Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks
There has been a ton of discussion over a report on author earnings by ebook authors (which you can find here: http://authorearnings.com/the-report/), the response to it (http://tinyurl.com/pcebsd5), and the responses to the responses (two of the best are http://tinyurl.com/kbjts5s and http://tinyurl.com/omkjz6v ). If you follow this discussions in our industry, you already know what’s going on: successful self-published author of Wool, Hugh Howey, did a bunch of research and came to the conclusion that self-published authors are selling more books and making more money than those publishing with traditional publishers. It was quickly pointed out that there were some problems with Howey’s work — he sells his books on Amazon, did all his research on Amazon, and (surprise!) came to the conclusion that Amazon is a great place to do your ebooks. Nevertheless, there were really some interesting things that showed up in his research:
—Indie-published ebooks have generally higher ratings on Amazon than Legacy-published ebooks.
—Indie-published ebooks generally cost less than Legacy-published ebooks, possibly leading consumers to the sense of getting better value from indies.
—Indie-published ebooks may be outselling Legacy-published ebooks (this is more inferred than proven).
—Indie-published ebooks constitute a larger percentage of books sales than we’ve been led to believe in the past (Howey estimates it’s more than 50% of all book sales, though his methodology lacks stringent validity testing).
—Indie-published authors of ebooks are earning more per book than Legacy-published ebook authors. (Though his argument that Indie-published authors are making more overall is based on very shaky evidence.)
It’s all fascinating stuff, and I believe his conclusion that publishing’s brightest days are ahead is spot-on. As an agent, I’ve never felt I was one of the people who needed to protect the status quo — the fact is, I believe in authors self-publishing.. Unfortunately, the debate that arose after Howey released his findings was considerably less than insightful. It’s become a fairly rancorous debate, with authors and pundits picking sides, pointing fingers, and making their case with angry words and often impolite rhetoric. Those who want to defend traditional publishing seem to want to dismiss the study, and those who are staunch publishing revolutionists can’t stand the thought that Howey’s work might not actually hold up to critical analysis. Dana Beth Weinberg, who runs a Master’s program in Data Analytics and might know a bit about data analysis, has come under a scathing attack for daring to criticize Howey’s methodology. (The criticism is basically this: “We don’t want to hear from experts, we want to hear from people who agree with us!”)
Again, I thought Howey’s study was interesting, since we rarely get to see this sort of data. His premise that Legacy publishers paying a 25% ebook royalty is unfair to authors is obviously true, and he states that one of his goals is to push publishers to change that — something I’m very supportive of. His assertion that traditional publishers have skewed the data over the years to protect their market share isn’t really a surprise — both sides in this debate have done that. And his conclusion that publishers are making more than authors isn’t really “news,” in my view, but it’s a good reminder. So I’m glad he took the time to do the report.
Still, there are some real problems with his work. The study was only done with one company, all the data is from one day, and he admittedly relies on friends and conjecture for many of his conclusions. In other words, his sample size is way too small. He breathlessly reports that 92% of the bestsellers are Amazon ebooks… um, somebody apparently forgot to explain to him that Amazon uses their bestseller lists as promotional tools for the company, so they’re notoriously unreliable as industry examples. And you don’t get “trends” from looking at one point in time, you get them from looking at several and creating a trend line (even my one class in statistics in my PhD program at the University of Oregon taught me that).
So while I tend to view Howey’s data as almost completely one-sided, I also think he raises some very valid points. A few years ago, a writer could live from one advance check to the next — now that’s nearly impossible, except for the very bestselling, A-level authors. A few years ago authors tended to shy away from niche publishers, because they were considered the minor leagues. Every author was trying to push toward the biggest publishers, since that’s where the most money and the most marketing were to be found — now a lot of writers have come to understand that ebooks sell best in clear categories, and a niche publisher that can move a lot of ebooks to their core readers can earn an author a huge payday. A few years ago, most writers really hated the thought of self-publishing, since it was considered a “vanity press” and was only to be used when you just couldn’t land a deal with a “real” publisher. Now a lot of writers have figured out that there is a huge and growing market for ebooks, and self-publishing is a choice many authors are making because it gives them more options. In fact, some authors (including the likes of James Scott Bell, Jon Konrath, Brandilyn Collins, and several others) are deciding to focus almost exclusively on self-publishing. Still, most people making a living with their writing are hybrid authors, doing some combination of traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Howey mentions that, with the advent of e-publishing, some authors are “paying a bill or two from their writing.” That’s doubtless true, since it’s clear an author who is selling a 99-cent ebook on Amazon is at least making something, whereas an author who is still waiting for a traditional publisher to contract her novel isn’t making a dime. But he fails to mention the obvious problems: the vast majority of authors who self-publish don’t really make much at all. And the boom of self-publishing has led to a huge pile of crap, meaning readers now have to wade through a bigger pile than ever to find your books.
The fact is, one of the major problems authors have had with self-publishing is simply being lost amidst all the titles. There are currently about fifteen MILLION titles for sale on Amazon, making it awfully hard for an author to stand up and get noticed — they’re just one twig in a forest. That’s why I’ve become a fan of author communities creating niche lines. We helped authors start a western line of books (www.dustytrailbooks.com
) just so that all those writers creating westerns had a common place to gather. Instead of an author posting a book on his website, selling copies to the 200 or so friends and readers who commonly visit, then slogging through months with no one visiting the site and buying a book, he can join with a bunch of other, similar western writers and create a destination site that readers can go to in order to find a bunch of western novels. We also helped create a clean romance line (www.forgetmenotromances.com
) so that an author wouldn’t have to just post her book on Amazon and hope somebody noticed. I’d like to see us help authors create more sites, focused on genres that sell well as ebooks. And note that I say “we helped authors create” instead of “we decided to publish.” MacGregor Literary is not the publisher — the authors
are the publishers. They don’t turn the rights over to us. In fact, they can decide at any time to withdraw a book if they get an offer from a traditional publisher and want to move that direction. We just exist to help create the destination websites, provide the expertise to make it all happen, and offer some guidance along the way.
So, just because I want you to understand exactly what I’m saying, I’m going to make this very clear: In today’s publishing market, I think nearly every author needs to consider being a “hybrid” author. That is, I think most of the authors our company has the privilege of representing need to consider having a combination of publishing deals. They need to consider doing some books with a traditional publisher, who can pay an advance, give you broad exposure, get you introduced to major media, and get you into every Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and independent bookstore in the country. You also need to consider working with some niche or indie publisher, who can pay you a much better royalty and hopefully draw an audience of readers who like exactly the sort of book you write. And you need to consider self-publishing some of your work — certainly your out-of-print titles, but also shorter works that won’t attract most traditional publishers, and even new book projects that can reach your core audience. Those self-published books will pay a much greater royalty than your traditionally published books, and you’ll get paid faster, so there’s a nice benefit to working with Amazon and B&N.com and the iBookstore.
Of course, with greater choice comes greater responsibility. If you choose to self-publish, you have to take care of your own editing and copyediting — word will quickly spread about a badly edited book. You will have to pay for your own cover. As a matter of fact, you also have to find an designer to work with you, since a lot of self-created covers are terrible, and all the research suggests that a bad cover will kill your self-published book. You also have to format your book the right way, and get it loaded to each system, which takes a bit of expertise — and all of these are things that require some time and attention to detail. But most importantly, you have to do all the marketing of your self-pubbed book. ALL, since there’s nobody to help you with reviews, distributing copies, letting readers know about it, taking out ads, or any of the million things we do to market a book. One bit of good news: You can pay to have all those things done. Another bit of good news: You can learn to do most of them yourself. And a third bit of good news: this is why you have an agent. You certainly don’t HAVE to do your ebooks with your agent, but if you want help, they ought to be willing to assist with things like finding you a good editor, steering you toward (or possibly taking care of) the copyediting, introducing you to a cover designer, assisting with the formatting and uploading of your manuscript, and, most importantly, helping with the marketing. (I’m not trying to give you a commercial. I’m just trying to point out what we do, and how this job has been changing in recent years. I used to rarely talk marketing — now I could spend every minute of the day just on marketing plans with authors.)
Again, I’m one of those people who is very much in favor of authors self-publishng. We’re trying to put information together to help the authors we represent know how to best do that. We hope to work with them on some books, to help them market and sell copies, and to represent their foreign & translation & movie rights. We also want to continue selling their manuscripts to traditional publishers when that’s the best choice. But even if we’re not participating financially, we want to provide authors with the tools they need to successfully self-publish. Because that should be the role of a literary agent — to help authors succeed and make money.
And that’s the problem where agents are concerned — they’re not sure how they’ll be compensated for their efforts. There’s been some disparaging talk of agents in the press lately, some of it brought on because a couple of big agencies made it clear they weren’t going to help authors who were self-publishing. But it’s also been talked about because some folks believe they don’t need anyone to help them; that they can write and market and sell books without any help from others. If that’s true, more power to them. I’m all for helping authors, and I’ve spent my life doing just that, whether I’m paid or doing it as a favor. I’ve tended to talk with the authors I represent about their careers, and how best to move forward in this crazy business, whether I’m making a buck or not. And right now, you probably need to start thinking about how you can be making some money from self-publishing. I’m happy to talk with you about the topic more on this blog, if you want to. Just let me know if you think we need to be exploring more self-publishing issues.
So that’s what is happening in publishing today. Here’s wishing you success with your books, no matter what publishing choices you make.