porter andersonOver on Jane Friedman’s blog on “Writing, reading, and publishing in the digital age,” and in his own blog, Porter Anderson has just highlighted, at great length and in great detail, systematic bias in the coverage of income for self-published versus traditionally published authors. In his piece, entitled “Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go,” he gives some insights that should be very useful to any writers who have been deterred from the self-publishing route because of lower reported income than traditional publishing, as in the recent Digital Book World survey of writers’ motives and actual incomes.

Anderson’s piece is partly an extended engagement with and critique of that DBW-led poll. And he does so with the help of another critique of the same material by self-published author and increasingly influential community spokesperson Hugh Howey, entitled “You’re looking at it wrong.” Howey and Anderson’s point is, as put most succinctly by Howey, “when you look at earnings and sales figures for traditionally published books, you have to take into account the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile … With self-publishing, ALL books and authors are counted. In traditional publishing, only a small fraction are.”

In other words, any time you see graphs like the one in the DBW survey that show how well traditional or hybrid traditional/self-published authors do financially compared to self-published authors alone, you are missing the fact that all the slushpile equivalent in self-publishing is factored into those numbers. This is the drawback of self-publishing serving as its own virtual slushpile, if you want to look at it that way.

And obviously, this kind of insight does not make it any easier to make money as a self-published author. But it could be reassuring that it is no easier to make money trying to be a traditional author either. If you try and succeed, the equation may change. But by that stage, you’ll also have committed to giving away part of your money to your publisher, and possibly your agent as well.

And, as Anderson insists, there are no data points out there for knowing just how big the traditional publishing slush pile is. It may dwarf the size of the entire self-publishing community – who knows? But the odds could be far more in your favor as a self-published author, once you’re through that initial barrier to wherever the equivalent of a post-traditional slushpile author is in the self-publishing ecosystem, than you think. At least, if you go by data like DBW‘s figures.

DBW‘s Jeremy Greenfield argues in his comments on Howey’s piece that the DBW data is correct. It probably is. But this is an apples-to-apples debate – as Anderson signaled by putting fruit at the head of his blog post. Income for the entire self-publishing community is being counted against income for only a successful fraction of the traditional publishing community, if we allow that the correct comparison is actual-plus-aspirant-authors on both sides. There is no break between actual and aspirant in self-publishing. So the bare money comparisons are not representative.

I’m not sure how reassuring this should be for self-published authors as a whole. But it certainly makes me feel much better.


  1. There’s an agent, Kristin Nelson, who used to report at the end of each year the figures for her agency for the year. Note – this is to get an agent, not to get published.

    For 2010, her figures were:
    Queries received and responded to: about 36,000
    Sample pages asked for: 829
    Full manuscripts asked for: 98
    New clients: 9

    They ask for sample pages for about 2.3% of queries. They took on a new client about 1% of the time they asked for sample pages.

    The slush pile is huge.

  2. Stephen: Those are terrifying numbers. As you point out, that’s not the number of books published but just of clients taken on.

    Of course, let’s say that the average writer submits to 20 agents. That would create some overlap, which would bump the ratio of submitted-to-slushpile/published a little higher. You would also have to account for the number of submitted books that go on to be self-published.

    UNLESS, you think it fair for those submitted to both to count in both. After all, they didn’t make it out of the traditional machine, which means they should count against the earnings in that category. In fact, I think I tend toward this opinion, which is a change from my earlier stance. I used to think you needed to discount the works that were eventually self-published. I’m no longer convinced that’s the case.

    I think you could very easily and conservatively put the estimate of slushpile books that go on to get published at .25%. That’s one quarter of one percent. I think is is probably too high, but I would rather err on the side of caution and give traditional publishing all the help I can possibly give it. So the easiest comparison of earnings would be to compile the total from traditional publishing and line this up against the top quarter of one percent from self-publishing, and see how those earnings stack up.

    The comparison of those in the bottom 99.75% are, of course, a massive win for self-publishing. The traditional route books are making zilch. I know a lot of people outside of the top quarter of one percent who are making decent money. Somehow, someway, this story will get out eventually.

  3. I should add where I came up with my .25%, in case anyone cares or wants to tweak the formula.

    I went with Kristin’s reported 36,000 manuscripts. I divided by 20 (allowing for each submission to have gone to 20 agents), which left me with 1,800 unique attempts at landing an agent. I divided the 9 new clients by this number, which gave me .5%. I was very optimistic by granting that half of her clients had their books published.

    The number could be off by a factor of 10 either way, plus or minus, and you’d still have a better apples-to-apples comparison of author earnings than the DBW survey. That’s how far off that survey is from reporting what an author can hope to make, depending on how they attempt to get published.

    A further problem with these surveys is getting those who have given up on writing to participate. How do you reach the full breadth of people you need to reach? I don’t think you can. The only hope is to have real sales and earnings data from all the major outlets, combined with hard numbers from a large sampling of agents, who are as awesome as Kristin Nelson.

    (full disclosure: Kristin happens to be my agent).

    • @Hugh, some fascinating number crunching, however, I’m not sure I’m following it. I’ve been driving all day, and I’ve lost several brain cells in the process, so I may not be reading this right, but why are you dividing by 20? If the 36,000 manuscripts are each unique, why does it matter that an author submitted to 20 different agents?

      Apologies if my lack of brain function is making me miss the obvious.

  4. Juli:

    My reasoning is this: Those 36,000 books are being submitted to more than one place. Just because Kristin didn’t pick them up, that doesn’t mean another agent didn’t. So if the average number of agents submitted to is 20, that’s 20 chances that those books make it into bookstores with one of those agents. Imagine if we pool all the agents’ data together. We would risk double-counting many manuscripts (or counting them by 10 or 20). The self-published books are only counted one each. I’m trying to keep it fair.

    This is me working against my bias, by the way. Dividing the number of manuscripts by 20 is giving traditional publishing a TWENTY TIMES advantage in the resulting number. This is the kind of rigor I would love to see from those who have a traditional publishing bias. I’m not wed to the answer we would get from good data. I have a very strong suspicion that self-publishing will trounce traditional publishing in most earnings brackets. But I want to see real results so that aspiring writers can make the best decision possible. If that ends up being that authors are better off braving the slush pile and waiting years for a book to come to market and only having that book on store shelves for 3-6 months rather than publish now and publish forever, I will stop evangelizing for self-publishing as hard as I have been.

    • @Hugh, thank you. That makes sense. And I don’t think you’ll need to stop evangelizing anytime soon. I loved your post on looking at it wrong. I’m one of those writers you are talking about. I’ve been writing for free and the love of it for years. I’m not making lots of money on my writing now, but I’m making something, which is a heck of lot better than nothing. And I appreciate the freedoms I have as a self-published author that I wouldn’t have otherwise, not least of which being the ability to make my books available just about everywhere, like Scribd. Only authors with one big house even have that option right now.

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