Over on Jane Friedman’s blog on “Writing, reading, and publishing in the digital age,” and in his own blog, Porter Anderson has just highlighted, at great length and in great detail, systematic bias in the coverage of income for self-published versus traditionally published authors. In his piece, entitled “Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go,” he gives some insights that should be very useful to any writers who have been deterred from the self-publishing route because of lower reported income than traditional publishing, as in the recent Digital Book World survey of writers’ motives and actual incomes.
Anderson’s piece is partly an extended engagement with and critique of that DBW-led poll. And he does so with the help of another critique of the same material by self-published author and increasingly influential community spokesperson Hugh Howey, entitled “You’re looking at it wrong.” Howey and Anderson’s point is, as put most succinctly by Howey, “when you look at earnings and sales figures for traditionally published books, you have to take into account the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile … With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.”
In other words, any time you see graphs like the one in the DBW survey that show how well traditional or hybrid traditional/self-published authors do financially compared to self-published authors alone, you are missing the fact that all the slushpile equivalent in self-publishing is factored into those numbers. This is the drawback of self-publishing serving as its own virtual slushpile, if you want to look at it that way.
And obviously, this kind of insight does not make it any easier to make money as a self-published author. But it could be reassuring that it is no easier to make money trying to be a traditional author either. If you try and succeed, the equation may change. But by that stage, you’ll also have committed to giving away part of your money to your publisher, and possibly your agent as well.
And, as Anderson insists, there are no data points out there for knowing just how big the traditional publishing slush pile is. It may dwarf the size of the entire self-publishing community – who knows? But the odds could be far more in your favor as a self-published author, once you’re through that initial barrier to wherever the equivalent of a post-traditional slushpile author is in the self-publishing ecosystem, than you think. At least, if you go by data like DBW‘s figures.
DBW‘s Jeremy Greenfield argues in his comments on Howey’s piece that the DBW data is correct. It probably is. But this is an apples-to-apples debate – as Anderson signaled by putting fruit at the head of his blog post. Income for the entire self-publishing community is being counted against income for only a successful fraction of the traditional publishing community, if we allow that the correct comparison is actual-plus-aspirant-authors on both sides. There is no break between actual and aspirant in self-publishing. So the bare money comparisons are not representative.
I’m not sure how reassuring this should be for self-published authors as a whole. But it certainly makes me feel much better.