Rational Numbers

One of my biggest beefs with all the alarmism and loud voices shouting about this and that and the other thing relating to the changes in the publishing industry is the lack of available, actual data.

In one corner you’ve got Joe Konrath and his henchman spreading the specious claim that you too can make a six-figure income in digital self-publishing.  (In three easy steps, I’m sure.  Step 1: Write.  Step 2: ???? Step 3: Profit.)  Their cheerleading efforts for the new world order of disintermediated publishing always bothers me because the big names on this side of the fence are largely pro writers who previously were published in the traditional model, benefited from the marketing efforts of traditional publishers, developed a platform and capitalized on that publicity, and now are making more by eschewing those publishers and going it alone.  Well yeah you’re doing fine self-pubbing.  You have a built-in audience.  Congratulations.

I mean, sure, it’s an astute business decision to dump publishers when the numbers are more favorable if you self-publish.  When you’ve got a branded author name, that’s a strategic decision you can afford to make.  But for an unpublished and undiscovered author, this a whole different ballgame.

And then along comes Amanda Hocking.  And now we’ve got living proof, tangible evidence that an unknown really can make it big.  Only wait, now that Hocking is doing fine with the digital self-pub regime, she switches sides and takes a traditional deal.  And then John Locke, he of the first digital self-pubbed author to cross the million-sales on Kindle threshold.  Last I heard he was sticking with his Kindle platform.  No traditional deal for him, no thank you.

But these are what we call statistical outliers.  We get those in the traditional publishing industry, too.  J.K. Rowling?  Stephanie Meyer?  Outliers happen.  There should be a big fat “Your Mileage May Vary” label on this bill-of-sale.  Because it will vary.  A lot.

And then you’ve got the other corner, filled mostly with traditionally published authors and their teams who are quite happy with their current deals.  They’re usually those that are making a living.  They recognize the value that traditional publishers bring to the table, and how that value has filtered to their own bottom lines.  A lot of them don’t like the new paradigm of digital self-pubbing.  It threatens their comfortable status quo, and challenges the long-standing industry prejudice against self-published work.  It’s not a stance wholly without merit, but it does seem to ignore the reality of the changes that are occurring in the industry – whether they like those changes or not.

Neither side has often been terribly keen in referring to actual, objective, and verifiable data.  But you do have a few gems: a few good souls who, like me, believe in good data.

So, all that said I’ve been keenly interested when those good souls share their data so the rest of us can see, and judge for ourselves.  In that vein, I thought I’d share some data recently made available by a digitally self-pubbed speculative fiction (sci fi, specifically) author by name of Ken McConnell on a year’s worth of his digital sales.  Link here.  (And a small update here.)

You can compare and contrast that with data like the sort provided by Tobias S. Buckell (here and here) and Jim C. Hines (here and here).

The upshot? While Ken’s figures aren’t magically phenomenal or anything, they help provide a clear view that cuts through the clutter of marketing hype.


ETA (09/12/2011):

Another Digital Self-published author posts her speculative-fiction sales numbers: http://overactive.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/one-year-of-indie-publishing/

10 thoughts on “Rational Numbers

  1. Finally, someone posting honest sales numbers on Kindle. I’ve never published but I do have an on-line retail business and I know that sales are directly influenced by marketing, which is the #1 purpose of a blog. Konrath does interviews with e-zines to get his name out, and he posts on blog sites to get tracebacks. The wider you cast your net and the more often you throw it, the more sales you get. But at some point the product must stand on its own.

    Surprisingly, I never hear authors talk about what I believe is the biggest advantage of self-publishing: the ability to put your finger on the pulse of the market free of charge. How do you know what your audience likes or dislikes without sending something out into the world? Some authors are lucky, they strike it rich on their first go, but most of us will only be successful if we are observant and listen to what the market tells us. This may not be the formula for art, but we are talking about sales volume here. Don’t kid yourself. You ever read Konrath? It’s not art, it’s a comic book for adults with way too much effort spent on gore.

    At the heart of every writer is a desire to be published by a major house. That is the industry’s mark of approval. You’re part of the club. You’ve made it. To claim otherwise is a bald-faced lie. Self publishers may be commercially successful, but so is the guy who made the Girls Gone Wild videos, and no one wants to be that sleazy guy (though they want his money). And I think you’re wrong about Konrath (though it’s not worth it to me to go and fact check it). I think he self-published “Whiskey Sour” first and then after promoting himself enough and selling enough e-books he got picked up by a publisher. That’s just a publisher recognizing a business opportunity, and in the end that’s all publisher’s do anyway.

    • The gist of your comment gets to something that I think fundamentally is true, but which writers often ignore: writing is a business. And we writers should treat it like a business if they want to be successful. It can also be art, if that’s our goal – and I share that aspiration. But at the end of the day, the art don’t mean a thing if you can’t make a living off it.

      Frankly, for a large percentage of writers… well… we’re not going to be able to make a full living off our writing. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t put our effort into it… but I think we need to each, on an individual basis, acknowledge that fact… I think deluding ourselves into believing we can make a full income on writing, when the chances are against us – and banking on that – does us more harm than good. It’s like banking on winning the lottery as a retirement plan. (Okay, the odds that a competent writer can be successful are slightly better than winning a big jackpot lottery, but they’re still pretty bad.) And if we are going to make a living – it’s not actually impossible, it’s just really, really hard – it’s going to take a lot of business-like willpower and prowess to succeed.

      As for Konrath… I can’t find any source that indicates his first book was self-published. The only facts I can find suggest he wrote nine other “unpublished” books that were not accepted by any publisher before his tenth, Whisky Sour was finally picked up by Hyperion. The facts remain, therefore: he is a traditionally published author who has benefited enormously from the leverage of being traditionally published… and yet now makes it his crusade to publicly bash the hell out of traditional publishers, and in the act suggest strongly (or frequently allow others to say in his name) that it’s easy to make a very comfortable living by writing and self-publishing. See, for example, “A Dialog Between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler“.

      That screed is loaded with potshots at traditional publishing and grandiose claims about the viability of the new, digital self-pubbing model. Undoubtedly, for some, it is viable. But Konrath and company never seem to deal in naunce or in the differences in experiences that various writers have. And it’s sad that they don’t recognize the value that a traditional publisher has brought them. Konrath seems to stick his own success to his own self-promotion. And sure, self-promotion is important. But he completely discounts the importance of the psychological bump that acceptance by a traditional publisher provides. That’s a psychological bump that works both ways: it buffs the author, making him or her fully aware of their own potential as a writer (which undoubtedly will boost their ability to self-promote by increasing their self-confidence) and it gives the author credibility and authority in the eyes of consumers and readers. That’s not a small thing.

  2. Hmmm… have you gone to Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s site yet and read her posts about the business of publishing?

    I think you’re making a few illogical assumptions here, but I’m not sure I have the fortitude to go into it right now. I promise though, if you read all of her Business Rusch posts, it will answer all of your questions. They totally blew my mind, anyway.

    • 1) No, to be honest, I don’t read Rusch’s blog regularly. I’ve read a few occassional posts, but by and large I find her style… unsatisfying. And her analysis is occassionally useful, occassionally accurate, but I find it incomplete. As I make clear in this post… I’m a fan of using objective, verifiable data. Lacking that data, I’m not likely to buy an argument from someone who says they’re an expert on something without providing me with the option of reviewing some supporting facts. I follow reasoning and logic, and I can see with my own eyes and follow the news of things that are happening. But anecdotes only carry you so far.

      2) Wow. I’d love for you to point out where I have “illogical assumptions” in this post. Calling that out but refusing to cite or engage on specifics isn’t terribly game. Considering that I’m not drawing any specific conclusions in this post… your statement that I’ve a few “illogical assumptions” doesn’t fill me with the sorts of warm fuzzies that will instantly drive me to Ms. Rusch’s site to fawn over her latest pronouncement. (Regarding which, see #1 above.) Seeing as how the message of this post consists primarily of 2 points (first, I appreciate objective, verifiable data in my decision-making process, and sometimes eschew the opinions of self-pronounced experts, even those with good experience, who can’t cite such data and, second, hey, here’s some of that objective, verifiable data I was talking about) I’d wager there really isn’t much by way of an “illogical assumption” in the body of this post. Howbeit, I’m certainly willing to be educated and to have my misconceptions corrected – I recognize that I don’t know everything about the business, and that’s a significant stumbling block for me, and I’m always on the lookout to learn more (see also: objective, verifiable data, i.e. factual information about the industry, and the general lack thereof, making it difficult to be so properly educated).

      3) Apologies for the snarkiness of this reply… but that statement, which I quoted several times in #2 above, sort of set me off. Nothing gets me goat like attacking my logic – especially if you’re not actually willing to engage in a reasonable discussion on the merits.

  3. I am going to wait to post any figures or whatever. I think it should be treated like a business and given time (five years sounds fair).
    I know you read the Daily Kick too and when I heard David Farland say that someone had told him that he wanted to unpublish everything because after 9 months they hadn’t made a sale…
    All the indie authors I’ve met through blogs started selling well after a year or more.
    So I’ll keep writing stuff and putting it out there and wait.
    I think you should give yourself some form of limit, though. I have a screenwriting friend who’s been trying to break into the industry for 15 years now – I gave up after 2 (maybe a little too early, but I discovered it wasn’t what I actually wanted to do). So if in 5 years time I still don’t earn a decent living, I might give up… publishing, not writing! That I’ll never give up! 😉
    Happy writing

    • I’m going to wait to give myself a time limit until I have something worth getting timed on. It’s a bit premature, at this stage, to time-limit myself when I don’t even have a product. (I’m writing, but I’ve got nothing yet to sell.) I haven’t even made the decision yet on whether to press ahead with traditional or to try my hand at digital self-publishing. Right now, my assumption is I’ll pursue a traditional deal first (unless things change dramatically further), and give that a set amount of time before switching gears to pursue self-publishing. Both enterprises should be treated in a businesslike way (they’re really just different business models in the same industry). But at the end of the day I still feel that a traditional deal for the most part is the better option for me, and I don’t yet have a lot of faith in my ability to independently reach a wider audience with my work.

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