Empowering Writers with Data
A close writer friend called last week with a dilemma. She needs some extra money in her pocket within the next year and has a book project ready to go: Should she sign with a traditional publisher or go indie? What’s the better choice given her money situation right now? What’s the better choice for her career?
Asking similar questions publicly has put me and my number crunching at the center of controversy. I am in the process of preparing a workshop for the Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Conference in San Antonio, TX. The subject of the workshop is whether there’s a case to make for traditional publishers and agents, a question I’ve written about at length for Digital Book World. (DBW has recently made the press preview of the report on what advantages traditional publishers offer authors available for free download.)
Last week, Porter Anderson reported for FutureBooks that the findings I reported were a “flash point in the current crisis in author-author and author-publisher relations” that engendered “furious debate,” “gripped the attention of the author community for weeks,” and “served to enrage” indie authors. Soon after, Deborah Smith of Bell Bridge Books, a traditional publisher, questioned why RWA would allow my workshop on these same themes. She wrongly assumed my upcoming presentation would be “an insulting workshop taught by a non-industry speaker on a topic that is set up *from the start* to marginalize traditionally published members and their careers” and caused an uproar.
Apparently, my questions and my attempts to answer them with the data at hand have hit a major nerve—on both sides of the indie-traditional divide. The outrage points to how central these questions are and to how frightening data can be if it makes us question our notions of the way the world works.
Yet, no amount of foot-stomping or teeth-gnashing is going to negate the questions or change the answers we pull from the data. We owe it to ourselves to ask the hard questions and to take a sober look at the facts. And my friend needs an answer, as do so many other writers.
My friend isn’t interested in asking, “Which publishing method is better?” Despite all the attention this particular question is getting, it’s not the one I’ve been asking, and it doesn’t help my friend, when she wants to know, “What’s better for me in this situation?” The first step in empowering ourselves with data is asking the right question.
So what’s best for my friend in this situation? We need to consider the key factors shaping both my friend’s decision-making and her odds of success in whichever path she chooses. This is where the analyses I’ve been doing for Digital Book World are particularly helpful to authors. (For a look at how the data may be helpful to publishers, I invite you to visit the text of my talk at the 2014 Digital Book World Conference.)
My friend’s a bestselling author who has had multi-book contracts, including print, with Big 5 publishers. Despite this, she claims to have yet to earn enough in advances and royalties combined to cover the expenses she’s incurred marketing and promoting her books. This situation hasn’t been problematic, since she considered she was building her career and fan base and easily saw how her publishers partnered with her in this endeavor. But now she needs money, and financial concerns are at the forefront.
She has a book written. She’s about to go back into contract negotiations with her current publisher and is realistically hoping for a significantly larger advance. An advance from her publisher is a sure thing, immediate money in the pocket, and, given her situation, not to be readily dismissed if she can pull the figure she wants. However, even if the publisher coughs up the requisite cash, her current sales numbers indicate that she may stand to earn quite a bit more if she self-publishes and reaps the indie royalties. If she hits the same digital sales level she currently has with her traditional sales, she could potentially make substantially more money self-publishing than signing with her publisher—but it’s not guaranteed and it would be over a much larger time horizon. She has a number of very visible peers writing in her genre who have done just that. They readily argue that she should join their ranks.
No matter how much data I review, there are no easy answers here. The Writer’s Digest and Digital Book World survey data suggest that the differences between the two publishing routes—in terms of income, sales, or writers’ satisfaction— are not as clearly delineated as pundits on either side of the divide would have us believe, while the other data I have been analyzing (from Bowker’s Books in Print and Nielsen’s consumer surveys) point to the tremendous challenge of selling books and grabbing market share in an increasingly crowded market.
Still, there are strategic ways to ask questions that bring us closer to the answers we need. For those open to taking a thoughtful look, the data can be empowering.
Looking at the data, we see that my friend’s a rare breed of author with her traditional publisher (Big 5 in this case) and her previous advance amount and that she is among the higher earners compared to the sample (even if the money hasn’t lined her pockets). The data also tell us that as a hybrid author, her income prospects are indeed promising and more so than for the newbie self-published author. They also show hybrid authors making more money on average from each of their traditionally published books than from their self-published ones. If my friend self-publishes, the data show that hiring a cover designer and editorial services are going to cost real money up front, but that these services may well be worthwhile in improving the chances of sales. Finally, the results of the survey showed that hybrid authors tended to prefer the option of traditionally publishing their next book, something to consider in her negotiations with her publisher if she wishes to continue publishing with them.
If she self-publishes, there’s no guarantee that by next year she’ll have the money she needs if she’s waiting for her sales to build, even if she could potentially expect to earn a lot more money over the long term, and she would have to risk money she currently has in hand to produce and promote the book she publishes.
The data can’t tell us exactly what will happen, but knowing where my friend fits in the market and what her priorities are allow us to tease an advantage out of the numbers—an understanding of the possible range of outcomes and a more realistic set of expectations for her.
In the end, my friend’s decision won’t be about publishing politics or other people’s axes to grind. Rather, empowered with a clearer understanding of potential risks and benefits for her, she will decide what to do based on her tolerance for risk and her sense of her publisher’s commitment to her long-term career. Armed with the same statistics, another writer might choose a very different path—because at the end of the day these are individual decisions with very personal consequences.
Publishing politics don’t help writers make the individual decisions that work best for them. Understanding our own individual priorities and where we stand in relation to the (always imperfect) data are the key to making sense of competing claims and sources of information of varying quality in order to make strategic decisions.
If you’re at RWA, I hope you’ll stop by my workshop and explore how data on the publishing industry can empower you.