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Hugh Howey’s revolution

17 February 2014

From Futurebook:

On Radio 4′s Today programme this week I overheard a discussion between climate change denier Nigel Lawson and the climate scientist Sir Brian Hoskins. It ought to have been a slam-dunk for Hoskins. Not only is Britain experiencing the worst floods in a life-time, but no serious person now denies that man-made climate change is a reality. But actually Lawson came out on top. Where Hoskins expressed quite reasonable scientific doubt, Lawson was confident, bombastic, and assured. Lawson’s best rhetorical technique was to use Hoskins’ words against him. Picking up on Hoskins’ uncertainty, Lawson said he agreed with the scientist that “nobody knows” whether there was a connection between the current weather and global warming. “I don’t blame the climate scientists for not knowing,” said Lawson. Hoskins’ hesitant retort, “we are very sure”, just didn’t cut it.

The conversation reminded me of the publishing industry’s response to author Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings website and his first report, based on an Amazon scraping exercise. Howey says he has created the website to lobby on behalf of authors. Gathering and sharing information is its primary aim, but the “secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts”. His first report has analysed “nearly 7,000 e-books from several bestselling genre categories on Amazon”, using the relative positions of the titles in the bestseller lists over on 24-hour period to extrapolate some broad conclusions: like for instance the relative annual earnings of authors over a full year, or the number of bestsellers being published by traditional publishers compared to self-publishers.

Sounds ambitious? It is. But Howey is unabashed. As he writes: “What emerges is, to my knowledge, the clearest public picture to date of what’s happening in this publishing revolution.”

Privately publishers and industry technologists are scathing about the approach. Words such as “misinformation” and “bad data” abound. The charge, as Porter Anderson, writes here, is that Howey does not understand the publishing business, and his “loose use of data” is serving to create a misleading view of publishing. Mike Shatzkin is one of the few industry observers to have written publicly about it. He view is that the report is potentially “toxic to consume” with Howey drawing some “breathtaking (and breathless) conclusions that go way beyond what the data could possibly tell anybody”.

. . . .

But Walter’s blog also inadvertantly sums up the problem for traditional publishers. Having said he finds the data shonky, Walter adds: “But, in the absence of transparency from the industry itself (either Amazon or the Big 5) it’s the best data we writers have access to. And the story it tells is shocking.”

In other words, the data may be screwy, but I’ll buy into it anyway.

The truth is there is nothing wrong with the data, so long as its limitations are understood. Helpfully, Howey provides an excel download, so if interested parties wish to interrogate it further, they can. They can even produce their own analyses.

. . . .

Howey is critical of big publishing and its over-reliance on BookScan. In The Bookseller, he said publishers want to have control. But this is inaccurate. Publishers don’t control BookScan: that data is derived from bookshops tills (including virtual ones). Much of the data BookScan publishes has the potential to make publishers wince, but I can’t remember the last time one complained to me about it. Similarly, publishers don’t ignore data about the self-published market, they simply don’t have access to it. If Amazon allowed its e-book data to be used by BookScan (as it does its print book sales data) our understanding of this world would change overnight. Yet, I cannot find a word of rebuke offered to Amazon in Howey’s report. I cannot explain Howey’s omission. If I really wanted to shed light on this world, I would ask the one individual capable of switching on a torch to do so.

Link to the rest at Futurebook

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire Author Earnings episode for PG has been the extraordinarily overwrought response it has engendered from traditional publishing and its assorted hangers-on.

Indie authors just can’t, can’t, can’t be selling more ebooks anywhere on Amazon than tradpub is. Indie bestsellers just can’t, can’t, can’t be making more money that tradpub authors are. They just can’t.

The vitriol and mathematical illiteracy have flowed like half-priced beer during Happy Hour.

A psychoanalyst might observe, “I can see we have some real issues here.”

A dispassionate viewer might consider this outsized reaction to a one-day screen-scrape of Amazon genre titles and conclude several things:

1. Hugh has made visible what Big Publishing has been seeing (and hiding).

2. Amazon Derangement Syndrome is mutating into a more virulent form.

3. Tradpub is feeling a little tippy these days.

Or it might just be people cutting their pills in half. Again.

Amazon, Big Publishing, Hugh Howey, Passive Guy, Self-Publishing

26 Comments to “Hugh Howey’s revolution”

  1. A dispassionate viewer might consider the outsized reaction to a one-day screen-scrape of Amazon genre titles and conclude several things:

    1. Hugh has made visible what Big Publishing has been seeing (and hiding).

    2. Amazon Derangement Syndrome is mutating into a more virulent form.

    3. Tradpub is feeling a little tippy these days.

    Yeah, I’m seeing all of the above very clearly.

    If I were a better person, I’d feel kind of sorry for them. Instead, I’m just laughing and laughing and laughing. It’s hard to feel pity for people who have been actively searching for new and innovative ways to screw over My People since 1979.

  2. I’d be more sympathetic to this reaction if it weren’t for the fact that publishers have gone out of their way to obscure and obfuscate sales and royalty information via royalty statements that are almost completely impenetrable to authors.
    I’m also rather tired of reading the attacks on Hugh and the Data Ninja because of the limited scope of the data, something they went out of their way to emphasize. The report was replete with caveats.

  3. For those of us traditional publishing deem worthless, why is it such a big deal for them to see us make fools of ourselves and self-publish our nasty and poorly written books on the fringe of legitimate publishing? After all, we’re not taking anything away from their glory.

    • @Barbara

      After all, we’re not taking anything away from their glory.”

      Au contraire, Barbara. It’s not Trad Pub’s “glory” that they’re worried sick about. It’s everything else. Their control (over writers and readers). Their cozy way of doing business. And last, but not least, their market share and profits.

      That’s why they’re really having multiple hissy fits as their captive writer livestock is jumping the pasture fence and bidding them sayonara.

    • Sean Cummings pretty much hit on it yesterday (and he’s very much in favor of tradpub): they’re afraid that self-published books will flood the market with cheaper work. The part he didn’t say, but I think we can infer is that they think it will be much harder for print to survive as a result. If everyone who ever wanted to be an author can now put out a book, who would bother buying higher priced books at bookstores? Bookstores have overhead to worry about as well while Amazon doesn’t have quite the same problem.

      I think tradpub authors who are still against Amazon fear that they won’t be as special anymore, that their books won’t get noticed.

  4. Since Hugh Howey and his Data Guy are planning on repeating the process again and again, many of the criticisms will disappear. Yes, this particular report is merely a snapshot of a particular time and a particular vendor (most haven’t addressed the follow-up article about Bookscan), but as reports are run repeatedly, a better picture and better conclusions will appear.

    My particular worry is that Amazon will protest or take steps to make the particular method of gathering the information more difficult or impossible to obtain. As with any study, if they have to change their methods, the value of the data becomes much more difficult to compare and the conclusions more difficult.

    • I could see Amazon leaving this leaky hole for a while provided it’s not abused. This leak may help them attract more authors to their imprints and KDP that are reluctant because they are worrying about the perceived loss of print distribution.

      • I’m not so certain about Amazon leaving the method that Data Guy used to gather his information open. They are nearly as secretive about internal information as is Apple. This may be allowing competitors too great an insight into what is actually going on inside the Amazon book operation for the company to feel comfortable with.

        Now, depending upon exactly how the data was gathered, it may go on quite a while before things can be engineered to prevent it, and that is what I’m hoping.

        • Amazon could close it in a second by modifying their robots.txt file to restrict it or simply start hiding sales rank info to prevent those ignoring the restrictions in the robots.txt file.

          • Amazon could certainly do that, but either step would represent a major change to the Amazon system. Amazon likes showing the sales rank and they most definitely like having their results show up in the search results that a modification of robots.txt might cut off.

            Engineering against content scrapers is certainly something that can be done and lots of sites do so, but it is a bit like playing whack-a-mole as the scrapers keep finding ways to get around the blocks.

            It all really depends on how valuable Amazon feels this information is to both potential self-publishing authors who may start selling via Amazon, but also to their competitors who are gaining a much deeper insight into Amazon’s bookselling operations than was previously the case. That latter may be the key to why Amazon might cut this off. Previously, what an author was making via Amazon and how that related to overall sales compared to the Big 5 was highly speculative. The Author Earnings report is a bright light on that information that the Big 5 dearly wanted to know.

    • All of the data they gathered (and much more) is available via a programming API that anyone is free to use, as long as they use it to sell Amazon products. You don’t have to sell all the products you get data about, just some of them.

      At one point I considered opening a curated affiliate bookstore. Just so I would have an excuse to gather this sort of data. But real life intervened and now I don’t have to.

  5. “The vitriol and mathematical illiteracy have flowed like half-priced beer during Happy Hour.”

    :)

    When is your book coming out?

  6. The internet disrupted publishing by opening up the process beyond the big publishers and now it is continuing the disruption by giving access to data that can be used to track the very disruption it began. It’s beautiful, really, a combination of real capitalism and real democracy with few fetters, working out the will of the people. I hope it lasts.

  7. Hugh used a cross-section of date. Scientist use “cross-sections” all the time to form widely accepted conclusions on all kinds of things: cross-section of soil, cross-section of tissue, cross-section of ice, etc. There is nothing wrong with that approach as long as he collects several cross-sections over time. Then accurate and precise trends will be revealed.

    • In the run up to ObamaCare they relied on a Dept of Commerce study that asked people if they had been uninsured at any time in the past year. They added up the “Yes“ responses and said there were 45 million uninsured.

  8. I don’t why people find the numbers hard to believe. Look at these official figures:

    From the Wall Street Journal

    “In 2013, self-published books accounted for 32% of the 100 top selling e-books on Amazon each week, on average.”

    From Barnes and Noble Press Releases (April 9 2013)

    “Customer demand for great independent content continues to dramatically increase as 30% of NOOK customers purchase self-published content each month, representing 25% of NOOK Book™ sales every month.”

    - – - – - – - – - – - -

    It’s common sense that the 3 most popular genre fiction (romance, scifi/fantasy, mystery/thriller) the percentage would be higher.

  9. Trust PG to summarize with the best line:

    “A psychoanalyst might observe, “I can see we have some real issues here.””

    Kudos, PG.

  10. This is only the top 7,000 widgets. It doesn’t matter which book is in each of the top 7,000 spots, because those sales, if the percentage of self published books to the publisher books is the same, then the percentage of the lost sales to the traditional book industry is the same.

    This is what should be causing publishers to reach for their antacids. Because what about the top 100,000 books? What of all the midlisters? There are huge amoutns of money flowing away from readers to writers.

    It has never been a better time to be a writer. You can build up a dedicated reader base, publish what you love, and have full cover and editorial control, plus keep 35% to 70% in your pocket.

  11. Not only is Britain experiencing the worst floods in a life-time, but no serious person now denies that man-made climate change is a reality. But actually Lawson came out on top. Where Hoskins expressed quite reasonable scientific doubt, Lawson was confident, bombastic, and assured.

    If no reasonable person denies, how come Hoskins has those doubts?

  12. The analogy to the CAGW fraud, with its non-stop record of making sH!t up, failure to provide an audit trail, and crappy record-keeping is singularly apt. No serious person now denies the myriad failures of the legacy publishing industry.

    M

  13. Amazon Derangement Syndrome is mutating into a more virulent form.

    I love it…

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