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Is There Survivor Bias in Analyzing Publishing Success in Today’s Print-On-Demand World?

I belong to an Indie Publishing Group on Goodreads. A frequent topic of discussion focuses on the benefits/challenges of having one’s work published using a traditional publisher versus publishing independently .

A traditional publisher, in this sense, is a company who essentially buys your work, usually paying the author an advance and a royalty on each book sold). The publisher then controls and funds the finalization of the book and manages placement of the book (and e-book) for purchase. Below is a comment by a colleague and group contributor on the relative merits of traditional versus independent publishing.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the number of living published authors totaled hundreds of thousands. Today, anyone with access to a personal computer and the internet can become a published author; so the exclusive club of hundreds of thousands now numbers in the millions. A highly competitive field became ridiculously competitive.

Literary agents and traditional publishers are literally swamped with queries from aspiring authors. Most are discarded immediately. Only a bare fraction are given serious consideration. The market is saturated to the point that there are almost as many published authors as there are avid readers.

The vast majority of self-published authors will never land a contract with a traditional publisher or become commercially successful. That said; some do. The important thing is to accept the facts and face reality.

The complete comment and the thread associated with it can be found at this Link.

The analysis is probably correct in the facts or trends that it presents, but I think it misses an important point. I have lived through the transition from offset printed books to print-on-demand books and wide acceptance of e-books.

In the days “not so long ago” when “the number of living published authors totaled hundreds of thousands” there were many aspiring authors who worked on manuscripts (perhaps for years), sent them in for acceptance to acquisition editors only to find their manuscripts rejected. Since the gatekeepers completely controlled who became an author and who didn’t, these unsuccessful individuals never became official authors and never were able to get their books to the people who matter most, that is their readers.

In summary I contend that the writers who now are termed independent authors, have always been there, but because there was no avenue for them to take control of their publishing, they languished in obscurity, and through no fault of their own were never considered authors because they never published a book. They do not show up in the publishing statistics of their era (this is what I mean by survivor bias–you have to publish a book to be considered a successful (or unsuccessful author). Writing and not being able to publish doesn’t count in the older statistics even though they could be considered as authors who sold zero books).

Quoting once again:

Literary agents and traditional publishers are literally swamped with queries from aspiring authors. Most are discarded immediately. Only a bare fraction are given serious consideration. The market is saturated to the point that there are almost as many published authors as there are avid readers.

These points are very interesting to me. Particularly: “The market is saturated to the point that there are almost as many published authors as there are avid readers.

As an independent author, I am an avid reader. I was an avid reader long before I wrote my first novel. However, several things have changed for me as independent authors have made their presence felt in the book market place. I interact with other independent authors and find that I read many more independently authored books than before because I know the authors. The loss of my reading time is most severe for the big traditional publishers. As independent authors we have our own reading community.

Quoting once again:

The vast majority of self-published authors will never land a contract with a traditional publisher or become commercially successful. That said; some do. The important thing is to accept the facts and face reality.

I think this statement may well be true. Becoming an independent author or Micro-Publishing as I prefer to call it, is really a small business venture and as such must be considered carefully. From my own experience, a simple calculation I have used has helped me: consider clearing $1.50 per book sold. How many books would you have to sell to make the business viable for you in the long term? Authors, with different family situations, living in different parts of the country, and with different lifestyle requirements may have quite different answers to this question. Still, I contend the real comparison ought to be between independent authors and those many predecessors who wrote books, but never had them published. They spen their time and money with zero return.

In summary, I am grateful to my colleague in the Goodreads Independent author group for commenting on this topic. I hope my contributions to the discussion were helpful. I am glad to have the opportunity to be an independent author and get my books into the hands of my readers, a possibility which would not likely have occurred twenty years ago.

Disclaimer

I do not offer publishing, small business, or other financial advice. I offer my own history, observations, and comments up in the hope they will stimulate thinking and discussion.

For the previous post in this Micro-Publishing follow this link.

I’m often asked: “Can you make money as an indie author?”

When people ask me this question, they are usually asking because they or someone they know is active or will be active in writing a book, and they are wondering what to expect. Others ask it because they are skeptical that it is even possible to make money without going through a traditional publisher.

My answer is usually a qualified “yes” it is possible (but certainly not guaranteed) to make money through an indie or as I prefer to call it, a micro-publishing endeavor.

Why the qualification? There are three basic reasons.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is a Small Business Endeavor

The first thing that one has to remember: Micro-Publishing is a small business. Like other small businesses, this means you will likely not be making money out of the starting gate. Rather, like other small business start-ups, you will have to put in long hours with little remuneration, and finally there is significant risk that you will run out of money, patience, or interest before the business begins to pay off. This comes with the territory of starting something you own.

A case in point, many writers that try to find a traditional publisher also spend a great deal of time writing with no remuneration and then attempting to convince a publisher to take on their manuscript (also with no remuneration). This start-up time when taking the traditional route is often excluded from pay-back calculations. The writers who run out of money, patience, or interest choosing this route are ignored leading to a “survivor bias” when comparing traditionally published authors with indie authors.

Many writers augment their early cash flow with writing-related income, for example, editing, free-lance magazine submissions, contract writing for trade journal or instruction manuals. In my own case, since I write Science Fiction, I tutor in physics and chemistry, as well as provide chemistry consulting as a way of staying connected to science.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is an Annuity Business

Secondly, Micro-Publishing is an annuity-driven small business. When you publish your first book, there will be an initial flurry of interest and then slower sales over the long term. Long-term sales depend on how many people hear about your book and hear enough good things to take a chance to buy it. You may also get copyright remuneration or some remuneration for library usage. These long-term sales are your annuity.

The key point: as you write more books, this annuity stream will grow, but often in the initial stages, the up-front costs of writing and publishing more books will grow faster than the annuity stream.

Most Writers Care About the Art as Much or More than They Care About the Business

Finally, writers are artists as well as business-owners. They have a message or art they wish to develop which is often more important to them than the money. I’ve often been told, “If you wrote Science Fiction more like mainstream SF, you would sell more books.” I think that’s true, but I wanted to write Science Fiction that I would like to read but no one else has bothered to write. For me that means I explore worldview, spiritual, and philosophic questions as well as maintaining a strong science component in my novels. Not optimizing only for the money, probably puts one on a slower growth trajectory, but through it I hope to connect with kindred spirits who long for the same kind of story that I seek.

So What Should I Worry About as an Indie Writer?

1. Scalability

First, ask yourself what happens if my next book goes viral and hundreds, even thousands of readers want it at once? Can your distribution system handle it? If you only sell personal copies or mail them yourself, the answer is probably “no.” If some other organization handles the sales, then the answer is likely “yes.” In other words, make sure your distribution channel is scalable in case the breakthrough you hope for happens.

2. Marketing

Writers are often taught to market aggressively. I won’t do that for two reasons: (1) I don’t want to approach anyone in a way that I would not want to be approached. I don’t like aggressive tactics so I won’t use them. (2) I started to realize that when friends would see me, they would immediately think “I haven’t bought Peter’s book yet.” I don’t want that either. Their friendship is much more important to me than a sale. They need to know that they don’t have to like or buy my books to be my friend. That thought should not even come up.

As a consequence, most of my “advertising” or marketing is low-key on social media, by email signatures, or by magnetic signs on my vehicle. Word of mouth, without my intervention, is still the best form of advertising. Improving my writing craft so that readers will enjoy my books so much that they will give them as gifts or recommend them to friends and family is my long term objective.

3. Things Change Unexpectedly

When I published my first book, it was still possible to use Canada Post to mail books to customers at a reasonable shipping charge. Now so many surcharges, special charges have been added that even with a small-business discount, it can cost me $17.50 to ship one book to a nearby small town. Who can afford to pay that much on a book worth $20-30? the answer is “no one.”

This unexpected change has shut down one potential channel for reaching readers. These kinds of changes that are beyond a writer’s control have a major impact on the business. Like all small businesses, one has to adapt and make sure there are several ways to get your books to your readers.

Final Thoughts

Above all, keep writing, connect with like-minded readers, and connect with other writers who share your passion to communicate with others and bring a little beauty and inspiration into their lives.



Disclaimer

I do not offer publishing, small business, or other financial advice. I offer my own history, observations, and comments up in the hope they will stimulate thinking and discussion.