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Do Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings Add Up?

18 February 2014 iStock_000027456753Small photog catalinr texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday
  2. Do Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings Add Up?
  3. Animating the Conversation
  4. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT
  5. Last Week: The Literary Elitism Question

Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter discussion on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 4 p.m. GMT / 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join in and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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Do Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings Add Up?

By Porter Anderson

Stephen Page

Stephen Page

We don’t usually start the Ether with a tweet, of course, but London’s Faber & Faber CEO Stephen Page dropped me an important question on Twitter last week amid the Hugh Howey AuthorEarnings.com debate.

It’s a good opener to what promises to be a very lively discussion in our #EtherIssue discussion Wednesday:

Now, you may disagree with Page that self-publishing is “just another valuable form of publishing,” of course. And it’s fine if you do.

In fact, your opinion is welcome here. As long as you’re willing to exchange your ideas and views about things with the civility that—I’m glad to say—most commentators I’ve seen have used so far on this issue, then your perspective is something we’d like to know about in our online debate Wednesday and/or our comments section here on the column.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

The reason I like Page’s question is that it makes an interesting assumption: that we will all agree at some point that self-publishing is “just another valuable” way to get a book out, when conditions and resources suggest it as the best course.

I like that assumption. I like the idea that as fraught as the discourse seems at the moment—Chuck Wendig refers to “the Publishing Wars of 2014″ in Self-Publishing Truism Bingo—the real direction of things is toward a polyglot culture of publishing in which many modes and means are embraced and appreciated.

At the moment, we’re not there yet, of course. Which can be stressful, as Independent Publishing Magazine’s Mick Rooney told us in The USA Bobsleigh Publishing Team – Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics!

“With all the sales, rankings, charts and fisking going on,” Rooney wrote, “I’m all Howeyed out for this week.” And he put together this visual:

Mick Rooney publishing bobsled team parody


The controversy here lies on a slope that needs no snow or ice to be slippery: We’re talking about estimates and interpretations that some might see as polarizing, others welcome as unifying.

When Howey published his initial report—the first of a series that’s to include wider parameters in time—its readers were given a thorough look at an alternative interpretation of authors’ sales prospects.

Writing at the Guardian in Hugh Howey calls for author earnings revolution, Alison Flood neatly summed up the effort:

Self-publishing’s poster boy Hugh Howey is trying to kindle an author revolution after revealing “game chang[ing]” new data that claims independent and small-publisher titles are dominating the bestselling genres on Amazon.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

Author Cory Doctorow described it this way in Self-Published Books: The Surprising Data from Amazon:

Howey makes a good case that the “average” author earns more from a self published book than she would through one of the Big Five publishers, and, what’s more, that this holds true for all sorts of outliers (the richest indie authors outperform the richest Big Five authors; less-prolific indies do better than less-prolific traditionals, etc).

Howey’s report includes a lot of raw data and makes a lot of very important points. It certainly is an aid to authors wondering whether to do business with major publishers or go it alone. I read it with great interest.

Doctorow has done us a service here, in that he captures Howey’s stated aim (“to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions”) and he sums up the fundamental nature of the Howeyan message: authors should not assume that there’s always more money to be made in traditional contracts.

Some of the surrounding conversation, of course, has warmly echoed Howey’s message.

H.M. Ward

H.M. Ward

The author H.M. Ward, like Howey a superbly successful outlier, writes on the KBoards in a post titled I turned down over a million bucks in trad deals,  that she has rejected more than $1.5 million in advances offered by publishing houses. She is entirely a self-publisher, not a hybrid, and she lists some of her accomplishments, which include more than 4 million copies sold in her three years of self-publishing; her bestselling status with the New York Times (11 times in 2013 alone), Wall Street Journal and USA Today; and an 80-hour work week, with help from two assistants and her husband.

“In 2013,” she writes, “I released a new title about every 2.5 weeks.”

But there are other voices from the author corps, beyond the more than 200 comments that now follow the initial report—or the nearly 900 entries so far logged on the AuthorEarnings site’s survey—that carry a different message.

David Kazzie

David Kazzie

Author David Kazzie, for example, in Why Hugh Howey is Wrong. Sort Of., writes in response to Howey’s Luck and Lottery post:

The reason that I argue that Hugh’s contention is wrong is simple, and it is this: there is one thing I’ve done in self-publishing that Hugh really hasn’t. And that is fail spectacularly.

When I interviewed Howey last week, he acknowledged what seems to be a fairly profound division occurring in the writers’ community between those authors whose interest is, at least in part, commercial success and those who are on the so-called “self-expression tier,” writing for pleasure and as a social outlet.

“I agree that there’s a split there,” Howey said, but “I think the pool of people interested in advocacy is large enough to warrant change.”

While it’s important to understand that the responses from authors are hardly unified, however, it’s also important to note that many industry players have stopped, turned to look, and reacted.

“The Silence of the Trads,” as I call it, is the frequently muted regard with which many elements of the publishing establishment generally meet criticism from the digital insurgency. They’re not so quiet this time—I’m going to give you a specific example in a bit—and that’s a testament both to the willingness of some of them to engage and to Howey’s ability to stimulate discussion.

Nevertheless, as eyes glaze over and pie-charts turn into metric meringue, it’s possible to wonder whether a debate so heavily focused on unavailable numbers (sales data held secret by the major retailers) is leading us toward author advocacy or into ever deeper arguments about competing suppositions.

Sometimes it sounds like this:

He said: You’re misinterpreting the estimates!

She said: No, you’re mis-estimating the interpretation!

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Animating the Conversation

As The Bookseller’s Philip Jones puts it in Hugh Howey’s Revolution on the magazine’s The FutureBook site:

The truth is there is nothing wrong with the data, so long as its limitations are understood. Helpfully, Howey provides an excel download, so if interested parties wish to interrogate it further, they can. They can even produce their own analyses.

But Jones goes on to suggest that when Howey is “pointing out how the traditional worldview ignores self-publishing entirely,” the author makes his own mistake:

It’s as if the Cookie Council decided only cookies bought from one particular shop were relevant to its global report, recorded only sales of the chocolate chip variety, and from that extrapolated tooth-decay rates across an entire nation.

In his exchange with Howey following Comparing self-publishing to being published is tricky and most of the data you need to do it right is not available, Mike Shatzkin reaches—and re-reaches—the point that confounds so much effort today in assessing the market: without more facts available, we’re working with overlapping opinions.

He writes:

We are a LONG way from the time when MOST authors — even genre authors — will be better off self-publishing than being published.

And when a reader asks him in the following comment, “Can you provide data to demonstrate that?” Shatzkin comments back:

No. Let’s go back to the top. The point to this piece is that the data you’d need to prove that isn’t available. I’m arguing that you can’t prove it, one way or the other. What I’m expressing is my opinion.

Shatzkin is correct. We don’t have the data.

I’d say Howey won’t dispute that. His second paragraph in the Author Earnings report begins:

The problem with these questions is that we don’t have the data that might give us reliable answers. Distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures. At most, they comment on the extreme outliers, which is about as useful as sharing yesterday’s lottery numbers.

Almost every commentator taking up this debate presses home that essential, inescapable problem, including Michael Cader in the first of two Ether-length posts (“It’s a quiet ‘news’ day”) at Publishers Lunch, The Discussion Over “Author Earnings” (Part 1). It’s worth hearing Cader out on this point because he ends in a suggestion that authors may be too accepting of The Silence of Seattle:

The most interesting starting place for Howey and self-published authors in general should be Amazon. The primary reason we do not have deep data and transparency about ebook sales, in both units and dollars, is because of Amazon. They keep their data private for competitive advantage in the marketplace, plain and simple. (BTW, if Amazon were to disclose their data in a BookScan-style system, the other major players would happily participate.) If you want real answers, and real data, “so that up-and-coming authors can make better-informed decisions” as Howey puts it, you need to pressure Amazon to provide it. And it’s rather astonishing to us that this obvious point is not the rallying cry of Howey’s report and many comments and forum posts in support of it. Have authors simply accepted Amazon’s damaging secrecy, even as they take almost nothing else about the publishing process for granted?

With that question in mind, look back at the more-than 300 comments on the Shatzkinian response, and you find some silence being gratifyingly broken.

Steven Zacharius

Steven Zacharius

Publisher Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Publishing, a New York-based independent house, wades in with zest and what may be—I have no data to support this!—a certain pleasure in being the heavy. At one point, for example, he pushes well-known authorial buttons by writing in one comment:

Most people don’t get selected by publishers so indie publishing is a great venue for them. Publishers are gatekeepers as are agents. We are filters as to what gets published in many cases.

With author Alexandra Lynwood in faithful pursuit, however, even the engaged and engaging Zacharius seems to run up on yet another interesting silence: The Silence of the Trad Authors.

Lynwood starts by pressing Zacharius on where in his business he sees an increase in profit. “Did you see an increase in your profits due to genre print, or was it due to genre digital releases? I’m guessing it was the latter.”

When she goes on to pick up on Zacharius’ suggestion that “the same 50 people or so” are responsible for pro-self-publishing “preaching to yourselves…convincing each other how successful indie publishing really is,” Lynwood writes:

Traditional print authors have been speaking out. They’ve just not been extolling the virtues of traditional publication. If there is such a benefit to traditional publication then you guys have a major PR problem on your hands because people aren’t discussing it.

Zacharius (and I’m giving this to you slightly out of order here—Lynwood’s and Zacharius’ comments on this appear close together):

I have no idea why traditional authors aren’t speaking out [in favor of traditional publishing]. Probably because they don’t find a need for a blog to hang out together. They see each other at writer’s conferences all the time, at Book Expo, etc…

Suffice it to say that this rich, extended back-and-forth between Shatzkin, Howey, and then a host of others touches on this interesting point: we do seem to hear self-published authors extol their approach more frequently than we hear traditionally published authors do the same for theirs. Mind you, we don’t know what that means. But it does seem to be the case.

And for the emotional tensions alone, the Shatzkin column’s comments are valuable. Temper management is good on all sides. At several points, there’s a kind of “that’s not what I said” challenge and a corresponding “I’m sorry, you’re right” response. We read “I’m not in the slightest bit worked up” and “Please don’t put words in my mouth” and, best of all, more apologies.

This is good, of course. If the stresses animating the conversation can be handled this way, then we have a better chance of getting some understanding of the issues at play.

Or do we? Would you like to tell us?

Let’s look at some questions for our #EtherIssue live Twitter discussion on Wednesday.

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT

These are only starter questions. If you’ll join us, you’ll find that you’re welcome to insert whatever points you’d like into the conversation. (Please remember to use the hashtag #EtherIssue so we see your participation and can welcome you.)

  • How much can be accomplished in this debate when, in fact, everyone’s numbers are, in one way or another, estimates and associated suppositions?
  • Is an effective effort in advocacy for entrepreneurial authors possible with the numbers battle as a basis? “Entrepreneurial authors” can include all authors, mind you, not just self-publishing writers. I’d like to see something of the “organized advocacy” Howey talks about for authors, so there’s a more coherent, comprehensive representation of the interests of authors in place. But is the way to such advocacy through sales and ranking analysis?
  • Can someone give us a better feel for why we don’t seem to hear more frequently from authors who want to champion the traditional route in publishing? Recently, author Robin LaFevers at Writer Unboxed wrote about her own reason for not considering self-publishing: “There are already so very many demands on a traditionally published author’s time, I can’t even imagine adding the role of managing editor, art director, and publisher to that mix.” It was good to read even that much of a rationale.
  • And do you think the day is coming when Page’s hope for self-publishing to be “just another valuable form of publishing?” Or are we caught forever in this major rift between approaches?

We’d love your input on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. GMT on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

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Last Week: The Literary Elitism Question

As you’ll recall, our focus last week was on the question of perceived elitist attitudes in proponents of literary fiction, reflected in frequent charges by genre-writers of disrespect for their work. Our background story is here: Issues on the Ether: The Literary Elitism Question.

Using Eleanor Catton’s and Laura Miller’s provocative and thoughtful writings on the issue—and Suw Charman-Anderson’s mentions of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (in which people are “blissfully unaware of their incompetence”)–we looked to our readers for a discussion on the matter. And we got it.

Author and Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh pointed to that highest-profile of recent flash points, E.L. James’ work, when I mentioned the knee-jerk energy with which some tend to react to disagreement on this:

Editors Carla Douglas and Lincoln Michel were interested in writers’ ability to cross genres:

When I asked about “genre elitism” among people who talk trash about literary work, fantasy author Lorna Suzuki referred to some of her experience with her Imago series:

Publishing Perspectives’ editor in chief Edward Nawotka was clear on the fact that the labels with which we refer to each other are, of course, fabricated:

By the time authors Dan Meadows and Carol Buchanan were weighing in, the conversation had taken on a life of its own, as good discussions will do. Some highlights:

It was great to get the classic view from author and technologist Baldur Bjarnason:

At times, it seemed the real issue was more whether folks were reading than what they were reading:

Maybe it’s the writers who need to do the reading:

The bottom line:

And author Susan Meissner gave us another writer’s experienced retort, useful for those on both the literary and genre side of the debate:

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: CatalinR

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  1. Posted February 18, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to weigh in on Stephen Page’s tweet at the beginning of this post, Porter.

    I’ve believed for some time that the insistence on assigning value to books based on how they are published (self or trad) is a waste of time. Indeed, why can’t we just agree that self-publishing is a means to an end – publishing – just as signing with a Big 5 publisher is a means to the same end? And who believes that – with rare exceptions – readers care how a book is published?

    Sunday night, I spent a delightful half hour being interviewed by Rick Kogan on WGN radio. We discussed my books, the topics, how I became an author at this late date, and a prominent Chicagoan who appears in the third book. Rick is a consummate professional: read all three books and did his research on me. We had such a good time, he invited me back in May when the next book in my series comes out.

    Not once did he mention that I self-published. It was all about the books (well, mostly – a little was about me).

    I consider that a personal victory of a sort. We should all be judged on the quality of our writing, not the business structure behind it. And I’m quite pleased that that’s what happened.


    • Posted February 23, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Viki,

      I do think you’ve had a victory of sorts in your Kogan interview, in that the question of self-publishing didn’t come up. This is a testament to the value of your work, the quality of your production, the attractiveness of your material, and your good work as a conversationalist and interviewee, of course. Congratulations.

      At the same time, just to be thoroughly honest, until we in the publishing world no longer worry if it DOES come up in an interview that something is self-published, then the stigma is not yet gone.

      No longer speaking of you or your experience in particular, I think that in general we’re at an interesting point in which the sudden acceleration of the conversation occasioned by Howey’s AuthorEarnings.com and the controversy around it are just what we’ve needed. If the the contours of the market do reflect some of the quantities and imbalances the Howey material is suggesting, then the world “out there” might be closer to getting over it than is the industry! the industry!

      I don’t know that I can say with any confidence that the average reader doesn’t care what’s traditionally published and what’s self-published. I know that industry people do still care and that this is one reason we’ve ended up with a concept of the “publishing wars” pitting those who use one mode against those who use another. And this is not surprising. Industry people (and I include self-publishers here — anyone working in publishing as opposed to a consumer) have, or should have, a better grasp and appreciation for the arcana of the business and art. In the same way that a fine visual artist has a far more discerning eye for the colors another artist chooses, people of publishing are likely to have — in general — a more acute perspective on elements of their world.

      So while, again, I can certainly congratulate you on the good experience with Kogan — and while I’m certainly happy that your work is getting such a rightful reception — I also think we can expect it to take some more time before industry-facing views shift as much as we may like.

      Entrepreneurial authors like you are, in fact, what will move things forward with quality — which, as you know, has tended to be the largest stigma-relative factor confronting folks in some instances of self-publishing.

      Hope you have many more interviews like Kogan’s. And when they don’t go quite this way and, maybe, you’re asked about self-publishing, be patient and don’t take it as the opposite of a victory.

      Rome isn’t the only thing that wasn’t built in a day. :)

  2. Posted February 18, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Hugh Howey, Hugh Howey. It’s the name I see again and again these days, and yet…. Quoting from a conversation you had with him, Porter, way back near the beginning of this column, “he acknowledged what seems to be a fairly profound division occurring in the writers’ community between those authors whose interest is, at least in part, commercial success and those who are on the so-called “self-expression tier,” writing for pleasure and as a social outlet.”

    Whoa! I think that divide is way more profound than H.H. acknowledges. He must have attended English literature classes. Does he think that the great writers he was introduced to, who both reflect and create our culture, worked often for years on a single book because they were looking for a social outlet?

    I appreciate that you aim to bring some complexity to the discussion, Porter.

    • Posted February 23, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Mary –

      No, I certainly haven’t heard Howey say that he thinks great culturally valued writers of our past have worked primarily for social outlets. As far as I know, the presence of references here to the “self-expression tier” (this is the good phrase of Ashleigh Gardner at Wattpad) has only to do with the fact that the digital dynamic supports the potential for those whose writings ARE primarily socially intended (as opposed to commercially intended) can find readership and community far more readily than in earlier eras.

      Just as an instance of proximity, Howey is both a participant and the subject of fan fiction — he writes it and there are many who write it based on his writings. Some of this (including his own Vonnegut-based “Peace in Amber” and the Portland-based writer Jason Gurley’s Wool-based work) is featured in Amazon’s new Kindle Worlds development which, in turn, reflects, of course, a far wider community of fan-fiction work under way without commercial interest at all.

      That’s part of the “self-expression tier” and is readily observable.

      Thanks for your comment,

  3. Posted February 20, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    The thing about Hugh’s data is it proves what many have been saying for a long time…that self-published authors are running toe-to-toe with traditionally published authors in terms of sales on the largest bookseller in the world. With higher royalties even if these authors ONLY get income from Amazon, they are making a really nice living wage. There are thousands of authors, without household names, that are making five and six figure incomes. It proves once and for all that self-publishing can be a viable option for those with the entrepreneur spirit, and even those seeking traditional publishing should rejoice, since it shows publishers that they are not in competition only with each other, but with the concept of “going it alone.” In such an environment, publishers will have to adjust their contracts and “industry standards” to attract and retain authors.

    • Posted February 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the input, Michael,

      And for reading us. Do be sure to join us on Wednesdays at 11aET for our #EtherIssue online conversations, always good to have your thoughts.


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