Common Ground in the Debate of Self v. Traditional Publishing

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

38ensoA storm was created last week in response to Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings post. It was widely criticized by many but also praised. It started a lot of discussion.

Having read most of the back and forth, I did notice a few commonalities.

Some issues all sides generally agree upon:

1)    Digital has demolished the distribution barriers to entry for self-publishing. Before digital a self-published author would have to pay to print and distribute books. That was an outlay of cash and inefficient.  The author then went to indie bookstores to get distribution one book at a time. Hoping to eventually break through and signed a major deal. Today an author can upload their book and get instant distribution to the entire country. Sales can happen immediately. The goal may be to remain independent or to gain  negotiating leverage with traditional publishers.

2)    The data is incomplete and there is a definite need for more transparency. Amazon, B&N, Apple and Google don’t publically release sales data. There is no “Bookscan for ebooks” although Nielsen is working on it with PubTrack Digital. Self-published and the Amazon proprietary titles are generally felt to be under-reported if at all. This feeds into the debate of the size of self-published ebooks. By withholding the Kindle data, Amazon has created a massive hole in any analysis. Perhaps a company like App Annie could fill that void and be a resource of data and analytics.

3)    Genres are by far the biggest ebook categories. Romance, Mystery, Thriller, Erotica and SF-Fantasy have the most self-published books and the numbers overwhelm these categories. These genres are filled with communities of readers/authors. Many genre writers put out numerous books in a year. The other categories are less populated with self-published. Because of the glut of titles and the appetite of readers, these categories are ripe for subscription-based selling.

4)    Only those authors at the very top can “quit their day job.” There are enormously successful authors in both self and traditional publishing. But less than 5% can be a full-time author (possibly less than 1%). It is still tough, regardless of the path to market. There is a definite “95/5 rule” where 95% of the sales come from 5% of the writers.

5)    BookBub sells books.  In the past week, I have heard from a self-published author and a marketing director at a Big5 publisher that they find BookBub effective. Both would like to do more, but BookBub only accepts about 20% of the submissions. Room for others? Riffle, BookRiot, eBookSoda and bookshout! might be alternatives. This DBW post has a good look at 10 platforms for discovery.

6)    Without Amazon, not much of this would be happening today. Amazon controls the content; the distribution; the terms of the deal and even the pricing of self-published ebooks. Amazon has an exclusive on many of the titles too. These books have given Amazon leverage in their battle with traditional publishers. It’s unclear what Kindle’s market share of self-published books is, but it is quite possibly over 90%. Without Amazon creating the ease to market, self-publishing would most likely be small and not mainstream.

This debate is fun for the publishing industry. It illustrates the growth and upcoming unknown. But in the end, there will always be great things to read. That it what ultimately matters.

(image from Shutterstock)

39 thoughts on “Common Ground in the Debate of Self v. Traditional Publishing

  1. Pingback: Publishing Opinions | Common Ground in the Debate of Self v. Traditional Publishing

  2. Michael

    Official figures:

    From the Wall Street Journal:

    “In 2013, self-published books accounted for 32% of the 100 top selling e-books on Amazon each week, on average.”

    B&N April 9 2013 press release:

    “Customer demand for great independent content continues to dramatically increase as 30% of NOOK customers purchase self-published content each month, representing 25% of NOOK Book™ sales every month.”

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      Thanks for the comments. There are so many numbers being quoted. What would be welcome is if Amazon and B&N would report the actual sales numbers and not just edited “headlines.” If PubTrack Digital could be the next “Bookscan for ebooks” or some other service, then people can see the full picture.

        1. Marion Gropen

          Authors have the same ability to get access to other people’s sales numbers that publishers do: just buy a subscription to Nielsen BookScan, or cultivate friends in the business, or use any of the other methods that publishing insiders use to get numbers.

          Yes, a subscription to Bookscan is expensive, but if you have a reason to need the numbers, it’s not all THAT expensive.

          1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

            I am a big fan of Bookscan and use it all the time. But it only gives sales for physical books. Given the in-roads of digital, it would be nice to have a “Bookscan for ebooks.” Nielsen recently purchased PubTrackDigital from ProQuest/Bowker, but that service is only available for participating publishers.

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  4. Mackay Bell

    If there is a large appetite from readers for genre, then there probably isn’t a glut. It seems more likely that traditional publishing has underestimated this market, and self-publishers were able to leap into the void. Also, it’s unlikely subscriptions are the solution. Genre writers like a direct connection with their writers. Smart writers will avoid being lumped into with a bunch of others and will want to build their own fan base with their own websites and email lists. There’s not a lot to motivate the good ones to throw their books into subscriber services.

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      No doubt there is a large reader base, but it still seems like there are so many books being written for that market. When the average Smashwords author made $80 last year, that is one indicator of a supply being much more than demand. I agree, traditional publishing didn’t see this happening nor did anyone predict the aggressiveness of Amazon making it happen.

      You make an excellent point about genre writers and their readers. Maybe if there was a way a subscription-based platform would help deliver reader information to the writers, that might help. I suggested subscription because it diversifies from an Amazon-only world but also it might help with discovery.

      Thanks for the comments. Lots to consider and so many options.

      1. William Ash

        I don’t think it follows that because there are many books that are not being bought, that there is no demand. Books are not bananas. Perhaps the quality of the book is impacting sales–readers don’t just read anything. And that is really the problem of trying to sort out this market–why do people buy books? What gets them to buy a book?

        I am not sure discoverability is any more difficult of slowly building a readership. With “slow” being the operational word. Word of mouth still seems to be the best driver for sales. This suggests that a certain quality is also the driver. There seems to be no limit to the number of people that buy very popular books. Quality is naturally the elephant in the room. It is a tough nut to take on and an ever harder one for people to learn. It is so much easier to break the problem down into good cover design and effective social media, neither of which can be defined very well.

        1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

          With so many titles, it does get difficult to get to discover the best ones. I agree, word-of-mouth is key — and one of the most elusive. I also feel that (and self-publishing has been great with this) is creating a series and delivering books at a rapid rate has definitely driven sales.

  5. J. R. Tomlin

    I long since quit may ‘day job’ and I am pretty darn sure I’m not in the top 1% in sales. Maybe the top 5% but I doubt even that. (The only reason I say ‘not sure’ is that I’m not even sure how you’d definte the ‘top 5%’) Quite a few authors make a living at writing now, but I am not talking about ‘getting rich’ writing. I frequently feel that when someone says ‘quit your day job’ they mean make a couple of hundred thousand or a million a year or whatever the very top writers make. It is very possible (not easy, but possible) to make a more modest living at it. A whole lot of people who I know are doing it.

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      It has always been tough to just be an author (traditional or self). But, as you mention, a lot of people do add to their income from writing. Self-publishing has definitely opened that up to a lot more people. Congrats on your success.

  6. Eric Barry

    My non-genre fiction paperback outsells my ebook 3 to 1. My friends who write the genres you mentioned in the article have just the opposite ratio, if not higher. Something about those genres…the fans love ebooks.

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  9. Michael J Sullivan

    A good article, but I think sometimes you should have stopped with your first assertion. For instance. “Romance, Mystery, Thriller, Erotica and SF-Fantasy have the most self-published books and the numbers overwhelm these categories”

    I agree with everything up to the and 😉 Yes there are a lot of self-published books in these categories, but only the “good ones” are easily found (via bestseller and top rated lists) all the others are virtually invisible and doesn’t affect my ability to find good genre fiction from both self or traditional.

    I also agree that in both routes there are a few of the “overall pool” that are making a living. But I’m actually surprised that this small percentage actually translates to a sizable number of authors. There are thousands that aren’t household names and yet are still earning full-time livings. I think that overall self-publishing has significantly moved the needle on the total number of self-sustaining full-time authors. I also think this is the most under reported aspect of the self-publishing movement.

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      Appreciate your comments. You are probably right that there are a lot more authors making money than I realize. Another reason for wanting to get much more information (especially from Amazon), so we can truly see how big the market has grown.

  10. Paul Wunderlich

    “But in the end, there will always be great things to read. That it what ultimately matters.”

    No matter the strife between the two, would seem, opposing forces (Traditional vs. Indie), in the end they meet a common pathway–great reads.

    What I like about the Indie world (I’m biased, I’m an Indie myself), is that you have creativity expressed in its natural state. No one but the author had a say on what would or would not stay within the creative content of a book. Brilliant ideas once thought unviable are now hitting the top ranks on sales. Sales matter, but what matters most is the readers’ preference. Authors like H. Howey and AG. Riddle are definitely paving the road for other the Indie industry.

    Great article. Thanks.

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      Paul – thank you for your kind words. I agree, indie publishing gives the author so much more control. It is great that all voices can be heard. It is a wonderful time because we have so many choices. I just don’t know if I will have enough time to read everything I want!

  11. Jeff Bach

    I think there are two major issues missing in your outlook and this article. Hugh Howey (and JA Konrath) are making noise about issues relating to authors. What’s good for authors is different from what’s good for readers and especially what’s good for publishers.
    Secondly, you make no mention of the Big Five and their data obscurity. You write as if blame is solely on Amazon, and self published authors, yet trad publishing is the darkest hole of all when it comes to obfuscating data and poorly reporting it, to both authors and the general public. Fairly easy to see who is paying your bills. It seems to me you might be more of a lobbyist for trad publishing than a neutral analyst of an industry??
    Regardless though, change is happening all around and it is disruptive to everyone involved. Who is still standing in five years is an interesting question.
    Jeff Bach

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      I have a lot of respect for Amazon. I have many friends who work there and they are very smart. I feel that Amazon is responsible for creating the opportunities for self-publishers and without them, the industry would still look much like it did 4-5 years ago.

      What I would like to see is an ebook sales reporting similar to the Nielsen Bookscan for physical books. Then we can see real numbers. For that to work, the retailers would need to open up. Amazon being the biggest would have to agree (as would B&N Nook, Apple, Google etc.). The majority of the sales through the Big5 publishers go through these channels.

      Thanks for your comments. No doubt the change is happening all around and how it evolves will be fascinating.

  12. Brian M. Gilb

    Great points and summary about this debate. I find it fascinating how fiercely each side defends their position. My question is why companies are not obligated to release information about sales, and why they hold their cards so close to the chest? For having such a large chip count and stacking the deck, you think it wouldn’t matter. Why is this?

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      Amazon has the biggest stake here and they want to keep as much data closed as it gives them a competitive advantage. If they released the data, traditional publishers (who work with Amazon but also are considered “competition”) could use the information to better publish.

      I would love to see an openness of the information so we could get a true picture of the market. But that may be a long time coming (if ever). In the physical book world, the sales information was held close for many years, but Nielsen Bookscan opened it up and the data is helpful. But, the digital world is different. Plus the huge amount of self-published titles adds a new dimension to the value of the information.

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  17. Mike Shatzkin

    Nice piece, Jack. I would only add to your last point that the Amazon exclusives will potentially put real pressure on their competitors at retail. The biggest danger for publishers is that Amazon has enough exclusives that they start sucking traffic away from the other ebook outlets. THAT would really consolidate their power.

    1. Jack W PerryJack W Perry Post author

      Mike – thanks for your comments. I always respect your perspective. No doubt the exclusives could have a enormous impact. We see it in other forms of media too (Netflix comes to mind).

      — Jack

  18. John F. Harnish

    Damn fine summation of the key points Jack, I’d like to do a bit of embellishing:

    1. Digital demolished distribution barriers, and blew away the Catch-22* conjured up by the Big Six publishers to keep POD books out of the bookstore chains, and their blockade motivated authors to promote their books directly to consumers. Now the shift in the marketplace is to direct marketing and individual authors have years of experience in making consumer driven book sales happen—the mainstream houses are lost in a maze of crumbling channels of distribution and trying to play catch-up with their direct marketing efforts to reach consumers.

    *Bookstore Chains Catch-22: Early in the 2000s, the Big Six publishers talked to major newspaper publishers and explained if one inch of column space is wasted reviewing a POD book they might need to reduce their newspaper advertising budgets. Then they bluntly explained to bookstore chain executives if they ordered any POD books there would be no more sweetheart deals and no A-list authors doing book signings in their stores. Newspaper reviewers could refuse to review POD books because they didn’t have national distribution through the bookstore chains. The bookstore chains could refuse to carry POD books because they didn’t have reviews published in the major papers and the trade publications. There is no way to prove they conspired to keep POD books out of the chain store but this logically explains what most likely occurred in the dawn of the Digital Age. Thankfully they didn’t have any clout to force Amazon and the indie bookstores to go along with this scheme. Thusly they continued to sell POD books.

    2. The traditional publishing industry has always been number driven—when a book no longer pulls its projected numbers it soon goes out of print. Amazon has nothing to gain by releasing proprietary sales information that would only benefit their competitors.

    3. Individual authors have invested time and effort to build sizable fan bases of readers—readers who have actually read the authors’ books and taken the time to post reviews on Amazon. Authors are also exchanging notes about what’s working and what’s not with other authors. Networking with their readers and other authors is omnipotent. The informal exchange of information between authors and readers has been going on for more than a decade and once again the traditional houses are trying to play catch-up and become more social.

    4. As I recall it wasn’t too long ago it was 90/10!!! I believe Publishers’ Weekly reported 80% of all published books secured by an advance never earn out the advance—in recent times, first-book authors rarely cross the thousand books sold threshold.

    5. Getting online exposure can become expensive. Lowering the price or giving ebooks away for free and paying several hundred dollars for an email hyping your ebook to members signed up with the promotional service could provide the potential for reader reviews and perhaps some “book buzz”—but what is the real cost???

    Let’s look at the math. Your ebook is a mystery novel for sale from Amazon at $2.99 earning a 70% royalty yielding approximately $2.10 per download. However, you reduce the price to $0.99 during the promotional period. Your 35% royalty for each download sold is approximately $0.34. The promotional cost to reach approximately 900,000+ BookBud members is $600 which means you need to sell 1,765 to surpass the breakeven point and produce a profit. According to BookBud the average number of discounted downloads sold for less than a dollar in the mystery genre is 2,050—thusly 2,050 minus 1,765 = 285. If the average number of downloads sold is achieved from the promotional effort you will earn a profit of $96.90 from 285 ebooks discounted ebooks sold. The unknown factor is how many of the 2,050 readers will take the time to write and post a review—which is the exposure goal of the promotional effort.

    Amazon’s Select promotional program is free—no breakeven point, and your ebook is available as a free download for 5 days without needing to offer a deep discount. The downside is agreeing to Amazon having the exclusive right to sell your ebook for 90 days. You also need to use your email list, your social network and blogs to announce your free ebook offer through the Select program.

    6. The technological advancements Amazon has made possible in book publishing and distribution is the greatest achievement for humankind since Guttenberg changed the world in the mid-1400s when he perfected the use of moveable type to print books. Ben Franklin insisted on freedom of expression being the First Amendment. He explained without the guarantee of freedom of expression none of the other amendments matter. Amazon has made freedom of expression possible for all the people and opened the marketplace for every author.

    The need to attach defining labels to authors comes from a dwindling number of elitists and the media. Consumers don’t give a second thought about how or by whom the book was published. Their primary motivation to buy the book is based on the information value of non-fiction and the entertainment value of fiction. Content rules and an author created the content.

    Welcome to the brave new era of publishing, we do indeed publish in interesting times.

    Enjoy often… John

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