It is a heartwarming story: In spite of the endless onslaught of digital content, American readers have collectively put down their screens and decided to embrace once more that beloved tactile rectangular prism that reminds us, with its weight at the bottom of our bags, of its immeasurable heft. Since 2015, major news outlets, including this one, have reported the triumphant return of print: that “real” books are back, and ebooks have lost their gleam.
Of course, it’s not entirely true. Yes, ebooks are doing just fine: Americans consume hundreds of millions of them a year. But many of their authors are writing and publishing books, and finding massive audiences, without being actively tracked by the publishing industry. In fact, the company through which they publish and distribute their books, a tech behemoth disguised as a benevolent, content-agnostic retailer, is the only entity with any real idea of what’s going on in publishing as a whole.
Amazon’s power over self-publishing, a shadow industry running outside the traditional publishing houses and imprints, is insidiously invisible. As a result, the publishing industry has a data problem, and it doesn’t look like Amazon will be loosening its grip any time soon.
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They don’t often get nominated for huge book prizes, noticed by the New York Times book review, or endorsed by the president. But over the past seven years, self-published books—predominantly sold as ebooks–have offered a rare avenue through which writers can make a living just from writing, as opposed to speaking, teaching, and/or consulting. By cutting out publishers, writers sidestep print and distribution costs, increase their revenue, and are beholden to readers and algorithms, not critics, editors, marketers, or sales people. A decent writer with a flair for self-promotion, or a decent entrepreneur with writing chops, can earn serious cash.
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Self-publishing has since exploded, particularly in romance, fantasy, and science fiction. Though an average is impossible to estimate, top-selling authors can sell hundreds of thousands of self-published books on Amazon, which, with revenue of $2 per book, can generate millions of dollars. For the past few years, mega-selling romance writer H.M. Ward has been making a seven-figure salary across self-publishing platforms, more than half of which came through Amazon. At one point,she cracked double-digit millions in sales. According to one estimate, last year 2,500 self-published authors made at least $50,000 in book sales across self-publishing platforms, before the platforms’ cuts.
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The information asymmetry between Amazon and the rest of the book industry—publishers, brick-and-mortar stores, industry analysts, aspiring writers—means that only the Seattle company has deeply detailed information, down to the page, on what people want to read. So an industry that’s never been particularly data-savvy increasingly works in the dark: Authors lose negotiating power, and publishers lose the ability to compete on pricing or even, on a basic level, to understand what’s selling.
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But ebook sales are anybody’s guess. Amazon doesn’t report its ebook sales to any of the major industry data sources, and it doesn’t give authors more than their own personal slice of data. A spokesperson from Amazon writes by email that “hundreds of thousands of authors self-publish their books today with Kindle Direct Publishing,” but declined to provide a number, or any sales data.
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Without good data, there’s no complete picture of the industry. News stories say digital fatigue is sounding the death knell of ebooks, as readers across the country devour $700 million dollars of untracked digital files. Publishers are less able to see what’s selling in certain commercial genres, and less able to take risks on debut authors. Bookstore attendance becomes lopsided, and a large swath of American readers get algorithm-driven book creation. As authors move to self-publishing, the creativity pool becomes bifurcated.
“I think it hurts everyone,” says publishing consultant Jane Friedman. “Because everyone gets to put forward the narrative they would personally like to believe in.” Publishers believe ebooks were a failed experiment, bookstore owners can cheer the triumph of their raison d’être, print lovers get to gloat that screens will never kill the old-school ways. Self-published authors can keep making money, and trying to light lamps to cut through the data darkness.
Link to the rest at Quartz