Some analysts appear to be confused about how so many authors can possibly be making more money while overall spending on reading is flat. Let’s see if we can’t figure this contradiction out.
The analyst linked to above gave a presentation at RWA (Romance Writers of America) last weekend. In both the blog post and the RWA presentation, we are shown this graph:
If reading dollars are flat, then author earnings should be flat, right? Not necessarily.
Let’s start with the fact that the above graph includes newspapers and magazines, which are down. Here are the trends for magazines. And here are the trends for newspapers. You would think, at a conference for novelists, that this would be taken into account. Now, if the spending on total reading is flat, and two of the three reading types are down, that probably means the revenue for trade fiction is up. We can only guess here, because the wrong data is being used for the wrong purposes.
It gets worse. (Well, the misuse of data gets worse, but the picture that emerges once we correct that misuse is a rosy one for writers.) If the spending on reading material is indeed flat, that’s awesome news for authors. And not just because of the magazine/newspaper mistake. We also have to remember that the average price of a read is down, thanks to ebooks (especially the self-published variety). So flat spending might actually mean more reading. And there’s another thing to consider — the most important thing, something lost on industry analysts –and that is that overall industry numbers don’t tell writers anything. Bookstore and publisher income doesn’t affect our decision to publish one way or another. If people are spending more of their reading dollars on books that send 70 cents of every dollar to the writer, that’s a sea change from a time just five years ago when only a dime of each dollar went to the writer.
Spending on reading can stay flat while seven times as much money flows from the reader to the writer. SEVEN TIMES.
If you are an analysts who reports to publishers and bookstores, this thought never crosses your mind. You don’t care if some authors get 12.5% while others get 70%. It isn’t about the author. It’s about the industry dollars.
I sat in the panel where this chart was shown, and I listened to the gasps of horror, and saw how the fear, uncertainty, and doubt are spread. But the logical failings didn’t stop there. The same fixation on the industry causes this analyst to make another mistake. Author income was broken down based on publishing path. And instead of lumping aspiring authors in with the traditionally published authors, they were set aside. The audience was shown earnings from the top few percent of those who managed to go down the traditional path, and those earnings were compared to the entirety of those who self-publish.
You can’t make this kind of poor reasoning up. You have to see it to believe it:
Check out the column for “Aspiring Writer” income. Unreal. How many aspiring writers are there? Are there 10 million aspiring writers and . . . say . . . 50 thousand who actually get published? Imagine if you lumped them all together on the same bar, how compressed the earnings would be toward the top. What sense does this graph make for a writer with a manuscript in-hand and a decision to make? None.
Wait. It gets worse. The same graph above also takes out the most successful self-published authors and calls them “hybrids.” Hybrid authors come in two main flavors: The first is the traditionally published author who got dropped from their publisher, got their rights back, and then self-publishes. Bella Andre, JA Konrath, Barbara Freethy and many others fit this profile. They barely earned a living with a traditional publisher, took control of their careers, and only then made millions of dollars. Industry analysts do not consider these to be self-published success stories. I’ve even seen some of them credit their former publisher for all the success they had after they were dropped for not selling very well.
The other main hybrid type is the author who does so well self-publishing that they get picked up by a major house. Like with the above group, the success for these authors came from the choice to self-publish. But again, credit goes to the publisher or the decision to go “hybrid.” In both cases, the above graph pulls these authors out of the category in which they belong (you know, the path that either earned them the most money or gained them enough readers to publish however they like) in order to create a false equivalence.
So take the graph in again. Out of the traditional publishing path, let’s remove all those who didn’t get in, despite making the choice to query an agent. Let’s also take the highest earners out of the self-publishing path. Can we artificially tilt the data any further?
Sadly, this is how industry analysts pose the question of potential earnings to authors. You want to laugh, but you have to cry.
Can you choose to publish with Random House? No. You can choose to send your manuscript to an agent and hope to secure their services and hope they submit your work to an editor at Random House, and hope you get an offer, and hope the book comes out. The only real choice is between self-publishing and querying an agent. But that’s not how the data on earnings and satisfaction were presented in this panel at RWA. What we saw were the results of publishing paths, not the expected outcomes of each potential choice.
If you want to show the outcome of each choice, you need to know how many people are submitting manuscripts that never get published. You need to know how many of those people give up and choose not to self-publish. Otherwise, you are taking the very top of one group and lining them up against the entirety of the other group. This seems so basic to many of us that we can’t understand how it doesn’t get through to these analysts. If you are trying to help authors make favorable decisions with their manuscripts, they need to know the odds at the outset, not the final outcome for those who won some lottery.
But what really blew me away about this panel, and why I applauded mightily at the end and thanked the analysts for putting the data together, was this: The artificially small and tilted selection of traditionally published authors did not fare much better than all of self-published authors in either income or satisfaction. Think about that for a minute. Even making the gross mistake of just looking at the winners from the traditional publishing path, this analyst wasn’t able to show that they were better off than the path that lumps in every single self-published author!
And imagine if the hybrids were placed where they belong!
What we have here is very similar to that flat graph on reading spending above: A seeming contradiction when there is none. There’s just a massive mistake in how the question is framed. Why are self-published authors walking around at RWA with so many success stories and so much personal and professional satisfaction? Because as an entire group, they are doing as well as the top few percent of those who managed to get traditionally published. Imagine if an analyst actually averaged in the zero dollars that most query-writers earn from their mailed-in manuscripts? (You know, that bar to the far left.) Imagine if they averaged in the negative satisfaction from all those rejection letters. (That same bar to the left.) The equality in earnings and satisfaction would disappear. And these analysts would see what everyone in the trenches is seeing: The good news amid all the FUD and noise.