The Discussion Over "Author Earnings" (Part 1)

It's time to start looking at what a lot of people have been talking about this week: bestselling self-published author Hugh Howey's "Author Earnings" website and "report."

In case you have not read it (or read about it), Howey joined up with a programmer and they crawled some of Amazon's genre bestseller lists for a brief period. Based on that and Howey's own experiential deductions about correlations between Amazon "sales rank" and actual unit sales for his own books, they came up with elaborate (and unsupportable) -- but provocative -- declarations about yearly sales and authors earnings via Kindle sales. That information is being presented as revealing "data" about how the ebook world really works. But Amazon's hourly bestseller lists are a merchandising tool, controlled by the site according to their own black box methods and designed to drive their company agenda -- which includes selling more ebooks, and whenever possible increasing the share of KDP and Amazon Publishing titles on their own site. Amazon is a very successful retailer of print books and ebooks, but their marketplace has its own characteristics (e.g., as some trade folks have noted, mass market paperbacks have never been a particular strength of their), and represents only a portion of the overall market.

From a trade perspective there are lots of problems with Howey's methodology and conclusions. A number of trade people have posted and commented already, including Mike Shatzkin, agent Joshua Bilmes, and Dana Beth Weinberg -- who actually runs a Masters program in data analytics and applied social research and is also an author, but has oddly come under fire in some forums for telling a story in the Writers Digest/DBW survey of authors that does not correspond to what others want to hear. (They were then joined by others still, including more people with training/professional experience in data analysis and math.)

We have no need or desire to repeat what others have said, or to reinforce how I would expect most experienced trade professionals view this presentation. It is worth pointing out, to Howey's credit, the definitive declarations of his own report are graciously softened in his comments on Shatzkin's post, where Howey says, "I would say I agree with 86 percent of it." Later in the dialogue, Howey notes: "I enjoy all things publishing. I like geeking out over this stuff. And I don't have any problem being wrong. I'm not offended when people disagree. So I'll probably keep right on pontificating and advocating. I like it.... Let's keep having fun bouncing ideas and opinions around and not take it any more seriously than it needs to be taken. There are no experts here. The ground is shifting too fast for that sort of hubris."

It's also to Howey's credit that his post has inspired a lot of discussion and thinking. At the end of the day, asking questions and challenging assumptions ought to be valuable for us all. Sometimes being provocatively wrong is a very effective way of getting people to re-examine their assumptions. The publishing world is changing all the time, and self-publishing in particular is a dynamic and growing segment, and our worldview should be open to change as well. At least some people have noted to us that, if nothing else, Howey's limited crawl of Amazon's genre lists underscores how Amazon Publishing and KDP titles occupy a big place in the upper echelons of the etailer's sales in specific categories.

Howey's stated goal for his report was to provide "greater transparency so that up-and-coming authors can make better-informed decisions." That ought to be a shared goal. We've all lamented how unfortunate it is that in a time when information should be broadly accessible in real-time, we are experiencing the inverse instead. As a business, I think publishing can do a lot better in telling a clearer and more transparent story about the billions of dollars that are paid out to authors every year, both as royalties and as nonrefundable wagers on future projects and investment in the research, writing and development of important stories to be told. If you want authors to understand the "real story," then you have to help tell that story.

But the most interesting starting place for Howey and self-published authors in general should be Amazon. The primary reason we do not have deep data and transparency about ebook sales, in both units and dollars, is because of Amazon. They keep their data private for competitive advantage in the marketplace, plain and simple. (BTW, if Amazon were to disclose their data in a Bookscan-style system, the other major players would happily participate.) If you want real answers, and real data, "so that up-and-coming authors can make better-informed decisions" as Howey puts it, you need to pressure Amazon to provide it. And it's rather astonishing to us that this obvious point is not the rallying cry of Howey's report and many comments and forum posts in support of it. Have authors simply accepted Amazon's damaging secrecy, even as they take almost nothing else about the publishing process for granted?

Amazon has done a lot of things to empower and enrich self-published authors, and they often make a point of contrasting their practices with traditional publishing ways when doing so. "In this digital age, we don't see why authors should have to wait six months to be paid," Jeff Belle said, when the Amazon Publishing unit moved to monthly royalty reporting.

In this digital age, we don't see why authors should have to be in the dark about real sales on the site that works so hard to secure their trust as the *exclusive* venue where their product is sold. Those half-a-million exclusive authors should not stand for fake data and merchandising lists.

And in the meantime, maybe the entities with big resources (and data scientists and web crawlers) should start producing some of their own reports to give authors another perspective. Part 2 of this post will be about what the data we do have really shows, and where some of the popular memes that try to deny that data go astray. Look for it later today or over the weekend at our site.