Posted on February 25, 2014 in Archive

Come on, show us your methodology


Most likely, if you are interested in the publishing industry, you have already read Hugh Howey’s advice to big publishers on how they should run their businesses. If nothing else, it was an entertaining article that, if put into practice, would see much of the glitz and glamour of traditional publishing stripped away and placed into a box that converts glitter into more dollars for authors. So when he wrote another article earlier this month, this time giving advice to indie authors – I was definitely intrigued.

Once again, this advice caused waves – in particular, Mike Shatzkin did a pretty good job of voicing his opinions and objections. Essentially, Howey gathered some Amazon ranking data from a single day (from the 28th to the 29th of January of this year), and used it to compare how authors fare when self-publishing compared to the traditionally published crowd. His conclusion was that per copy, self-published authors did better. (If you would like to read Howey’s work for yourself, The Author Earnings Report can be found here.) If you like Hugh Howey, then this article in general is just what the doctor ordered.

Though Howey and Shatzkin are friendly in real life, Shatzkin took particular umbrage with several points that he feels Howey missed in his analysis that are major factors for indie publishers when trying to figure out which route they should take. Without paraphrasing his entire article, here are his points:

  • Author revenue from print sales.
  • Getting an advance before publication vs. having costs before publication.
  • Unearned advances and their impact on author earnings.
  • Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring (e.g. cover design, editing, etc.)
  • Current indie successes where the author name or even the book itself was “made” by traditional publishers.
  • Rights deals.
  • How well Amazon data “maps” to what happens elsewhere. Is it really projectable?
  • The apparent reality: flow of authors is self- to traditionally-published, not the other way around.
  • Publishers can raise royalty rates (or lower prices) when it becomes compelling to do so.

Admittedly, some of these are excellent points – I would particularly question the validity of using just one day’s worth of data to make as big a blanket statement that being a self-published author is more profitable. What if a self-published author happened to ask all his close friends, family and fans to purchase their book off of Amazon on that day? Surely that would skew the results. That’s a bad example, but you get my meaning.
I also (regrettably) have to agree with Shatzkin on the point that for many self-published authors, the end goal is not to stay an indie or self-published, but to become traditionally published. If everyone treats self-publishing as just a stepping stone towards the Big Five, then it will never considered be a legitimate way to publish your work.

The funny thing is, Howey and Shatzkin are both huge self-publishing advocates, they are just positioned on different ends of the self-publishing debate. Shatzkin comes off as slightly cautious and pessimistic when it comes to advising self-publishers and timid authors, while Howey appears more general and optimistic about the current success of self-publishing. In fact, Howey basically comes out and suggests that independent authors should reject the idea of traditional publishing altogether, or at least demand to be paid like an indie publisher. If they joined forces, I’m sure they could come up with a report that would bring the publishing industry to it’s knees. Regardless of what they are arguing (and by that I mean a lively discussion of opinions!), the replies to each other in the comments of Shatzkin’s article are worth reading, for the fervour alone.

Liquid State - Methodology

The alarming number of graphs and charts in the Author Earnings Report makes me think that Hugh Howey might want to calm it down with PowerPoint for a while.

Despite adding a postscript to his article stating that he dislikes long comments, especially those that disagree with him (fair enough – who doesn’t?), Mike Shatzkin does a damn good job of creating a comment/discussion thread that’s longer than the actual article. Shatzkin and friends, also known as commenters (though the most interesting exchanges are definitely between Howey and Shatzkin) wax lyrical about the best methodologies to use when analysing data, how best to advocate to indie authors, and generally why everyone else is wrong. You know how the Internet works by now. Much time is given to genre fiction authors, who, in Howey’s report, are categorised by their book format sales, rather than sales within a genre regardless.

Considering the fact that Amazon is (for now) rather lacking in physical shops and therefore not really a great source for sales data, the whole validity of Howey’s report is a bit shady. And how’s this – what about sales outside of Amazon? Dana Beth Weinberg posted an article on DBW that supports Shatzkin’s doubts (it’s a bit number-heavy, but still a good read). Overall, I think it would be difficult at this point in time within the industry to definitively say either way, “yes, go with traditional publishers!” or “self-publishing all the way!” – because for some authors, the choice to go self-published isn’t purely a monetary one, and neither is it a stepping-stone. Like Shatzkin said, you shouldn’t go telling someone to go open a restaurant just because they can cook. There are so many more factors to consider.