Get with the times, Ros Barber: “Self-published” no longer means “inept.”

(A rant, and a challenge)

Yet again a major media outlet has granted space to a writer who wants to rail against self-publishing and to denigrate those who have chosen to pursue that route, particularly those who write fiction.

None of the arguments Ros Barber sets out in her recent article in The Guardian  is new. In fact, they are all so old that they have begun to smell – or, at the very least, to bore writer-readers who are not already members of the choir half to death. (Writers who are in Barber’s corner love to read the list of self-publishers’ shortcomings over and over again. They will never tire of it –until they become one of us, or die, whichever comes first. Despite the fact that it would force her to rethink her views, I wish upon Ms. Barber no novel that fails to sell to her publisher’s expectations, thereby banishing her from the traditional publishing firmament forever.)

I am not going to waste space taking Ms. Barber’s arguments apart. I’ve been taking the same ones apart for years, as have dozen of other respected and respectable writers on blogs and in numerous other venues. What she (and, it seems, the team of editors in the Books section at The Guardian) takes as cutting-edge insights are merely misguided opinions that have already been widely and frequently debunked.

What bothers me are not the points she makes, but the tone in which she makes them – and specifically, the utter lack of writerly fellowship that her article betrays. Such supercilious opinions as “good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship,” which suggests that those who self-publish do not know how to write, are utterly insulting to the innumerable writers who have completed agonizingly long “apprenticeships,” but whose writing is deemed by agents and/or commercial and/or financially hard-pressed (!) literary houses to be too offbeat or too marginal or too kinky or too similar to something that came out last year to be worthy of their imprint. Barber’s success in attracting even a £5000 advance for her most recent novel speaks more to blind luck or favourable industry connections than it does to talent.

The one point on which Ms. Barber almost indicates a passing knowledge of what she speaks is the one in which she says that self-published authors must invest 9/10 of their efforts in marketing, leaving only ten percent of their time for writing. (Although I do argue with her numbers: she has failed to consider the time it takes for any writer to earn a living while building up a readership.) However, as I’m sure she knows, it is fallacious to use the marketing imperative as an argument against self-publishing. If Barber’s publisher does not require her to spend a good deal of her time promoting her book, she’s not having the experience of most of my traditionally published colleagues. (I think she does know: anyone who can get an article into the Guardian is no slouch in the marketing department.)

I am sick and tired of finding it necessary to apologize not for the quality of my two most recent novels (for one should never attempt to defend what one has written), but for the way in which they were published. Who the hell cares how books reach the market? Readers certainly don’t. Nowadays, only small-minded, defensive writers seem intent on railing against those of us who have chosen to take our fates into our own hands.

The challenge: I invite Ms. Barber (and anyone else who wishes to do so) to request a complimentary copy of either of my self-published novels (Rita and Don , to read at least a decent chunk of it, and then to point out either publicly or in private the precise locations where the novel displays either a lack of publishing quality or dearth of literary talent. But people like Ms. Barber won’t do that: they’ve made up their minds ahead of time.

Ros Barber, please do not tar everyone with the same brush. You may have chosen to publish traditionally, but increasing numbers of us are choosing to do otherwise. Canada’s primary organization of creative writers, The Writers Union of Canada, now admits self-published authors whose books have been approved by its membership committee. Granting agencies and awards programs everywhere are going to need to consider how to manage the books by many younger writers who (like young musicians and film-makers) are choosing to go indie from the outset.

We are all in this together. We are writers. Some of us write better than do others, but increasingly this has nothing to do with how our writing reaches readers. A traditional publisher is no longer the only imprimatur of quality, if it ever was. The opinions in your article show you to be as disdainful as you are out of touch. I hope your fiction, notwithstanding its apparently historical nature, is more current.

Self-Published Writers Make (Lots) More Money, New Data Suggests

HoweyData released earlier this week provides stunning evidence that self-published authors in several popular genres are selling many more books and making a good deal more money than most of us had previously suspected. Their success in comparison to traditionally published authors may be a wake-up call for everyone in the publishing business, from first-time writers to the biggest of the Big Five publishers. (It certainly has been a wake-up call for me: I’m dropping prices on my e-books as we speak).

Until now, the only evidence for strong sales of indie vs traditionally published books has been anecdotal reports from individual authors, many of whom seemed to be making a disproportionately large amount of money compared to the rest of us. These authors were considered to be “outliers.”

Now Hugh Howey, one of those disproportionately successful authors — well known among avid readers and the publishing cognoscenti for his best-selling self-published fiction series, Wool — has made data available (and will continue to collect and update it, he says, at his own expense) that indicates that he may not be alone when it comes to successfully selling books online, particularly e-books. His report on author earnings (cleverly entitled Author Earnings: The Report) suggests that indie-published books are getting higher scores on reviews and selling more copies than those of small- to medium-sized presses, and that the gaps between positive review scores and sales are even greater when you compare self-published books with those from the “Big Five” publishers. The primary reason? Indie authors tend to publish e-books rather than paperbacks and other formats, and they tend to charge much less for them than traditional publishers do. And e-books are selling like hotcakes.

Howey’s figures are derived from an analysis of data collected by an unnamed writer “with advanced coding skills” who has created a program that can gather and break down data from bestseller lists at a speed that was previously impossible. The initial data collection and analysis looks at book sales on Amazon and includes three genres: Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance. These genres were examined first because they account for nearly three quarters of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, and more than half of the top 1000. Howey and his “data snoop” will look at the entire range of fiction titles in future reports, he says.

Among their findings so far:

  • In these three genres, indie authors are outselling the Big Five publishers. “That’s the entire Big Five. Combined.” [Words and italics Howie’s]
  • E-books make up 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the Amazon store, and 92% of the top 100 best-selling books in the listed genres are e-books
  • Although books from the Big Five account for just over a quarter of unit sales in these genres, they take half of the gross dollar sales — and the authors of those books typically receive only 25% of that profit
  • Indie authors, on the other hand, who keep about 70% of the purchase price of their e-books on Amazon, are earning nearly half of the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon
  • Self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books than are those with traditionally published books being sold through the same (i.e., amazon.com) outlet.

A Few Conclusions

The Report is long and complex (but not complicated). I encourage all serious writer entrepreneurs to read it carefully — and to stay updated with future installments.

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

(It is also very pretty. I am including an image here from The Report, with proper attribution and an embedded link but used without permission, so if it disappears, you’ll know why. Whether it does disappear or not, I suggest you go and have a look at all the other pretty charts in Howie’s report. They are impressive and illuminating as well as colourful.)

For those who don’t have time to read The Report straight through right now, I’ll extract some conclusions that became clear to Howie, as they must to anyone who examines the data he’s presented:

  • E-books from indie authors tend to be priced much lower than those of mainstream publishers
  • Readers are more likely to buy and review books with lower prices than higher ones
  • “Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck.” — Hugh Howey, Author Earnings: The Report
  • Most traditional publishers are paying authors only 25% of e-book sales, despite the almost insignificant overhead associated with creating e-books
  • Readers are buying many more e-books than they are paperbacks and other book formats, at least from amazon (which is the biggest bookseller in the world, by a huge measure — like it or not).
  • Readers are not buying traditionally published e-books as frequently as they are indie published e-books, because indie-published books cost less. Therefore, traditionally published authors are getting read less often, and are making less money per book sold than indie authors are.

This is important news for traditionally published authors.

It is also important news for major publishers, who are going to lose their authors if they don’t smarten up.

We won’t go into the impact all this is having on good literature, but Howie believes that the data suggests that “even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”

A call to Action

In addition to publishing The Report, Howie’s new website, authorearnings.com, invites authors from all sectors to work together to help one another “make better decisions” when it comes to publishing their books.

Howie says that the site’s “purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.”

When you go to the site you will be invited to subscribe for updates, contribute to a survey and/or to sign a petition.

I for one will be closely following the activity on that site — right after I lower the prices on my e-books.