A recent discussion about e-book sales among “indie” authors (those who have not been published traditionally or with minimal experience of conventional publishing) has inspired some interesting number crunching and (it seems to me) some rather overoptimistic speculation about the prospects for new authors who attempt to bypass the publisher system altogether by doing their own publicity and publishing electronically.
One of the most vociferous proponents of the “go it alone” model for authorship is thriller writer Joe Konrath, but critics of his approach often say that his success with self publishing could be due in large part to his already having been a conventionally published author before moving aggressively into online sales. Robin Sullivan, a guest on his blog, unveiled an analysis of 54 ‘indie’ authors who revealed on an electronic publishing message board that they were selling more than 1000 books a month. On top of that list is Amanda Hocking, who claims to have sold more than 450,000 titles in January alone.
Robin, who is the publicist for (and wife of) Michael Sullivan, an author on that list, provides some more detailed information about the economics of being an author of this kind in her posting. Derek Canyon also discusses the economics and provides a breakdown of the authors on that list by genre and by number of books in “print”.
It is undeniably true that, as Robin and Joe claim, it is possible to “do well” self publishing without having been published already conventionally- only six of the 54 authors on their list had been published by major publishers, for example. Nonetheless, some caution is in order. A few concerns leap out at me:
- This is a self-selecting sample out of an unknown population providing self reported statistics. Leaving aside the question of whether they have an interest in exaggerating their sales, this gives us no information about how easy it might be for others to follow their leads.
- no information is provided about the balance of sales between e-books and regular books (although given the source is kindleboards.com one can imagine that the proportion of e-book sales would be high), and more importantly we do not know the price at which each book is sold. This is important because it is possible to sell one’s book on Kindle for as little as $.99 (and if you do you only get $0.30 per book sold).
- The implicit definition of “doing well” as an independent author is, it seems to me, a rather undemanding one. As Derek Canyon puts it:
If you assume that the cover price of the book is $2.99 (the minimum required to receive a 70% royalty from Amazon), then the author is making just over $2,000 per month, or $24,000 per year!
Median income of workers in the US in 2009 was $36,000 for men, $26,000 for women – for graduates (and I am guessing most writers are), this rises to $62k or $44k. If earning $24k a year is success, then “don’t give up your day job” (and many writers don’t). Mind you, things look a lot better if you compare only to other writers. A survey of UK writers in 2005 found that even those who spent more than 50% of their time writing, earned 64% of the median wage.
- If you look at the list of primary genres for the authors who are included in this self-selecting survey, it does not include literary fiction or poetry. Whether this is because “literary” authors do not hang out on this particular bulletin board, because such authors are not interested in ebooks, because literary fiction or poetry have a hard time selling as e-books or simply because they always have a hard time selling in the market as a whole compared to “genre” works is unclear.
Clearly it is very early days in the development of electronic publishing and e-books. It remains very possible that bypassing conventional publishing to market and sell e-books will indeed become a viable option for many authors or even, potentially, a dominant one as e-book reader technology continues to develop and as the devices become increasingly popular. I think that individual case studies and small-scale surveys like these can provide an interesting snapshot of the current state of development, but I also think it is a mistake to read too much into them.
I hope in the coming years to be able to shed more light on this fascinating subject myself – stay tuned!
Having lived quite successfully without a car for more than 40 years in a variety of cities well supplied with public transport, a short but particularly transport–unfriendly commute is starting to make us think of getting one. But there are so many decisions to consider. Can someone point us to some resources which can help? Better still– if a friend reads this who can advise us could you get in touch?
The rough parameters are these:
should be unglamorous but practical and seat four (5 door)
would be used for a daily commute of 7.6mi (12.2km) each way in city traffic plus a limited amount of weekend use (long-distance highway use is unlikely)
should be as green as possible, though of course that gets us into a thicket of considerations– electric versus hybrid versus economical diesel and then a life-cycle analysis for the components etc
Ideally, we would like a method that did not commit us too much as we are not sure we will actually want to keep a car and/or might not like the one we get. Hence we might consider leasing instead of buying or getting a cheapo used car we can dispose of easily (though choosing a used car is such a minefield again we aren’t sure where to begin).
Any suggestions? Now I know how technophobes feel when purchasing their first computer…
1) I started my new job as Senior Lecturer in the Division of Journalism and Communication at the University of Bedfordshire this week and have enjoyed meeting my new colleagues (and collecting my new Macbook Pro).
2) I just met my editor at Palgrave and agreed to write a book (my first full-length academic one) provisionally titled “Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media” – likely to be delivered in 2013. I plan to blog about it as I write using the “Sharing Our Lives Online” category, so keep an eye on that…
3) On my way back from that meeting I discovered that my wife has also just found a position for when her current one finishes, which given the turbulent situation in the NHS where she works is a big relief.
Of course I would be open to receiving further good news but these three bits of news are certainly enough to be starting with!
Kassia Kroser has written an extensive and thoughtful blog post about sustaining book-related online conversations which goes into useful detail about many of the issues. Some of what she has been talking about (having a single place to go to to bring together discussion about a book) seems to be being tackled by the Open Library but while that site links to a few book review sites this still means in order to see a range of readers’ thoughts about a book you have to visit several sites.
To my mind the biggest problem for social reading at the moment is that aside from Amazon (whose reviews are not well-presented and whose database is deficient in a number of ways) there is no single site or service which has built up sufficient scale to act as a ‘one-stop-shop’ aggregator of meta-book commentary in the way that the IMDB for example is the ‘go to’ place to find meta-film commentary and information. Of course if such a space did exist you’d then have the problem of dealing with an effective monopoly – something we are already encountering to some extent with Amazon and online book purchasing – though if the space were owned and run by a consortium of publishers or by a not-for-profit organization then the risks would be less than would be the case if it were run by a single for-profit entity.
This podcast interview by Jesse Brown with the creator of Dinosaur Comics and this web interview about the brief but dazzling success of a short story collection, ‘Machine of Death are interesting at a number of levels.
Briefly, a group of well-known web comic creators got together and found contributors from among their readers for this short story collection that they would then illustrate. No mainstream publisher would touch it because it didn’t contain material from authors they recognised, so they thought they would self-publish it. And they organized the fan base they had gathered from their web comic activity to buy the book all at once in order to get media attention. It worked and the book hit number 1 for several hours on Amazon US (though as they said it only took “thousands” of sales to do this – it’s now at #1192). A few days later, they released the full text of the book free as a downloadable PDF.
This phenomenon has naturally excited a number of the proponents of “new authorship” models and it is indeed an impressive achievement, but I would add a few cautionary notes to this tale:
Ryan North says he is able to make a ‘comfortable living’ from t-shirt sales driven by his free online comic strip but wouldn’t say how much this amounted to (and his standards of ‘comfortable’ may have been formed by his recent status as an impecunious grad student).
It benefited from promotion by the fan bases of several well-known web comics authors, was promoted on a number of very prominent sites like boingboing, and falls into the sci-fi/fantasy genre. It may even be a great read (I don’t know yet but I have started downloading the podcast). Taken together this constitutes a nearly ‘perfect storm’ in favour of this book.
The broader question for the future of this model has to be how replicable it is. At the moment this is newsworthy – the economic significance of online-driven publication will be proven when tens of thousands instead of (I’m guessing) a few hundred authors can earn enough in this way to afford to bypass the conventional publishing system.
Of course none of this should take away from the fact that even if this is not the start of an economic revolution for new authors it may well be the start of a cultural revolution enabling many more people to become published authors (even if with a rather different notion of what being ‘published’ means). It is this as much as anything else I intend to explore in my upcoming research.
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