Arithmetic for writers, part 2: publishing equations

numbers

Silk’s Post #88 — Confession time. I have read much about, listened to experts on, contemplated, discussed and agonized over the lifeblood topic of getting published (a.k.a. what’s supposed to happen after your book is written). Nevertheless, if I had to take an exam on the subject, I’d flunk the course.

It’s complicated. The traditional versus the independent (self-published) routes. The large and small publishing houses, the agents, the editors, the book doctors, the vanity presses, the e-books, the online marketing channels, the promotion. All of it doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly. So I’ve been putting off any truly serious study of this topic on the theory that I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an account by a writer whose digital publishing dream turned into something of a nightmare. It finally pushed me out of my warm, feather-lined, fledgling writer’s nest and into the wild blue yonder called Today’s Publishing Reality.

So, reluctantly, I started flapping – in preference to going splat on the ground before I even have a manuscript ready for publishing consideration. That day will come. I’d like to have at least a rudimentary flight plan before it does.

The digitally disappointed writer is journalist and successful book author Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic and other non-fiction titles), and his plaint, “I Was a Digital Bestseller”, was published in the NY Times op-ed pages this month. Okay, don’t get too freaked out. There are a lot of caveats, buts, qualifications and exceptions to this story as it might apply to you and me, the unpublished novelists of the world. First, his book on the Keystone Pipeline titled Boom was a topical, long-form journalistic work, not a novel. Second, after all sorts of disappointing complications such as his digital publisher going belly up, he still managed to get paid $15,000 to write itI assume he also got paid something by the NY Times to write about writing it. I know. What’s he whining about?

For me, the point was that an experienced, “name brand”, published author (with an agent, even) found himself lost in space when it came to the realities – the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls – of today’s increasingly complex and fragmented publishing industry. What does that mean for a nameless little baby chick like me? Or maybe you?

So after being shook up by one author who has sworn off publishing e-books and has resumed his love affair with traditional print and traditional publishers, I checked out the other side of the story. You can too in the blog post by author Brenna Aubrey, “Why I Turned Down a Three-Book New York Print Deal to Self-Publish”, which makes a compelling argument for just the opposite. How to judge who’s right, if either?

So I started doing some basic research, and of course quickly got lost in a thicket of information and perspectives. Paula, our 5writers Research Queen, initially came to my rescue with an excellent report on the website Author Earnings by Hugh Howey, titled “The 7k Report”, which neatly sorts through a ton of data regarding the financial side of various publishing channels (Independent, Amazon, Small-Medium Publishers, Big 5 Publishers, Single Author Publishers). The report’s conclusions favour Indie publishing over other routes, in terms of benefits to authors.

But the eyebrow-raising numbers, including the apparent explosion in the number of published authors and books – now that just about anyone can do it for themselves – only served to raise more questions for me. Like: how many books really are published every year? How many authors are out there? How many of them make a living at it? What are the chances of “making it” and what factors really differentiate those who do from those who don’t?

The first thing I discovered is that “official” numbers, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are useless. Writers of novels are grouped in with a whole bunch of other kinds of writers, including advertising copywriters. Also, such counts are based on people’s self-reported primary jobs, so everyone who isn’t a full-time writer who makes their primary income from writing (but may have published some novels, or perhaps has secreted 27 unpublished manuscripts under the bed) likely doesn’t get counted.

The second thing I discovered is that in seeking the answers these questions, I was travelling down a well-worn path. What one might guess would be easily obtainable facts turned out to be quite hard to nail down. And many have tried. For a highly entertaining account of one Austin, TX writer’s rigorous pursuit of the answer to the question “How Many Novelists are at Work in America?”, see Dominic Smith’s terrific essay on the website The Millions.

But what of the writer’s chances of success? Are there no statistics that can shed some light on that burning question? Again, yes … and no. Novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist William Dietrich took a stab at this in his essay on Huffington Post titled “The Writer’s Odds of Success” in 2013. It was a good stab, but he failed to even draw blood, and the question escaped unanswered (sorry, no Pulitzer for this post, William). It’s still a good read, though, with lots of gossipy bits about the earnings of bestselling writers. Probably the essay on numbers and success that tickled me most was a post on Kirsten Lamb’s Blog titled “Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?” (one of her observations was that the harder a writer worked the luckier he/she got).

All these essays and blog posts are worthwhile reads. If you’re like me, they will enlighten and confuse you at the same time. However they offer many insights and interpretations that go beyond mere numbers. I especially recommend “The 7k Report” for its rigorous use of statistical data to clarify trends, complete with eye-popping charts and graphs.

But to cut to the chase (and without spoiling the recommended articles for you), here is some arithmetic for writers gleaned from various and sundry sources. I make no promises about their accuracy or reliability whatsoever, and caution the reader to recall the quip sometimes attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and made famous by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  • James Patterson made $94 million in 2012 (might as well start off with the good news) — Horowitz, citing Forbes magazine
  • More than 80% of Americans would like to be an author — Dietrich, citing polls
  • Only 5% of the millions of people who say they want to write actually do it. — Lamb
  • Only 5% of this who start writing a book will actually finish it. — Lamb
  • According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 145,900 American writers and authors in 2012, a quarter of them part time and two-thirds of them self-employed, with median earnings of $55,420 (but remember they include a ton of non-novelists) — Dietrich
  • Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 39% increase in the number of self-reported authors in the US. — Smith
  • In 2011, there were 329,259 books published in the US — Dietrich
  • In 2012, the number of adult fiction titles published with ISBN numbers in the US was 67, 254 — Smith, citing sources
  • 2.2 million books were published worldwide in 2011 — Dietrich
  • Self-published books make up 25% of the top 100 list on Amazon — Howey
  • Of 1.2 million books tracked by Neilson Bookscan, only 25,000 (just over 2%) sold more than 5,000 copies — Dietrich
  • A #1 ranking in “page turning narratives” on Amazon Kindle Singles is possible to achieve with as few as 700-800 sales — Horowitz, citing statistics for his book “Boom”
  • The average book in 2006 sold less than 500 copies — Dietrich, citing Publishers Weekly
  • The highest percentage of genre e-books on the bestseller lists (more than one third) are indie-published — Howey
  • Indie-published authors outsell Big-5 (traditional large publishing house) published authors on Amazon. — Howey
  • 76% of all books released in 2008 were self-published — Smith, citing sources
  • While the often-cited “rule of thumb” proportion of overall book sales represented by e-books is 25%, this figure accounts for only e-books through major publishers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBookstore, Google Play) and does not include self-published books or those e-published by small presses. — Howey
  • 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon bookstore are e-books. — Howey
  • While Big 5 publishers typically pay 25% of net revenue to authors for e-book sales, self-published authors usually keep 70% of the total purchase price. — Howey

That should give you a lot to think about, and hopefully some further reading that may toss you back and forth between elation and despair. But let me end by quoting some encouraging words from Kirsten Lamb, which bring some much-needed wisdom to this crazy writing and publishing game:

” … the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look. This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.”

 

4 thoughts on “Arithmetic for writers, part 2: publishing equations

  1. Wow, my brain hurts! This is seriously a good article and I’m saving it to come back to as I progress toward making a decision for my next book. Thank you for putting it together. -Linda

    • Thanks for your kind comments Linda.my brain hurt just writing this — math is not my favourite subject, and I bet I’m not alone among writers in that regard. By the luck of the draw we writers today are victors or casualties in a publishing revolution, or so my research (thus far superficial) suggests. While the shift from the known (print sold in bricks-and-mortar bookstores) is a bit traumatic, the one thing I feel confident of is that opportunities arise from change. It helps keep me going when I look at the odds of getting published in the traditional manner. Good luck with your book!

  2. Silk, kudos for doing all this research and for digging deeper into this most important topic. Personally, I haven’t given it too much thought – yet – because I am still in the process of writing a marketable manuscript. Still, all writers need to have this debate at some point. I recall my last time at SIWC, when Donald Maass closed the conference with his speech about that very topic. Of course he was upbeat on traditional publishing, but lots of what he said rang true. From a different perspective, most of the people I discuss books with prefer to buy and read traditional print. They feel that it gives them a certain ‘quality assurance’ because of the publisher’s tough review process that self-published titles are lacking. The debate on how this industry evolves is far from over. Thanks for starting it on the blog.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Helga. Like you, I’m a printed book fan … Haven’t quite gotten into the habit of reading books on a tablet. But I’m being forced to admit I’m quickly becoming part of a minority in this. At the same time, a lot of “indie” books are also available online in print form, thanks to “print on demand” technology. I realize I have a lot to learn before I get to the marketing stage, but I think the good news is that there are now more “accepted” options when it comes to publishing, and it’s no longer a case of going the traditional route, or just giving up and going home.

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