What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"

Monday, September 21, 2015

Those Thousands of Self-Published Authors Making a Good Living

To everyone else, Barry Eisler made a driveby comment (I doubt he's a regular reader) challenging me on my statement about his claim of "'I mean, there are lots of writers ... thousands of writers who are making a good living from self-publishing,'" in the previous linkee-poo. I haven't contacted him directly, yet, so I don't have his permission to post his comment on the top of this blog. You can read it here. Since my response to him is rather long, I've decided to make it a post of it's own.

Hey Barry,

Well, first my name is Steve. You don't even need to google for that, it's on the top of the right-hand column. It's right there.

So, okay, lets look at the articles you point to. Just as a reminder, my questions are about your contention, "'I mean, there are lots of writers ... thousands of writers who are making a good living from self-publishing.'" While it would help to define what "a good living" means, let's see what the articles you point to actually say.

First is the Atlantic Story, Authors of Kindle Singles Are Raking in Tens of Thousands of Dollars. The only quote I could find there for your statement was "A new report from PaidContent finds that… a few authors are doing quite well from their Kindle Single effort… PaidContent estimates that (Mishka) Shubaly has made about $130,000 from his three Singles. The other four writers in PaidContent's report have brought in amounts ranging from a bit less than $9,000 to $65,000. The Singles in PaidContent's round-up all sell for either $0.99 or $1.99 a pop, and authors see 70 percent of the revenue." Okay, well there are five, although the "bit less than $9,000" would qualify for "poverty" for a single person (as referenced in the original NPR story). So that article doesn't confirm your contention.

The Passive Voice's blog post KDP was my one shot at a lifelong dream we have an extensive reprint of Jeff Bezos' annual letter to shareholders (we'll pass by the obvious critiques of both "self-reporting" and "conflict of interest" here, as well as the fact that Amazon hasn't released the numbers as a legal disclosure). We have the personal stories of five Kindle Authors, all of whom are listed as Kindle Best Sellers, however not all talk about their income from those sales (who knows what it could be). Then Mr. Bezos' says "more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club." Sounds good, except, again, no actual royalty statements included. All we can take away is that there are "thousands" of Kindle Direct authors (only one half of your contention) and that "some" are over 100,000 books sold. Mr. Bezos then goes on to say "A typical selling price for a KDP book is a reader-friendly $2.99", not the average, not the mean, but "typical", which means nothing statistically. So while this shows that there are plenty of Kindle Authors, there's nothing about how many of them are "making a good living." So this article is not only unverifiable nor does it have the imprimatur of an actual (verifiable) report it also doesn't prove your contention.

Next up is Digital Book World breakdown of Amazon's 2012 4th QTR revenue (the Christmas season) Amazon Fourth-Quarter Sales up 22% to $21.27 Billion. Here, at least, we have a quote from Mr. Bezos that "After 5 years, ebooks is a multi-billion dollar category for us and growing fast…." So, that sounds pretty good. However, the closest actual numbers reported comes in as, "Amazon media sales worldwide (including ebooks, books, DVDs, CDs, music and more) grew in 2012 to $19.94 billion." Down in the weeds of the actual earning report we see that "Amazon’s digital media selection has grown to over 23 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines, books, audiobooks, and popular apps and games in 2012…" So for 23M titles, $20B isn't bad. But, again, no breakdown into actual e-books, profits, royalties, etc. But then we get to "Amazon announced that 23 KDP authors each sold over 250,000 copies of their books in 2012, and that over 500 KDP Select books have reached the top 100 Kindle best seller lists around the world." Well, the second half of that statement is meaningless, but the first part with 23 authors selling over 250,000 copies, that pretty good. But, alas, again no actual numbers on how much they made in royalties, and that's only 23 authors. So, again, doesn't prove your contention.

Next is another blog post from The Passive Voice, again they're quoting a press release from Amazon in their Over 150 KDP Authors Each Sold More than 100,000 Thousand Books in 2013. That title is a little poorly worded, but the relevant bullet point here is, "150 Kindle Direct Publishing authors each sold more than 100,000 copies of their books in 2013…" So, that's 150 authors, and again while they're "selling" books, no word on how much they made, and still no hint as to the average price of those books. But wait, "Kindle Direct Publishing authors sold hundreds of thousands of books in November through the new Kindle Countdown Deals…" wow. But how many authors, and how many each did they sell, and at what price? Still no word. So best scenario, 150 authors, but no indication how they're doing. This article doesn't prove your contention.

The next article is on Forbes (hey, okay, a news site), Amazon Pays $450,000 A Year To This Self-Published Writer. That sounds impressive, for this writer, Mark Dawson. And hey, he's got what appears to be a decent series that has "sold 300,000 copies" of his series. However, "sold" isn't what it appears to be because "… Dawson had sold 50,000 copies of The Black Mile over the course of a weekend… But (he) made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile" because "He gave The Black Mile away for free. Amazon recommends this as a promotional tool, and it’s one that many try." There's no word on how many other books he "sold" for free, but if he made $450,000 on 250,000 other books (remember 50K were free), I'm assuming he charged for the rest. While that's great for Mr. Dawson, and I'll grant you that $450k a year is a "good living", again it's one author. So this article also doesn't support your contention of thousands making a "good living."

Then there is the Hugh Howey's Author Earnings Report September 2015 Author Earnings Report. And in there, things look pretty rosy for "indie, non-ISBN publishers" (most likely self-published). Both their market share, and the percentage of revenue they make have increased significantly until Mr. Howey states that the market has inversed (well, not really, traditional publishing for the big and small houses still takes the majority). "Today, indie self-publishers are taking home 24% of the gross $ publisher revenue coming out of the Amazon ebook store. Amazon-imprints and their authors are taking home another 13%. The AAP’s 1200 publishers account for no more than 50% of publisher ebook dollar revenue." Note those don't add up to 100%. But still, that's pretty nice. And their new model of pay per page has some nice numbers, "Today, 34% of indie author earnings from the Amazon store — over a third of indie Kindle revenue — takes the form of KU payments for pages read: in July, KU accounted for 2 billion pages (KENP) and $11.5 million dollars in direct author compensation." Not bad. But, again, no data on how many authors and titles are being compared (only market segments). While there may be more money being taken home by self-published e-books, is that being shared by the same number of authors that make up the other segments (there's no data, but my wild-assed guess would be there are multiplication factors of more self-published than traditional published, so their pie share may be growing, the number of people eating that pie is outstripping the growth, but, again, that's my impression from the growing ranks of self-published authors that are referred to in the other articles). Also, there's no data on whom is getting what. So there is no way, with this article, to confirm your claim of "thousands… making a good living."

General notes, not all articles differentiated between self-published and traditional published e-books (except for the Author Earnings Report). Also, not all self-published books are e-books. There's six other notes I had, but it's late, and I'm tired, and you aren't compensating me for this research.

So, I've read all the articles you've pointed to, Barry. Most of which have troubles with sourcing, but none of which support your contention. At best, there are thousands of self-published authors out there. Given. If we add all the numbers up from the different articles over different years we get less than 500 self-published (well, actually e-book authors selling on Amazon which include traditional published authors as well) authors who are "best-sellers." Amazon considered books sold for $0 a sale. Conclude what you will. There are less than a handful who can be considered "making a good living" (again, from the articles you yourself pointed to).

Again, Barry, as I posted in my commentary on the linkee-poo, "I now want a list of those 'thousands of authors' that make a living form (SIC) self-publishing." You haven't provided. Not even close.

Also, you state that you couldn't find any evidence to support my contention that you overstated your numbers. That's a nice try, Barry. One, logic fallacy here in that you're the one making the extraordinary claim, you're the one that needs to prove your statement. I don't need to prove that I think you're shoveling BS here, as that's my opinion. Also, can't prove a negative, Barry, basic argumentative theory. You get no points for that cheap shot (and I'm going to take it as a cheap shot instead of thinking you were insulting my intelligence).

Barry, I know you're supportive of new authors. And for that, thank you. But you don't have the research to back up your position of "thousands of writers… making a good living from self-publishing." I know for you, self-publishing has been a fantastic boon, and good on you. However I'll note you had a following before going that route. Most authors who have done well self-publishing also have that first step up (having a following from "traditional" publishing) or write erotica (I know, I've done the research). Both sides of that require a hellalotta work from the author (either in promotions, or the number of titles published) to make a living. Very, very few have made a good living (for various values of "good") solely on self-publishing. Many have had "success", but that doesn't equate to making a good living (even with "traditional" publishing), which I know you also acknowledge.

Yes, Barry, I know who you are. For being an advocate for "publishing options," a lot of reporters get that wrong and call you an evangelist for self-publishing. Strange how that happens, every single time. There might be a reason for that.

If you wish to point out any discrepancies or facts I may have missed in the articles you linked to, please do. Note, I am asking your permission to post content from any such commentary to the top of the blog as a regular post.

I've noted how you haven't proven your point. I'm calling bullshit on your thousands of self-published authors making a good living. Since you haven't defined it, I will. A "Good Living" means writing income from self-publishing that's above poverty level for the circumstances the author has (single, married, married with children). No including income from other writing sources (such as commercial writing/freelance sources). I want to see that someone can support themselves without help (including the ever famous "spouse with a real job with real benefits"). That's my definition. Ball is in your court now.


Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Thank you for taking the time to wade through that. It is too easy to just take any v 12mm claims as valid because they have citations. Alas, for those of who toil in academia, we know that's not true.

Self publishing today, especially with e-books, isn't the same thing as the fill your garage with books scams of the past. But... I see many people misled by the claims of easy money -- and the handful of Really Great Success Stories. Andrew Weir and The Martian come to mind. This also breeds hostility that boils over at cons and writers panels and the net.

Is Amazon itself demon or Angel? A bit of both. But it's too early in this game to know -- and the numbers are not forthcoming.

Dr. Phil

Steve Buchheit said...

No worries, Dr. Phil. I really would like to see Barry's comment be true, but I haven't seen any evidence to support that more than a handful of self-published authors are making a living. It might be as much as maybe a hundred or so. Most of those, however, are selling erotica (which, if you can publish almost a hundred 7000-12000 word "books" at $0.99 to $2.99, can make you a nice profit). At least that's what my research is showing me.

And we're all seeing the outliers. Saying those will be your story is the moral equivalent of saying, "Hey, John Scalzi has a contract for $10M, that could be you too in traditional publishing." It's misleading as best, outright hucksterism at worst.

Amazon is a business. Their "friends" are their shareholders, and the rest can pound salt. They have undercut the books business (where, the last I could tell, while they make a lot of revenue, they don't make much profit, although I haven't seen the number for the past 5 years, but I've seen a difference in their pricing model - ie. increased prices). It is my contention they want to control the e-book market much more than the hardcopy market and they're willing to trow many authors under the bus to get it (knowing there are always more authors just waiting in the wings). They're concerned more about quantity, with small profits on each, than they are worried about the quality of the market (modern business sense, which works for a few quarters but isn't a long term strategy).

Barry is a source for reporters. That is, his card is in the rolodex (or the electronic equivalent) when anyone needs info on publishing trends, specifically e-books and self-publishing. I've been debating contacting the NPR reporter to give them my assessment of the quality and usefulness of their resource. Still debating it (one, I think he is intensionally overstating his position, but he might also be intentionally misleading, and two, it's a lot of work and can create a lot of bad blood, my choice will be where I eventually assign him along that spectrum of the first point).

And I've been the target of that anger at cons. I'm mostly on panels focused at beginning authors (or authors talking about their favorite subjects). While last year I didn't hear it (except for my own research on the one panel that I think went off the charts on the sucko-meter), I have had self-publishing evangelicals get upset at and towards me. In those cases my response is the same to Barry, I want you to be right, but you haven't proven the point.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Steve, thanks for the reply. And apologies for calling you by the wrong name—a weird glitch, and I have no idea where it came from. Advancing years or not enough coffee, maybe. Or both.

Of course you have my permission to repost my comments. As someone who’s frequently misquoted, I’m grateful to you for using and responding to exact quotes. FWIW, though, I don’t think you need permission. Have you had people object to quoting before? I’m not sure what their basis would be. I’d argue fair use.

Anyway… you asked for support for my contention that thousands of authors are making a good living from self-publishing. I think the information I provided provides that support, but I understand you don’t agree.

As you note, maybe part of our disagreement lies in my word choice. There’s subjectivity in the question of what constitutes “a good living;” and though I discussed how to define the concept during the interview, those portions didn’t make it into Neary’s article. I do think there’s overwhelming evidence that thousands of writers are making significant money through self-publishing, and that this is good news given that the Authors Guild has found its mostly legacy-published members to be increasingly impoverished, but I don’t want to belabor the point—again, I get that we don’t agree.

Regardless of how anyone might estimate the odds of making a living in self-publishing, it’s important to do a proper comparison about the odds in self-publishing and the odds in legacy. They’re long in both instances—especially when you consider that when people like AG president Roxana Robinson claim that once upon a time, authors made a good living through legacy publishing, they’re always excluding from their dataset the people who tried to get into that system and couldn’t. Which is like saying that once upon a time, everyone in America was making a pretty good living—by excluding from consideration everyone who was ever unemployed.

(Note too that even beyond the cherry-picking, Robinson never provides any data in support of her notion of those halcyon days.)

Barry Eisler said...

Statistically speaking, success in publishing is always a long shot, regardless of what publishing system an author chooses, a the main thing for me is an apples-to-apples comparison of *all* publishing systems so that individual authors can make good decisions for themselves. For more, see Publishing is a Lottery; Publishing is a Carney Game:


Have a look at that post, including the links in the first paragraph, with regard to the notion that there might be a reason reporters call me an evangelist for self-publishing every single time and all that. There must indeed be a reason; but I don’t think it's a legitimate one. If you can find an instance of my advocating that any author choose self-publishing (or legacy publishing, or Amazon publishing), rather than advocating for authors to make individual choices based on their own goals, talents, skills, experience, markets, etc, as I’m quite sure I’ve done in more articles, talks, and interviews than I can count, I’d be grateful because that’s definitely not a message I think would be useful, and I wouldn’t want there to be a legitimate basis for what I’m pretty sure is an otherwise inaccurate “self-publishing evangelist” appellation.

As for the notion that asking you to do what you’ve asked of me—provide data in support of your position—is asking you to prove a negative... well, this is another area on which I sense we won’t see eye to eye. Proving a negative in this context would mean, “Can you prove that thousands of authors *aren’t* making a living?” But that’s not what’s happening here. You said thousands of authors is an “overstatement.” So like me, you’ve taken an affirmative position: I say it’s thousands; you say it’s fewer than thousands. If you know it’s fewer than thousands, I think it’s fair to ask you how you know, just as you’ve asked me.

If what you meant instead was just, “Hmmm, thousands sounds too high to me, though I can’t prove otherwise,” then no problem. We’re probably not going to persuade each other regardless, but I’m grateful for the back-and-forth because it’s one more exchange writers can consider as they go about making whatever publishing choices they deem best for themselves.

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Barry, sorry, had day jobbery and family emergency and so I don't have much time. Again, you're the one making the extraordinary claim of thousands of writers making a good living, so you're the one that needs to prove the point. I'll read Konrath's blog post later (hopefully will get to it by the weekend, but things are busy and soaking up my time).

But if you want proof for my contention (which, again, is bad argument, it's your thesis we're discussing), I will point to the articles you provided. There's ample proof there are only a handful of authors who are doing well (and by handful, I mean "counted on one hand"), maybe a hundred or two who are making something better than pizza money and thousands of others who either make pizza money or are hopeful to crack that barrier soon (pizza money meaning once a month they may be able to order a pizza on their proceeds). Again, same articles that you believe say that those thousands are making a good living.

I would just point to the last article from Author Earnings where the units "sold" for ebooks have gotten close to parity between self-published and publisher offered books, but compare that to revenue and you see that publisher offered books are still pulling in the money. That, to me, indicates while a lot of self-published ebooks are being "bought", they're bought for free or for very little money. To learn more we would need to see data on how many authors compose both sides of that chart. It would be my guess (again, no time to find the actual data) that the number of self-published authors is several multiples of publisher offered ebook authors (something you'll read between the lines of your own posts here where you carefully avoid the word gatekeeper, but imply it heavily).

One of us is reading the articles, one of us isn't. I've provided pull quotes to support my side. If you can do the same, by all means have at. At this point, however, I'm going to go with you thought you could dazzle-dazzle me into thinking "well, there's more than two here, he must have a point." Sorry, that's known as a "throw sand in the bull's eyes" type argument. This is another example where I think you're questioning my intelligence.

Let me say I find it interesting that both you and Konrath spend a lot of your time focusing on Amazon's business model, and yet ignore the Nook, Scribd, Oyster (which from what I hear is closing up) and other venues for ebooks and ebook publishing (including the hundreds of small publishers that only do ebook publishing). I find that suspicious, but I can't prove anything and at this time really don't have the spoons to ferret it out. I just find it an interesting focus.

Also, having been an elected official I've also had my time with the press and being interviewed. Certainly there's a lot that could have been said that wouldn't make it into the article. However, here I would go with what the common person would think "a good living" would mean and I find the data you supplied woefully inadequate to support such a contention. It would be my suggest to parse your words a little more carefully, because we both know how reporters work. With your training, I believe you have the skill to do so.

But then, this isn't the first time either.