My Bias (again)

When Data Guy and I put the first Author Earnings reports together, transparency was our primary goal. I think it’s because we’re both scientists at heart, but also because we are both children of the open-source, crowd-sourced, wiki generation. In addition to our complete transparency on methodology, and our sharing of the source data so others could duplicate or challenge our work, we also included complete transparency on our bias.

It’s true: We think individual entrepreneurs are cooler than mega corporations. We also think: 70% going into the pockets of artists is more awesome than 12.5%. And finally: We think a full breadth of titles being available online is superior to the draconian curation efforts of major publishers and physical retailers.

The data we gathered aligned with our biases, which we suspected ahead of time. You see, the market forces of 70% > 12.5% have made the digital disruption inevitable from the creation side. And instant access to affordable titles made the disruption inevitable from the consumption side. Down in the trenches, we heard from dozens and then hundreds of authors who were making a full-time living without being a household name. This shocked me, personally, because I worked in bookstores for years and hosted NYT bestselling authors who were making peanuts and working full-time jobs to support their craft. Something was going on. Something that aligned with my love of democracy and disdain for totalitarianism and censure.

My personal investigations into this consisted initially of talking with authors everywhere I went. And asking readers what they were reading and how they were discovering those books. It then moved to polling writing groups online, and receiving a flood of anecdotal information. This was just a hint, but not proof. Then Data Guy took these efforts and supercharged them with his arachnid awesomesauce.

We didn’t manufacture what we wanted to see; we knew something was happening and we attempted to measure it. When the results came in, we were STUNNED. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw the first pie charts. When we had to make a decision to favor the numbers one direction or the other (like where to lump the small presses that were likely self-published but it was unclear), we tilted the field toward traditional publishing. We did this to account for our bias, but also because indies didn’t need any help. They were trouncing any other method of publication.

When we released this information, we wanted our bias right up front. And we expected others to take our data and show us where we were wrong. To date, no one has been able to show our daily earnings percentages to be off. Self-publishing is simply a more viable path to earning a living and reaching readers than sending query letters to agents, and it isn’t even close.

As Kris Rusch recently wrote, this is something we all knew from personal experience. Not just our own experiences, but from being plugged into the writing community on both sides. Now we have data to support what we already knew. And that’s a good thing.

To say that I’m anti-traditional publishing is also a bit of a stretch. I want major publishers to stick around and thrive. I want them to improve their business practices. I’ve devoted a lot of my time and energy into these efforts. I’ve worked with three of the top publishers in the world, and 40 publishers overseas. I have books launching this week with a traditional publisher. Many of my closest friends publish with the Big 5. I’m busy working on all sides of publishing, and fighting my ass off to win better terms and conditions for all authors.

But make no mistake: I’m still pro-author and pro-reader above everything. If Amazon and the Big 5 all go out of business tomorrow, all I’ll care about is whether and how writers and readers can commune. The middlemen are only useful in how they serve these two parties.

What I don’t get is the obvious and crazy bias the publishing rags have for publishers and physical book retailers, and their complete disregard for the only parties in publishing who matter. They don’t seem to care about books, how they are written, how they are read. They only care about how both of these parties can be squeezed in the middle and profited from. How can publishers make the most off the efforts of artists? And how can retailers take advantage of readers? There’s no other way to understand their biases than this. I doubt it’s even something most of these pundits have asked themselves. It’s telling enough that their blathering rarely mentions either the author or the reader. Mostly, they spend their time angry at Amazon for catering so well to readers and writers.

Want to know why Amazon is eating everyone’s lunch? Because they started with a maniacal focus on the needs of the customer (the reader). They then followed this with an unheard of dedication to the needs of the writer (whom they also treat like customers). All publishers would need to do to compete is embrace the same philosophy. STOP caring what the media thinks. STOP caring what retailers think. FOCUS on the writer, the reader, and no one else.

If this philosophy could permeate any of the major publishers, that publishing house would trounce their competition. But I’m not holding my breath. I’ve worked with these publishers, and they primarily care about retail accounts, the media, and their own tastes. The reader and the writer are dead last on their list. I shit you not.

Hence my bias. Get with the program, everyone. Publishing is about she who writes and she who reads. Everyone else can lend a hand or fuck off. According to our data, publishers are mostly doing the latter. I hope they turn that around.




Everyone has a bias. It is refreshing when someone admits this, and even tries to adjust for it to make their arguments more balanced. It is unfortunate when someone cannot even see their own bias.

Thank you, Hugh, for your transparency and honesty. But also thank you for sharing your opinions. They are well reasoned and based on real observations. And in my biased opinion, they are also correct. :) It is an exciting time to be an author!

Hugh – thanks for that. It’s the final nudge I needed to just focus my effort on self-publishing and leave the old system behind. It is a ego thing; we grew up dreaming of big advances, prizes, and calls from Penguin to tell us how awesome we were as writers. We have to shake off this need for recognition from a system which doesn’t care about quality anymore, but only about milking the cow. Thanks for being so transparent and inspirational.

Big Publishing has always dangled the brass ring. From a distance, it’s pretty, shiny, and full of promise and hope. As one gets closer to it, the tarnish and flaws become apparent.

Keep showing people the truth, Hugh and DG. More and more are seeing it and heeding it.

The thing to remember is that for decades the customer of traditional publishing was not the reader, but the buyer(s) at the bookstores. Now you would think that those book store buyers were adequately motivated to pay attention to what the readers wanted to buy, but that turned out not to be entirely the case.

As Hugh no doubt saw over the years he spent at bookstores, there were frequent instances in which the books shipped bore little relation to what was selling or likely to sell in that store. Part of this is a legacy of the returns policy of publishers which was initiated in the 30s to prop up bookstore sales during the Depression and then continued ever since. Bookstores didn’t care greatly if a given book didn’t sell adequately; they could return unsold books for full refund. All that was lost was potential sales of something else, but their other books that did sell probably covered that. That left bookstore buyers pretty blameless in their buying and they favored safe, steady sellers rather than risky new authors that might, but probably wouldn’t, break out.

I get asked often when I’m going to ‘try to get a real publisher.’ I tell them as soon as I want to give away most of my earnings. My books are available everywhere. The printed copies look as good as anything sitting on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. And I own all my rights. I’m glad you have good hard numbers to prove what we are doing is working!

“I have books launching this week with a traditional publisher. Many of my closest friends publish with the Big 5. I’m busy working on all sides of publishing, and fighting my ass off to win better terms and conditions for all authors.
But make no mistake: I’m still pro-author and pro-reader above everything. If Amazon and the Big 5 all go out of business tomorrow, all I’ll care about is whether and how writers and readers can commune. The middlemen are only useful in how they serve these two parties.” Wow. Fairness. Experience.Clarity. Calm, yet forceful. Farsighted. Refreshing, and yeh, I have to say “wow” again. Wow!

“I have books launching this week with a traditional publisher. Many of my closest friends publish with the Big 5. I’m busy working on all sides of publishing, and fighting my ass off to win better terms and conditions for all authors.
But make no mistake: I’m still pro-author and pro-reader above everything. If Amazon and the Big 5 all go out of business tomorrow, all I’ll care about is whether and how writers and readers can commune. The middlemen are only useful in how they serve these two parties.” Wow… Fairness. Experience. Calm, yet forceful.Clarity. farsighted, and yeh, I have to say “wow” again. Wow.

Thank you, Hugh, for helping writers make an informed decision. AE was a major influence in my decision to go indie rather than keep playing Slush Pile Lotto, and two years in, I’m now making more than I do at my day job (more than I’ve made at any other job I’ve had, as a matter of fact). I’m incorporated, so I guess my income falls under the “small press” category, but that’s another data point, one more person doing something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Trad publishers may keep sneering at your numbers and methodology, but it all feels real enough for me.

I still like publishers, literary agents, editors, promotional people, and all the rest of them, which is why I still feature them at my blog while self publishing my books. While I agree that readers and writers are the only parties that truly matter and the key relationship in book production, I also dig middlemen. Like most any indie author, I’ve put together my own publishing company. I rely on my 6 content editors, my 2 copy editors, my 2 audiobook producers, my illustrator, and my cover artist. I’d also be lost without my wife handling a lot of my online promotion. I believe my group has produced books superior to the books I would’ve been able to publish traditionally, which is why I went Indy in the first place. But I believe publishers, like Darth Vader, and possibly Kylo Ren, still have good in them:) I get excited when I see upstart publishing companies trying new business models. I’ve enjoyed pulling my team together, but it’s been a lot of work, and it might one day be nice to discover a preexisting team that didn’t leave me with only 12.5% of the profit and little to no control over the book with my name on the cover. I continue to root for savvy editors and agents to recognize this and innovate new publishing models.

To me, it seems like Trad. Publishers focus on the “win.” They profit (or them and a tiny minority of brand-name authors).

They “should” focus on the “win-win” at minimum. (Them and the majority of their authors profit).

But really … they “could” be focusing on the “win-win-win.” (Them, the majority of their authors, AND the readers profit, where readers profit with affordable good books).

Unfortunately, trad. publishers are only focused on the “win.”

I’ve been struggling with self-publishing. An editor at a huge publisher loved my book, but marketing vetoed it because my genre “wasn’t selling.” (Yeah, because the publishers only buy the genre that is selling until it doesn’t sell anymore, instead of a selection of the best of all genres.) I think I’m going to take the plunge, even though part of me (sadly) does want the validation of being “chosen”–which is kind of funny, because I’m not like that about any other area of my life.

I do feel a little overwhelmed about the steps necessary to self-publish. (I’m sure it’s not rocket science, but there are things that I could forget.) If there’s a good checklist or guide anywhere, someone let me know!

David Gaughran’s book, Let’s Get Digital” is a good guide:

Thanks so much!

Check out Joanna Penn’s website and podcast. She’s just published a soup-to-nuts guide as well.

I think we all harbour romanticised ideas about traditional publishing based on how publishing /may/ have been in the past. Sadly these days, publishing is not about books, it’s about numbers, and the true movers and shakers are not editors but accountants in multinational parent companies. Don’t wait. Jump in. The water really is nice. :)

I can’t help but chime in (a little late, perhaps) and direct you to a wealth of knowledge on the subject self-publishing –

You thoughts are eye opening. Thank you. I would bet that the music, movie making and art world face many of these same biases. However, I do see a place for these middle men/people, as one writer told me, her feelings were too close to her books and therefore she could not market them by herself. She would be devastated if a bookstore refused to carry her work.

It appears to me, Hugh, that you have also mastered the art of marketing. While sharing yourself and your travels, you have built up faithful group of fans. This base is always a good thing. I see two groups of your faithful: ones who will practically worship any thing you say…..and this can be dangerous…..and ones who like to challenge you just because.

I would say you’re more like The Donald than you realize, but I don’t think that would fly with you or your readers!! Hell, you both speak your mind and have a loyal following. Perhaps it stops there.

I think the transparency–both yours and what we share with each other– is such a huge component to why indies are able to make quick decisions and adapt to what’s going on with the market. Even when it’s not what we want to hear, it’s all information that we can use to evaluate what’s next and as a whole and we’re exceptionally open to taking it all in.

I don’t understand why big publishers have no interest in taking in all the data and making changes.

Hugh, As always thank you for your in depth work. I make my full time living as an author and I’m not a household name. All my books are indie published although I have a shell publisher listed for legal reasons. The bias I see from the circled wagons of traditional publishing eventually, always, seems to serve me well. Price your ebooks at $12-14.99? Yes by all means, please don’t stop. Elongate the publishing process to a year or more for a book, I beg you, continue, I pay my editors and cover designers and plant to release 8-10 books this year. God forbid but if there is a typo that got through I can fix it in 10 minutes and it’s good to go same day. Yes, I’m working 7 days a week, 10+ hours a day…and I love it. Many thanks,

As usual you’re on point Hugh. There has been a lot of feet stamping by traditional publishing types in the Aussie papers at the moment, waving their fists and preaching doom and gloom about it (only mentioning white, male, literary authors in them). This month Macquarie University release a 350 page research paper on the the Disruption and ‘Innovation’ of the Australian book industry and the more I read through it the angrier I get. There is so much opportunity here where we DON’T have an Amazon (only a Kindle store) for the Australian Publishers to really branch out, create more online platforms and sign new, diverse genre fiction writers but they just…don’t. If you don’t write literature about Australia or Australiana Romance they won’t even look at you. Its gatekeepers upon gatekeepers and yet they lament that the average Australian writers income is 13,000 AUD / year. They have the opportunity to build an incredible Australian ‘Amazon’ type platform and they just aren’t interested.

I’ll buy print books from Booktopia because of the reduced postage and waiting time, but I refuse to buy anything from bricks and mortar retailers because the cost of even a bog ordinary paperback is so high. If Aussie publishers encouraged Aussie authors, we would not have to pay through the nose to import books. But as you say, they don’t. :(

-grin- And there speaks a man on a mission. I wish more people were as committed to reading, because that’s what this is about – keeping the love of reading alive despite the other distractions of the digital age. Prior to ebooks, reading was becoming a leisure time activity for the elite who could afford it. Now everyone can afford to read again, and it shows in the numbers. This really is democracy at its best.

As a prolific reader (I have over two thousand books in my digital library acquired in the last five years) I would say that 98% of the books I buy are written by self-published authors. I refuse to pay $15 to $20 dollars for a digital copy of a traditionally published book so even if one of my favorite non-indie authors puts out a new book that I’m dying to read I wait until the price comes down to buy it. Frankly, the quality of the writing in most of the indie books I buy is better, I don’t have to wait two years for a sequel and I get more bang for my buck so why would I go back to buying over-priced and over-hyped traditionally published crap.

Thanks for the transparency, Hugh. There is clearly no contest any more between the amount you can earn as an indie versus as a trad pubbed author. Which isn’t to say that aren’t still reasons to be tempted by the latter… many writers still hear that siren song.

I know a LOT of people making six figures a year as indies. I sometimes get frustrated because I’m not there yet. And then I compare my healthy five figures to what I MIGHT have earned if I’d stayed in the queue for an agent, and then a publisher, and then a bookstore, and then a reader… and even assuming I had made it through that arcane gauntlet, I would still be waiting 18 months or more to see a book published!

Whereas now, I write, I rewrite once, I check for typos; I make my own cover or buy one for anywhere between $25 and $350; I load it up on Scrivener and format it myself, and I am in business! Within a week I am selling and earning. The amount I make a year is equal to about ten times the average author advance, and I don’t have to give any to an agent. More than that, I have CONTROL over every single decision, from length to pricing to cover art… and I don’t have to WAIT for anything.

This is the life!

Hugh, thank you very much for this post and for your bias. We are all biased, since everyone of us has our own “Werdegang” (as they say in German), meaning our very own way we became who we are today.
I’ve read a lot before deciding to self-publish. Now, after self-publishing three books, I am still biased to self-publishing. The main reason is the full responsibility for what is happening with my books. And not only because I own this responsibility, but also because all recognize it being mine when I self-publish.
I have a feeling from what I read and hear from fellow writers that publishers and agents try to imply that the traditionally publishing authors do not have to bear the whole responsibility for their books. But this is not true. Agents and publishers are service providers and authors are the ones responsible.
I’ve been working with a technical standard S1000D for more than 11 years now, and I am still active in this community.
This standard is about production, handling, and use of technical publications, which are a complex set of data and information about such sophisticated machinery as airplanes, ships, tanks and other. There you have many partners in each project.
But there is only one Responsible Partner Company!
And this is what the author (either traditional or self-publishing) MUST be in relation to his or her book: the Responsible Partner among all involved.

This is super cool and good news, but are there other avenues for revenue for the traditionally published author that are not taken into consideration that skew this perspective?

I have queried for a year and a half and have learned volumes from the kind and helpful rejections of my partial and full MS, So, I do recommend a round of queries even if you’re going to self-publish (especially if you don’t have money for a line and or conceptual editor).

My other question for you is about Amazon’s Scout program. I’m curious as to your opinion and whether you think its a good financial move for an Indie or Self-published author.

Thanks for all the keen work and cheerleading writers and readers.

I also value the traditional publishers, but am dubious that they can continue as they have. The reason people are making a living without being household names while the names are not is because traditional publishing has to a large extent come to treat writers as fodder for the mill, something to be profited from, rather than partners.

Yes, traditional publishers have costs indie ones do not. Sometimes those are unavoidable; other times they seem like attempts to justify taking the lion’s share of the profits. At the same time, some of the past value traditional publishing has offered writers is shrinking or vanishing all together. I hear story after story from SFWA members of little or no marketing help, trilogies being canceled after the second book, or egregious rights grabs and redefinitions of what constitutes being “in print.” The more I’ve learned about traditional publishing, the more cynical I’ve become.

I cannot deny that they continue to add a curation value for readers, promising a certain level of both writerly expertise and production values, but there are other mechanisms for that, including unaffiliated reviewers, book-centric social media, and awards lists.

The ridiculous pricing of ebooks is something I’m hitting this year in trying to read for the latter. I cannot help but wonder if those prices are not an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too: to try to drive ebooks out of the market or else reap a bonus profit in the process. There’s a number of books I’d love to read, but I’m not going to pay $15-20 bucks for the privilege.

How can we square all of Hugh and DG’s optimism with articles like this which claim that according to Amazon, only 40 self-published authors are successful?
Even if we quibble with their definition of success, maybe it’s more like 100 authors, which means hundreds of thousands of indies will not ever sniff anything even close to the kind of financial success that would allow them to make a living from writing.

That 40 authors quote comes from Amazon saying that only 40 authors have made over a million dollars through self-publishing. I personally know more than a hundred people who make over $100,000 a year, and a dozen who make between $300,000 and $500,000. I suspect that Mr. Howey does pretty well himself via self-published books.

Please also note that a lot of high earners have more than one pen name, so no one realizes how successful they are.

You know over 100 authors who make over $100k/ year? Wow. I don’t think I even know 100 people in my life, total! haha Anyway, I wonder how you know they make that much. Are they showing you their 1099’s? Even if we say 200-500 authors make over $100k per year, that leaves millions of authors without much of an improvement over the old send-a-query-letter system.