2014 Author Survey: From Manuscript to Book, How Many Authors Actually Publish?

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

When I reported the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey annual writing income results for 2013, Hugh Howey, casting the results as indie vs. traditional publishing, demanded a recount:

A fair comparison would be to know (here’s the impossible bit) how many manuscripts are submitted to agents and how many of those are never self-published. These are part of the traditional equation. Period. If you’re going to count among the self-published works every copy/pasted Wikipedia article or rough draft that is just tossed out there with no love and no editing, then you’ve gotta lump the slush pile into the traditional tally. Plain and simple.

Plain and simple? I’m not so sure. How do we count authors or compare opportunities? Where, for example, would we count Howey himself, a vocal proponent of indie publishing, now that he has signed a traditional publishing contract? Should we now tally his writing income in the traditional publishing column?

The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey offers a nuanced view of authors’ decisions and activities, including Howey’s “fair comparison” account of the number of manuscripts that have been submitted to agents and publishers but not, to date, published. (The chart here shows conditional probabilities based on the survey results. The one in my presentation at DBW 2014 showed overall probabilities.)

distribution of authors

Related: See the full survey results here. Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest are also holding a free webcast on February 6 at noon Eastern Time to discuss the results. Register here

More than 9,000 authors responded to the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Of these, about 58% had completed manuscripts, and more than half of these authors, 33% of the entire sample, went on to publish their work.

Among the nearly 6,000 aspiring authors, over a third (36.7%) had completed a manuscript. Of these, almost two thirds (62.5%) had submitted their work to agents or editors, representing about a quarter of all of the unpublished authors in the survey (23%).
Among these aspiring authors who had completed manuscripts and submitted their work to the dreaded slush pile, about a third (32.1%) reported that they only wanted to publish their work with traditional publishers.

About a quarter (23%) of authors with completed manuscripts traditionally published their first book, and a little over a third self-published. Self-published authors represented nearly two thirds (60.9%) of the published authors in the survey. Self-publishing has made it possible for these writers, 20% of authors in the total sample, to reach readers with stories that might otherwise never have been published or might still be languishing on submission. About 10% of self-published authors in the sample transitioned from indie publishing into traditional publishing. Among writers who traditionally published their first book, more than a third (36%) have now also self-published.

In taking a snapshot of writers at different points in their careers, we see that there are a number of decisions authors make about finishing manuscripts, submitting, and publishing them. Some authors will finish manuscripts; others will never finish. Some will try the traditional route and make it. Others will give up and put their books away, while still others will choose to self-publish, and yet others will stick it out through multiple rejections. Some will choose to self-publish out of the gate. Of those who publish, some will stick with one route and others will branch out and go hybrid.

The lesson in the survey data is the fluidity in who is on the traditional or indie route or straddling both at any point in time. To me, this is the main point of the survey itself. What authors want is a moving target. What publishing route might be better at any point in time for any given author may be constantly changing.

Instead of classifying authors based on what they might do in the future, I’ll continue using the convention that DBW introduced last year of categorizing authors as aspiring, traditionally published, indie published, or hybrid based on what they report they have done.

Related: See the full survey results here. Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest are also holding a free webcast on February 6 at noon Eastern Time to discuss the results. Register here

10 thoughts on “2014 Author Survey: From Manuscript to Book, How Many Authors Actually Publish?

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  4. Robert Fletcher

    I find the number that ‘traditionally publish” to be quite high… very high.. did you ask the authors which publisher they used? Or, did you ask them if they “traditionally published” therefore leaving the survey open to publishers like Publish America or others that are not so easily identified as traditional or not.. Lord knows the authors we talk to are very confused about this term.

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  6. Barbara

    This numbers might be accurate, but most likely are skewed, because some self published authors are misinformed. I run into many who mistakenly think they are traditionally published when they use Tate Publishing, Author House, etc.

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