Heads in the Common Ground

DBW has posted this strange attempt to say “Nothing to see here, Big Publishing. Move along. Everything is fine.”

More than half of what they say is flawed or completely backwards. I find it fascinating that all the vibrant and accurate discussions about the world of publishing are happening everywhere other than with pundits paid to know what’s going on. The discussion on KBoards, once again, gets far more right than anything in this list. And people like Konrath have been predicting the future with startling accuracy, and they are ignored or lampooned. Lest my tone not be accurately captured by text, picture me smiling and shaking my head sadly over here. There’s only pity to be had. What jumps out at me from their list:

2) Data is incomplete. Why aren’t publishers listed here?  They barely let authors know in a clear manner how their own books are selling. And why aren’t bestseller lists mentioned here? And asking for a “Bookscan” for e-books makes it sound like Bookscan is reliable. Nielsen isn’t reliable either. We have a problem of lack of data and a problem of really bad data. An awful lot of the latter has been coming from DBW with no apology for it and no retraction once massive holes are pointed out by the writing community. I’m not disagreeing the point; I’m dying for more data from everyone; but there are shades of “It’s all Amazon’s fault” here.

3) The bias here and the complete lack of basic logic is startling from a website that industry experts look to for clarity and understanding. I dropped out of college, and I can see three things wrong in this single bullet. First, the slant of this article is revealed when the massive sales of genre books are called a “glut of titles.” We don’t know if most of the titles published are science fiction or gardening or parenting. Our data shows what’s selling, not what’s being published. So blaming this on a “glut” of supply is erroneous. This is an outpouring of love from readers showing up in the data.

Secondly, saying that genre writers produce more than one book a year sounds like they are cranking out garbage, and that’s why they are profiting. But our study showed that self-published authors are earning more money on fewer books than their traditionally published counterparts. The lie that a good novel takes five years to write needs to die. There’s no correlation between how much an author procrastinates and how wonderfully literary their creation turns out to be.

Thirdly: The reason subscription based services will never work is precisely because of voracious readers in these genres. Musicians are being hammered with trifling streaming royalties. There’s no way to pay authors what they’ll accept per read and still profit. These streaming companies are pyramids built on VC cash, and not a one of them has a business model that makes sense.

4) The notion that only the authors at the very top are having success is complete bunk. Once again, DBW is missing the #1 story in all of publishing right now, which is that everyday authors are paying bills and quitting their day jobs. There are people on KBoards criticizing our report by pointing out that their books don’t even show up in our data, and they are earning money and even writing full-time. DBW also wrote a piece showing that most authors aren’t earning minimum wage while missing the fact that this money is being earned on work already performed. Or taking into account multiple titles selling at once. Or the fact that this is only Amazon sales. Multiply these earnings times the five or more outlets, plus audio, plus print-on-demand, plus direct sales, before you know how a writer is doing. An author who appears to be making $5,000 in our data set (which is only a single-day snapshot) might be making $30,000, which is far more than 99% of traditionally published authors. To repeat, a website devoted to spotting trends in 21st century publishing can’t see what is clear at every writing conference I go to, what I see at KB, on Facebook, in my inbox: Writers are doing better than at any other time in human history, even those filling a tank of gas every week, and nobody wants to talk about it!*

*Which isn’t to say that everyone who writes makes money, or that you can toss a few books out there and reap the rewards, but that thousands of authors are changing their lives and doing it on their own terms with direct relationships with their readers.

6) Saying that none of this would be happening without Amazon shows us that we aren’t dealing with a very bright thinker here. I would recommend Kevin Kelley’s WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS to this analyst. If it wasn’t Amazon, it would be someone. We give entirely too much credit to inventors and not enough credit to the flow of events and technology that lead to invention. The internet created this boom. This would be happening on some level even without e-reader devices. We saw the first hints of e-book adoption when PDAs took off. There would be some semblance of this revolution from smartphones alone (entire bestsellers have been written on smartphones in Japan). But don’t worry: E-ink readers would exist today with or without Amazon. The self-publishing revolution would have happened with or without Amazon. Maybe it would be at 80% of its current capacity right now, but it would be heading the same direction with the same inevitable outcomes.

It’s fascinating to have watched, for the past three or four years, history being made. And the absolute dearth of anyone willing to write about it or cover it. Maybe because they don’t see it. As someone who mostly reads history books, I’m reminded of generals in tents pushing tin around while those in the trenches can plainly see which way the fighting is going.

24 responses to “Heads in the Common Ground”

  1. Even funnier that someone quoted some figures from the Wall Street Journal and a B&N press release in the comments and the article’s author waves his hand in dismissive fashion and bemoans the lack of figures from Amazon et al again.

    I wrote a blog post a couple of days ago about people believing what they want to believe. This guy is just another case in point.

    Thanks again, Hugh for all you are doing to shed light in the dark areas of publishing.

    1. Yeah, I laughed at that as well. If it doesn’t fit the model in their heads, it’s rejected.

  2. The heads of industry are always the last ones to admit change. I’m just going to keep focusing on my writing, and releasing good stories. They can think whatever they want about it.

    1. I think that’s a good attitude to have, to focus on the writing.

      I think it’s also important that the flood of “self-publishing books are drek” articles and blog posts don’t get all the airtime. Readers seem to prefer self-published works, if we look at the rapid market share and the average review ratings. The more this story gets covered, the more authors will find themselves in greater control of their careers. And authors of all stripes will benefit from having options. Some will move back and forth, and these opportunities will force publishers to pay better and allow greater freedoms in contracts. Just look at reversion of rights clauses. The sales thresholds are laughable in the digital age. There’s nothing stopping a publisher from lowering the price of an e-book to 99 cents, purchasing 100 copies for themselves, and maintaining ownership of an artist’s work. One thing that will come from the coverage of what’s really happening in publishing today is finite terms of license. It’s a matter of “when,” not “if.”

  3. Publishing Industry Observer Avatar
    Publishing Industry Observer

    The sad part is, these marginal hangers-on — sycophantic industry pundits, “consultants” and other apologists — they are the people who will be hurt worst when the traditional publishers go down like dominoes 18-24 months from now.

    The publishing execs will golden-parachute out with fat severance payments, while the talented editors, cover artists, and proofreaders will all find lucrative work freelancing for professional author-publishers.

    But these sideline pundits who didn’t see it coming, even though the future is painfully obvious to any person with an ounce of common sense? Their failure will follow them.

    The Beth Whateverbergs, Robert Gottliebs, Mike Shatzkins, and Donald Maassie’s? They won’t be able to get hired to predict winter in January.

    1. Publishing Industry Observer Avatar
      Publishing Industry Observer

      It’s also worth noting that they filter comments aggressively on DBW. Anything that raises serious questions with their analysis gets deep-sixed instead of posted.

      1. The big publishers are going to be fine. They already have record profits and they are going to mint money thanks to the e-book revolution. This all reminds me of when the head of Universal sued to try to stop VCR’s. In the end, the big studios made more money thanks to video tape than they could have ever dreamed. (And yes, a lot of little indies made money making cheap movies straight to video also.) Eventually the big publishers will clue in and start really taking advantage of their huge back catalogues, they’ll offer writers a little bit more to sell out their rights forever, and they’ll shift to work-for-hire aliases. Odds are, they will come out on top. (Which takes nothing away from this incredible chance for writers with the skills to self-publish to control their own destinies.)

        Unfortunately, the same probably holds true for slimy pundits. They’ll just change their arguments, or even switch sides if they need to. “I was so wrong about ebooks, now buy my book on how to get rich with ebooks!”

        I suggest self-publishing enthusiasts be cautious of seeing the goal here as the destruction of big publishing. Money and power can always buy influence and market share, and even the most independent minded writer can be seduced by the devil if the deal offered is good enough.

        The real goal should be to provide writers with the ability to control their work, get rid of the abusive submission process, and get rid of (or narrow the use of) abusive publishing contracts. I think Hugh’s report is a great step in that direction.

        1. I don’t think anyone is pushing for “the destruction of big publishing.” WE just want better contracts and more representation of our own work.

          The reason that the ebook boom is happening among Self-pub is because readers don’t care who the publisher is. The last thing they would check out after cover, blurb, and all the other descriptive aspects would be published by.

          But that doesn’t mean that trade publishers can’t offer something to the unwashed masses of self-publishing. They just need to understand that everything can’t/shouldn’t be on their terms anymore. They need to offer us more than we couldn’t do ourselves.

          Just my opinion



          1. I’m not implying Hugh said anything of the sort, or even that vast number of commenters. I was specifically referring to “Publishing Industry Observer’s” comment above: “when the traditional publishers go down like dominoes 18-24 months from now.”

            I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I don’t think that would be a good thing. Nor do I think it’s good if supporters of traditional publishing fear that is going to happen. The aggressive attacks on self-publishing come in part from too much fear.

            A similar thing has happened in the film industry. Thanks to technology, quality film making has become cheaper and cheaper. It’s much easier for people to make independent films. But that hasn’t wiped out Hollywood. To just look at a specific segment, you see a lot of terrific local films being made in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. Some of the lower cost genres, like romantic comedies and martial arts action films, are now being completely dominated at the box office by locally made films in the language of their own countries and with local actors. That has hurt some of Hollywood’s efforts to market “meet cute” films. But it doesn’t stop Hollywood from making a ton of money with big budget superhero and special effects stuff they can do better than most companies. And the prestige value of a Hollywood production, with big international stars, still carries a lot of value. Local filmmakers still dream of the big Hollywood deal as the endgame.

            I suspect something similar will happen with self-publishing. Writers will now learn their craft and build their audience by self-publishing. When they reach a certain level of success, they will be rewarded with a big New York print deal (hopefully with much better terms). The trads will still make a ton of money doing what they do best, moving heavy paper around.

            The other thing the trads can do is nurture talent early on, but I doubt that is going to happen. But one way or another, I think the trads will adapt. They have to.

          2. Publishing Industry Observer Avatar
            Publishing Industry Observer

            I think you read something into my comment that wasn’t there. An observation about where big publishing is inevitably headed doesn’t equate to any writer, traditionally published or self-published, seeing that as a “goal.” Why would they? If anything, big publishing’s collapse will result in even more agile competition when all those name-brand writers dive into the self-publishing pool, too, as they are already starting to.

            I can see why one might draw an analogy with big Hollywood studios, but I would caution that the comparison misses one salient fact: making a blockbuster film to compete with Hollywood tentpoles requires large-scale infrastructure, capital investment, and expertise that is beyond the reach of indie filmmakers, whereas a skilled writer hiring an inexpensive team of professional freelance editors and cover artists can put out a e-book that is indistinguishable from the highest-quality big publishing product and outearn all but the very tiny fraction of mega-authors who are positioned to benefit disproportionately from heavily-marketed paper distribution. The more those “heavy paper” outlets shrink, the more tenuous that meager advantage becomes and the less competitive big publishing becomes.

            That’s why I think big publishing won’t last more than 18-24 months, although I think we’d all be better off if they found a way to survive.

        2. I agree with all of this. My hope is that big publishers offer fairer contracts and pay and continue operating, though more efficiently. I think they’ll need to get out of NYC to make that happen. The center of the publishing world is currently . . . nowhere. It’s in every living room.

          1. At the risk of belaboring the point, in terms of the Hollywood analogy, there actually isn’t much Hollywood can do these days in terms of a big film that can’t be done with cheap high def cameras and a semi-pro computer setup, assuming you have the talent, skills and lots and lots of time. CGI effects have come a long way. There are guys in their basements that can pull off green screen shoots that match up with the latest Star Wars.

            The real advantage Hollywood has comes in their control of physical distribution. Getting a movie into 3,000 theaters and promoting the hell out of it so it opens big in one weekend. That is impossible for a guy in his basement. (And access to big stars helps.) Nothing stopping the guy in his basement from putting his film on You Tube, iTune or Netfix or Amazon. But it won’t feel like a “real” movie unless it’s in theaters.

            Where this fits in with publishing is the big trads ability to ship thousands and thousands of copies of Harry Potter or the latest Stephen King novel across the country and onto book selves with similar promotion. That’s something self-publishers simply can’t do. Even if all the bookstores go away, which I’d bet they won’t, getting piles of those books into Walmart, Target and drugstores, etc. is quite a feat. I don’t think much of that is going to go away for another 20 years or so. Maybe longer. And it might actually grow, not as a percentage of books bought (that’s going to go digital) but in terms of total numbers of books (because of a growing population and better saturation of the market place).

            So the win for self-publishers would be if the big trads give up on trying to control all the digital rights, and allow writers the freedom to build an audience online which they can eventually take advantage of in the paper market with split rights deals.

  4. The publishing industry is going through very much the same disturbance in the status quo the music industry has been suffering from. Technology has allowed writers and performers of music or literature to produce and distribute their work independently. Those who produce high quality work, market well, and find an audience are thriving. The traditional record companies and publishers are doing slightly less well.

    It’s a bit peculiar that these professionals who have lorded over independents their laser-sharp insight into the industry, seem to be having a tremendously difficult time adjusting to the new reality – writers really can self-publish high quality work quickly, cost-effectively, and with great pride. What’s more, readers have been discovering the new opportunities electronic media present to them as well.

    From my perspective it seems the publishing industry is more of a wide open opportunity for writers than it has ever been. That’s great for all concerned as I see it. Well, not quite everybody. Those who are desperately trying to cling to the old, broken, out of date model that says only large publishing companies can produce a worthwhile book – they seem to be having a terrible time of it right now. Deservedly so.

  5. As a professional statistician, I agree with Hugh’s observations (especially #3). The DBW analysis reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the data represents.

    I’d argue that the DBW analysis also reflects the author’s ignorance of the industry itself. In his last paragraph, he says, “This debate is fun for the publishing industry.” Really? I would have never come to this conclusion. Was the closing of so many stores fun for Barnes and Noble? Is the success of Hugh’s books “fun” for the Big Six to talk about? Fun like “let’s have a party!” or fun like the Great Depression, or fun like a funeral?

    And did anyone besides me notice that the DBW guy desperately needs a copy editor/proofreader? Isn’t that just a little ironic?

    1. I suspect this was thrown up very quickly in response to the 54K report we released on Thursday. They don’t want to mention that data or its conclusions (didn’t go so well for them the last time), so the new tactic is to suggest that our data backs up everything they’ve been saying all along.

      It’s really weird. You would expect these guys to pounce on our data and try to uncover the real story of what’s going on. Instead, they are defensively entrenching themselves behind a self-selected survey of Writer’s Digest readers, most of whom haven’t published more than a single work.

      If a massive outpouring of data came out tomorrow that refuted everything I’m saying, I would want to know about it, study it, and change my opinion to reflect reality.

      1. Tradpub is like an ignorant grocer ignoring the fruit flies demolishing his produce because he’s got canned goods on the shelves. “Bah, they’re only fruit flies, how much damage can they do?”

        Meanwhile, the fruit flies take on an evil gleam in their eye: “We are legion! Your fruit are belong to us!”

        1. “We fruit flies are eating your lunch!”

  6. Hey Hugh,
    A post from one of my revered writers: makes me so sad that he doesn’t ‘get it’…..

    1. “Underpriced”?

      My ebooks are not underpriced. Amazon didn’t set the prices. I did!

      I looked at the going rate for a paperback on the shelf. It was $8 for the same titles I paid $2.95 about 30 years ago. An ebook has the same development costs as a regular book, because during that process both are the same thing. But once it is ready for publishing, ebooks have NO production costs. Based on this, I decided a reasonable price for an ebook was, at the most, worth 70% of a paperback. That brought me to $5.60. Then I rounded down to the nearest $X.99 because I thought $6 was a bit too much for the average, cash strapped reader and because I wasn’t an ‘A-list’ writer who could command a premium price. So, my price ended up at $4.99. For the first three months, I reduced the price to $3.99 as an introductory price. That also gives me a decent price to go to (20%) discount when I want to run a sale.

      Amazon doesn’t set the prices. The publishers do. (And I happen to be my own publisher.)

  7. To the math nerds out there, a descrepancy needs to be pointed out. 3,798 is not 16% of 87,832 words. 16% is 14053.12 words. 3798 is about 4.3%. Don’t know anything about Invariable, but I am looking forward to it.

  8. Something that’s often overlooked is price for the consumer. It’s easy to get caught up in benefits to the author, but the primary drive for a large majority of consumers is price. I have no doubt readers are gravitating to $3-5 ebooks over $20 paperbacks largely because of that discrepancy.
    I recently visited a (good, local, independent) bookstore, and saw an anticipated novel in hardback for ~$45 AUD. It wasn’t a doorstopper by any means. The point is, it would take me longer to work at my job and earn the money to buy it than it would to read it.
    The discount offered on ebooks for books also available on paper by trad publishers is often small, sometimes non-existent here in Australia. So the point about efficiency is key–yes, authors can get a better deal from their publishers, but with that increased efficiency on the publisher’s side, price can drop and authors still win. Readers win. Sales go up, publishers win.
    Without readers there is no industry, so authors and publishers should be working together to benefit everyone, and grow the industry.

  9. […] a “Indie News Bites” video tonight or tomorrow for my take on what this means. (Oh, and Hugh Howey already replied to some of the articles written refuting his newest […]

  10. […] Howey rebuts the latest DBW post on reporting in our industry. What bothers me about DBW’s post is their dogged insistence […]

  11. […] There’s more about Howey’s original objections here, in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go and in Howey’s Convention: “Organized Advocacy.” Howey responded to efforts to discredit his own survey work in this essay, Heads in the Common Ground. […]

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