From Publishing Perspectives:
Author Earnings was born amid controversy and rancor around a Digital Book World event two years ago. The 2014 conference had worked with its sister FW Media vertical Writer’s Digest to update a survey of authors that the author Hugh Howey and a host of independent writers said was incorrectly depicting self-publishing as a financially lesser alternative. Howey’s answer was to create a new effort to gauge ebook sales that aren’t counted by typical industry statistical programs. And his partner in AuthorEarnings.com was and is an unnamed writer and technologist nicknamed “Data Guy.”
Data Guy made his first appearance Wednesday (March 9) in a 35-minute morning keynote presentation at DBW 2016, and he followed it during the afternoon with a question and answer session with Publishers Marketplace’s/Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader.
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Cader had neatly set up Data Guy’s session for DBW’s morning mainstage presentation, going over the three statistical programs traditionally used to try to track a publishing business we can’t see very clearly: the Association of American Publishers’ reports, Nielsen’s BookScan (print), and the PubTrack Digital (ebooks, also Nielsen). Each source of analysis has strengths and limitations.
None has the thing needed most: the ebook sales data known only to the largest online retailers.
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Once he’d handed off to Data Guy, the keynote was primarily an explication of the Author Earnings methodology from a man who, it turns out, has his background in data analysis in the video-games industry.
In terms of what his analysis offers to the industry — “I’m trying to solve the [same] problem the Big Five is trying to solve,” he said from the stage — Data Guy focused, in part, on an interpretation of debut-author unit sales, with 22 percent of them in 2014 coming from Big Five publishers, 11 percent in 2015 coming from Big Fives, and only 9 percent coming from Big Fives in the first quarterly report of 2016.
As Cader’s associate at Publishers Lunch, Sarah Weinman, wrote:
“DG [Data Guy] showed how his analysis of Kindle store data can point to ideas across the publishing chain.
“‘There is an opportunity to give debut authors a different price point,’ DG said, pointing to the heavy concentration of sales around ebooks from debut authors priced between $2 and $5.99 versus the very small amount of sales garnered by traditional publishers bringing debuts out priced between $11.99 and $14.99.
“‘They can graduate to higher price point, the same way that mass market paperback titles graduate from trade paperback and on to hardcover. Every debut author is an investment for a publisher and they have time to develop in the market and create a good return. The risk is to become too dependent on movie tie-ins, big-money indie author acquisitions, and other acquisition-driven strategies.’”
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The potential progress that may eventually set off this iteration of Digital Book World from others was evident later Wednesday, in the last hour of the conference’s breakout sessions. Someone in the audience for the Data Guy Q&A asked if Cader might be able to merge “his” data with that of Data Guy.
Cader, making it clear that the trinity of trade-industry protocols is not his but simply the material with which we’ve had to work until now, showed a lot of interest in the idea— if not of “merging,” exactly, in some way exploring what one approach to quantifying the industry has to offer the other. Data Guy was immediately game, even soliciting data from industry players who’d like to share it.
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Until now, Author Earnings’ protocol of harvesting bestselling ebook sales data from Amazon.com and creating a rank-t0-sales comparative curve to interpret that data has reflected its original agenda of demonstrating self-publishing as a potentially viable financial approach to a writing career.
But on Wednesday, with Data Guy’s first public appearance at DBW, this changed. For the first time, Author Earnings spoke directly to the industry. And rather than spinning a web of upbeat numbers on self-publishing’s performance on the Big Platform in Seattle, Data Guy used his time in the mainstage keynote sessions to suggest that his analysis can bring new insights to an industry sorely in need of them — and in a cooperative context: what was agreeably missing was the hostility that many Author Earnings supporters have brought to the discussion.
Weinman describes Data Guy’s message this way:
“At the organization level in particular, knowing more about the missing data gaps will allow for better questions to be asked about competitive market analysis, dynamic pricing, identifying takeover targets, real-time sales projections, and more.”
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While we saw the guy — he’s witty, engaging. “quite a likeable chap,” as agent Laurie McLean referred to him — his actual name was not revealed. We called him DG. He told us at the press table that he is the author of two books. Both self-published. He mentioned that he finds publishing people nicer than video-game people. And that’s it.
But meeting him was helpful. Even learning this small amount of info was useful because he now is understood to be more Data Guy than Book Guy. Maybe it’s his distance from the center of the indie book crowd that has made him remarkably cordial to media members who emailed him — sometimes with criticism — even as some of his supporters snarled at anyone who dared suggest that Author Earnings may not be holy scripture.
Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives and thanks to SFR for the tip.
PG congratulates Data Guy on the success of his presentation. It sounds like he was able to accomplish in person what the voluminous statistics and analysis he and Hugh Howey created with Author Earnings could not do – convince an audience oriented toward traditional publishing that AE provides very useful information about ebook sales.
For PG, the history of Author Earnings and its initial reception by Big Publishing is one more piece of evidence of the huge gap between the worlds of technology and traditional publishing.
For PG, who has some history in the tech world, the first AE report was fascinating and revealing. Through a neat (and Amazon-approved) hack, DG and Hugh had provided a deep look at what was going on in Amazon’s part of the ebook world (which is, of course, the most powerful and sophisticated part of the ebook world). Part of the reason the information was so interesting is that it contradicted several narratives about ebook sales from Big Publishing and shone a much brighter light onto what was happening with indie authors.
PG is pretty certain that most tech people who examined the first and subsequent AE reports would approve and admire the project as an innovative method of digging into a somewhat opaque market.
The initial response of the traditional publishing world was, of course, dismissive of AE. Media covering tradpub found no shortage of publishing experts to dismiss AE’s work as inaccurate and unhelpful. Some of the experts’ comments revealed that they didn’t really understand what AE was doing.
Ebooks are a technology product, data files delivered over a digital network to sophisticated devices containing hardware, firmware and software that decodes the ebook file and presents it to an end user in a (hopefully) attractive and useful format.
PG respectfully submits that if you think of an ebook as just another form of paper book to be created, marketed, priced and sold in a paper book sort of way, you don’t really understand the ebook. Barnes & Noble certainly knew how to sell a lot of paper books. We all know how little of this expertise transferred to selling ebooks.
In this post, PG won’t make any predictions about the future of traditional publishing, dire or otherwise, but will suggest that the ability to deeply understand technology and think like a technologist has become a vital and mandatory skill for publishers. Success in the future publishing business will require skillful navigation in a world that is inevitably, inexorably moving towards selling more and more of the software known as ebooks through electronic retailers via a technology known as the internet.