Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Media Bias Against Self-Publishing

The ALCS just released a survey on authors’ earnings, and the news is bleak. The ALCS surveyed 2,454 participants, some of whom considered themselves professional writers. The number of these professional writers who make a full-time wage from their craft has dropped from 40% to 11.5%.

The survey looks at various types of writers (adult fiction, adult visual, academic, etc.), and it would be interesting to tease these apart to see which industries are being hit the hardest. One imagines any periodical writers who participated had bad news to share. One area of growth mentioned is digital income. In 2007 the same survey showed almost no income from digital. It’s now the third largest source of income.

The ALCS also mentions self-publishing. They say (emphasis mine):

Self-publishing is becoming an increasingly successful venture for writers. Just over 25% of writers have self-published a work, with a typical return on their investment of 40%. Unsurprisingly, 86% of those who had self-published said they would do so again.”

This is pretty amazing news. Too bad most people won’t get the news. Instead of reading the report, they’ll probably read a paper or blog that parses it. The Guardian also covered the ALCS report. They had this to say:

Self-publishing also comes under fire, he said – but this is “even less of a way of earning money from your writing if you’re any good than conventional publishing”.

This makes it sound like the ALCS report criticized self-publishing, when it did just the opposite. Instead of quoting the report (which the story is about), The Guardian quoted a random author expressing his unfounded opinion, an opinion that contradicts the very report in question. In fact, they quoted an author who distinguishes conventional publishing from self-publishing as the route better taken by those who are “any good.”

The Guardian journalist who wrote this article may not have read the survey they are reporting on. Or they may have read the survey and then decided to cover their opinion rather than the news. Either way, this person is clearly overpaid. Despite what the ALCS says.

Not mentioned is that the years covered by the survey are 2007 – 2013, years of extreme economic downturn. There’s no doubting that the writing profession has been hit hard. When any idiot can do a better job of reporting on his free blog than a professional journalist can at a major paper, the reasons for paying the latter dwindle. What I would love to see is the number of people who had to get a second job throughout the UK for the same period of time. Only then can we say something about the income of writers because of their profession rather than their geography.

In the US, millions of workers have had to transition to multiple jobs. It’s a heartbreaking reality. No one wants this. But confabulating it with the choice of profession without controlling for overall trends is disingenuous. Maybe we’ll find that the news for writers is even worse than it appears. Maybe most people in the UK suddenly found themselves making far more money between 2007 and 2013. Maybe those working part time at two jobs suddenly found a single, high-paying job during this stretch.

Hey, maybe a plucky journalist is currently digging for the answers, doing some real reporting. If they are, I have this to say to them: Get back to work. Your boss is gonna be pissed if he catches you writing.

36 replies to “Media Bias Against Self-Publishing”

Yeah not overly surprised the Guardian took that route. Like other broadsheet papers here in the UK they lean heavily towards traditional publishers and authors as their preference. Most, if not all, of the new books the Guardian review are from trad-pubbed authors. Literary awards, prizes, all that malarkey come from trad-pubbed authors. Not fussed about awards myself, but I know many authors like them. A change is coming, and it’s scary and unsettling. It seems that the more change they see taking place the more traditional papers such as the Guardian etc will either dismiss, ignore, or deny it.

You’re saying that me calling to task a journalist who has been positive toward me in the past somehow invalidates my opinion?

I think it strengthens it.

I think you forget how much publicity this has caused both ways. Probably making more people look at self publishing than ever. Six months ago to a year ago I had to know where to look to see alternatives. Now just google publishing. It is all right there for anyone who spends two seconds looking. :)

Actually, let me clarify the above – I don’t know if I agree with you or not. And there are problems in the Guardian article (although I don’t know if downplaying self-publishing is one of them). But I do think that by get sidetracked by taking cheap shots at the journalist, you’ve undermined your argument somewhat.

I read the article at work today and was disheartened by the general tone. As an aspiring writer the last thing I want to see is that the profession’s earning capacity is dwindling!

But then it made me question why I write in the first place. I realised that if I was just doing it for the money I wouldn’t have the motivation to finish multiple novels. It is good to be aware of the financial side of writing, but we should all be writing to tell the stories within us begging to be told. It was good for me to reassess my motivations, and to put any aspirations of million dollar sales to one side. The story comes first.

Also, most of the author’s quoted in the article are primarily traditionally published (i.e. Will Self). They struck me as dinosaurs who are confused and unhappy with the dawning of a new age.

A change is coming/has come, and it is likely inevitable that the “old guard” are going to suffer.

Bring it on!

Annoying? Yes. Irritating? You bet. Perhaps even enraging? Abso-frickin-lutely! But at the end of the day, the current media bias against self-publishing doesn’t change the path of those who self-publish. Nor does it change the choice readers make when deciding what ebooks to buy.

It is yet another sign, to me, anyway, of how painfully aware Traditional Publishing is of how greatly the world has shifted under their feet and how powerless they are to stop it.

So, as sloppy as the Guardian piece is — have they ever been known for accuracy? — it isn’t going to deter writers who really want to write choosing to ignore the Big 5 and going onto Amazon or wherever and clicking Publish.

It’s crazy, but unfortunately unsurprising how negative and ill-informed that Guardian article is. It just further speaks to how it’s increasingly hard to trust mainstream media to give a true account of the news.

With all that said, I’m not sure attacking a specific journalist is getting us anywhere. I won’t deny he didn’t do his job, but I think journalism as a profession, especially when done under the banner of these big profit-oriented corporations, is suffering from the cutting of funds from investigative reporting that promtes true critical thinking to pushing a thoughtless journalism that promotes corporate interests.

Even though that report does have some bad news, and as you say it could just be a result of the economic situation, it is positive on self-publishing, and that’s a good thing to see. Once the mainstream accepts the idea that authors can actually make a living from self-publishing, and the organizations traditional authors trust agree, I think we’ll see an even greater migration to self-publishing, or at least a form of independent publishing where the author keeps their rights and has someone else manage the rest of the details, something I can see many of the big traditional authors doing if they decide to drop their publishers.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the journalist isn’t putting the bad spin on self publishing just to get clicks on his article. We have a tendency to act like a hornets’ nest about these things (poke us and we get riled up. I know because I have one under my front steps I have to deal with today!)

That said, a couple of things jumped out at me in looking at the survey results which were radically different from similar US based surveys I’ve seen:

1) More than half the respondents were men. The US surveys I remember were lopsided toward women.

2) Only 17% of the respondents were 44 or younger! I’m 48, but I came to the party late. I know for a fact there are TONS of writers here in the US who would fit in that very broad category.

So, it makes me wonder about the reach of the ALCS survey. Did they get a fair representation of today’s writer?

Lastly, 70% of the people who exercised rights revision clauses in their contracts made more money afterward and 86% of those who self published said they would do it again.

Those tell the real story of where we’re headed.

You’ll find it referenced in The Bookseller report, Hugh,

The trouble with the 40% figure is that it comes out of nowhere. There is barely any mention of self-publishing in the ALCS findings, good or bad, and no context for this number.

The ALCS told me that the median figure for author investment was £500, meaning than an author would have had to make just £700 from their sales to report a return of 40%. But how ALCS measured that ‘investment’ is anyone’s guess, and why it assumed that only self-published writers make an ‘investment’ in their work even more peculiar.

The full findings of the survey are not released until the autumn, but there is a debate in the House of Commons tonight which we’ll report back on.

Incidentally, the Guardian has just published your latest blog on Hachette/Amazon:

Of all the newspapers it seems me the most pro-active in covering self-publishing.

The overall findings of the survey show that despite the drift to digital, the increase in authors exploiting their rights by themselves, their earnings have declined. That has to be the bigger concern.

Yes, but when a newbie author looks for information, they find more than Absolute Write and “get an agent” advice these days. The other viewpoint is there for people who need it.

Speaking of bias in the media, your petition is almost 6,500 signatures. Preston said his “went viral” when he had almost 400.

Yours is entirely ignored. Sort of.

I’d at least hope the signers of Preston’s petition are paying attention. They’re not going to stir up a groundswell movement against Amazon, at least among readers.

Also, I wonder how many of their readers figured out that these big time authors were actually asking them to contact Amazon and tell Amazon they wanted to pay more for ebooks (which is what supporting Hachette means.) They really don’t understand consumers if they think consumers, en masse, will ask for higher prices so they can support authors. Why not just have reasonable prices so everyone has access, then send a donation to your favorite million dollar author to show your support (not! silly!)

A number of years ago, I went through “The Writer’s Digest” and tabulated the average royalty payments offered by various publishers for novels. Then, using a little inside information collected about advances for first-time book writers, I estimated what I could expect to be paid by a traditional publisher for my first book in the first year, assuming at least 5,000 copies sold in that year.

The number I came up with was less than $9,000. Under $9K for three years of working on the manuscript followed by a year-and-a-half of waiting for a publisher just to get back to me on whether or not they were even interested in the manuscript, followed by another year of editing, pre-press production, and distribution before the first sale would begin.

I concluded that I could not afford to go with traditional publishing, even if I wanted to.

If I can sell 5K copies of my book as an ebook, I will net over $17K. That goes a lot farther paying the bills and keeping me at the keyboard!

In the end, the big publishing houses may try to pull the Wool over their eyes all they want, but eventually they will have to face reality in the same way the US auto-makers had: you can’t dictate to consumers what they want, because they will simply go around you to get what they really want and cost you a sale.

I wonder how long until writers unite on a website of their own making?

Amazon still takes a big bite of earnings.


I’ve been a Guardian reader for nearly 20 years. I’ve been speaking for the Guardian Masterclasses and teaching people self-publishing in their building and under their brand … in the last few months, I have stopped speaking for them, stopped buying their paper and mostly stopped reading them online because of the incredible anti-self-publishing bias of their books team.

I’ve heard some of their journalists speak and they’re living in another world – seriously, their worldview is so different to mine, we just don’t speak the same language anymore. There’s no point trying to convince them because their worldview is so different. There’s no point showing them figures, or happy indies leaving their jobs, they won’t be convinced.

This survey is also crazy – how come I never know anyone who has been surveyed? There are LOTS of us indie authors in the Alliance of Independent Authors in the UK who should have been included in this survey and whose earnings (while modest) are still significantly more than reported.
The Author Earnings data should be held up next to this really – maybe you could get Data Guy to do it on the data, Hugh?? and prove this survey wrong?

Thanks for all you do, Hugh.

I’ve been very disappointed to read Guardian articles which appear to be following the trend of other newspapers in sneering at self-published writers. I thought at least they would have some independence of thought.

Such things are damaging. The Daily Mail article condemning erotica led to WH Smith’s withdrawing all self-published ebooks in the UK. Ironically, if the book is published by a vanity press they’re sold by WH Smith without question. I think I might republish my books under a fake title (Martin’s Mum’s Little Publishing House, perhaps) to see if they’re stocked again. Nah, can’t be bothered.

As you say, Joanna, it’s another world but I wonder what makes people so keen to be in one where sneering is the fashion.

Like many people I’ve written for years and been rejected out of hand by every publisher and agent I’d approached. I prefer the positive nature of the people who buy my books, (I’m earning £1,400 a month.) Now that is a world I’m glad to be in.

I’d like to know how they calculate return on investment for self-published authors. What is the numerator? Denominator? What is included in the denominator?

And the sample? Self-selected?

I don’t think it would be a stretch to compare the appeal of the tea party in the States to trad publishing interests. Both represent a reactionary hostility to a changing landscape. The great unwashed equal a rising tide of differentness–minorities, immigrants, the growing ranks of the poor and homeless, gays and lesbians–they must not be allowed to destroy “everything we hold dear.” How is this so different from the fear-based contempt we see and hear from commercial publishing? You can clearly make out the squeak of the wheels as the wagons form a circle, waiting as savages mass on the ridge.

Comments are closed.