Lessons and Expectations as the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey Evolves

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

shutterstock_167025146This year marks the third year that Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest are surveying authors on their publishing experiences and income. When I came on board last year, I began by revisiting the numbers from the inaugural Author Survey published in early 2013. While Digital Book World’s then–editorial director Jeremy Greenfield had already posted key findings from that survey, my blog posts later that year, in December 2013, grabbed considerably more attention. The most provocative finding at the time was that most indie authors weren’t making very much, if any, money.

The first year, hybrid authors, who combined both traditional and indie publishing methods, were more likely to report higher annual income than those who published exclusively under traditional or self-publishing models, while authors who had only traditionally published seemed to be doing slightly better than those who had only self-published. The following year, whether due to the changes in who responded to the second survey and/or in the publishing market at large, the gap had narrowed, such that it appeared that few authors—regardless of how they published—were making very much money, while hybrid authors, once again, were more likely to report higher incomes than authors who chose only one publishing strategy.

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that those findings caused such a stir. The past few years have seen the remarkable rise and expansion of a community of authors whose work has met with tremendous success in the marketplace without any support from traditional publishers but with an enormous boost from Amazon, the business partner-cum-distruptor of the traditional publishing establishment.

Two years of findings from the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey called into question beloved narratives on both sides of the indie-traditional divide. Yes, self-publishing had enabled some authors to make it big, but they constituted only a small percentage of the vast numbers of hopefuls. Yes, traditional publishers, the historical gatekeepers and putative curators of quality, had helped some chosen few authors succeed, but many traditionally published authors weren’t doing better than their self-published counterparts. Most astonishing of all, authors seemed similarly satisfied or dissatisfied with each publishing path. Hybrid authors, whether because or in spite of traditional publishers, seemed best positioned to reap the rewards of both models. Neither side could declare a clear victory.

Reporting the findings in my blog posts, the comprehensive report, and my presentation and slides from the 2014 Digital Book World Conference + Expo, I’ve both cautioned against overly optimistic expectations of overnight indie success and also warned publishers that their value to authors is in question and the time has come to revisit their relationships with authors.

Have the results from the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Surveys accurately depicted what’s happening in publishing? There’s no way to know for sure. A voluntary survey like this one represents the experiences of the authors who completed it. Yet research and information from other sources, including a study of author earnings from the UK; results of the Pew Internet Research Study on America’s print and ebook reading habits; the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, which includes data on how much American households are spending on booksBowker’s report on trends in self-publishing; and Smashwords’s reporting on sales trends from its catalog, are consistent with what we’ve found.

The picture emerging from these and other  sources is one of a market where the supply of books is large and increasing while neither consumers’ reading habits nor spending on books is keeping pace–a market where most books sell few if any copies and most authors earn little income.

Like Mark Coker of Smashwords, I don’t find this information a cause for pessimism. Throughout publishing’s history, only a small percentage of published or would-be authors have ever been able to make a living from their writing. Today, that overall number may be larger than ever, even if the percentage is dauntingly small or even decreasing. In the last decade, the publishing industry has opened unprecedented opportunities for authors, making it possible for more authors than ever before to find audiences and markets for their work and even to reap a greater portion of the profits they generate. Not everyone will find success, but some undoubtedly are.

One important set of findings from the last two years was the tremendous amount of variation between authors within each of the categories we explored–traditionally published, self-published and hybrid. Some were very successful, while others were not. Authors and other industry experts provided numerous speculations as to what might account for these differences in outcomes, and we’ve incorporated many of these ideas into this year’s questionnaire.

As the publishing landscape continues to evolve, so, too, are the questions Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest seek to address with the Author Survey. With an expanding range of publishing options and services, authors today are less meaningfully sorted into traditional, hybrid and indie buckets than they once were. This year’s questionnaire and analysis seek to take a more nuanced view of the multiplicity of publishing arrangements available to authors. What do these arrangements look like in practice? Which ones are bringing authors the greatest satisfaction and opportunities for success?

To all authors, I hope you will participate in the survey and add your voices and experiences. To all of our readers, I look forward to new insights and thought-provoking discussions in 2015.

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