Friday, 3 February 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and...

Right, I have to be careful here. I have a housemate who goes mad every time I say 'lies, damned lies, and statistics' because the fundamental basis of human knowledge is statistical.

Now, this is true. That doesn't, however, mean that 90% of the statistics we see in everyday life aren't either misleading or outright fabrications (this statistic being of the latter category, and I apologise for the statistical inevitability of this joke...)

There's one statistic in particular that I've seen knocking around the debate about self-publishing which really bothers me. It's usually quoted (as, for example, here) as 'most indy authors will sell less than 100 copies of their ebook(s)'. I haven't done a lot of research, but all the uses of it that I've found have linked back to this Amanda Hocking blog post (which, it must be said, is part of the canon of 'really influential bloggery about self-publishing' and a must-read for all authors - I'm not picking fights and I'm not really criticising Hocking for using the figure, I just want to establish some sense of perspective on it), where it's phrased as 'more people will sell less than 100 copies of their books self-publishing than will sell 10,000 books'.

The stat bugs me because it gets thrown around a lot by people trying to talk down self-publishing, or at least talk up the status quo as it was about 5 years ago. Quite often when I hear it, I get the sense people are trying to be discouraging, and the ambiguity of the statistic really puts my back up. It's true that most people aren't going to sell a huge number of books self-publishing, but then neither are most people going through traditional publishing (equally, the people who are going to be discouraged by numbers? They aren't real writers and we don't want them anyway (I'm joking. Sorta)). It feels like, whatever the provenance of the statistic, it's being used in a misleading way, and it bugs me enough that I want to do a proper analysis on it.

So, first things first, let's start with the relationship between the common misquote and Ms. Hocking's version. The Hocking version absolutely does not imply that most indie authors sell less than 100 books, whether or not that's true. It could just as easily mean that for every author who sells >10,000 books, there are two who sell <100 and three who sell 100<x<10,000; the majority of authors thus selling between 100 and 10,000.

Another flaw with the misquote is that it's almost always put in terms of ebook sales, whereas what Hocking said was very definitely 'books'. In another context, this would be a minor shift, but in the modern context, we have to remember that 'self-publishing' has been around for the better part of a century (I don't know enough publishing history to know when the current 'trad publishing' paradigm which we understand 'self-publishing' in contrast to emerged, but it's certainly been around since the 20s or 30s), but digital self-publishing has existed less than 20, and only carried any weight at all for less than 10 of those years.

There are two points here. The first is that the Kindle-based self-publishing paradigm we're now mainly interested in is all of about 4 years old and has only been big for something like two of those, so most books published within it haven't completed anything like a product life-cycle. The second is that if Hocking's figure takes account of previous self-publishing paradigms - and it sounds to me like it does - then we have to remember how different life was for self-publishers before the internet.

Forty years ago, if you self-published a book, it was all but impossible to get it into bookstores, impossible to get major review coverage, and the only people you could really sell to were family and friends. Success - and there were success stories even then - depended on your family and friends being so impressed they persuaded their friends to buy your often poorly-printed and bound book through potentially arcane delivery systems.

Selling less than a hundred copies sounds almost inevitable in that situation, doesn't it? How many friends do you have? How many of them would still be your friends if you tried to hard-sell them a novel?

Thank Heaven, then, that we don't live in that situation anymore (and by 'we', I mean those of us fortunate to be born in the wealthiest and most privileged parts of the world). I am no marketing guru, but I can now tweet a promotional message to almost 1,350 people, many of whom can and sometimes even do pass it along to thousands more. And any of them can buy my books with a couple of mouse-clicks and have them right there on Kindle or computer in a matter of minutes. Never mind that the overheads are much smaller, so I can keep my price wayyyy low.

Now, despite all I've said, I'm still prepared to accept that the two statistics we're talking about might be true. It might be true that most self-publishing authors have sold less than 100 books. It might even be true that most post-Kindle digital self-publishing authors have sold less than 100 books. But it might also not be relevant.

The point about time-frame pops up again here. My interest in self-publishing can be dated to the first part of Konrath and Eisler's 'Be The Monkey', which appeared about three weeks after Hocking's blog post, and self-publishing (in the modern sense) was even younger and smaller then than it is now. That month, March last year, probably does more or less mark the point that Kindle self-publishing went from a good opportunity to the obvious path (okay, there's a debate to be had about whether it's the best path, but I chose the word 'obvious' for a reason and it's a question for another time). It marks the end of the first phase of 'the revolution' - to whatever extent there is a revolution - but we've spent the whole of the last year listening to stories of upheaval right across the publishing business.

The point is that, even if the hundred books thing was true this time last year, it might not be now, and even if it is, we don't understand the context in which that statistic emerged well enough to know what it means. Things are too much in flux. Not knowing the research that produced the figure makes evaluating it impossible, but here are a couple of things I think might be undercutting its relevance.

First, something that I've seen mentioned but have seen absolutely no numbers on at all is the idea of the one-book writer. The person who's nursed some idea for a novel, or journal, or memoir or whatever all their life, then finally sits down and writes it for the sake of getting it out of their head. If I were in this position, a quick Kindle release would be an obvious step, just to make sharing the thing with friends and family easier.

So there may be a bunch of these people around (the one time I can remember anyone saying anything about the numbers, they said there were a lot of them, and while it was someone from the publishing biz, I think it was also someone largely pro-self-publishing). And these people are not aspiring to be professional authors. If someone is trying to persuade you not to hang your hopes of a professional writing career on Kindle self-publishing, then a statistic which includes these one-book folk is distorted and irrelevant. I have nothing against the one-book writer, but they're a different tribe, doing something very different to us.

The other distorting factor, one that would be almost impossible to eliminate from a statistic of this kind (and thus ultimately one that casts doubt on the viability of the statistic as a whole), is that lots of people give up far too easily. An acquaintance of mine (who will remain nameless) published a novella, only to take it down and give up on the whole self-publishing approach less than a month later due to low sales.

Now, given that 'Heaven Can Wait' was up for all of 4 months before I pulled it, I maybe don't have much of a leg to stand on here, but I didn't depublish it because of low sales (though it only sold 10 copies in that time), and I haven't given up on self-publishing. In fact, if I get to count free downloads of short stories, the Second Realm already takes me well past my first hundred (okay, I don't get to count free downloads ;D).

I think, though, that there are a lot of aspiring professionals who see the success of people like Hocking and Konrath, jump on the bandwagon expecting fast results, and give up very quickly in disappointment. I doubt many first-time publishers can shift 100 books in less than 3 months, and that's a long time to keep faith with a dream in the face of constant disappointment. Success, particularly success on the Hocking scale, is a matter of years of dedication and hard work.

People who give up because of low sales, ultimately, aren't selling badly because it's hard to shift ebooks. Their sales stay low, dragging the average way down, because they give up. But they still feature in a statistic like the ones we're talking about. To omit them (or at least show their relative irrelevance to the possibility of success as a self-publishing career writer), you have to give a much more complicated statistic to do with rates of sales in particular months after publication.

If you're looking to make a statistical argument against self-publishing, what you need is this; a calculation that shows the average income generated by an ebook at the various stages of its life cycle. So, how much does it make in its first month? How big is the difference between the first-month performance of a debut author as against an established midlister or bestseller? What's the average for a 6-month and a 2-year period? How long is an ebook going to have significant sales for?

That last question is a particular issue; the pro-ebook camp have repeatedly argued that ebooks are 'long-tail' publishing - people keep buying ebooks for a long time after publication. Ebooks certainly have a longer tail than books on the shelves of a bookshop, but we really don't have any good data about how long their life cycles are.

The point I'm getting round to is that we seriously can't know yet what the average performance of a self-publishing author is. So whether or not the statistics discussed above are accurate, don't let them discourage you; the only people who fail at self-publishing are those who give up.

Wow, this post ended up long. I hope it's been encouraging, though.


  1. Thanks for giving some context to that statistic and for digging a little deeper. It's so easy in this debate (as in any other) for "facts" and observation to become distorted to the point that they bear no resemblance to their original form or intention. There's so much fear-mongering going on and so much misinformation floating around that it's difficult not to get lost in it. Your analysis is definitely encouraging!

  2. Happy to have spread a little positivity. :)

    Less happy to have used the word 'positivity'... ;)