I already predicted that the groundbreaking survey of online/digital bookselling income and trends put together by the AuthorEarnings site and Hugh Howey would be pored over, reparsed, argued with, and generally chewed up over the next weeks. And one of the first out of the gate is arguably one of the more authoritative and better qualified, as Dana Beth Weinberg, who has been delivering regular publishing analytics for Digital Book World, took her turn at the raw data made available by Howey’s site. Party it’s a move to answer “the deep animosity many indie authors felt” towards her previous work, and however much Howey’s dataset presents a leap forward, I don’t think he or anyone else has claimed that earlier researchers were acting from bad motives.
“Howey’s method of data collection overcomes some of the limits of relying on voluntary survey data and provides a new source of analysis and information that may be used to support or call into question other findings,” she states. “At the same time, it introduces other limitations, some of which he clearly delineates and others that he does not.”
What she emphasizes most of all is that the data represents a winners’ circle. It’s based on the highest ranking sellers on Amazon, and doesn’t capture the long tail of virtual slushpile and essentially almost unknown and unread also-rans. As such, it certainly appeals to the ambitions, and self-righteousness, of many self-published authors, so you can certainly see why emotions would become attached to it. Take that success bias out of the picture, she argues, and Howey’s results are “depressingly consistent with the findings I’ve reported.”
There is much more detailed argument about methodology and results in her article, but the two most significant joint conclusions she reaches, to my mind, are: “Publishers don’t have a lock on the answers, and the contributions they make to author sales and income are increasingly in question, leading to calls for partnerships that provide greater benefit to authors,” and “Self-publishing is making it easier than ever before for more authors to make at least some money, if not a lot of money, on their writing, but these authors are a small percentage of the whole.”
That’s sufficiently nuanced not to come across as a highly motivated attack on the publishing industry per se – which no doubt will upset some people looking for a rallying cry. Which is very responsible and objective. But it also hardly comes across as a ringing endorsement of the existence of the publishing industry. To do that, balanced against Howey’s conclusions about the winners, you’d probably have to produce results that show that traditional publishers confer more value and security for less successful authors. And I don’t see much sign of that.