Authors Playing the Long Game in a Tough Book Market

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

In the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, we noticed low satisfaction scores for sales, marketing and earnings among the authors in our sample, leading us to speculate that there was a gap between authors’ expectations and the realities of the book market, where it is very difficult to sell a large number of books.

While we again observed a strong positive relationship between authors’ satisfaction and their earnings in this year’s survey, we also found different levels of income associated with higher satisfaction for different modes of publishing. Framing those findings in terms of how authors manage the risks and reap the rewards of their endeavors, it’s possible to speculate this time around that many are nurturing longer-term business outlooks than traditional publishers tend to do, possibly in response to a challenging market.

Digital Book World Writer's Digest indie authors self-publishing

Level of Earnings and Median Satisfaction with Publishing Experience Authors were asked to rank various aspects of their publishing experience for their latest book on 5-point scale: 1 “very dissatisfied”; 2 “dissatisfied”; 3 “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied”; 4 “satisfied”; 5 “very satisfied.” These scores were then combined into a 12-point index, in which a score of 4 or higher would indicate satisfaction with the publishing experience. This table shows the median satisfaction index score for all authors by earnings on their latest book.

Authors who published with advance-paying publishers were likelier to be more satisfied starting at the earnings range of $40,000–$59,999, compared to an earnings range of $20,000–$29,999 for authors publishing with royalty-only publishers. In contrast, indie authors publishing on their own or through their own companies or LLCs were more likely to be satisfied starting at earnings of $1,000–$2,999, while authors publishing through vanity presses showed signs of satisfaction at the higher earnings mark of $3,000–$4,999.

How come?

It appears the expectations of many authors in the 2015 sample are closely tied to the allocation of risk and the distribution of rewards. On the risk side, many indie authors do not seem to be making substantial investments in their publishing projects. Yet having taken little monetary risk, these authors may be pleased to earn even a little money.

On the reward side, traditionally published authors give up some claim to rewards from sales (in the form of lower royalties) and from future potential of the project (like rights) in exchange for the risk their publishers take on. These authors are likely to expect their publisher to deliver much more than they could do for themselves. Their expectations for what publishers can do for them is high—perhaps unreasonably so, given the earnings level at which traditionally published authors in our sample say they are satisfied with their publishing experiences.

After giving up control of future rewards, and neither receiving the investment nor seeing the results they expected from their publishers, these authors come away frustrated and disappointed. Those feelings may be further compounded when publishers make future contract decisions based on sales performance, showing commitment only insofar as previous risk has been rewarded.

Similar findings from last year’s survey drew criticism from some commentators who worried our sample neglected a wide swath of high-earning self-published authors, a concern we took pains to address this year in recruiting participants for the 2015 sample. While it’s impossible to know just how well a voluntary survey like this one reflects the full population of authors, we did succeed in increasing the number of high-earning authors.

Nevertheless, we still found overall income and sales results consistent with previous years, namely that most authors in our sample are not earning appreciable income, let alone a living, from their publishing efforts. The 2015 results also square with findings from other studies of the book market, both of consumers and of authors, and the evidence continues to build.

Lengthening Business Outlooks

indie authors self-publishing Digital Book World Writer's DigestThis year, the straitened realities of the book market appear to be creating more sober conversations about the challenges affecting the prospects for authors and publishers alike. Far from being pessimistic, I believe these changes in perspective may actually help lead to greater author satisfaction.

Armed with a more realistic set of expectations (even with the highest of hopes), it may be easier for many authors to focus on why we write in the first place and to stay in touch with the joy of it. And perhaps more important from a business point of view, it’s also easier to take a measured view of our options as these relate to risk and investment.

Self-publishing continues to offer authors an unprecedented degree of control over the investment choices available to us, and I see this optimism in my own experiences publishing fiction as D. B. Shuster. I know that if my books don’t sell today, there’s more I can do to promote them tomorrow, or maybe my previous books will see a boost when my next book comes out.

The time horizon is longer for indie authors: I don’t have to worry that the book doesn’t do well in the first few weeks because my publisher (me) is totally committed to my work and will continue to promote it even years from now. Finally, I’m in control of my own definition of success, and I’m not limited to particular sales numbers and dollar figures.

Using the framework of risk, reward and investment may help authors and publishers understand why not all publishing deals are created equal. While traditional, advance-paying publishers still offer demonstrable material advantages to a small subset of authors, there is no blanket statement to be made about which mode of publishing is better, particularly when there is so much variation in outcomes and satisfaction.

My hope is that the framework presented here and in the report provides authors and publishers with a common language for thinking about and evaluating publishing options—one that enables authors to make more informed choices about their risk and investment decisions and their likely returns, and helps publishers to reevaluate their roles and their contracts as well as what they can realistically promise and request of authors in this changing landscape.

Stay tuned for much more data and analysis from the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, and check out the complete report based on those findings, The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market, available for purchase here.

4 thoughts on “Authors Playing the Long Game in a Tough Book Market

  1. Patricia McLinn

    What jumps out is your using your latest book and the issues that causes.

    In trad, my latest book constituted the bulk of earnings for the year.
    In indie, my latest book is a not-yet-matured stream feeding into the main flow of my annual income. My annual income from indie, not my latest book, determines my satisfaction.

    In addition, when I filled out your survey my latest book had been out a whopping 8 days.

    From my experience (25 books in trad, starting 25 years ago this month, hybrid 2010-2014, all indie for a year) your latest book is no longer a useful metric, particularly in trying to look across publishing models.

    I very much hope your latest book will be dropped in order to make this survey provide useful information.

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