Can I Just Be Annoyed for a Minute?

You know, critics of indie publishing are very fond of pointing out that most indie authors don’t make much or any money. Proponents usually respond that the vast majority of traditionally published authors don’t make much money either — many traditionally published books “fail.” While that’s certainly true, I don’t think it’s the most effective response.

In judging the money-making potential of  indie authorship, the real question is this: “How many authors who could publish their books through traditional routes but who choose to publish independently end up making as much or more through self-publishing, compared to what they would’ve made if they published traditionally?”

Books that could’ve gone the traditional route are the only books that can be used in comparing indie success rates to traditional success rates. Why? Because all the other books — all those that were rejected by traditional publishers or would’ve been rejected, had they been submitted — could only ever make exactly $0.00 through traditional publishers. If those “not good enough” books, when self-published, make a single red cent, that’s 100% gravy because they never would’ve gotten the chance to make anything if indie weren’t an option. And boy have some of those “not good enough” books made a whole pile of red cents.

Given the fact that you have to remove all the foolishly-rejected-by-traditional-publishing, Mill River Recluse-type books from the scale before you weigh indie vs. traditional, it seems very likely to me that authors are more likely to make good money as self-publishers, especially if they write in the genres that tend to sell well as ebooks. But we’ll never know for sure because every book that could be traditionally published has to go one way or the other, and it’s impossible to know how it would’ve done if the author had chosen the route he or she didn’t choose.

FYI, this is the weak analysis that ticked me off. Thanks to Kindle Boards for the link.

18 thoughts on “Can I Just Be Annoyed for a Minute?

  1. Yes, and as added element to this discussion, there is the significant creative freedom afforded indie authors: a liberating sense of relief going directly from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader – escaping the creative input or obstacles offered as direction by editors, editorial boards, cover art creators, marketing departments, bookstore shelf gnomes, and others. Does this mean that some books are offered that are of questionable quality? Of course – welcome to a free marketplace. This is where blogs, book reviewer websites, and the like, will help guide readers toward quality.

    • BIG YES on the creative freedom issue, D.A. I couldn’t agree more. That lack of input probably works to the detriment of some authors and to the benefit of others. Hopefully those in the former group will, after reader feedback, recognize that they need some editorial guidance or cover-art assistance or whatever — those services can, after all, be obtained outside the traditional publishing system.

      That said, we do need more ways of guiding readers to the work they’ll like. I do miss the ability to visually browse bookshelves, as I used to where there was a physical book store in my town (it was a Borders … so much for that).

  2. I kinda feels like comparing baseball players from the turn of the century to today’s players. There’s really no way we’ll ever know. But, I think the fact that trad authors are starting to self-pub is going to show in the very near future which way’s better. If Tom Clancy starts self-publishing most of his books, we’ll know. Right now, they’re all just dipping their toes in the water.

    • The funny thing, Fred, is that self-publishing is probably a particularly good deal for big-name, big-rep authors, since the hardest part of the whole thing is getting noticed. If you already have a huge audience, you’re incredibly well positioned to put out indie books and rake in those huge royalties. 70%, Mr. Clancy! You hear that? 70%!

      P.S. Yeah, comparing the stats is impossible, but I’m quite certain Pujols could’ve knocked some good manners into Ty Cobb.

  3. I’m with D.A., too, on the creative freedom. Before publishing Lost Girl, I took a good amount of time to weigh my options, to consider what I could and couldn’t do under contract with a traditional publisher versus going indie. At the end of it, I decided it was more important for the long term to have complete control over my product AND MY RIGHTS. Will I make more money publishing independently? Who knows. But I can tell you that my goal is to improve my craft with every story, and to learn the marketing and business end of things inside and out. In short, the one word I’ve never been able to spell is “failure.”

    So let the critics have their say. Freedom of speech, you know. But we, the authors, are the talent. We, the authors, produce the product. And we, the authors, can darn well decide how we should deliver OUR product!

    • Control is important to me, too, Anne. Sole control can definitely set one up to make mistakes — I’ve certainly made some in my maiden voyage as a self-publisher — but our product is so flexible that most mistakes can be remedied.

      Hey, shouldn’t you have said, “the one word I’ve never been able to spell is ‘fialure'”? ;)

  4. Becca

    Can I be annoyed along with you?

    Have seen a lot of these new comparisons made lately. I think a lot of the “your stupid indie fad is dead” rants that are popping up (am I the only one seeing them?) have to do with the apparent Amazon “algorithm changes” where, apparently, books rankings and, therefor, visibility is being affected.

    One clear example of this, I think, is seen on the Amazon e-book listing >Sci-fi>adventure:

    For the last several weeks: #1 – 4: Game of Thrones titles. #5: Wool Omnibus.

    Ok, Martin is a giant and his series is on HBO now, Sean “Baromir” Bean is on the cover of his one book. Bank. Gotcha. But, it’s fantasy and their showing it on the “Sci-fi only” list.

    Am I the only one that finds that a bit…odd. Deliberate maybe?

    Is Amazon stacking chips against indies all of the sudden? Dunno, but despite both the closet and public animosity between Amazon and Big 6, at the end of the day, they’re both out to make money.

    And 30% of $9.99 – $14.99 is a whole lot more than 30% of $.99 – $1.99

    Just a thought.

    • Hey, D.L. Thanks for commenting.

      That is weird about Martin being categorized in sci-fi. And he is — here are Game of Thrones‘s categories:

      Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Action & Adventure
      Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Movie Tie-Ins
      Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Epic
      Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Adventure
      Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fantasy > Epic
      Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Action & Adventure
      Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction > Adventure

      Strange. I imagine these choices were made by Martin’s publisher, but I’m not sure.

      It is true that Amazon changed its algorithms so as to make the “bump” you get after a free promo much less significant. Edward Robertson and the “Data Avengers” (a bunch of indie authors who’re great with numbers) figured out the new state of things. You can get the scoop on Robertson’s blog, Failure Ahoy! (start at the May 3 entry, then look for three or four later posts as well).

      That said, it seems unlikely to me that Am actively wants to discourage indies in order to sell higher-ticket books. For instance, they actively discourage us from charging more than $9.99 for our books — hit that $10.00 mark, and your royalty rate goes from 70% to 35%. I think they want ebook prices low, because that encourages readers to buy Kindles, and that’s what’s good for Am in the long run. It’s also good for Am in the long run to sign authors up for the exclusivity of KDP Select, because 1) then people have to buy Kindles and 2) a wide selection of borrowable Select titles makes Amazon Prime more attractive, and Am Prime is pretty addictive, once you get used to it.

      That said, I absolutely agree with you that Am is in this to make money. It wouldn’t be the mega-success it is if it didn’t keep its eye on the ball. It’d be a mistake to believe that Am’s dealings with indies are motivated by altruism or community-mindedness, or to underestimate how dependent we are on Am and a few other big companies. These are the institutions that allow us to distribute our writing and, in some cases, to receive payment for it. We’re really not all that “independent,” in the larger sense of the word, so vigilance is wise.

  5. Becca

    Ah, I forgot about the 35% dropoff at the $10.00 mark, that’s a good point. I imagine because Martin has a Sci-fi writing history so he’s cross-categorized there as well as an author and not necessarily for individual titles.

    Thanks for all the info and the link to that blog, great info there.


  6. Ah, I didn’t know Martin wrote sci-fi! I can see another addition to my would-be precarious TBR pile (“would-be” b/c it’s not a physical pile, these days, thank goodness).

    Yeah, it’s pretty amazing what those folks were able to figure out. Very cool. I understand why Amazon doesn’t make this kind of info public — just too much trouble to deal with the reaction — but I sure wish they would.

  7. Yes to the weak analysis. Too often, it’s really no analysis. That’s the trouble with information published on the Internet: there’s no accountability. Any idiot can say anything, and it is up to you, the reader, to determine whether or not the words are backed up by expertise.

    It is extremely difficult to keep up with the changes that have been happening (and are still happening) in the publishing industry. The issues are varied and complex. You have to be tapped into multiple, reliable, sources of information and you have to keep up with them regularly. Few people do that, even when they are *in* the publishing industry. The ignorance among indie authors and publishing executives alike is astounding.

    What’s more, real data regarding what is happening with self-published authors is difficult to come by. Amazon would be the best source of that kind of intelligence, but they don’t share. Virtually everything we know about indie authors is anecdotal. Sure, many indie authors don’t sell very many books, but some sell (virtual) truck loads. Sure, many of them also never get name recognition, but others do so well that their books are bought by traditional publishers or are even turned into movies. There is no “normal” in this business.

    But the bottom line for me is that there is almost no argument you can make relating to self publishing that can’t also be made for traditional publishing. Both paths are challenging. Both paths produce failures and successes.

    • Daniel, I agree completely on all counts! It’s very frustrating to me that Amazon is sitting on a private goldmine of information about who buys what books and in what quantities, who searches in your genre, who clicks through to your book page but doesn’t buy, etc. It’d be awfully nice if they shared that information with authors in a form that preserves shoppers’ privacy. I understand why they don’t — data is power — but I wish they did.

      And yes, from an auththe “down sides” of indie and traditional publishing are mostly similar. The “up sides” are, in contrast, mostly on the indie side, IMO, at least in certain genres.

      As for that article,

    • Daniel, I agree completely on all counts!

      First, it’s frustrating to me that Amazon is sitting on a goldmine of information about who buys what books and in what quantities, who searches in your genre, who clicks through to your book page but doesn’t buy, etc. It’d be awfully nice if they shared that information with authors in a form that preserves shoppers’ privacy. I understand why they don’t — data is power — but I wish they did.

      And yes, from an author’s perspective, the “down sides” of indie and traditional publishing seems pretty much the same. The “up sides” are, in contrast, mostly on the indie side, IMO, at least in certain genres.

      As for that article, it was particularly disappointing. The Boston Phoenix is a solid alternative newspaper. I’d expect its writers to think issues through more carefully.

      • The article actually made me chuckle. It was an opinion piece, and I took it as such. I think Ms. Williamson has a reasonable grasp of what is happening in the industry, but her conclusions are based upon perceptions that have been biased by her own agenda. That’s not an indictment: we all do it.

        As a wise woman recently wrote to me, “perceptual differences generate fundamentally different realities.” ;-)

        I would say that Ms. Williamson’s reality is fundamentally different from yours or mine.

        • Heh, heh, heh :) Sometimes there are fundamentally different realities, and sometimes there’s just faulty logic!

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