Once a month (more or less), we host a gathering of professional writers on a Friday night. The gathering is open to writers from our writers network, and other professionals we know. Most are from the Pacific Northwest, although folks who are traveling through often stop as well.
We have only one criteria: The writers have to be working hard at the business of writing. You’d be surprised at how many professional writers are ineligible just from that criteria. You’d also be surprised at how many writers who absent themselves from the gathering after attending once. We’re too intimidating, I think.
I mean that sincerely. I don’t think it’s because of the accolades in the room (multiple award-winners, New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, multi-published fiction and nonfiction writers). I think it’s because we’re all working hard at our indie publishing businesses, and we don’t dumb down the meeting.
One extremely prolific traditionally published writer showed up last year, and started asking basic questions (how do you format books?) and everyone shut him down before the meeting even started.
If you don’t know something basic, you can ask someone on a break, and more often than not, you’ll get weird look and a series of links. This is a serious meeting of hardworking, serious professionals who are bootstrapping each other into the ever-evolving new world of publishing.
. . . .
In the middle hour of our three-hour talk, the conversation went something like this:
…my click-through rate is…
…I received 96,000 impressions…
…at least thirty-percent downloaded my…
Numbers, data, and more numbers. Writer after writer recited facts about their newsletters, their ad campaigns, their book sales, and all of those facts had data to back them up. These writers were often looking at phone screen or their laptop to give accurate information (as if the rest of us would shoot them if they reported wrong), and we were comparing performance, subscribers, money earned, and books sold.
I don’t think anyone mentioned craft except to acknowledge that a certain level of craft is necessary to get readers to return to the fold.
I sat back and absorbed this conversation, letting the words run over me a little, because I was surprised by it. Not by the conversation itself—we’ve had a variation of that conversation off and on for a year now—but by the complete acceptance of it. I was surprised by the way that no one, not even the newcomers to the meeting, seemed to think the conversation was out of the ordinary. We were comparing results of various marketing techniques, trying to figure out our way through the morass of data that’s being flung at us, and—most importantly—sharing what we had learned, what worked for us, and what didn’t.
. . . .
[In years past] At conventions, we writers discussed a variation of the same topics—agents, editors, marketing to the increasingly smaller and smaller subset of publishers, and the best way to handle the problems that came up in our various careers.
Not once did we mention data. We did discuss how to goose book sales, but based on the royalty reports. We tried to figure out how to get rid of our reserves against returns. We often argued about the value of book signings and book tours, but we never had data.
Because our publishers didn’t have data either.
Data is becoming the new religion at traditional publishers, but they’re the proverbial first-year English majors trying to understand an advanced-level Physics course. They don’t have the math skills, mostly, to understand, for example, why Author Earnings really is a good way to look at the entire industry.
(The responses to Data Guy’s presentation at Digital Book World, both live tweeted [live social media-ed?] from the conference and in private, were disbelieving. I’ve heard industry professionals say that the only accurate reports came from Nielsen later in the day. (I searched for someone courageous enough to write that in their blog about the event, and couldn’t find it. I don’t want to out folks who wrote me emails, so I’m afraid I can’t link here.)]
. . . .
But the one thing we didn’t discuss, something I hadn’t even thought of until Saturday morning, was how to manage all the data we were receiving. We joked about it a bit, about a writer we had been watching—a high-end marketer who reported that his well-known marketing practices were finally failing him, until he realized (hello!) that he needed to produce more product. Everyone he had reached had bought his five or six books. He needed to write another one.
That got a great laugh from the group, because the one thing we do, we all do is write the next book. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to write as much as we can, with this fire hose of information streaming our way.
And it’s not just the new programs, the new way to market, the new opportunities opening up each and every moment of each and every day. It’s also the changes in the data we receive.
. . . .
However, we are rapidly getting to the place, as writers, where we need to figure out how much of this data is relevant or useful. Just because I can find out that more people in Hong Kong open my newsletter at 10 in the morning on weekdays than on weekends doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to know that information. I might, if I’m looking for the best time to send a newsletter. But the service I use for my newsletter will aggregate that data for me, and tell me the optimum time to send a newsletter to that subset on my mailing list.
PG says anybody who doesn’t understand why Data Guy’s information is extremely useful shouldn’t be trying to run a business in 2017. With every passing month, the business practices and business savvy of traditional publishing are falling farther and farther behind both indie authors and the rest of the world.
When PG is negotiating agreements with traditional publishers, it’s an entirely different experience than negotiating IP rights agreements with tech companies or investment bankers. The publishers are so far behind and so unaware of things that are taken for granted in today’s business world, it’s almost laugh-inducing.
Just as one example, royalty statements every six months give rise to visions of row after row of ink-stained bookkeepers laboriously adding up long columns of numbers by hand.
Of course, Amazon pays every month and so does the rest of American business. The same people who don’t understand Author Earnings are the ones saying it’s impossible to calculate and pay royalties more than twice per year.
And this is a business which is heavily dependent on Barnes & Noble and similar organizations that are stumbling towards bankruptcy court.
In a near-future United States where 80-90% of all books are sold through Amazon, what, exactly will publishers have to offer authors?