From Digital Book World:
Who exactly is Data Guy?
We know he’s the numbers wizard behind Author Earnings—a collaboration between himself and self-published mega-author Hugh Howey. And we know that he’s anonymous. But that’s pretty much it.
In the past two years, Data Guy’s Author Earnings reports have become an increasingly popular resource for authors, shedding light on aspects of the publishing industry that were going previously unreported.
But the reports have also spurred a great deal of controversy.
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So based on all the research that you’ve done into ebook sales and where the money is going, is there one piece of strategic advice that you’d offer to Big Five publishers to do things differently than they do now?
There definitely is, and I think that DBW may be an opportunity to dig into some of these trends in more detail. In general, my observation is not something that Hugh and I alone are saying. High ebook prices don’t really hurt mega-selling authors with long established careers in all of the airport book stores and Walmart, but what they do that is not good is they damage the discoverability and also earnings of mid-list authors. And particularly the vast majority of debut authors who are brand new. No one knows who they are. They need to first find their own audience and fanbase among avid readers before their publisher will put a significant amount of marketing and funding behind pushing them to a more casual, broader audience. The industry’s changed, and the dynamics are not the same as they were when today’s traditionally published mega-sellers first came up a decade or more ago.
Most avid readers today read digitally. When you look at who’s reading 50 books a year, 100 books a year, those are the folks who are giving new authors a shot. I’m not talking about the seven-figure advance, Pulitzer Prize, one-of-them-a-year mega-debut author; I’m talking about the vast majority of traditionally-published debut authors who are trying to build a name for themselves. And the digital readers, these avid readers, are basically bypassing those authors, because they don’t recognize the names, and the price is off-putting to them.
Strategically, if you’re a Big Five publisher, supporting those authors now with lower ebook pricing, would mean you’re building a healthy, sustainable pipeline of intrinsic revenue streams you control down the road. But by not doing so, instead you become increasingly reliant on being able to make opportunistic acquisitions of these big blockbuster properties that originate outside of the traditional publishing industry. You have to do that quarter after quarter, year after year, without fail. It just doesn’t seem like a sustainable strategy long-term. So that’s the piece of strategic advice that I’d offer.
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Do you feel that with every new iteration of this report you guys are getting more and more accurate and getting closer to the actual truth, if there is one?
Absolutely. In fact, one of the biggest jumps in accuracy was—our rank-to-sales conversion method had gotten a bit long in the tooth. And as we headed into the end of last year, we were looking at it and I go, “You know what? This is out of date and it’s going to be too conservative.” And because we mostly avoided making statements about absolute sales that Amazon is doing and instead saying, “Hey, looking at relative measures of sales, this is how the pie breaks down.” That kind of accuracy doesn’t have to be precise, but at the same time I wanted to upgrade our methods so that we could look at quarter to quarter sales and say, “What’s happening to the size of the pie? Is it growing? Is it shrinking? How fast?” And so with the February report that we did, we upgraded our approach significantly.
Now it’s based on real sales data—raw sales data—from exactly that time period provided by about a dozen authors, and an increasing number every day. And these include very high-selling authors, as well as authors who aren’t selling well. And so we pretty much have real-time data points up and down all the different sales-ranks, from one or two of the absolute top-selling books on Amazon down to books that are hardly selling at all. Hundreds of books. So we factor that in.
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This is a bit of a long-winded question, but it’s the one that I’m most curious about. Your feelings or anyone’s feelings toward the Big Five publishers aside, how do you personally think the rise of self-publishing has affected our literary culture as a whole? Not too long ago, we had gatekeepers who let only minorities of potential authors past. Now with self-publishing and further avenues to get a book out there to an audience, literally anyone can be an author, and as a result, the number of books published per year has, frankly, exploded. For individual authors, this is great news: they can now achieve their dreams and publish a book. But taking a step back, with the gatekeepers not holding all the power, and a surge in books published, how do you feel this has changed the culture surrounding books? To put it another way, is the value of a book at all watered down now that anyone can be an author?
This is a question that I’m not going to be particularly good at answering. After all, I’m known as “Data Guy,” not “Literary Subjective Opinion Guy.” [Laughs] But with that said, first off, I have no particular feelings about the Big Five publishers, positive or negative. And I think this makes me a little different than a lot of the folks we hear from on various author groups. I’m a brand new author and a new entrant into this industry. I’ve never submitted a query to anyone. I hear a lot of this angst, and there seems to be bad blood one way or another. It’s just lost on me. I don’t get it. I get that some people in this industry feel very strongly about the things that have happened in the past, but for me it’s just a brand new, wide-open field. Let’s see what there is to learn.
With that said, I do think that today’s wide-open, democratic world of publishing is a good thing. It’s been a tremendous boon for literary culture and freedom of expression. The gatekeepers were an economic necessity in the past. It wasn’t so much about quality, although these two concepts tend to get tangled a lot, because nobody wants to think of themselves as just serving an economic function alone when working in the arts. It was more about choosing which manuscripts were worth taking a financial risk on. Well, today that risk is largely mediated by the fact that you don’t have to take a big risk to get a book out there in the public eye. At the end of the day, the only gatekeepers that matter are readers.
If they like what’s out there, the books will tend to do well, gain visibility, spread through word of mouth. And if they don’t, essentially it’s irrelevant in the market, and yet it may not be an irrelevance for that author. That author may have achieved their dreams, and they have finally been able to put their book out, and the three people who read it will be the ones who shared that experience. Maybe that’s all that matters to them.
So I think on the whole it’s a positive thing. Readers benefiting from a far greater wealth and diversity of high quality books and ideas. Making it all available to them, and more importantly now affordable to them. Democratization, greater diversity, and more feelings expressed—it’s kind of hard to see any downside. Not that I have any strong opinions about this or anything. [Laughs]
Link to the rest at Digital Book World and thanks to Jan for the tip.