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Thursday, January 29, 2015

On Self-Publishing and the Hugh Howey / Data Guy January 2015 Report

(Parts of this post originally appeared on my Google+ page and in the comments on Mike Reeves-McMillan's post on the report.)

You may be aware that Author Earnings, a data analysis site run by Hugh Howey and someone called Data Guy, recently released a report on ebook sales and the market share of those sales by the various publishing methods.  There is a lot of interesting information here, so I do recommend checking it out if you have the time.

As you may expect, I have some issues with the report and with responses to the report -- and to my questions regarding the report.  I should start by saying that I haven't bothered with the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate in any serious sense for years because I find the entrenched positions on either side to be, in light of the current publishing climate, monstrously stupid.  There are too many pundits out there trying to prescribe the "right" path for publishing while rejecting any alternative as viable; yet, so few of them have much in the way of hard, objective data to back up their arguments.  As it stands, most of the debates about which method is better are based almost entirely on anecdotes or reports like the one I'm going to talk about here.  Unfortunately, that invariably means these arguments are fundamentally faulty.
While I don't doubt that a lot of the data here is accurate (and interesting), there are two immediate problems that come to mind:

1) As a statistical study, it does a poor job of maintaining objectivity.  From the start, it is clear where the author's biases lie, and it's hard not to think that that perspective affects how the authors interpret and compare the data.  Given that Hugh Howey, a fairly staunch pro-self-publishing pundit, is involved here, that's not surprising.* That's a serious issue for me, because I find the debates concerning traditional publishing and self-publishing to be largely fought on ideological grounds.  When that ideology creeps into the data we're using to talk about either side, it will invariably change the way data is perceived either by the reader or the one doing the analysis.

2) The data doesn't actually tell us much in any usable sense.  Honestly, I don't know why data regarding sales is a valid metric for determining who is better off:  a self-published author or a traditionally-published one.  Short of instances where one author or another is clearly getting a raw deal (bad publisher or Amazon contract terms, for example), sales figures really don't paint a clear enough picture of the writing life for either group -- or the hybrids that arise from either end.  There are more factors than sales here.  How money is allocated, whether literally in the case of a traditional publisher or based on effort (or via a hire of some kind) for a self-publisher, is actually a more useful application of the data.  If the average self-publisher makes less / the same / more per hour on average than a traditional publisher, that tells us something useful.

I just want hard data without the bias.  Objective data analysis.  Given how long these industries have been in play, you wouldn't think that would be so hard.  But it is...

Obviously, part of this argument didn't go over well with everyone.  As I noted on Mike's original post:
There are very VERY successful people in either camp, and some VERY successful people who do it both ways.  Some have to do PR.  Some don't.  Some like to.  Some don't.  Some spend more time doing PR than they do writing -- to little effect; some have great success for the effort.

But basic sales data and market share doesn't divulge that kind of information.  I don't know if anybody actually knows how the two publishing lives compare, except via anecdote.  But I think we desperately need that data so we can have actual useful conversations about both forms of publishing.
Mike was receptive, stating that he thought that data would be of interest, too.   Another commenter by the name of Brian Rush was less enthused:
It's not valid to assume that indies spend more marketing time than the traditionally published. That's almost certainly not true.

Indies do spend more time and/or more of their own money on editing, cover design, and formatting than the trads, because all of that is handled by the publisher. However, for successful authors it's a trivial difference, because it's a fixed per-title cost, not a per-volume cost.

Look at it in dollars (although in fact you can trade time for money for a lot of it, dollars make it easier to calculate). If you go full-on professional in all three categories, you're probably talking about $2000 on the average.

If you sell 10,000 copies, that's 20 cents per copy. If you sell 100,000 copies, it's 2 cents per copy. See what I mean? Trivial, unless the book doesn't sell well.
I pointed out that unless you have hard data to back these claims, you have no way beyond anecdote and self-reported information to know how hours are allocated based on publishing method, nor how those hours change depending on publisher, format, sites used, etc.  Hours worked ≠ fixed per-title cost.  There's no available data to compare the average SP to the big name examples that are pointed to as "the successes," nor the same for the alternative OR for hybrids.

Without that information, any claim about either method that offers an analysis of its efficacy is faulty. We cannot use sales numbers alone to assess anything but the size and health of an "industry" in totally superficial terms. That would be like using touchdown numbers to determine how good your football team is.

Brian disagreed, resorting to tactics that are probably pretty tame by comparison to the kinds of verbal abuse faced on the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing debate:
Everything I said is easy to know, and you're just dumping out empty verbiage.

Anyone who's been in the self-publishing business for long knows ballpark figures for what it costs to get a book edited and formatted and a cover designed, That's not controversial and if you call that part into question you're just looking for excuses. The rest is just plain math, and again, if you're calling that into question you're just looking for excuses.

Which it's quite obvious that you are. You are trying to defend traditional publishing by making a very simple question more obtuse than it really is. And frankly, that's dishonest, and a bit contemptible.
This is, of course, an ignorant claim, since Brian does not know me from Adam.  If he did, he would know that in the past, I was staunchly anti-self-publishing, but that in recent years I've not only softened but become quite amenable to the idea of self-publishing, in part because the industry has changed so much that it actually seems a viable option.  It is also a far more honest industry today than it was six years ago, with more authors openly and proudly admitting that they self-publish and more people like Hugh Howey trying to put together the hard data on the industry.  
I have also supported numerous self-published projects and intend to nominate S.L. Huang, whose novels are self-published, for a Campbell Award (you should, too, because her novels are freaking amazing).  So the assertion that I joined the discussion just to defend traditional publishing is absurd; it is also a rhetorical tactic designed to make discussion impossible, since it implies that being pro-traditional publishing necessarily makes my points invalid.

I also noted that while it is easy to know the ballpark cost to produce a book, that only takes into account costs that are easily measurable in dollars, such as the cost to hire an editor or a cover designer or whatever. But without knowing how man hours translate into the cost of production for either side of the publishing aisle, the data about sales only tells us the sales. It tells us nothing about the efficacy of one format or the other, or the combination thereof. Self-publishers make a lot of money (sometimes), but does that money compare equally or better to traditional or hybrid publishing based on the total cost of production including man hours?  I don't know.  I desperately want that data.  Talking only about sales and earnings is a smokescreen.  It looks nice on paper, but it obscures the reality of writing life:  it's not just about gross sales.  
That said, any such data would not tell us whether any method is subjectively better than another. Some people might very well prefer to let someone else front the cost of production of a book. Another might prefer to do everything themselves. My take on publishing based on the data in hand is simple:   do what works for you, and don't moralize the decisions others make.

That's where I am on all of this.  The data is interesting, but without a more accurate assessment of the average writer for each publishing camp, it's difficult to make an honest assessment of either method.  In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that anyone using this data as objective support for one absolutist position or another is either deluding themselves to fulfill an agenda or patently dishonest.  The only options available here are subjective ones.  For someone like me -- the kind of person who publicized a fit about the lack of long term reliability studies of cars -- that's a serious problem.


*Howey is not nearly as staunch as someone like Konrath, though, which may explain why I'm much more willing to listen to Howey than I am the latter.  Hence this post...

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  1. Interesting that you've pushed this now. Kris Rusch has written two or three recent posts about the publishing industry and numbers. Take a look through her recent business posts at

    (By the way, I don't know why this labels me as unknown, but this is Stefon Mears.)

    1. Honestly, I was going to avoid the topic, but the discussion I had on G+ compelled me to say something. Normally, I avoid the self-publishing debate because of all of the dogma.

      I'll take a look at those numbers. Thanks!