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Are ebooks dying or thriving? The answer is yes

14 May 2018

From Quartz:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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

Amazon, Big Publishing, Ebooks, Self-Publishing

32 Comments to “Are ebooks dying or thriving? The answer is yes”

  1. Everything in this ‘article’ is ancient history.

    And the tone is, “Let the self-publishers have their penny-dreadfuls – they can make some cash that way.”

    I’m not very patient this morning. I wonder what they will say when B&N closes.

  2. “… with revenue of $2 per book …”

    So they think everyone’s only selling at $2.99?

    “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.”

    Nothing new there, trad-pub never knew what was selling until the bookstores returned the extras or asked for more, authors have had poor negotiating power from the start, and the qig5 was able to compete on pricing before they started that agency game.

    ““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.””

    And how has that changed? The NYTs still tells trad-pub they have best sellers, Mike Shatzkin and other tell trad-pub what they’d like to hear (though it’s getting harder for them not to choke on the wording), and Author Earnings gives out numbers to suggest indies and ebooks are eating trad-pub’s lunch. Everybody picks up the news they want to hear and is happy.

    • I’m reminded of the line from a Simon & Garfunkel song: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

      • So true.

        (Time to youtube it and hear some more of them again. 😉 )

      • Felix J. Torres

        Actually, that song is singularly appropriate to a discussion of NYC publishing:

        http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-boxer-lyrics-simon-and-garfunkel.html

        They could have easily have titled it The Writer. 😉

        The Boxer
        Simon & Garfunkel
        I am just a poor boy
        Though my story’s seldom told
        I have squandered my resistance
        For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
        All lies and jests
        Still a man hears what he wants to hear
        And disregards the rest

        When I left my home and my family
        I was no more than a boy
        In the company of strangers
        In the quiet of the railway station
        Running scared,
        Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
        Where the ragged people go
        Looking for the places
        Only they would know

        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie

        Asking only workman’s wages
        I come looking for a job
        But I get no offers
        Just a come-on from the whores
        On Seventh Avenue
        I do declare
        There were times when I was so lonesome
        I took some comfort there, le le le le le le le

        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie

        Then I’m laying out my winter clothes
        And wishing I was gone
        Going home
        Where the New York City winters
        Aren’t bleeding me
        Leading me
        Going home

        In the clearing stands a boxer
        And a fighter by his trade
        And he carries the reminders
        Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
        Or cut him till he cried out
        In his anger and his shame
        “I am leaving, I am leaving”
        But the fighter still remains, mmm mmm

        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
        Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie

        Songwriters: PAUL SIMON
        © Universal Music Publishing Group
        For non-commercial use only.

  3. I kept wondering if they would get around to discovering Author Earnings *waves at Hugh and DataGuy*. I don’t think the problem is lack of hard data per se, but that the major publishers prefer not to look at all the data currently available and then seriously consider what the reason for their lack of genre and e-book success might be. Other than not using the best butter* to repair their broken watches.

    *Alice in Wonderland reference, for those not familiar with the scene.

  4. There’s some dissonances in this guy’s writing:

    “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.”

    Publishers have always known what they’re selling. They know what’s selling in general from the best-sellers’ list. I don’t see how they’re “increasingly” working in the dark when they still have this data available. Plus, authors never had much negotiating power before, but now they have more because they can walk away from egregious rights grabs.

    “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.”

    Amazon told their shareholders that 1,000 authors are making more than $100,000. I suspect it’s more than 2,500 writers.

  5. I like HM Ward, but she is hardly the most successful self-published author. Once again, *points to the woman who outsells Stephen King* they completely ignore Bella Forest. It’s nice to know I am part of a “shadow” industry.

    What a bunch of idiots.

    • Bella is a juggernaut. I’d love to have her bank account total. 😀

      • Does anybody have any real information about Bella Forrest. I’ve googled and everyone is dancing around the issue.

        I was curious and started looking at her website. She has 60 books in her A Shade of Vampire series. Each about 100k in length.

        My heart is pounding!

        I can’t tell you how dangerous it is for me to see a series that long, especially when the books are 100k in length. I must have them! Yet, I don’t read Romance novels. What am I to do!

        • I’m also curious. Romance also is not one of my usual genres. I’m going to ………

          Buy one of her books and at least start reading it! What have I got to lose? Some are even in KU!

  6. Felix J. Torres

    Nothing like a cheesy entitlement whine on a Monday morning.
    So, Amazon is evil for not exposing their proprietary sales data?

    In what industry is any business entitled to their competitors’ data? And on what basis do the whiners feel entitled to know what their competitors are doing; how much they make selling what?

    Is it an act of Congress?
    A law of nature?
    Or just that they are “special”?

    Or, could it just be that they are so used to coordinating instead of competing that they don’t even know how to run a business without collusion?

  7. Try answering a question as simple as “How many active authors are there?”

    You can’t. Nobody, including Data Guy, has the numbers.

    • Now we just have to define ‘active’. 😉

      We’d need the data on every slush-pile reject, every website with stories on them, every ebook on Amazon and other sites that isn’t/has never sold a copy; and we’d still not have a close number as we can’t see/find those still working on their first masterpiece (and some of those will quit/give up, so active now doesn’t mean that they’ll ever add to the number of authors or stories.)

      • Felix J. Torres

        We can, however, say how many authors/pen names are actively sold on Kindle:

        https://www.amazon.com/gp/search/other/ref=lp_154606011_sa_p_lbr_one_browse-bin?rh=n%3A133140011%2Cn%3A%21133141011%2Cn%3A154606011&bbn=154606011&pickerToList=lbr_one_browse-bin&ie=UTF8&qid=1526316156

        In passing, I noticed there is a listing for Luke Sky Watcher. I’ll have to look into that later. It might be the autobiography of an astronomer.

        • And that may not include those who only upload short works. I have two short stories and I’m not on that Kindle-Author list.

        • This list can’t be comprehensive. I’m actively selling my books on Kindle, but my name isn’t on that list. Nor are several other authors I know (including one whose self-published ebook I bought just yesterday).

        • That’s only 15k names, a far cry from the 500k Data Guy is claiming.

          And as others are pointing out, a lot of names are missing.

          …the world may never know. 🙂

          • Felix J. Torres

            “…Tis a mystery…”

            • Funny how its exactly 15k. Perhaps they are the top sellers, as I’m sure there are much more than that.

              So far we have a number somewhere between 15k and 500k. That’s narrowing it down! Good research team! 🙂

              • When I was writing my first books and not doing any marketing (2014-2015) I was bumping around close to 500k in Amazon’s author rankings, and I was still selling a few books. If you add in all the authors who just publish a book or two and never market, never sell beyond the occasional copy to a friend, my guess is that the number is closer to a million. But probably 500k or so actively publishing (or being published) authors with some commercial intent, which matches DG’s estimate. That page of 15k authors might then represent the top 3 percent…but what do the numbers after the names mean? Certainly not the number of titles. Oh Amazon, you mysterious b*

        • Who’s list is this? None of my three author names are on it. I must look into this blatant omission.

        • I’m not on that list, despite having multiple books published and being published since 2011.

          Frankly, how many articles are we going to get about how ebooks are dying, the masses have discarded their tech to go back to print? A dozen? A dozen a year? None seem to be anywhere near accurate or without bias. Bah.

  8. I can now check be part of a “shadow industry” of my bucket list. 😉

    And, part of a shadow industry that never gets nominated for major awards, except, oh, yeah, the Nebulas. At the very least, the author needs better Google skills.

  9. Sorry, your name is not on Felix’s Amazon list

  10. “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.”

    Might I add as opposed to;

    working in a factory;
    flipping Burgers;
    working as a labourer;
    delivering pizzas;
    working behind a bar;
    working in security;
    working as a storemen.

    I think you get the idea. A nice excuse for exploitation of authors by Big Publishing. Speaking, teaching and consulting jobs were I imagine not plentiful for most published authors. Nor were living level advances to new authors.

  11. Bella Forrest, women (or man) of mystery!

    http://www.webbiography.com/biographies/bella-forrest

    Doesn’t seem to have done her (or him) any harm.

    Congratulations Bella! Well done!

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