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Data on the Ebook Revolution

May 30, 2012

I’ve said before that I’m a data-hound.  I don’t like airy statements that lack any real numbers to back it all up – I prefer solid statements based on actual, verifiable data.  There’s a lot more of the former than the latter in discussions of digital self-publishing and ebooks and related topics.  So some new, solid data on industry trends is a real treat for me.

  • Pew Internet on the Rise of E-reading: The study shows that one-fifth of Americans read an e-book in the past year; those who use e-readers read more and are more likely to purchase books than to borrow them.  This research gives a good sense on the direction of the broader market for e-books and how things have evolved.
  • Dean Wesley Smith and Mike Shatzkin each comment on the data unearthed by the Pew Internet survey.  A key take-away is that e-readership is growing.  But there are some surprises in there as well: like the fact that e-reader owners are still more likely to be reading a print book than an e-book.
  • Self-published Author Lindsay Buroker argues that more authors are making a “living” self-publishing than you might think.  To back up her claim… she points to a small number of authors who appear to be doing well (i.e. anecdotal data).  She goes on to offer advice for making it big based on doing the same thing that these folks are doing….
  • But then along comes a new survey from Taleist on self-publishing that will disabuse you of the notion that there’s easy-pickings gold in them thar hills.  The key take-away from this (1) the median income for self-published writers is a more instructive statistic than the mean (i.e. average) and (2) the median income of survey respondents was $500.  In other words: half of all self-published writers made less than $500.  What’s more, about 75% of all self-publishing income was reaped by just 10% of self-published authors.  Or in other words: Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath et al are not illustrative: they skew the numbers and make it look like self-publishing is great (bringing the average up to $10,000).  I haven’t read the survey report itself – as you’ll have to pony up for that, which I’m not keen on doing (and besides, the report is mostly the author’s interpretation of their own data, but they don’t offer up the raw data itself) – and have relied instead on reporting about the report, but I do wish the information available included the 75th Percentile as well as the median (although I have my suspicions on what that would look like).  What that would tell us is the dividing line between the bottom 75% (i.e. a convincing majority) and the top 25% make (i.e. the number that 75% of self-published authors would be making less than).  Another datapoint of the survey was very telling, and supports something I’ve been saying for a while: self-published authors who used to be traditionally published earn about 2.5 times more when self-publishing than non-traditionally-published authors.  In other words: you’re more likely to be successful self-publishing if you’ve been traditionally published first.  There are a lot of reasons for this, of course, and I could go on at length (and I believe have done so in the past)…
  • Some of the self-published authors who participated, and various others, are weighing in on the results of the survey: for example here and here.  Of particularly interesting note is Victoria Strauss’ take on Writer Beware, where she covers not only the Taleist survey but a through-the-looking-glass survey of traditionally published authors by Writers Workshop that gauges their attitudes about the other side of the coin.  The key takeaways: for the most part, traditionally published authors like being traditionally published, and really like the editorial feedback, layout, design, and other such components of putting together a great book.  But there is a significant warning sign for traditional publishers: many traditionally-published authors are unhappy with the seeming lackluster approach to marketing that traditional publishers take, and only a small minority of them expressed any long-term loyalty either to their current publisher or to the traditional-publishing paradigm – signalling that many of them would consider dumping their publisher altogether under the right (or perhaps that’s wrong) circumstances.
  • There are caveats to both the of the above, of course.  The Taleist survey is self-selecting, for instance, and only a slim majority of respondents reported their income figures.  What this means for the true, underlying data is anyone’s guess.  There will be some who don’t report because they think they’re doing well and don’t want to share that data.  That might possibly skew the data downward.  There will be some who don’t report because they’re doing very, very poorly compared to the anecdotal Amanda Hockings of the self-publishing world. That would skew the data upwards.  And the Writers Workshop survey has a comparatively small sample size of around 300 compared to just over 1,000 on Taleist.  Ultimately, there’s no way to know how scientifically representative either survey is.

So, I’ll leave these interesting surveys and data-points for you, today…

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 7:45 pm

    Thanks for summarizing all of that information for us. If I took the time to read all of those links, I’d never have time for writing, so I appreciate your efforts. This stuff is the only really solid information I’ve ever seen, so it’s valuable even if it isn’t perfectly scientific.

    • May 31, 2012 9:11 am

      Oh absolutely, I didn’t mean to suggest that I didn’t find these things valuable. They may not be purely scientific in a technical sense, but they’re the best data we now have, and I suspect it’s a fairly reasonably accurate representation of reality. This is something I’ve been hoping/asking for for a while now.

  2. May 31, 2012 6:48 am

    The research you refer to pretty much sums up my suspicions about self publishing; if you aren’t already well known, it is a bit like hoping for a lottery win (which I do frequently, only to have my hopes repeatedly dashed, but hey, thats character buliding, right? and good practise for all those rejection notices).
    Incidentally, getting published in the conventional tree-felling sense is no guarantee of entry to El Dorado either, I probably made around £2000 from my one and only book – but at least I got to hold a tangible product, and that was priceless!

    • May 31, 2012 9:33 am

      Yeah, one point I saw made was that the “75% of self-publishing income is made by 10% of self-published authors” is a fairly close mirror of the traditionally published world. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true: certainly there are very few J.K. Rowlings compared to the total number of traditionally published authors. There are important differences, I think. The first, and most obvious, is that not just anyone can be a traditionally published author, whereas literally almost anyone can be a self-published author – and consequently I suspect there are now far more of the latter than the former. The second, I think, is sort of related in that I think the scale of the numbers is shifted significantly higher for traditionally published authors, such that the highest of the high is higher in traditionaly publishing than in self-publishing and likewise the medians, averages and lows are higher in traditional vs. self-publishing. Of course, the shift isn’t one-for-one…

  3. June 1, 2012 7:54 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting this. The dissatisfaction of the traditionally-published authors is important, especially combined with the fact that they have more possibility of success at indie publishing than the rest of us. And, in any situation with dissatisfied employees, in general the first ones to jump will probably be the most skilled, the ones with the most options. That’s just a general phenomenon, of course, not a predictor of any specific author, but it will be interesting to see if there are any big names jumping ship in the near future. (Unfortunately, if there are it will probably inspire a lot of people to follow the example and choose to publish themselves, not completely realizing that they don’t have the same chance of success as a really big name does.)

    But, of course, lack of sales is generally the fate of most authors, no matter how they publish.

    • June 1, 2012 8:02 am

      Indeed… reading isn’t what it used to be. One possible direction I’m seeing signs of now is that as big names jump, some are likely not only to self-publish but to set up their own independent publishing houses: which actually gives aspiring authors someplace to turn besides the old traditional publishers or the risks of self-publishing. For example, David Farland’s “East India Press (although to be fair I think they’ve only done one book so far, and that by Farland himself, and the website doesn’t appear to be very functional… so it’s possible that this has been abandoned in the last year).

      • June 1, 2012 11:31 am

        Didn’t JK Rowling do it too, for the Harry Potter e-books? I think that when traditionally published authors establish their own independent publishing houses, it’s just a signal of their expectations and the paradigm they come from. It doesn’t really mean anything more than someone self-publishing their novel without the facade, because I doubt they would really intend to publish other people’s books.

      • June 1, 2012 11:43 am

        Yes, Rowling did do something like that with the Harry Potter ebooks, as I understand, with one important distinction: David Farland was explicit, upon setting up shop as “East India Press”, with his intention to move toward publishing the works of other writers, with ostensibly author-friendly publishing terms (I say “ostensibly” because I haven’t seen any works put out yet by EIP). So I can’t say anything’s come to fruition, yet, but there was at least the thought and intent to take this to another level and publish other works. And whether Farland is successful or not in his endeavor I suspect it’s only a matter of time before another established author who, upon gaining sufficient experience in self-pubbing their own work, decides to take it to the next obvious level.

  4. Anthony Lee Collins permalink
    June 1, 2012 10:49 am

    There have been attempts at something like this in the music industry, some (Righteous Babe) more successful than others (Apple). In movies, too (United Artists and DreamWorks SKG are two examples).

    • June 4, 2012 10:35 am

      (You’re referring to Apple aka the Beatles, I’m guessing?) Well, we’ll just have to see if this is something that starts to work in the writing world…

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