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Rants: OT & OTT > There's new Data on Indie Publishing

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message 1: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Jordan (kajordan) | 3042 comments Huge Howey and an unknown Data Cruncher have sent out a spider to mine the web for true data.

There are spread sheets and graphs that illustrate how indie authors and small publishers rank on Amazon.

I think everyone should take a look at the report - it's very intersting.

message 2: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Hugh Howey has an infernal cheek twitting anyone else for being a statistical chancer, as he does right at the beginning of his article, accusing an academic by name. This is the pot and the kettle.

Take for instance Howey's graph "Number of authors earning $10K, $25K" etc from Kindle books. What he's done is to take a single day's sales of 7000 bestselling books in genres representing nearly 3/5ths of all the books sold on Amazon. This is a procedure that is open to question already, but you'll remember that I'm always saying statistical interpretations are more art than science, when you come right down to decision-making, so I'm not going to nitpick Howey for that; so far his logic is acceptable, if not necessarily sound in an academic sense.

What is unacceptable is the next jump Howey makes, extrapolating these numbers to a full year's income. The assumptions necessary to do this are many and totally unwarranted. For a start, he has to assume the same 7000 books sell the same number of copies every day throughout the year. Clearly, that is not true. Consequently, his income extrapolation from these assumptions are wildly over the top.

If the top 7000 books hog the bestseller lists for a year, there's no space for new writers. Howey's involuntary implication left via this error is that the top authors in ebooks are already set, and just about as immutable over any span less than a generation as trad publishing; you can bet your ass that the indies stroking Howey haven't worked this out yet. But it is their main complaint against trad publishing all over again: that they were unfairly excluded by sitting, encrusted incumbents.

Howey is talking through the back of his neck.

His pal's survey may eventually amount to something, but this analysis of Howey's is cockeyed, though that won't stop the idiots inhabiting indieland from dancing around in triumph.

Even if Howey got this right -- and he didn't -- he'd still be talking about a very thin sliver of indie authors.


Amazon, who should know, in 2011 published a PR sheet which disappeared after a few minutes. It listed one millionaire since KDP began, a couple of people who made $200K, and progressively larger numbers who made lesser amounts. The reason Amazon yanked this paper right smartly was that anyone could add up the number of authors who made more than $5000 (or whatever the lowest bracket was; the total above this low threshold wasn't even a 100 authors), and easily conclude that 99.9999% of Amazon authors would never make $5K.


Howey's numbers about the relative take-home pay of trad publishers, indies and Amazon are very likely good, as there his aggregate assumptions hold good for the universe, where the same assumptions were rotten for individual books and individual authors, as explained above.

As Kat says, read the report. Now that you know which are the good parts, you'll find it most interesting. It explains why I made such strenuous efforts to get my rights back, and then got the hell out of trad publishing.

message 3: by J.A. (last edited Feb 13, 2014 12:53PM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) I agree with most of what you have to say, but I don't find much utility in citing a 2011 report given the market changes, even though I think it is all but self-evident common sense that there's a distribution of success.

It's just you've cited that reported several times in recent months, and, just my own personal experience and other non-Hugh surveys indicates the size of the levels is a lot larger than the numbers cited. That said, I don't even know if the absolute distribution is even relevant for other reasons.

The problem with a lot of these analyses (indies or trad partisans), regardless of source, is that we don't know the core variables. So, other than telling us most people won't find a lot of success (though the relative numbers have certainly increased significantly at all levels, it doesn't really tell us much. Of course, the data we'd need for true hard-core multiple regression modeling and stuff is unlikely to ever be available (as it'd require all the retailers and publishers to give up a bunch of information and a huge number of authors giving a lot more data than just how much they made).

After all, success is not strictly about mathematical priorities, and all authors aren't equal in their efforts and what they are putting out there.

Most of the people I know who have done well or made decent money (for purposes of this discussion defined as >5 K, and I know a lot) tend to have a few things in common:

A) They've written more than one book.
B) The book has a decent story and somewhat engaging characters by the standards of at least one core reader demographic. This isn't to say that "good writing rises", but that truly, utterly wretched stuff that is completely unreadable has trouble gaining any sort of traction. I know people dismiss the quality of various popular books, but at least those authors tend to be able to string some sentences together. I mean I've seen books uploaded to KDP that appeared to be machine translated, if I had to guess, and these authors then go on and say, "I don't understand why I'm not selling!!?!?!"
C) They've written more than one book, if not more than a few, in the same series, or at least in the same genre.
D) They have a somewhat swift release schedule, probably at least one work every six months. That is, swift enough that people don't forget about them.
E) They write in a semi-popular genre. Not talking about 'did they write in romance or erotica' but something less obscure than, I don't know, "metaphysical stories about a Heian farmer's wife's creative process as she attempts to emulate court poetry and understand the gender implications of a gender changing kami."

You know, Kindle Ebooks>Fiction>Literature>Japanese>Heian>Metaphysical>Poetry>Transgendered Gods*

I mean I know people doing decently, for example, in horror, which is a genre that has been repeatedly declared "dead"**.

The reason I mention that is that if you apply those criteria to indie authordom in general, I bet it eliminates the vast majority of the population (note, it eliminates me***, but doesn't, for example, eliminate my wife****).

Now, if you eliminate all the people who fail to meet those criteria, what's the relative level of success of the left-over population?

Yes, there'll be people who break out with one book and, yes, not everyone has the backlist (or can produce books more than once a year or whatever), but it does seem to be a general pattern. That's just far more interesting to me than the question of "Can you make money as an indie?" Well, sure. Whatever mean comments Maas or Scott Turow want to make don't really change that (and I don't really personally care; they don't come to my Christmas party anyway), and I think the attitudes will simply change as the years pass and we settle into the new normal.

I do see that there's other information in the survey that is potentially useful on a more direct basis (implications for print in certain genres), though.

Now to be fair, the questions I'm interested in aren't really the ones he was trying to answer, but I'm puzzled that a lot of indies are still stuck on this particular focus. There's no real "war" to win here in the end. Its not as if Scott Turow suddenly declared, "Indies rock!" it'll change anything. The tail will wag the dog in this case.

If its just about people trying to figure out if its "worthwhile", well, I strongly feel you either like writing or you don't. If you're writing with the idea its an easy path to money, there are many more efficient ways to make money. So, if one just feels compelled to write, the question becomes how to unify that with the good strategies for success, which is a different sort of analysis than the general, "Can you make money doing this?"

Or, in a different way of thinking: The relative success of indiedom in general isn't particularly correlated with my personal success, so I have trouble caring a whole lot.

* Perhaps I should write that book, but seriously, I've seen some people on certain unnamed boards complained about not finding larger success and then looked at their book and find it had such ridiculously tight niche appeal that I don't understand how they could have thought it'd sell. I've even seen people brag about how their book is so "beyond the mainstream" and "difficult" and how it will be something "for the ages but not for the masses", but then go on to express confusion why it isn't selling.

** This being one that agents for many years, and heck, even some trad pubbed horror authors for longer have been beating the drum on. I remember an amusing little convention visit where a horror author who was supposed to be speaking on demonic possession in fiction spent most of the time just complaining about publishers not taking his work (pre-indie revolution).

***I've made more than I initially wanted as advance when I was thinking about trad, but I've accepted the reality recently that I need to stop constantly genre hopping and try to, at least, write a book that caters to the same reader demographic. That said, I'm currently working on something that it is a radically different style than my previous works. So, yeah.

**** > 5 K

message 4: by J.A. (last edited Feb 13, 2014 02:13PM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Ack, I apologize for that ungodly block of text! I guess I should realize things are bad when I have multiple footnotes on a forum comment. Ha.

One of the reasons I fell out of forum posting in general for many years. Maybe I should just write essays on my blog.

message 5: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
J.A. wrote: "Many I should just write essays on my blog."

Nah, you can write essays here. One of the reasons I started ROBUST was that people who had deeper thoughts than a soundbite can express would have room to swing the lead.

message 6: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
My objection to that particular graph in the Howey paper is that the income of individual writers cannot be scaled up from a single day's observation of the 7000 bestsellers on Amazon. The underlying necessary assumption that those 7000 books will hold their place on the bestseller list throughout the year is obviously perverse.

My other point is that, if there truly are 7000 writers making a living from ebooks (which would be fabulous, but remains to be demonstrated and can't be demonstrated from the Howey numbers), considering how many more published authors there are now, absolutely nothing has changed except that the total pot has become somewhat (a lot, maybe) bigger. Remember that in my "Slush Pile" articles on my blog I came to the conclusion that 0.68% of the manuscripts in the slush pile would find success (then defined merely as publication with a reputable publisher). 7000 bestsellers is 0.7% of a million writers, which is a not unreasonable assumption. So all that has happened is that the pot became bigger, and there are more writers overall, but the 2% still attract 98% of the action, just as in trad publishing.

I agree with you. It would be better to work with only those writers who are or have the potential to become professionals, but in the indie community the resistance to any kind of quality judgement is very strong.

The significance of that Amazon numbers from 2011 is that Amazon learned their lesson, and you'd better not expect any further numbers from Amazon with a comprehensible tally of author earnings.

message 7: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Hey, Andre and J.A.! I came here to see if you two were already talking about Howey's post, and lo and behold! you are. Thank goodness. I needed to find some smart discussion on it, and you two always deliver. I was planning to pass the post by my husband to catch the statistics issues as it's been more than 20 years since my stats class, and I find myself less able to catch things than I need to be.

The thing that stood out for me was that we're talking about genre fiction. Well, duh, I guess. Literary fiction doesn't sell well. But I would have thought that commercial fiction (or whatever the appropriate term is for those novels between literary and genre) would sell well enough.

What that means for a writer considering the self-publishing/indie route is that she should be aware that it's ideal for genre fiction but not so ideal for hard-to-classify fiction. Despite the fact that Amazon and the digital world allow for books to be "shelved" digitally in multiple categories, any book that doesn't fit neatly into a genre or crosses categories is going to have a handicap. One of my favorite recent authors is Jasper Fforde. Apparently, it took him forever to be published traditionally because his books are really unique (alternate history/detective/fantasy/literary in the sense that there's lots of wordplay and reference to classic literature).

A.J.'s point about publishing yearly to stay visible is well taken. Genre writing has more to commend it to this schedule than other types of fiction. So if I were to advise a friend who is currently shopping a YA novel to agents, it would be for her to continue to do so, not because I think she doesn't understand the publishing situation (which I don't think she does), but because she hasn't written a typical YA genre novel nor is she going to follow it up quickly with a similar book.


Andre, I agree with your comment about indies as a whole resisting quality judgments, but as long as there are readers willing to overlook all but the worst writing and grammar, then why would any of these writers care? I once reviewed an indie author's contemporary romance (it was mediocre) and rated it more gently than I might have out of goodwill, but I couldn't refrain from mentioning that she'd overused an adverb (I'm not a stickler about avoiding all adverb use, but she used it multiple times within succeeding paragraphs throughout the entire novel and not always with the correct connotation, and after about the twentieth time of reading it, I thought I was going to lose my mind). This same novel, however, received plenty of glowing reviews from less discriminating readers, and the young woman was highly offended by my pointing this out. I've noticed this over and over again with self-published novels.

message 8: by J.A. (last edited Feb 15, 2014 06:30AM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) I've read the The Eyre Affair.

I think my favorite part was how her dad kept popping in and asking some question to figure out if the British or the French had been successful at altering the timeline.

I can think of a few high indie profile successes that were more what you're calling commercial, and single-title, but they do seem more in the minority vs. more genre fiction.

RE: Hard to classify

I'd argue being hard to classify is a different issue than the size of the potential audience (and if you can make the book appeal to different segments). They are related but not always the same thing.

That is, I can think of indie cross-genre types who are doing well (note they have written multiple books though), but they wrote books that appeal to multiple audience segments that aren't actively exclusive in terms of tastes.

Granted, none of those are as wild as Fforde, but then again, it's six of one, half-dozen of another given that the trads are allergic to stuff that's not easily marketed.

Heck, I am amused by how many agents out there ask you to query them with unique stuff then basically say, "If you can't slot your book into a genre when you query me and provide three comparables, you haven't done enough market research."

Yes, give us something unique. JUST LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE.

And yes, I do accept that indies have simply recapitulated that, and that a lot of that just reflects that a lot of readers want similar stuff themselves.

message 9: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
I wrote you a long answer, LeAnn, left the draft on the CoolMain server while I cooked a Valentine's day dinner for my wife, and when I returned it had disappeared into thin air.

In the days of the trad publishers, in fact most of their output was genre fiction on series too. The Saint books by Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie's Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple, and so on, Inspector this and that and the other in series, exactly like today. It was reliable. There's nothing new about this, except that most of these authors, including big sellers at the time, are forgotten. But then so are fine novelists who didn't fit into the genre classifications forgotten. I think for instance of Howard Spring, a fine, affective writer, totally forgotten, or in the States Jerome Weidman, a fine, fine writer, forgotten. Both Spring and Weidman were sure-fire bestsellers in their time.

message 10: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Jordan (kajordan) | 3042 comments I knew I'd find the commentary more enlightening than the original report. :-)

The first thing I thought when I saw the report was "you took your sample during reading season."

message 11: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Andre, I'm sorry to miss your thoughts but only too happy you have your priorities straight.

Given everything that we're talking about, Andre, how would you define success for a novelist? You've been fortunate enough to have reached a sales/income level that qualifies you as an "outlier," but what would you say to the rest of us who aren't likely to repeat those measures of success?

My husband, who by most reasonable measures is in a top tier professionally (though not Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg), reassures me that I'm successful because I've written three good novels while raising three accomplished children. Since we both knew that earning significant money from my books was unlikely, that was never the going to be the defining measure.

What do you say? What if you'd never been an outlier? Would you have thought of yourself as a successful novelist or would you have defined yourself as a success professionally through your other endeavors? Would that have been satisfying for you?

message 12: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Until the start of my indie experiment at the end of 2010, I'd never met a reader. I'm pleasantly surprised when readers like what I write, but I don't consider readers when I decide what to write. I don't consider or consult anyone, actually. For many years I had a three book rollover commission, to which a new book was added whenever I delivered one. In theory they were "subject and treatment to be agreed", in practice I agreed them with myself and delivered as an "outline" a single brief, bland paragraph nicely centered on a sheet of paper that my editor and publisher could wave over the table in their boardroom. When American editors tried to extract more detailed outlines from me, I walked away.

The act of creating the novel is the thing. (Your husband is right. Your three good novels will stand when the money grubbing me-too rubbish that so many indies produce is long forgotten.) It was the same when I was a painter. I didn't care what my sitters thought, I just painted them as I saw them, and was always surprised when I got another commission.

If all I wanted was money, I could have stayed in advertising.

An artist is never satisfied until he stultifies. There's more I want to do.

message 13: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Andre Jute wrote: "An artist is never satisfied until he stultifies. There's more I want to do."

And therein lies the heart of the matter. That and writing what you want to write. I recall my FIL asking me if I'd researched what I should write in order to get a traditional publisher and telling me a story about John Grisham visiting publishers for that purpose. I told him that I wasn't going to do any such thing, and that that wasn't how good books are written. He had no idea what I was talking about and just thought he was being helpful.

message 14: by Daniel (last edited Feb 16, 2014 10:12AM) (new)

Daniel Roberts (Daniel-A-Roberts) | 467 comments Another aspect is what I call 'Tombstone Success' where the sales, money making and popularity culminate after the original author has left this Earth.

Consider Edgar Poe. He didn't enjoy a single ounce of his own fame. After he died, his stories became more popular. Especially when they were eventually considered classics and made it into educational circles. Edgar never got a single movie contract percentage or a round of royalty checks from his writing.

There are some artists too, who made paintings, and didn't become a success until after they died.

Of course, we hope that none of it will happen to either of us. If my fiction outlives me in any sense, I will still be happy, where ever my ghost floats for amusement.

message 15: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Daniel wrote: "Another aspect is what I call 'Tombstone Success' where the sales, money making and popularity culminate after the original author has left this Earth.

Consider Edgar Poe. He didn't enjoy a sin..."

Daniel, that's true for most artists. Still there have been others (Dostoevsky and Dickens) who put food on the table via their fiction. In fact, I suspect that anyone being paid by the word has a lot of motivation to write a lot.

message 16: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Andre, Howey has released another report.

What do you think about the fact that only ebook sales are used?

message 17: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Roberts (Daniel-A-Roberts) | 467 comments LeAnn wrote: "Andre, Howey has released another report.

What do you think about the fact that only ebook sales are used?"

I'm not sure how Andre would react until he responds, of course...

You may find this interesting.

Mark Coker makes some valid points of his own, and I have a hard time finding cause to disagree.

message 18: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Daniel wrote: "LeAnn wrote: "Andre, Howey has released another report.

What do you think about the fact that only ebook sales are used?"

I'm not sure how Andre would react until he responds, of course...

You m..."

Thanks for the article, Daniel. From reading the comments, I see that print books are still 70% of sales. I wondered about that.

message 19: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Roberts (Daniel-A-Roberts) | 467 comments You're welcome, LeAnn. ^_^

I probably stirred the hornet's nest up some myself, with my response to Elizabeth Lang in the comments section, a few minutes ago. If you go check it out, feel free to laugh at my more modern, currently accurate photo of what I truly look like right now. (Warning, it's not pretty, LOL)

message 20: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Daniel, I thought another author said that about writing. Whoever it was, he was right!

message 21: by J.A. (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Too much anger in those comments for me.

I wonder how long it'll take for things to settle into some new normal where things are just 'the way they are', and people on both sides aren't spending so much time shouting "Defend the Queen!" vs. "Revolution!"

message 22: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
LeAnn wrote: "Andre, Howey has released another report.

What do you think about the fact that only ebook sales are used?"

Thanks for the link, LeAnn. I'm working on a blog post on this.

message 23: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Andre Jute wrote: "LeAnn wrote: "Andre, Howey has released another report.

What do you think about the fact that only ebook sales are used?"

Thanks for the link, LeAnn. I'm working on a blog post on this."

Looking forward to reading it. When do you expect to have it ready? (I'm preparing for the panel discussion at my grad-school alma mater tomorrow and would love to include insights from you.)

message 24: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Try my most famous quote, so popular it's been stolen hundreds of times:

“Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites.” ― Andre Jute, from WRITING A THRILLER

It applies even to a school essay.

message 25: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments I'll do my best to pass that along. As l said, it's a panel discussion, but what I didn't say is that it's an alumni panel for the whole humanities college at the university. I really don't know which alumni will field the most questions. Maybe over lunch with the undergrads ....

message 26: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments I have data scientist friends (they just traditionally published Practical Data Science with R, in fact) who looked at Howey's data. If you'd like to see Nina's analysis, it's available at Breakdown on the Book data. Password is bookdata.

Short news: Amazon imprints outsell Big 5 and self published authors.

message 27: by J.A. (last edited Mar 29, 2014 12:04PM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) R is what I used back when I was actually doing science instead of just editing it. :)

As for the conclusion, that makes sense. All Amazon imprints books tend to get at least one shot at the Kindle Daily Deal (which has diminishing returns, I know several people published with Amazon*), but not every trad book or indie book does (last time I inspected the a few months of KDD data it was something like 20% Amazon imprint books**, 20% indies, 60% trads).

Of course, it's also interesting that her analysis still tends to suggest that indie authors, even if Howley's fellow overstated it, at the author-level are doing slightly better or as well as trads, though a lot of that is likely attributable to price differentials (note that even the Amazon books tend to be far cheaper than the trad books), and her model does indicates that as well.

I'd have to look back at the original dataset, but if the daily author revenue just reflects the amount sold in gross revenue, that wouldn't necessarily take into account that if I'm an indie and sell say $10 of books at 70% royalty, I keep ~$7 vs. somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.25-4 (depending on the royalty arrangement), so if that's not accounted for (again, I'd have to go back and look at the original dataset), that would mean the relative average daily revenue to the author is effectively higher.

It's also interesting because the way she did the analysis, it's reflecting more the midlisters, as it were, than the Howley's, which is interesting because one of the counter-arguments to a lot of this "indies doing well" data (not just Hugh's) has been, "Or that's just because of a few outliers at the top."

That said, there are still a number of fundamental issues with how the data was collected that make it difficult to really base firm collections off it (not Nina's fault obviously in this case).

I do tend to suspect we've squeezed as much out of this particular dataset, as we really need a more longitudinal one, and it'd be nice if we say, Apple and B&N included, though I do get all the practical issues involved in a lot of this sort of thing.

We got to the statistical war with the data we have I suppose!

*I don't know the firm numbers; it's a general thing that's been mentioned to me. The first pop is the best, not it's an exponential drop-off, either though.

**Of course, there's far fewer of these the other two categories, so the average Amazon book should of course do better given they all probably get a crack at this, as Nina notes. As Amazon increases the number of books it publishes, though, this differential would begin to level off though, if only because there's only so many days in the years and so many slots, but given their publishing pace that isn't likely to occur anytime soon.

message 28: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Nina's is a much more respectable analysis than the Howey/Data Guy gush of enthusiasm. But that entire dataset suffers, as she says, from its lack of a time element.

Interesting how Amazon's vertical integration model has worked to achieve what the Big Five have been trying to do for a quarter-century, publish only the fast sellers. Amazon does't have any of the Big Five costs in developing authors because they can see who sells and who doesn't; Amazon owns the promotional means and can give their own books preference.

One also wonders how long Amazon can get away with all this vertical integration before the Attorney General comes around asking questions. Surely he landed on Bill Gates like a ton of bricks for very much less. Personally, I'd rather the AG investigates and prosecutes Google first, but that's not because I love Amazon, or think they're less guilty of suppressing competition, or less arrogant, than Google, but because I think Google should be punished for their attempt to steal every book on earth for a one-time $60 payment, a crime they almost got away with.

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