Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Cory Doctorow over at the Boing Boing analyzes a report by Hugh Howey on the state of ebook publishing. Fascinating facts. The upshot is both gentlemen doubt the conventional wisdom that ebooks account for about 25% of the market. Howey thinks it’s much closer to 50%.
That aside, another of Howey’s conclusions is that self-published authors are, on average, doing better than the traditionally published, at least in terms of earnings. There’s a lot to digest in the analysis, but one caveat that Doctorow throws into the picture is that there’s danger on the horizon in the form of Amazon’s dominance of the indie ebook market. It’s possible that this will only continue the trend of the last twenty years, consolidation:
In the 1980s, when the midlist collapsed and the number of mass-market distributors in America fell from 400+ to three, and the trade retail channels for mass-market books were dominated by Barnes and Noble and Borders, authors discovered that their careers could be suddenly and totally ended, merely because the mass-market distributor stopped carrying them, or one of the retailers stopped selling them. Writers who’d published a new novel every year for decades suddenly found themselves with no one willing to publish, distribute or sell their next book, or carry their backlists.
I experienced this myself when Parts Unknown came out. On the eve of a terrific review in the San Francisco Chronicle, I went to a nearby Barnes & Noble to see if the book was displayed on a front fiction table, or at least a “local authors” shelf. No. It wasn’t there. Nor was it in the general fiction area. Nor the literature stacks. It wasn’t in the store.
I spoke with the manager and told him about the next morning’s review (front page of the book review too!), filled him in on my local events, offered to do a signing there — anything to help move the book. He consulted his computer and said, “We’re not stocking that book. You can order a copy if you like. It’ll take about a week to get here.”
So, thanks to the fact that there were so few avenues for distribution, my novel was not going to be available in the biggest bookstores in my own county. I found the same situation at Borders. In fact, only independent bookstores bothered to stock Parts Unknown.
Howey’s notion that self-publishing is the answer to this problem is at first attractive and empowering, especially if you believe his data on sales and earnings (i.e., a huge portion of Amazon’s ebook sales are self-published novels), but it behooves us to keep in mind the difficulty of standing out in any gigantic pool. Then there’s the idea of “survivorship bias,” which I’ve written about before — or an inclination to believe the best-case scenario on the basis of outliers’ success.
Finally, leave it to our friendly neighborhood shaman, Wendig, to nail down the real issues in the Big 5 vs. Indie debate:
You’ve got a whole barnload of metrics by which you might measure the question and find an answer. Do you want your book out fast? Do you want money now as opposed to money later? Do you want the guarantee of an advance, or the risk of acting as your own publisher? Do you love Amazon, or hate Amazon? Do you want to retain your rights and your control? Do you want on bookstore shelves? Or are you comfortable existing predominantly on e-readers? Do you care at all about film rights? TV rights? Foreign? Reviews in major outlets?
All of these should come into play as we evaluate the marketplace. But another thing should be factored in too: We don’t all have a choice. Maybe the Big 5 are closed to us because we don’t write the stuff they’re buying. Or maybe we’ve exhausted our options in that world and the only way to get our work out is to put it out ourselves.
All I know is, I’m fixin’ to enter Yesterday Road in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition mañana, because it’s a route I’ve never tried and I’m open to just about anything these days.
PS — You can even download Howey’s data and analyze it yourself, if you’re so inclined. Or you can write fiction.