The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 2 of 3)

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

In the writers’ groups I attend, self-publishing is a touchy issue. I know a number of writers who served their time in the trenches, writing and submitting and rewriting and resubmitting their work over and over again to agents and publishers before that one magical “yes.” It’s not unusual to meet a writer who tried to get published for ten years or more before winning a publishing contract. These writers have overcome significant odds, and they are rightly proud of their achievements. In the same group, there are a number of writers who haven’t yet broken into traditional publishing or haven’t even tried but who have decided to self-publish. Some don’t have the war stories and battle scars from trying to break in, while others do. Despite not having the traditional publisher’s stamp of approval, all of them are also proud of their achievements and expect equal consideration as published authors. It might be easy for the traditionally published authors to maintain their sense of superiority over self-published authors (and, thus, their sense of comfort that they had done the right thing all those years that they waited and tried) were it not also for the token members of the group who have self-published and made a lot of money at it.

Is self-publishing an amateurish endeavor, a means of sharing stories, a strategic move in a writing career, or an entrepreneurial activity? In Part 1 of this blog, I examined the top priorities of the nearly 5,000 authors who responded to the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey in relation to whether and how they have published their work. Now I turn my attention to the differences in writing productivity for the four different types of authors identified in the survey: aspiring authors, self-published authors, traditionally published authors, and hybrid authors with a combination of self-published and traditionally published works.

The necessary ingredient to success in a writing career is actually writing. So how do our various types of authors stack up in terms of manuscripts completed, whether published or unpublished?

One interesting pattern in the results is that all four types of authors, both published and not yet published, have a set of completed manuscripts that, for whatever reason, remain unpublished. For published authors, these unpublished manuscripts may be in production for publication, or they may be discarded projects, perhaps to be revisited. The self-published authors surveyed had fewer unpublished manuscripts than any of the other types of authors, about one less on average (a median of 3 compared to a median of 4 for the other groups).

This pattern could reflect the faster time to market in self-publishing, except that the hybrid authors, who also occupy the self-publishing market space and have the same opportunities to turn projects around quickly, have more unpublished manuscripts on average than the self-published authors do. More likely, then, the pattern seems to indicate a willingness on the part of the self-published authors who answered the survey to publish their completed manuscripts at a higher rate. Perhaps they are less discerning about which manuscripts they publish.

In terms of publications, the self-published authors in the survey tend to have a lower stock of published manuscripts than traditionally published or hybrid authors. Whether due to newer careers or a view of writing as more of a hobby than a profession, they are less prolific than the other types of published authors in the sample.dbweinberg productivityA very different pattern emerges when we examine self-publishing by hybrid authors. These authors are the most productive in the sample. With the highest number of manuscripts published overall, they have published more traditionally published manuscripts than the authors who have only traditionally published (a median of 10 compared to 8) and more self-published manuscripts than those who only self-published (a median of 5 compared to 3).

The differences in numbers of published and unpublished manuscripts do suggest overall that there are real differences between self-published, traditionally published, and hybrid authors. In particular, these authors have different profiles in terms of what and how quickly they publish. Self-published authors lag behind the others in terms of the total number of manuscripts published and produced, but they also appear to have a higher rate of publication with fewer unpublished manuscripts in their stock. The hybrid authors surveyed, in contrast, look more like traditionally published authors in terms of the numbers of unpublished manuscripts in their stock and in terms of their productivity, although they are even more prolific than the traditionally published authors surveyed.

In part 3 of this blog, I explore the differences in income for these different types of writers.

See more results of the survey presented at Digital Book World 2014, where Weinberg will talk more about the evolving author marketplace. Register today!

13 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 2 of 3)

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  2. Brian M. Gilb

    Very interesting findings. I wasn’t aware that the hybrid type was the most productive in terms of having completed manuscripts. Income is an issue, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of your series to find out. Thanks so much for this one! It’s very eye opening.

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  5. Michael Sullivan

    I’m not sure we can determine much from this data without breaking down the numbers in relation to how much elapsed time it took to create those # of manuscripts. To say this group or that group is more or less “productive” is only meaningful if you know how long they took to produce.

    My first glance at the data would make me think that hybrids are more “veteran” than some o the others. They have been at “the publishing gig” probably for a long period of time. Certainly long enough to get educated on two different paths both of which take a considerable amount of time to navigate. So a hybrid with 19 books might have taken three decades to create them whereas the aspiring author with 4 may have been doing this for just a few years. Productivity implies x amount of work done in y amount of time. This data is showing just one aspect of that equation.

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  10. Peter Dudley

    I would love to see breakdowns as to which categories have more full-time writers as opposed to part-time writers. Self publishing has opened up a whole new avenue for those of us who work full time. While I wouldn’t say self publishing is any less work than traditional publishing, self-pub is done on the author’s timeline, not on the publisher’s. Which means we can fit it in when we can fit it in. Which means, probably, fewer books in the same amount of time.

    I also find it interesting (but not entirely indefensible) that you jump straight to the idea that self-published authors may be \less discerning\ when deciding whether to publish that finished manuscript. While I think there’s probably some truth to that in a broad sense, I have not seen it in the self published authors I know. Instead, they tend to put MORE time into their manuscripts, which I think leads to the lower production but higher percentage-published rate.

    Keep in mind we are talking about the 5,000 people who responded to this survey. That sort of self-selects out the unwashed masses who just throw crap out into the world without bothering to learn much about writing or publishing. Right?

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  13. Christy

    The problem is in the data. This is the data for the select group of people the author asked. Most of these kinds of surveys are skewed, because the ‘scientist’ doesn’t have access to a large enough data pool. Although, publishing a more honest title, like A SOCIAL SCIENTISTS GIVES US ACCESS TO HER LIMITED POOL OF DATA won’t make people click the link.

    This is a constant problem with these types of surveys. They can not access a complete data pool, because it’s IMPOSSIBLE to do. None of these surveyists have access to the full data that they would need to have access to, for this kind of thing to be remotely accurate or actually useful.

    The information they need is proprietary. Only a survey of the distributors would give a totally thorough, totally honest evaluation of today’s publishing world, since they know what all the numbers are. But that’s never going to happen, because the distributors guard that data like it’s gold and they’re Fort Knox.

    These surveys are constantly being presented as ‘fact’ and ‘proof’ by academics and others, but they’re usually little more than useless non-data. And a ‘scientist’ should know that a limited data pool or a skewed data pool can often generate misleading results.



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