On Author Earnings and Author Yearnings

The dust is far from settled in the writing-publishing-indie blogosphere. It was kicked up by Hugh Howey, the hugely successful indie author who has begun a data gathering project to help authors make more informed decisions about where to publish.
His Author Earnings Report was like a bomb going off in a pillow factory. Feathers flying all over the place. The gimlet-eyed Porter Anderson provides a nice overviewof the math and the aftermath. Criticism of Howey’s methodology came in furious bursts, notably here, here, and here.
The mildly opinionated Joe Konrath jumped in to defend Howey, by way of  “fisking” one of Howey’s prominent critics, Mike Shatzkin.
Mark Coker, of Smashwords fame, took to PW with a “moderate” view of the “revolt.” For an agent’s perspective on matters, you can check out Chip MacGregor’s post “Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks.” 
Howey himself has defended his research in various comment sections, including the one in the Shatzkin post referenced above.
Passive Guy had this to say about the blowback to Howey’s data:
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire Author Earnings episode for PG has been the extraordinarily overwrought response it has engendered from traditional publishing and its assorted hangers-on.
Indie authors just can’t, can’t, can’t be selling more ebooks anywhere on Amazon than tradpub is. Indie bestsellers just can’t, can’t, can’t be making more money that tradpub authors are. They just can’t.
The vitriol and mathematical illiteracy have flowed like half-priced beer during Happy Hour.
What are we to make of all this? I’m no statistician, and all I really know about the field is that old saying: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.In other words, it’s easy to look at a survey and come to divergent conclusions, depending on whose ox is being fed or gored.
Hugh Howey has provided his own bottom line:
There’s no guarantee you’ll get rich from self-publishing. There’s less guarantee you’ll get rich from querying agents. My contention is this: Most people will be happier getting their works out in the wild and moving on to the next project than they will reading rejection letters.

The real choice is that 99% of you can write a novel, pour your heart into it, and watch as every agent you query rejects the thing. And then you can give up. Feel like a failure. Walk away from your dream.
Or you can self-publish, have the pride of having done so, hold a copy of a physical book you wrote in your hands, see your e-book up on Amazon, get a sale or two, hear from a reader, and want to write more.
It isn’t about getting rich. It’s about having the opportunity to feel pride of accomplishment.
I’d like to offer my own take on the current landscape from the perspective of a professional writer. I’ve made my living from the clacking keyboard for almost twenty years. I believe in writers making money. I like that whole concept.
Professional writers know that striking it rich (as in Wool or Harry Potter or Hunger Gamestype rich) is out of their hands. If it happens, it’s lightning striking. We’ll take it if it comes, of course, but getting hot and bothered about it is pointless.
Professional writers pursue a steady and increasing income. That we can control, by being good and productive. “Pride of accomplishment” is fine for a first book, but after that I’d venture to say that 99% of those who yearn to write also yearn to earn.
The questions are how, where, and how long will it take to make bank as a writer? Let’s answer all three:
By working hard at your craft. All consistent readers of TKZ know this is the drum I beat most often. I believe writers can get better and I have a library of material to help them. I also have hundreds of emails from writers, many of whom are now professional. I’m gratified my instruction has helped, but I know that these authors have added the most important ingredient themselves: a work ethic.
I don’t care how badly you want to make money from writing. Unless you produce the words, on a regularly scheduled basis, you’re going to stay stuck on yearning. 
Where should do you publish? Do you seek a traditional contract? Should you go right into self-publishing?
It does not have to be either/or. There is no longer a stigma attached to self-publishing. There used to be, big time. Now there is no reason a new author can’t put out work independently while, at the same time, looking toward a possible traditional contract.
In fact, trad publishers are on the lookout for self-publishing successes. Why? Because it lowers their risk. The only question then is whether the writer would be better off staying exclusively on the self-publishing course. The answer to that will be in the terms of the deal being offered. Many have taken such a deal. Others have turned trad deals down, even when they run to seven figures.
I will state here what I say to audiences of writers, published and unpublished: Short-form work (like my Force of Habit series) is a great way to get your feet wet in self-publishing, and every single author working today should have at least one wet foot.
As long as it takes. A professional writer is not going to give up, ever. You have to love to write. It has to be a sort of compulsion. You have to have calluses on your forehead from banging it against various doors. There’s plenty of rejection and dejection to go around. You take it for an hour or so, then get back to the keyboard.
The more and better you write, the better your chances of earning an income. It may not be enough to quit the old day job, but I’ve never been an advocate of doing that too soon. A day job keeps your feet on the ground and soup on the table. There may come a time when you’ve got this thing humming along and you can ditch the daily salt mine. But in the meantime, concentrate on producing a certain number of words every week. Doesn’t matter how few. Just do it. And study the craft at least one hour each week, too.
So here’s my take on the Author Earnings Report. I like Hugh Howey. I like his enthusiasm for, and support of, his fellow writers. There may be valid criticisms of how much you can extrapolate from his data. But professional writers don’t spend much time extrapolating. They spend their time typing and making up more stories.
Wayne Gretzky used to say, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So take your shots. And when the fur starts to fly and the blogosphere gets too noisy, pop on the headphones, cue up Steely Dan or DragonForce, and write some more. 

So what do you perceive to be the terrain out there in publishing land?  

35 thoughts on “On Author Earnings and Author Yearnings

  1. Interesting landscape out there, Jim. Look out for the pot holes! I’ve been reading and studying all sides of this and it’s enough to make my head spin if I think about it too much. I think it has to come down to Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Indie, traditional, or hybrid we have to move forward with our work, treat it like the business it is and make the best decisions we can when the time comes.

    I’ve noticed that it’s easy to get so caught up in the publishing changes that it can take away from the focus of my writing. It took me 21 years to get a traditional publishing contract. I imagine I’ll be publishing again traditionally sometime but I’ll also be indie publishing as well.

    • I love it when one of our wise readers quotes Shakespeare. And you’re right, Jillian. It can indeed be head-spinning out there. That’s why the focus on writing keeps us from getting dizzy.

      You’ve done well in your writing journey…keep at it.

  2. I’ve been out of the loop with FT work and a heavy school schedule. I can’t wait till spring break to “relax” and read another fur-flying episode in the trad vs. indie debate. I’ll be interested to see what Mr. Howey and respondents have to add to the discussion. Thanks for the alert, and for your consistent reiteration of the truly important aspects of ANY writer’s life. – BK Jackson

  3. The Terrain is bumpy, rocky, has some hair raising turns and there’s this steep drop on the left when you round that one mountain bend…don’t miss it.

    Otherwise, keep writing stories, and making them the best they can be and however you choose to publish or not be happy with it. It’s your car, drive it where you will.

  4. I’m an authorpreneur. I write my own stories and publish them through my own publishing company, Saltcedar Publications. A long time ago, I quit playing the hoping-to-get-published lotto and chose myself. In this new publishing environment, I would be a fool not to pull up my big girl panties and take responsibility for my own career. I don’t need validation from agents and publishers. When I earn money from book sales through READERS–that’s my validation. I’m having fun doing what I do. I make every effort to produce good work with the money, time, ability and knowledge I have. Every day, I’m learning to be a better writer, a better businesswoman, a better marketer and just a better person all around. It’s a joy to wake up every morning to run my business rather than churn out yet another query. James, thanks for your writing advice–they’re solid!

    • You’ve hit on a key point, Charmaine. Running one’s own business is hard work but also a joy.The feeling that you can keep learning and take action and see results is invigorating. You’ve got the right perspective.

  5. Great post and viewpoint. Its good to step back from the industry analysis and look at things from one writer’s point of view. Basically, I can’t see any reason for a new writer (i.e. one or two books) to waste their time going for a traditional deal – takes too long. Get your work out, do some basic marketing, and work on the next book. Like you said, have a foot wet in self-pub. If you have books that will work in a traditional publishing environment, they’ll probably find you. If not, there’s money to be made self-pubbing if, as you say, you keep writing good stuff until you have a nice sized inventory out there.

  6. First of all, you referenced DragonForce which means you are way more awesome than I previously thought, bumping you up from “Ultra Super Duper Awesome” to “Mega Ultra Super Duper Awesomely Awesome”.

    Second, I like to watch the fur fly. I think dialogue between both traditional and indie publishing is very important. I wish there wasn’t quite so much of an “us vs. them” mentality on both sides. I think if both sides could have a reasonable conversation all would benefit, but that is largely not happening.

    In the meantime, I’m keeping my head down and making the words happen.

    • Because you said “Mega-Ultra Super Duper Awesomely Awesome” I have told my Leprechauns to send you an extra lucky object.

      Sorry to say I am not sure what the object will be, 4-leaf clovers are only the most well known but not actually preferred by most Leprechauns as their ponies tend to eat them.

      So don’t be surprised if your frying pan suddenly seems to be churning out amazing delicacies you never knew you could do. Or if your hair dryer and brushes are turning your your coiffure into a beauty pageant masterpiece all on their own.

      Leprechauns have been deployed.

  7. As always, great post, Jim. Thanks for the links. I’ve been hunkered down writing & haven’t kept up with the latest vitriol. Appreciate your overview. Have a nice Sunday.

  8. Thanks for addressing the madness! I read Howey’s report with great interest, and quite a few feathers flew in my own small writing community. I’m no statistician, so I’ve just watched and said nothing, but I’m definitely going to pursue self publication in the most professional way I know. 🙂

  9. Headphones are on and head is down. I’ll simply agree with everything Ms. Poole said. I haven’t even opened your links right now because I know it will waste the rest of my day by taking my focus off the goals I’ve set for today. But I must take the time to say, ‘Great post. Most appreciated.’

    And I will open them later, no doubt about it.

  10. This kerfuffle came at an interesting time for me as I’m about to venture out into the arena. I am going to pursue trad publishing with this project as hard as I can.

    I’ve spent the last year making friends, making connections, and studying the craft. This last 2 weeks has been polishing the query, building a synopsis, and defining my audience by reading dozens of agent websites to create a query list. I’ll be taking my editorial lumps for the next two weeks as beta notes filter in.

    Yes, I am out for the validation, the experience, and the residual benefits of possibly gaining an audience I can bring to a future self-pub venture. And, yes, I am out for the possibility of an advance.

    If I hit a wall that is business related, not quality related, I will have a project that has been forged in the query-cauldron. At that point, I will self-pub it.

    However, in the meantime, I have a series of shorter works (15 – 25K) on the drawing board, sweet romances set in the Bleeding Kansas era, that I will be self-pubbing to learn and hopefully earn. I’m working with a stunningly talented photographer and convincing him to branch into cover design.

    It isn’t all or nothing and the hyperbole has been pretty ugly the last month. I love Hugh Howey to death and that he frankly admits that he is an outlier. The discussion and even heated argument is good. The ugliness and bomb throwing is bad, but that is the way of the interwebz. I’ve been politically active for too long to not have the hide of an elephant.

    I have a $$$ goal that would let me can one of my day jobs. I’ll start there and see what happens.

    Every week I skim the top 100 freebies on Kindle. Most of it is pretty substandard. I’ve found a few gems, but it is like mucking for diamonds in an Arkansas riverbank, I have to get a lot of mud under my nails to find them.

    Thank you for another thoughtful Sunday Professor Bell.


  11. Great post, as always, Jim.

    I did, however, find one small area slightly disturbing. You hinted at the advantage writers might have by self-pubbing “short form” works (presumably short stories and novelettes), to get their feet wet. Then, their novels (or, as I distinctly gleaned, their “real writing”) could be saved up and more intelligently submitted to the can’t-be-bothered world of traditional publishing.

    Buried deep between the lines is the fact that traditional publishers generally won’t go near novelettes or short stories (there are few exceptions), so those pieces would be perfect to “throw away” on self-publishing just to allow the writer to get up on the boards. The hint continued that the real dream, of course, is to be traditionally published. Then, so goes the myth, “all you have to do is write and not worry about all that other stuff”.

    It upsets me when I hear writers talk this way, that short form works are the only things fit for self-publishing, while their “real writing” should be preserved for the golden world of the gatekeepers.

    Did I read you wrong?

    • You did indeed read me wrong, Mike. My point was mainly directed at writers who are trad published or seeking same, advocating short form work as a no-brainer way to get that one foot “wet” in the world of self-publishing. I in no way was saying that “real” books only belong in the Forbidden City. Far from it!

      Nor do I consider the self-pubbed shorter works as “throwaways.” Never. Nothing should be “thrown” in our writing. I take just as much care with my shorts as I do with my longs. I care too much about writing to do any less.

      Hope that clarifies!

  12. Weird how the mind works, Jim. You asked about “the terrain out there in the publishing world” and my mind conjured up a scene from director James Cameron’s movie, Avatar. The main character, Jake Sully, is trying to exist on a beautiful and dangerous planet. Everything that he knew to be true has been challenged. The people he is trying to gain their trust have finally decided to allow him to stay and learn their ways.

    Ma’at, the spiritual leader of Omaticaya, tells Jake: “It is decided. My daughter will teach you our ways. Learn well, Jake Sully, and we will see if your insanity can be cured.

    We authors are the Jake Sullys, trying to figure out this new world of publishing. Everything we thought to be true in the past—write, submit, wait to be accepted—has been flipped upside down. Now, there is more than one path to publication. Now—as we try to figure it out, novel after novel—we must find out if our insanity can be cured. If not, we keep on writing and test the terrain to see which path we should follow. Everyone’s path will be different, including the money we make along this road.

  13. Totally agree, Jim. I’m glad to see others put an emphasis on quality. Your encouragement to writers to hone their craft and get it out there is exactly what I’ve been saying for fifteen years. Still, I’m actually glad I was forced to hone my craft before seeing publication. I know it made me a stronger writer (not that I’ll ever be the strongest). Many times a rejection is a good thing. I worry about writers who put their work out too early, without learning the craft, and fail to sell. When I pick up a poorly written novel, I’ll remember not to do that again. As a reader, I seldom give them a second chance. My bad, I know, but quality is vital.

  14. Whenever I read one of your posts, I feel fortified. Like I can pick up my shield and stagger forward and keep going. In my mind, it’s a matter of drawing readers to your work. You can draw ’em either self-pubbed or traditionally published, and some of that is pure luck.

    A lot of it is hard, hard work… staying humble so you can improve (if you think you’re great, your work will stagnate)… and not complaining. And when lightning strikes, being gracious.

    And… being happy for other writers when the spotlight shines on them.

    Thanks again. I’ll keep that ole keyboard of mine clicking away.

  15. I wait to read James Scott Bell’s Kill Zone each week. He never disappoints. A relatively new writer, I learn so much from his articles. Best wishes, Frances-www.penandpatience.wordpress.com

  16. I’ve been trying to articulate these points on Twitter this week and failing utterly. Apparently 140 characters takes some of the nuance out of an argument. Who knew?

  17. Looks like clear sailing from up here in Montana. Please keep on beating your drum, Jim. And thanks to you and everyone else for TKZ. And what a great take-away quote:

    “Most people will be happier getting their works out in the wild and moving on to the next project than they will reading rejection letters.”

  18. Indie publishing (an acceptable euphemism for self-publishing) offers a lifeline to those of us who have played by traditional rules, but for whatever reason have been turned away at the door. It means stories I have ample reasons for thinking deserve to be published will see the light of day. It means I don’t have to shrug my shoulders, and take up wood-working..

  19. Good morning, Mr. Bell, and thank you for your sage words. I particularly love the quote from Wayne Gretzky as well as your advice to take the rejection, mull over it for about an hour, and then get back to the keyboard. As a writer who aspires to get published (or publish her own work) one day, I find all of this incredibly encouraging and a good dose of reality at the same time. Thank you!

  20. I absolutely love Hugh Howey. I just love his perspective and enthusiasm. Sure, others may criticize him, but the guy has guts. Plus, he wrote an amazing series.

Comments are closed.