Digital Book World surveys authors - 'Risks, Rewards, Commitment'

Digital Book World surveys authors - 'Risks, Rewards, Commitment'


Have you ever actually seen an olive branch?

Self-publishing has dramatically changed the freedom and control authors exercise over their writing careers. The self-publishing successes of top-selling and midlist authors have made it possible for many of them to earn more income from their writing and have raised questions about why authors need publishers.

Those are the first two sentences of the executive summary for The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market: Risks, Rewards, and Commitment

Elements of the new survey, conducted by Digital Book World in association with Writer's Digest, will be referred to in a Digital Book World Conference + Expo panel Thursday (15th January) at 3 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. GMT. That session -- lengthily titled "Authors Facing the Industry: Data and Insights from Authors on the Publishing Business, Author-Publisher Relations, and Marketing" -- will feature David Vinjamuri, Rick Chapman, Bianca D'Arc, moderator Jane Friedman, and the new survey's author, Dana Beth Weinberg.

Weinberg, a sociologist on the faculty at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, found herself at the center of controversy last year, when the survey's presentation triggered objections from many in the self-publishing sector. Articulated with special concern by the self- and traditionally publishing author Hugh Howey, the 2014 survey's interpretation had made incorrect comparisons of the potential and reality of the two main modes of publication. Amid the debate, Howey went on to inaugurate his quarterly studies in association with an unnamed technical associate. The acrimony surrounding the controversy, as it turned out, was a prelude to a deepening rift not only between many authors and the publishing establishment but also between many self- and traditionally publishing authors. This would become most apparent in a sharp division of opinions during the Amazon-Hachette negotiations.

Not unlike late-year calls from the author corps for cooler rhetoric and a step-back from hostilities, the new year's annual DBW survey -- in which Howey actually urged his fellow authors to participate -- is positioned in a carefully devised pivot:

This year, we take the primary question raised by [the 2014] debate, coupled with the results of last year’s survey, as a starting point and ask: What is the nature of the various publishing business models? Who takes on risk and how much? What are the rewards, and how are they split? And finally, given these arrangements, what do authors really get in the end?

Lessons learned, perhaps, there are significant changes in the tone and emphasis of this year's presentation, as developed by Weinberg -- herself, a hybrid author.

Weinberg's analysis envisions "the various publishing options open to authors as existing along" a spectrum of "risk-sharing, reward-sharing, and investment." 

On one side of the risk continuum is the self-publishing model where the author takes on the entire burden of risk for a project, making all of the necessary investments. At the other extreme, the traditional publisher shoulders all of the risk (and pays the author up front). Across the risk continuum, investments in projects can range from low to high, as measured, for example, by decisions about production cost and quality, print and digital distribution and marketing and promotion.

Rewards as well as risk, Weinberg writes, can be expected to be divided "along a continuum, as well, "with all profits to the author on one side and all to the publisher on the other (as in a work-for-hire model)."

Rather than effectively asking "is traditional publishing better than self-publishing?" in other words, the survey report this year looks to use its information to determine what sort of risks and rewards can be anticipated in various approaches for authors to publication. There is no attempt to proclaim one way (or the highway) to be better than another. Writes Weinberg:

Having delineated the differences between types of publisher in terms of risks and rewards, we then turn our attention to the difference in sales and earnings for authors engaged in these different modes of publishing.

And any input the survey has to work with in terms of those sales and earnings has been provided, the summary makes it very clear, in the voluntary responses offered by writers. 

This year's sample

Responded to by 2,545 authors this time, the report focuses its attention on the 1,879 published authors who completed the survey. Some highlights about the respondents group, per Weinberg:

  • More than half of this author sample group has only indie-published (55.8%, n=1,049), 13.0% have only traditionally published (n=245) and close to a third (31.1%, n=585) have done both.
  • The sample includes a mix of both experienced and relatively new authors as well as a mix of prolific and less accomplished authors.
  • Compared to the other two types of authors, the hybrid authors in the sample tend to be older and to have had longer and more prolific careers.
  • The vast majority of authors in this study reported that their latest book was fiction, with romance representing the most popular category both for traditional and for indie publications. Thus, the results of this report will be most applicable to genre fiction publishing.
  • The “average” respondent to the survey (based on median results) is a college-educated woman in her mid- to late-forties who indie-publishes genre fiction, most likely romance, has published three books and began publishing in 2011.
  • In all, a total of 830 respondents provided information on their most recent traditional publishing experiences, and 1,634 respondents provided information on their most recent indie-publishing experiences.

As in past iterations of the survey, the 2015 edition's responses indicate the highest earning potential, among those responding. Weinberg writes:

Hybrid authors earned a median annual income from their writing of about $7,500–$9,999, compared to a median of $3,000–$4,999 for those who had only traditionally published, and $500–$999 for indie-only authors. Overall, half of the writers in the sample earned $1,000–$2,999 or less while half earned this amount or more. Close to 10% of this year’s authors reported earning $100,000 or more, with 4.1% earning $250,000 or more.

That last reference to authors earning $100,000 and $250,000 is interesting in that some of the higher-earning independent authors last year voiced concerns that their input had not been sought. It would seem that a near-10-percent participation by writers in the $100,000+ bracket suggests participation of the bigger earners end of the experience.

Satisfaction highest among self-publishing independent authors

Weinberg created a 12-item index on which she could rate responses of survey takers, and found that the indie set, as a whole among those answering the survey's questions, said they were happiest with their experience. She writes:

We find that overall, indie authors who published through their own companies or LLCs were the most satisfied with their publishing experience, with at least half indicating that they were satisfied or very satisfied on every aspect of the process (median=4). Indie authors who published on their own had similar scores but were slightly less consistently satisfied with the various aspects of their publishing experiences (median=3.91). Other authors were not as consistently satisfied but neither were they consistently dissatisfied with their experiences (all with median=3.33).

And in a series of overall conclusions, Weinberg touches on the viewpoint and interests of publishers as well as of authors.

Here, she takes the viewpoint of the traditional industry:

On the traditional publishing side, we showed that traditional publishers who shoulder the greatest risk for projects are more selective in the authors they select—opting for authors who are more experienced and have a proven track record—than are risk-sharing publishers. At the same time, these publishers also expect a greater share of rewards for themselves, keeping a greater share of royalties and claiming most of the rights to the work beyond what they might be using now.

Then, from the independent side:

On the indie side, authors who indie publish all shoulder the risk for their own projects, but they differ in terms of reward allocations. While most indie authors retain all rights and a very high degree of net royalties, those who publish with vanity presses tend to have reward sharing arrangements, in which they pay a portion of royalties to the vanity press that they have paid for producing and perhaps distributing their book.

Indeed, Weinberg readily accounts for the dissatisfaction some traditionally published authors seem to have for their experience, emphasis mine:

[Traditionally published] authors have high expectations of what their publishers might do for them. They tend not to be satisfied with the publishing experience until a certain income threshold is reached, and this threshold is far higher for traditional publishing than for indie. Reaching this benchmark level of sales requires substantial investment of an amount that only a small fraction of books receive from publishers and that only a small number of books seem to earn back.

In a thoughtful turn of interpretation, what Weinberg finally focuses on is a question of investment. Who can invest more? What is the likely result of higher or lower investment in one scenario or another? 

'A market in which supply outpaces demand'

In her final analysis, Weinberg -- who will be bringing parts of the survey to light in coming weeks -- writes of how tough the market is for everyone, particularly at a time of such high output in both the traditional and self-publishing sectors.

(At the 2013 FutureBook Conference in London, one of the most interesting of a series of calls from the stage for change was that of Canongate's Jamie Byng who declared that we simply are publishing too many books -- this, from a major independent publishing house.)

What this brings her to is an understanding of the survey's exercise and results in terms of investment: to those who can muster the greatest investment in their projects -- in any pathway to publication -- may well go the spoils. 

She writes:

Publishing seems to be fast becoming a money game, in which those authors who on their own or through their publishers are able to invest heavily in a project are likely to break through the sales and earnings barrier.

Needless to say, the investment that even major houses are willing to make, in all but the blockbuster-level authors and projects -- seems to be questioned regularly and loudly, and not just by the independent community but also from within.

Few authors receive or are able to make that kind of investment, and established or well-funded publishers have a decided advantage. At the same time, publishers willing to expend this level of resources are also choosy about which authors merit these higher levels of investment. In view of the directional shifts in the market, it seems reasonable to speculate that that choosiness will only intensify for the foreseeable future, which could make it increasingly difficult for traditional publishers to justify their roles as investors in worthy projects that may not otherwise survive without them.

The 2015 Digital Book World survey of authors who have volunteered to answer its questions is what it is, to use a hackneyed phrase, without making claims to be or mean more than it can. It's on sale now at the DBW online store as a resource to those who would like its input. And we'll hear more details of it in posts at the site by Weinberg and editorial director Rich Bellis.

Where Weinberg seems to come down this time around is on the point of volatility and challenge. And in an earlier era, the line might have been, "It rains on the just and the unjust." She concludes:

For all parties, the challenge is a market in which supply outpaces demand, and the incredibly large volume of books makes discoverability an ever greater challenge for authors and publishers of all stripes. Perhaps in a market where few books will sell tremendously well, a pervading optimism and hope for the future are valuable prizes indeed, and investments of faith can bring returns of their own.


Graphical illustrations from "The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market," Digital Book World, 2015, Executive Summary

Main image - Shutterstock: Vladimir Salman