Clearing up Some Misconceptions About DBW and Indie Authors

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

The DBW website is focused entirely on the business of ebooks and digital publishing. Because one of the most interesting and relevant stories in this arena is the rise of self-publishing (also known as indie publishing), we cover that, too.

To that end, I was a bit taken aback when I saw this tweet directed at DBW from prominent indie author, Hugh Howey:

The tweet* was in context of a discussion of whether DBW was biased against indie authors. I’m not really even sure what this means, to be honest, to be biased against indie authors, but notwithstanding, in my opinion, DBW is anything but.

(Disclosure: I have reached out to Howey about this comment and the rest of what I say below that concerns him and Author Earnings. When I did so, it was late at night — but I eagerly await his response and would love to engage him on these topics. I think it’s the right thing to do when you write about someone or something to give them a chance to respond. We have made contact, as you can see below, though he refused to respond to my points about Author Earnings data despite my asking repeatedly.)

We have breathlessly tracked the stunning rise of self-published authors onto the ebook best-seller list, something nobody else outside of Kindle was doing — although our list tracks across multiple retailers. (Here’s the first time a self-published best-seller hit No. 1 on our list.)

We’ve created two very complex surveys about what authors do and want with our partners Writers Digest to try to help publishers and self-publishing service providers better serve them — and when we could, we brought to the forefront information that can help authors:

Should Authors Hire Editors, Cover Designers, Etc. When They Publish?

Are Agents Worth It?

How Common Are Traditional Publisher Horror Stories?

These are just three of the pieces we put together for authors compiling data from real authors about real outcomes that will help authors navigate the publishing landscape. Before you dismiss them, read them and then tell me we’re “biased” against indie authors.

Learn more: Download the free press preview of the DBW-Writer’s Digest 2014 Author Report

And I have publicly said on NPR, in multiple comments online and in front of live audiences, a version of the following:

The democratization of access to wide audiences is one of the greatest developments of our time in book publishing. It personally heartens me to see people who wouldn’t have before have the opportunity to publish books. For many authors, based on my many conversations with them and our surveys of thousands of them, the ability to bring a book into the world and share it with even a few people is a dream come true. The fact that some people are making a killing doing so is wonderful; and the fact that a few more are paying bills with their work is even more amazing.

But here’s the “but,” and it’s the “but” that I think has made some indie authors angry at DBW: Most authors — both those who self-publish and traditionally publish — don’t make a living doing it. This is borne out in the DBW survey data from two years now (first year, second year — paid content, but we will likely make this public soon). It’s borne out in the Author Earnings data (more on that later). It’s borne out in the new data coming out of the UK. It’s borne out in other creative industries. There’s nothing but a few very vocal outliers claiming that it isn’t so.

And so what? So what if upwards of 95% of the 391,000 tracked self-published titles from 2012, for instance, didn’t make thousands of dollars? First of all, that means there were thousands that did very well, that gained huge audiences and made enough money so people could pay a few bills and in some cases quit their jobs and become full-time writers living off their income — and in some cases become millionaires. That’s amazing.

And that’s just the titles with ISBNs. There are likely many more — many more that sell a handful of copies if any, and many more that go on to great successes of varying sizes.

I’d say that beyond not being biased against indie authors, we’re in fact quite supportive of them and try to give them all the resources we can to help them succeed.

Now, as for the topic of Amazon, which Howey mentions in his tweet, talk to the folks there who deal with us, the press people, the sources we have. I think they’ll tell you they think we are completely fair in our coverage. We are in near constant contact with them, gaining information that we share, responding to feedback, etc.

In fact, and I’m quoting here, Howey himself said of my moderation of a webcast this week with New York Times reporter David Streitfeld and GigaOm news editor Laura Owen about Amazon-Hachette: “You’re killing it.” I was asking them both pointed questions about the issue, probing about both company’s positions.

I don’t understand how in the webcast, Howey could say that we’re doing a good job being even-handed and then publicly say that DBW has the most horrid and obvious bias. How can you be “killing it” on Wednesday and “horrid” on Thursday.

But, beyond that, again, I have written and spoken in public, on public radio, saying a version of the following:

Amazon is the most dynamic company in book publishing today. It sparked the ebook revolution and continues to pioneer new business models and ways of thinking in publishing.

I even published something alluding to this just this week.

Probably most compelling of all, Amazon’s head of Kindle Russ Grandinetti will be speaking at our upcoming Digital Book World 2015 conference, talking to publishers, authors, agents and all the digirati about Amazon and book publishing. I’m sure that isn’t happening because of how “horrid” DBW has been toward Amazon (or any company for that matter).

Lastly, what we don’t deliberately do is mislead people. And I’m sorry to have to say so here again, but the Author Earnings data is bankrupt and very misleading. It’s the worst kind of misleading because it masquerades as truth. Here are some very sober points made about how the data misleads those trying to understand what’s happening in the broader market about how much authors are making.

Taking a sample of the top 1.5% of authors and claiming its representative of how much authors make is both false and classist. The vast majority of all authors never hit that rarefied status and to assume that those folks speak for all indie authors is condescending and, frankly, as someone who writes about the space, insulting. Take some of the authors I spoke with for this story for USA Today — a handful out of the dozen I spoke to for the story. They’re very much not in that 1.5% and to say that that group of people represents all authors is just wrong.

Beyond that, the way the report calculates sales figures for all authors and earnings for traditionally published authors shows little understanding for the logarithmic nature of best-seller lists (the No. 1 title often sells many more times than the other ranks and can technically sell infinitely more) and for how advances work or how list price versus royalties work. The most egregious example of this I’ll take from the May Amazon report:

The No. 2 book on the list a Hachette title for $7.50. I’m going to assume it’s The Goldfinch, since it was priced there in May, is published by Hachette and was hovering around the No. 2 spot on our own list. This is a pretty solid assumption. (As I said earlier, I reached out to Howey for comment and sent him this section. Hugh — correct me if I’m wrong here.)

First mistake: Author Earnings assumes 6,250 in unit sales. We have absolutely no way of knowing this.

Second mistake: It is then assumed that Amazon takes 30% of the $7.50 charged for it and the publisher and author divide the rest. That’s absolutely not how it works. The publisher gets 70% of the digital list price, which is likely $14.99 (that’s what Barnes & Noble lists it as). Amazon would actually lose money on each sale, taking in $7.50 and having to pay the publisher 70% of $14.99, roughly $10.50. So, the publisher and author get double what the Author Earnings report estimates, skewing all the of findings. This is done for all the traditionally published titles.

It’s common practice for retailers to price some goods below what they cost to bring customers in the door to sell other goods. It’s widely believed Amazon does this with best-selling ebooks. So why this incredibly erroneous and misleading calculation in the Author Earnings report? I know we’re not the first person to raise this objection.

And, last, who is this mystery data person doing all the calculations? Where are this person’s bona fides? They obviously know how to do basic Excel work, but don’t have formal training in data in statistics and likely don’t understand how list price and royalties work, as explained above. Again, here’s a more authoritative look at the data.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten confirmation from Howey that “data guy” who helps produce Author Earnings is Paul Draker, an indie author and former start-up guy. Check out his website here.

UPDATE 2: After confirming to me through email that Draker is “data guy,” Howey later wrote, “Dude, I was f@!#ing with you. Trying to make you write a story that you’d have to retract. I should have added a winky face. :D”

When I asked him to confirm that he’s not the guy, Howey responded, “Of course not. I’m not going to out the person. They can decide when they want to reveal themselves. The fact that you are looking for a data guy mean’s you’ll never find him.”

I’m flabbergasted. My source on this info, however, seems fairly certain. I’ve emailed Draker. He can deny it for himself.

UPDATE 3: Draker has gotten back to me and has denied that he is “data guy”:

Do your homework next time. I considered agreeing that I’m “Data Guy” just to make you look foolish when the real Data Guy decides to share his identity. Five years ago, I *would* have led you on just for laughs. But it would have been irresponsible of me — almost as irresponsible as you randomly slapping my name out there.

As it is, you might as well have used “I. M. Gullible” instead. But I don’t really mind the 15 seconds of fame 🙂

I have my own suspicions about Data Guy’s true identity, because he’s a pretty frequent commenter on publishing sites and alludes to doing other large-scale statistical analysis related to the book industry. But I’m pretty sure if I whispered my suspicions to you, you’d slap his name out there with “Paul Draker confirmed!!!!”

What do you think, readers? Share, please.

Until then more on Draker, who is not “data guy,” he says, but is a pretty neat guy all the same:

Here’s part of his bio that references Draker’s technology credentials:

Paul has worked in the aerospace/defense industry on a variety of classified and unclassified programs for DARPA, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps, ranging from strategic national missile systems to technology augmentation for small-team tactical infantry units. He has also led a Silicon Valley technology startup delivering massively-scalable custom Internet software to Fortune 500 clients including Hewlett Packard and Robert Half International, and headed a leading videogame studio developing mobile games for top-tier publishers such as EA, Disney/Pixar, Sega, Warner Brothers, THQ, and Glu.

I don’t see any data or stats background here, but I will reach out to him and ask him.

So “data guy,” if you’re not Paul Draker, who are you? Show thyself!

Who analyzed this data for DBW? Who helped craft our survey and our report?

Her name is Dana Beth Weinberg. She is clearly qualified to do such analysis, as you can see from her bio below. And if you want to ask her questions, challenge her methodology, her motivations, etc., she’s very easy to reach. Oh, and by the way, she’s also an indie author trying to make it and figure out the best ways to do so. She’s not part of the 1.5% elite authors as far as I know:

Dana Beth Weinberg received her doctorate from Harvard University and is Professor of Sociology at Queens College – CUNY, where she directs the MA program in Data Analytics and Applied Social Research. Her research focuses on organizational behavior, work, and occupations. Inspired by her own personal experiences as a novelist, her current research examines the way that digitization is changing the book industry for readers, writers, and publishers. Find Dana at or @DBWeinberg or

At DBW, we’re here for you — publishers, authors, agents, librarians, etc. And we’re open to feedback, criticism, questions, etc.

I can’t think of a better way to support indie authors than to give them the best information we can without any cheerleading or fanfare and then be open to discussing it afterward. If you can, let me know.

Related: Download the free press preview of the DBW-Writer’s Digest 2014 Author Report


* The tweet above was originally paired with the tweet that preceded it. I removed it by request of the author. 

10 thoughts on “Clearing up Some Misconceptions About DBW and Indie Authors

  1. Skye Warren

    “Before you dismiss them, read them and then tell me we’re “biased” against indie authors.”

    Challenge accepted. The first one suggests that we aren’t even self publishing if we hire an editor. (Yes, we are.) The second one was about agent representation and focused on traditionally published authors. The third attempts to discredit the idea that traditional publishing horror stories are common.

    Regardless of Howey’s comment, if those are the most pro-indie articles on the site, it’s unimpressive to say the least.

  2. bwmathews

    Nice job of actually being transparent and refuting a known troll. Whole piece illustrated the difference between professionals and people who wish they were.

  3. Joseph Ratliff

    Who cares who the “data guy” is? It’s obvious this person is qualified.

    I would just let that be.

    As to the “bias” … it’s “iffy” at times.

  4. SpringfieldMH

    I don’t follow this site enough to have formed an opinion, but those that I do (NYT, WSJ, …) have a had a bad habit of putting up articles that were pro-Hachette and either anti or ignorant re Amazon, indie/self publishing and such… and even when fair/balanced/informed somewhere deep down toward the bottom of the articles, tended to top them with headlines that tend not to be… presumably because such catch attention. Instead of \Some authors\, they write \Authors\ or \British authors\, etc., implying \all\. This situation is beginning to change, but it has a long way to go. And it has left me cynical and suspicious re trad pubs and big media, who tend to be joined at the hip somewhere up the corporate ladder and operate under and look to reinforce and defend a shared mindset.

    Given that, it is easy to get burnt out and expecting more such abuse when one reads other sites, such as DBW.

    So, what set this particular thing off?

    Perhaps your site’s headline/article \Why One Prominent Indie Author Is Siding With Hachette\ by
    Jeremy Greenfield.

    The article refers to Smashwords founder and CEO Mark Coker. He’s an author? I knew of him because of Smashwords, not because of his books. That’s not a reflection on his writing. But his \prominence\, at least in the context of this article, is as an e-book publisher/aggregator/distributor/e-seller, not as an author or indie author.

    So, while the article itself does touch on that… the sensationalistic catchy headline is a tad dishonest. To harsh?… Disproportionate?… Misrepresentative?

    And frankly, \Why Smashwords Founder Is Siding With Hachette\ would have been a more accurate headline. Which you sort of did here…
    So what was the point of this rehash and misleading headline?

    Was that Jeremy Greenfield’s title? The editors? Yours?

    Anyway… that throws a red flag for me at least… Watch out. Something fishy here. Stay away or get my hip waders on.

  5. Lisa Grace

    I admire what you are doing and look forward to receiving my DBW newsletters. I admire what Hugh is doing through the Authors’ Earnings Report too.

    However, both sets of data have HUGE holes in them. If you’re not counting ASIN numbered ebooks, or free ones, you are not counting books that are getting read, and not counting the readers.

    If you are not counting books ordered by the author and sold in person at talks, you’re missing huge numbers of books.

    If you are only looking at the top 1.5% of books, you again are leaving out a huge number of books. For instance a midlist or lowlist author like me, with eight books out, has around 90,000 (might be more I haven’t added up my numbers across all platforms in a while) books out there in ebook, paperback, and audio, and none of them are counted in either survey.
    You get eleven authors like me (and there are tens of thousnads of us) you are missing *huge* numbers that render all your reports—meaningless.

  6. Carolyn Jewel

    Since my twitter handle is in this, I’d like to point out that the discussion springboarded from a tweet of mine in which I objected to a deceptive headline from DBW. You can see the bulk of that discussion here: \Discussion about Deceptive Headline\

  7. Robin

    Thanks to Carolyn Jewel for posting that exchange. I agree with her that the title to that post was deceptive, and when I read the post I figured DBW knew that once Mark Coker was named, the credibility of his opinion (and by extension of DBW’s title) would be questioned. It’s those kinds of moves that come across to someone like me — a reader, book reviewer, and freelance editor who has no dog in the trad publisher v. indie publisher fight — as cheap tricks (whether they’re intended that way or not). And I say that as someone who has consistently defended Dana Weinberg from the ridiculous attacks on her character and credibility as a statistician and who is completely disgusted by the ‘we wanted to make you look like an idiot’ bullshit quoted in this post.

    Can’t SOMEONE take a real leadership role here and turn this morass of unnecessary squabbling into a comprehensive and objective big picture analysis of an industry that best serves readers, authors, and publishers when there’s sufficient and robust competition? Traditional publishers need to change. Self-publishing needs to mature. No one path is perfect for everyone, and no path is perfect as is. The landscape is different than it was five years ago, and in five years it’s going to be changed again. How many words are going to have to be eaten by then, and at what cost?

  8. Virginia Llorca

    Here is self-publishing: download the book and the cover to the site. Press the publish button.

    Does the reader know who you paid what to? This is so nit-picky. Article and replies. My biggest selling book on B&N has a cover that was a mistake. It wouldn’t let me download the one I wanted. I probably should go and fix that. Maybe I will.

    I am a VERY low seller, and my revenue doesn’t make much difference to me, but to have a person say a nice thing about my stories means all to me. I have no books that have had zero income. The only difference in any of them has been my promotional effort. Some of these responses are just plugs.

    And the main article is like saying you can’t put the little bejeweled trinket box on Etsy cuz you bought and paid actual money for the plain cardboard box you decorated.

    As I have said in other places, I cannot believe that as soon as Howey gets some recognition he starts saying this stuff. Go write a freakin’ book, Hugh.

  9. Steven Zacharius

    Interesting article. Why is it a mystery about who data guy is? What’s the point in hiding? And why doesn’t Kindle share the ebook data like they share their print sales with Bookscan? Why is this all a secret?



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