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.