endorse the new mock-democratic, grab your money by self-publishing thing (if that were true). It bears thinking about if you want writing to continue to mean something more than superbly constructed entertainment. Because I still have strong panem et circenses type thoughts about mass entertainment. I still feel like reaching for the Adorno to find out what’s really going on. So, I’d like to see more writers – including thriller writers – with independent jobs that allowed them to write courageously with a higher level of creative freedom. Then we might see less of the same, over and over again (or, at least, less books that have writers as heros…). It is VULGAR to worry about the cash like that. I want to be able to say – no writer writes for money. Yawn…..time for my tablets…

  9. stevemosby Says:

    Thanks for the comments, which I’ll reply properly to in a bit. Just wanted to point to this post, which says what I’m saying (and more) far more lucidly and comprehensively:

  10. Hugh Howey - Author Earnings Report - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums Says:

    […] or SP? Are you sure this book will be a bestseller? Which avenue will make you he most sales? Steve Mosby on the subject: […]

  11. stevemosby Says:

    Pete – yeah, my foreign deals help a lot, along with film options (to a much lesser extent), but it’s all publishing, and it all counts. It’s a slightly different world now, but I doubt any of those things would have happened for me if I’d gone down the self-publishing route. I suppose you never know, which is partly the point. But yes – and as Stuart points out too – the report is only for Amazon in the US, so a lot of revenue open to authors isn’t being accounted for. I know what you mean about sales/quality, but I’m prepared to give him a small pass on this occasion; it’s about earnings, so I’m presuming he’s using good/bad strictly in reference to sales. If not, of course, he’s a fool.

    Andrew – you’re right to raise advances. When I sign a contract, I get guaranteed income, which isn’t really accounted for in the charts. It seems slightly odd to claim that if I don’t earn out my advance and get dropped I must automatically have been better off self-publishing. The book still earned me ten grand (or whatever), and will either still be on sale after I’m dropped or else the rights will eventually revert to me. The different ‘royalty’ rate aside, there’s no reason to assume a book that didn’t sell when traditionally published would have taken off if I’d gone it alone. Perhaps it would have done even worse. I’d need to sell a lot of books at 99p to earn that ten grand, and I’d probably be a grand in the red when I started from one-off production costs. (Which also aren’t accounted for in the charts).

  12. stevemosby Says:

    Stuart – you might be interested in reading this: I also realise I spoke too soon, and The Murder Code might have been included in the data after all.

  13. lizzie Says:

    Bit off topic, but I felt I needed to point out that I did find you in Smith’s. In Dubai airport! On a display no less. I think it was 50/50 killer, a couple of years ago 🙂

  14. eBook sales growth – where it’s really coming from (an analysis of Author Earnings) | Publishing Technology Says:

    […] the only game in town –  The day after Author Earnings’ publication crime writer Steve Mosby wrote a challenge to the report’s conclusions. Mosby, a writer whose work doesn’t sell well at […]

  15. Stuart Neville Says:

    Steve – Thanks for the link. The anger in some of the comments there is sadly predictable.

  16. Nate Says:

    “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.”

    Excellent point. This is why I, as a blogger and self-pub booster, hesitate to promote self over traditional based on money.

  17. David Hewson Says:

    My first thought was, ‘This is a statistical analysis based on “an anonymous mate of mine scraped some data one day from Amazon and now I’m going to use it to back up the way I think”.’

    This puts it more accurately.

  18. stevemosby Says:

    Yes, exactly. I think it could show some mildly interesting information – assuming the rankings are accurate, for example, it shows suggests that self-published titles and ebooks take up a substantial percentage of Amazon’s bestsellers. But that’s only mildly interesting because Amazon is a) not remotely the whole of the market and b) the place where you’d expect most of those sales to cluster. Beyond that, the extrapolations are downright silly, and the data doesn’t remotely support the conclusions.

    I’ve been following a lot of the discussions, and some of the reactions have been massively disheartening. There seem to be a lot of people who have latched onto this report because it tells them what they want to hear, and whose response to its detractors has been some variation of “you’re biased against self-publishing and you just don’t want to believe it” while continuing to cling to it. But the data either supports the conclusions or it doesn’t, and it doesn’t. Solid data would be wonderful to have, but right now this is all-but worthless. Except for publicity, I suppose.

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