eBook Sales and Author Incomes and All That Jazz

People are pointing me to this article in the New York Times about eBooks sales slipping and print sales stabilizing, and are wondering what I think of it. Well:

To begin, I think it’s lovely that print sales and book stores are doing well; it was touch and go there for a while. I’m also not entirely surprised to find that many younger readers — the “digital natives” — like and often prefer physical books. That’s certainly been the case with my daughter (who now, as it happens, works at the local bookstore). She’s sucked into her phone as much as any person her age, or indeed, as much as most people alive, it seems. And yet, when she reads books, and she reads a lot of them, print is her preferred medium, and was even before the bookstore.

With that said, it’s worth noting this bit in the article:

It is also possible that a growing number of people are still buying and reading e-books, just not from traditional publishers. The declining e-book sales reported by publishers do not account for the millions of readers who have migrated to cheap and plentiful self-published e-books, which often cost less than a dollar.

Indeed, a couple of days before this particular article, my Twitter feed was alive with retweets of data showing that publishers’ share of Amazon ebooks sales had decreased while indie sales had increased; since the data had come from a source that is unabashedly pro-indie (and less-than-subtly in my opinion anti-publishing), it also came with rhetoric implying that publishers were doomed, doomed, and so on.

So a couple of things here. First, if we are talking overall book sales, I do think we’re missing a lot if we’re not bringing indie sales into the discussion. There’s a hell of a lot going on there and it’s one of the most exciting places in publishing right now, “exciting” being used in many senses of the term. But no matter how you slice it, if you’re lightly sliding over its existence, you’re not accurately describing the current publishing market.

But, second, I don’t think declining eBook sales from publishers means they’re doomed, doomed, either. This is in part because (and this seems to be a point of some confusion) there’s more to publishing than maximizing eBook sales numbers in the short term. Publishers, for example, might decide that it’s in their long-term interest to stabilize and even grow the print market, and price both their eBooks and print books in a manner that advantages the latter over the former in the short term.

Why would they do that? For a number of reasons, including the fact that Amazon is still 65% of the eBook market in the US, and publishers, as business entities, are appropriately wary of a retailer which a) clearly has monopsonist ambitions and tendencies, b) has been happy to play hardball with publishers to get its way. Investing time in strengthening alternate retail paths makes sense in that case, especially if, as the article suggests, consumers are happy to receive the book in different formats for an advantageous price. If people fundamentally don’t care if they read something in print or electronic format, as long as they get a price they like, that leaves publishers a lot of room to maneuver.

Which is not to say I think publishers are blind to the potential advantages of the digital space. Note well that publishers have not been idle addressing the digital-only market; numerous publishers now have digital-only (or “digital-first” with publish-on-demand print option) imprints, and several, including Tor, my primary fiction publisher, have started imprints devoted specifically to novellas, a format that is now emerging from a long commercial slumber thanks to digital formats. I think it’s entirely possible that publishers have as their long-term strategy imprints and initiatives that primarily address particular media, with some imprints, books and authors primarily digital-facing and some primarily print-facing, depending on where their data tells them money is to be made with each book/author/imprint/whatever.

The short version of all of the above is: I’m sure publishers are happy about print doing well, and I would be mildly surprised if publishers are too deeply concerned with the short-term dip in digital sales, especially if they are investing in positioning themselves for the long-term. Again I remind everyone that many if not most of these publishers have been around decades and have seen changes in the market as significant as the one we’re going through today. They’re tenacious bastards, publishing companies are.

While we’re on the subject of publishing and writers, people have asked me what I thought about the Author’s Guild survey that shows author incomes down substantially from what was reported in a 2009 survey, with full-time authors seeing a 30% decrease from $25k to $17.5K, and part-time authors reporting an even steeper drop. Added to that, this NPR piece noting the relatively meager sales of some of the books nominated for this year’s Man Booker prize. Between the both of them, it’s enough to make writers a little gloomy.

My first thought about the latter is to note there is not nor ever has there been a strong correlation between “literary excellence” and strong sales, nor when it comes to awards should there necessarily be. The Man Booker is a juried award, if I remember correctly, so awareness through sales isn’t much of a factor in terms of what gets onto its long and short lists. So, no, it’s not really surprising some of the finalists haven’t sold that much prior to the announcement. They’ll probably sell better now, however.

It’s also not a huge surprise that most books don’t sell that well. That, at least, is a consistent fact through time. Kameron Hurley notes the lifetime sales of the average published and self-published book here, if you want to look. The rise of self/indie publishing is kind of a wash on this, I suspect; it allows you to price a book very cheaply, but it also means the market is swamped and it’s harder to stand out. It doesn’t matter how low you price your book if no one ever sees it out there, etc.

But with respect to writer incomes dropping via the Author’s Guild survey, this is one place where I wish we had better (which is to say more comprehensive and in some way independently verifiable) reporting from indie authors, because I suspect there’s a lot of money not being reported out there, not only in terms of direct indie/self-publishing unit sales, but through other avenues like Kickstarters and Patreons, which I anecdotally see adding a non-trivial amount of income to writers’ bottom lines. I suspect these are avenues that a lot of writers who are used to particular income paths are either not aware of, or exploiting — or perhaps can’t exploit because their established audiences are used to paying in them in particular ways. I’d love to see the figures on who crowdfunds, in terms of age; my suspicion is that it skews younger.

Would this money I suspect is going missing substantially move the needle in terms of overall author incomes? I don’t know. I suspect it might, but it’s possible not as much as some people cheerleading indie/self-publishing would like to admit.

I’ve noted before that I think in general there are three kinds of authors: Dinosaurs, mammals and cockroaches, where the dinosaurs are authors tied to an existing publishing model and are threatened when it is diminished or goes away, mammals are the authors who rise to success with a new publishing model (but who then risk becoming dinosaurs at a later date), and cockroaches are the authors who survive regardless of era, because they adapt to how the market is, rather than how they want it to be. Right now, I think publishing might be top-heavy with dinosaurs, and we’re seeing that reflected in that Author’s Guild survey.

What we’re missing — or at least what I haven’t seen — is reliable data showing that the mammals — indie/self-publishing folks, in this case — are doing any better on average. If these writers are doing significantly better on average, then that would be huge. It’s worth knowing.

Update, 2:52pm: This excellent point on eBook sales from Tor editor Beth Meacham:

The Big Idea: Christopher Barzak

For today’s Big Idea, Christopher Barzak takes you to the family farm and explains how a little bit of his own personal history informs his latest novel, Wonders of the Invisible World.

CHRISTOPHER BARZAK:

Wonders of the Invisible World was an attempt to save my family.

Which is a little ironic, because the protagonist of the novel—Aidan Lockwood—is also charged with the duty of saving his family. Specifically, he’s charged with the duty of saving them from an ancestral curse that has been brought upon them by a decidedly nasty act of hubris that his great-grandfather commits nearly a hundred years prior.

My attempt to save my family wasn’t so much to rescue us from an ancestral curse, so much as to rescue us, somehow, from the passage of time, from the way anyone’s family fades over time, as the shadow of mortality grows ever closer, until it eclipses not only individual lives, but the life of a family unit.

I was thirty years old when I began writing this novel. I’m forty now. In between the span of those ten years, I published two other novels and a collection of short stories. I moved to Japan to teach English. I earned an MFA while teaching full time at a university after I returned. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever clear away enough time and space for a continuous span of concentration I need to complete a novel. But I continued to work on multiple drafts of this book, because it was a story in which I was preserving details from the landscape of my childhood: my grandparents’ farm, where I grew up among a large, extended family that all made their homes either on the farm or nearby it.

No, Wonders of the Invisible World isn’t necessarily about my family. The Barzaks aren’t cursed like the Lockwood family is. But when I was thirty and began trying to write a novel that might capture some of the essence of my family life, it was because, at that point, every time I’d visit my family, I’d see another piece of our shared past fading away. I watched my grandfather unstring the barbed wire fences that outlined his various pastures and orchard. I saw the last tree standing in the orchard cut down. I watched as his remaining stock of cattle were sold off, and I watched as my grandparents’ farmhouse itself, well over a hundred years old now, begin to crumble around them before they themselves passed away in recent years.

The big idea for me was to capture the essence of a way of life, rural and agrarian, before it passed away completely. So the setting of Wonders of the Invisible World is largely based on my family home. The orchard, the creek that flows through it, the pastures and the cornfields. Even the farmhouse in which the Lockwood family lives. I’ve often used the places where I’ve lived for a long period of time as settings for my books, but this time it was more personal, acting as a totem of sorts as I wrote the book.

The big idea, though, that I wanted to capture for the reader, who has no interest in my personal connection to the story necessarily, was to capture the essence of the passage of time, of a young man—seventeen year old Aidan Lockwood—who discovers an ancestral family secret, and in the process of reclaiming memories of his own childhood that have been magically obscured by someone trying to protect him, discovers parts of himself that he’d never known before.

In a lot of ways, discovering one’s family history is a way of discovering yourself. So many things about the formation of our personalities and processes for thinking are determined, to some extent, by the families that create and shape us. Wonders of the Invisible World is a young adult novel, and in this way I felt like the plot I invented reflected, literally, the way a young adult begins to see the members of their family more clearly as they come of age. To see Mom and Dad as more than the role they play as parents. To see grandparents as people who have shaped their own parents. History, at least for me, only came alive as I became a late teenager; and in discovering more about my own family, I felt like I was discovering myself, my place within the story my family inhabits.

Ten years is a long time to work on a novel in stop and go fashion. It wasn’t ideal. It made me question the story every time I came back to it, when some small amount of time for that kind of work became available. I wrote three drafts, threw them all out. Started from scratch on a fourth, and finally found the shape of the story I needed to hold everything I wanted to address inside it. What was the key turning point? Realizing that in order to contain all of the bits and pieces I wanted in the story, I would have to make my protagonist suffer from a spell (a literal one) of forgetfulness, in order for the act of remembering to become a magical event in and of itself.

There are so many more bits of magic in this novel than those I’ve mentioned. There’s a white stag, the specter of a man in a black suit, harbingers of Death, a voice that comes from a dead apple tree, visions and dreams that come to Aidan Lockwood unbidden. It’s a personal story that pushes outward into the epic, encapsulating a hundred years of his family life. I’m not sure if I really did, in the end, manage to save my family by writing this book, much as I tried (perhaps pure memoir would be better for such an act), but I do know that Aidan Lockwood manages to save his. And after ten years of struggling with him throughout his journey, seeing this story contained in the bound pages of a book feels at least a little bit like redemption.

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Wonders of the Invisible World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.