'Perspective on the Book Business'
Is there any industry so feverishly bent on surveying itself as publishing?
This week, my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller in Taking a measure of the FutureBook audience has launched the 2015 Digital Census, results of which will be released in relation to the Author Day / FutureBook week of activity in late November and early December.
The survey takes only some eight minutes to get through and we're eager to have input from you, wherever you are in the world—this isn't a UK-only survey. Jones writes:
[This year's Digital Census is] designed this year to be more about you, with questions around your views on the digital transition. These range from which business models are most likely to prevail in the near future, to what the right price for an e-book should be. There are specific sections for publishers and authors, and for the first time questions for those working within start-ups and other book tech companies. What is their perspective on the book business, and how can we help them take their innovations to the next stage.
Our topic in #FutureChat today is publishing's penchant for surveying itself. We're wall-to-wall with survey events this week, good time to talk about this.
Of course, the Census is produced from the responses of a self-selecting sample. That is to say, rather than polling a scientifically modeled study universe as a Gallup product might do, the exercise is based on what was said by volunteer respondents. And that kind of survey is under fairly constant attack—as was evident earlier this week when the author Barry Eisler responded to the Author Guild's release of its dramatically titled "The Wages of Writing" survey results on its author-income study.
As I've written at Thought Catalog, the Authors Guild survey is being questioned because its self-selecting sample skews older, almost 90 percent of its respondents identifying themselves as being 50 or older. Interestingly, few people seem to disagree with its findings that writer-related income won't get many book authors above the federal poverty line in the States. What's of more concern to many is how the thing was created and whether its findings can be considered comprehensive or reliable.
When I asked the Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger for some commentary on the organisation's release of results for its first US author-income survey since 2009, she defended the age-range of the majority of respondents (50 and older) and made a cogent point:
Every study that exists on author income is based on self-selecting responses. A truly representative survey of American authors would be cost-prohibitive, if not altogether impossible. (The difficulty lies in determining what the overall author population looks like demographically; Codex Group reports that there is no data on this or manageable way to obtain it.)
Of course, her apt observation doesn't mean we should accept what we're hearing from self-selecting surveys. But it does shed light on how hard it might be to get something truly scientific.
And sometimes, this problem of the data dearth isn't ameliorated even by what might be considered to be "purer" procedures of analysis.
Earlier this week, another round of study material, AuthorEarnings, was released in its latest quarterly rendition by the author Hugh Howey and Data Guy. In that case, no self-selecting sample is used but, in fact, the team has to crawl and scrape Amazon sales pages to put together its estimates of how indie vs. traditionally published ebook sales are going. Some intriguing items are turned up by this latest round of AuthorEarnings, For example, quoting selectively from the report:
- Today, 34 percent of indie author earnings from the Amazon store—over a third of indie Kindle revenue—takes the form of KU payments for pages read: in July, KU accounted for 2 billion pages (KENP) and $11.5 million dollars in direct author compensation...
- Traditionally-published authors are barely earning 40 percent of all Kindle ebook royalties paid, while self-published indie authors and those published by Amazon’s imprints are taking home almost 60 percent...
- Traditionally-published ebooks make up 42 percent of Kindle ebooks purchased in the US...
- Indie ebooks without ISBNs have grown from 30 percent of all Kindle ebooks purchased in January 2015 to now account for 37 percent of all Kindle ebooks being purchased in September.
And yet, as I write at Thought Catalog in AuthorEarnings: Brought To You By Us, Your Breathless Media, in order to get to these bits of information surfaced by the good spiders of AuthorEarnings, you have to wade through almost a thousand words of an inflammatory invocation. These estimable colleagues have all but neutralised the value of their own work by coming in way too hot, revealing a vehement agenda-driven bias in their presentation. Their mission seems to have changed to something about making legacy survey analysis (Nielsen, the Association of American Publishers) look unconscionably misleading.
And in the middle of this week, we were treated to even more survey material—our coffee cups really runneth over—this time in Nielsen's Children's Book Summit, its second annual doing, in New York City.
While I handled live coverage on the #KidsBookSummit hashtag at the Convene Seaport complex in Manhattan, my colleague Gayle Feldman was there, as well, for The Bookseller.
As she dashed off to write her piece for us, she and I agreed that the team led by Kristen McLean (who now is director of new business development for Nielsen) had its pithiest revelations in the area of the multicultural consumer base now coming into focus in the US market.
Courtney Jones, Nielsen v.p. for multicultural strategy, revealed that 84% of the “most significant” markets in the US are “multicultural-majority.” Forty-four percent of millennials aged 20-39 are from ethnic minorities. But what concentrated the mind was that 51% of “generation next” – kids under nine – also are, constituting the majority of the children’s market now. Publishers ignore that at their peril.
But in thinking about #FutureChat for today, consider the upbeat energy with which the Bookseller Association's (BA) annual conference is coming together in the UK this weekend.
Jones writes of booksellers being "in better shape than they have been for years." In his leader piece for today's edition of the magazine on the stands in London, he recounts the happy but almost peculiar way in which UK bookshops—which seemed to be sliding into the abyss in 2008—now are apparently humming along nicely, "the blows...less profound than they might have been."
If you'd been surveyed in previous years, you'd likely have reported, as most of us believed, that sinkholes were opening up in the high streets and swallowing these independent emporia whole, right?
Well, not so much. And make no mistake, we're very glad that the news is positive from the storefronts and cash registers. In fact, this parallels the cheery "endangered no more" message that the BA's Newer World counterparts, the American Booksellers Association (ABA), sent out from its annual meeting at BookExpo America in May, as I wrote up here for The Bookseller.
But what does all this say about our ability to pull off meaningful surveys? We certainly weren't gathering many such smiling purviews back in the day, were we?
This story was written as the walkup to our #FutureChat of Friday, 18th September. Join us each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).
Are you being surveyed?
With publishing surveys almost as ubiquitous as Hillary Clinton books (here's the latest, from Bloomsbury and Karen Blumenthal, in case you need to add it to your collection), we'd like to take a high-level look at these polls today in #FutureChat.
- How much do you think we learn from our many surveys?
- Which ones make the most sense, and how do you decide which hold water and which don't?
- Can you recall ever being completely changed in your thinking about something by survey results? On anything, you name it.
- Or do we tend only to hear and accommodate survey results that ratify our pre-existing opinions of things?
- Do you agree with Rasenberger that in many cases we can't even model a scientific sample because we have so little actual data?
- Will you be participating in our 2015 FutureBook Digital Census? (The correct answer is "Yes, Porter.")
- And what, overall, do you make of this seemingly bottomless drive to survey ourselves in the bookish world?
Maybe Rasenberger has it. If you expand what she's saying to all issues in publishing, not just author income, this comment seems quite apt to me:
At the end of the day, our 2015 member survey is only one piece of the puzzle and it is just a start in unraveling the state of authorship today. We need a more complete set of data on author earnings in this country and better understanding of the causes.
See you in #FutureChat.
Join us each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).
- Please plan to be with us on 4th December at The Mermaid in London for the fifth-anniversary FutureBook Conference.
- And consider participating in our inaugural Author Day (#AuthorDay) in central London, 30th November, the kick-off to a big week of #FutureBook15 events.
As we add more "Five-Minute Manifestos on the Future of the Book Business, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:
- A manifesto: Ten commandments for authors | Teymour Shahabi
- A manifesto for ebooks on art | Carol Strickland
- A manifesto for publishers: Rip up your schedules | Hannah MacDonald
- A manifesto for trade publishing | Alastair Horne
- A manifesto for the ebook | Catherine Dunn
- A manifesto for self-publishing authors | Orna Ross
Main image - iStockphoto: Get Up Studio