Empowering Writers with Data

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

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.

Authors & Self-Publishing, Expert Publishing Blog
Dana Beth Weinberg

About Dana Beth Weinberg

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 experiences as a novelist, her current research examines how digitization is changing the book industry for readers, writers and publishers. She also writes crime thrillers as D. B. Shuster. Find Dana at danabethweinberg.com or @DBWeinberg. Find her fiction-writing alter ego at dbshuster.com.

8 thoughts on “Empowering Writers with Data

  1. Deborah Smith

    One correction up front: my company’s name is spelled Bell Bridge Books, thanks.

    As I think I’ve made clear in my blog posts and in private correspondence to Dr. Weinberg, I support her data and have followed her reports here at DBW in the past. My beef, as I’ve stated repeatedly, is with Romance Writers of America using her data in a disingenuous way at the upcoming national conference. When a topic is titled \Is there still a case to be made for traditional publishing?\ and the program notes tell attendees that Dr. Weinberg will present \for and against\ research about publishers, those who don’t know anything about her work will assume a negative slant. RWA has produced a dramatically skewed workshop schedule this year, in my opinion, overwhelming aimed at self-publishing authors and flavored with a bias against traditional publishing. The only other workshop dedicated to traditional publishing topics is titled \What good are agents?\ So — with all due respect to Dr. Weinberg and her best intentions, statistics alone are often used as propaganda. Especially when presented out of context, at a workshop that does not include the publishers and agents about which she is offering conclusions. My concerns are about context and fairness. I wish Dr. Weinberg the best.

    1. Dana Beth WeinbergDana Beth Weinberg Post author

      The typo has been corrected.

      I have not received any private correspondence from you.

      For the record, RWA has not used my data in a “disingenuous” way. I wrote the description of the workshop when I proposed it and am responsible for the contents. In terms of context and fairness or perceived bias, I would also point out that the RWA conference continues to promote traditional publishing, even if there is now increased attention and interest from the membership in how to maximize indie sales and success. The publisher sponsors at RWA run individual spotlight sessions that give them entire sessions to talk about themselves and what they would like to see from authors, voice their opinions, and describe the benefits of publishing with them. Some also host book signings that feature their authors and recent releases. RWA also hosts days of pitch sessions for authors to meet agents and publishers in the hope of finding representation or selling their work. Finally, agents and publishers had the same opportunity that I and others had to propose workshops.

      As to my workshop, the title asks a question that numerous authors are asking and does not presume a slant. Nor, in my opinion, does the other workshop you reference. True to the description of my workshop, I will be presenting data as I have here (although some will be new). Some of it will be favorable to publishers and agents, and some won’t. The smart and savvy writers I’ve had the privilege to meet in the years I’ve been a member of RWA are more than capable of assessing the facts and making up their own minds about what is in their best interests. I wish them and you the best.

  2. Carolyn Jewel

    Thanks for this post. I hope to attend the presentation. It happens that by day job, I am a SQL Server database administrator, production support as well as development and data architecting. This means I build and design the systems that hold the data that analysts query. I know, because it is my job to know, that the database schema can materially affect the quality of the answers we get from it, or whether we can get answers at all.

    I say this so that it is clear that I have an understanding of some of the underpinnings of this discussion that few other authors have. I have traditionally published 20+ novels. I have self-published both backlist and frontlist. This means that in addition to expertise on the database side, I have direct experience as an author on both sides.

    I have also been a member of RWA for many years.

    And here, I must point out that in 2011, RWA had no workshops on self-publishing. In fact, members self-organized such meetings because RWA would not approve the workshops. We met in the hotel lobby area, for heaven’s sake. There were some, but very few, in 2012.

    It is beyond ironic that Ms. Smith is claiming that RWA is somehow All self-publishing all the time. A look at the workshop schedule puts the lie to this. The addition of a self-publishing track is a response to the needs and desires of the members of RWA. Let’s not forget that RWA members submit proposals for workshops, which they self-select into tracks. Those proposals are reviewed and approved or not by RWA committees.

    Further, Ms. Smith’s blog post about Dr. Weinberg was fact-free as to Dr. Weinberg’s qualifications to talk about data. She is, in fact, highly qualified. Smith’s post specifically stated that Dr. Weinberg had no such qualifications.

    We use statistics to talk about data. We rely on proven mathematics to tell us if our hypothesis about a set of conditions is correct. There is always a tension between the quality of the data and our ability to get relevant answers from it.

    From everything I have ever seen, the traditional publishing world has been operating in an environment where it is plain they are either fudging their financials or the underlying data schemas do not allow them get the right questions answered.

    There was a publisher a while back who showed an RWA workshop I was at a screen shot of their database schema for tracking titles, authors, and income. And I will represent to you that it was immediately obvious to me — because I am a data architect for relational databases — that it was not possible for them to query and get correct data back. Because the schema was wrong– key relationships were either missing or had been built to the wrong tables. This is a fact. This publisher is producing reports on its data that cannot possibly be correct. Some authors are not being paid correctly.

    It is possible to make some pretty good guesses about the underlying schemas based on the reports. For years, I have been personally quite worried about whether publishers can accurately report their financials.

    And now I bring this around to why we need to have discussions about data with people who are professionals in the area– because those discussions give us insights into what is happening right now. I, for one, want to hear and know what data tells us. And I want the opportunity to hear about that analysis and form my own opinions about that.

    Burying our heads in the sand and claiming that statistics are lies does not change the fact that good data and the correct math gives us insights we would not otherwise have.

    I want to hear that.

  3. Marion Gropen

    It is inevitable that most authors, let alone yet-unpublished writers, should have a grudge against the book publishing industry, if not against those in it that have helped their own careers. After all, rejection is part of any author’s life. More than that, the industry inevitably seems monolithic to outsiders (including authors). Last, but not least, it seems to have control over an author’s life and work.

    Who wouldn’t resent that, at some level?

    I absolutely believe that much of the tenor of the current interaction between authors and between everyone else and publishers is determined by those perceptions and biases on the part of writers and the defensiveness with which publishing folks respond.

    It is an axiom of any significant scientist that the questions you ask reflect your assumptions, and that the best data can’t answer a question you DON’T ask. I see that reflected in a lot of data analysis of our business these days.

    I also believe that very few people, even publishing insiders, let alone authors, understand the full range and scope of what goes into publishing a book well. I’ve even heard intelligent folks say that it can be done by pushing a button these days. And indeed, getting a book-shaped object, or uploading an ebook can be done that way. But there’s a huge difference between making something available and publishing it well.

    I think it’s high time that we all started talking to each other. And maybe we can bridge some of that resentment and defuse some of the stress that seems to be obstructing objective and fair discussions of the future of the business.

  4. JoMarie DeGioia

    I’m a hybrid author who is also published with a small press (a best-selling author at Amazon, actually) and hoping to be pubbed with one of the Big 5 as well. I have a great agent and I’m planning to attend your workshop. This is a time of opportunity and challenges for authors and I’m eager to hear your date and take on it!

  5. JoMarie DeGioia

    I’m a hybrid author who is also published with a small press (a bestselling author on Amazon, actually) and I hope to be pubbed with one of the Big 5 as well. I have a great agent, and I’m planning on attending your workshop. This is a time of challenges and opportunities for authors and I’m eager to hear your data and take on it!

  6. David Mark Brown

    I think the key comment you make in all this is, \For those open to taking a thoughtful look, the data can be empowering.\

    For all the good data can provide writers, often times hearsay and conjecture are preferred for making that \gut\ decision many people feel more comfortable with.

    I’ve been guilty of this as well. These days I’ve taken a more keen appreciation of thoughtful data. So thanks!

  7. Marc Cabot

    “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”

    Wait… I thought that traditional publishers provided advances for the express purpose of Supporting Littrachaw. Either your friend is the most spendthrift purchaser of marketing and promoting services in the history of the world, or TradPub won’t even provide a bestselling author with a proven track record enough marketing support to keep the books selling, and expect the advance to be used not to Support Litrachaw, but to Support Publishers.

    The practical upshot of this is that in reality what’s happening is that the publisher has figured out a way to deduct marketing costs from your friend’s royalties at the expense of a little accounting overhead. That’s really rather clever, in the Dogbertian “Wow, that’s almost pure evil” sense.

    Captcha: “That hurts.” Oh, the irony.



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