The Importance of Context (Part 1)

Writer BewarePosted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A couple of recent news items have me thinking about the importance of looking at information in context.

The first is an article from the Los Angeles Times entitled “Book Publishers See Their Role as Gatekeepers Shrink.” The article covers a number of writers who are bypassing trade publishers to publish their work themselves–such as Joe Konrath, who has had a great deal of success self-publishing his backlist on the Kindle; Seth Godin, who last year decided to become his own (and apparently other people’s) publisher; and Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson, who are serializing a collaborative novel online.

The second is a cluster of information about ebook sales. According to USA Today’s latest Best-Selling Books list, ebook sales for the week after Christmas were higher than print sales for 19 of the top 50 sellers. Amazon reported similar news in October, when it revealed that for top-selling books, Kindle ebooks were outselling both hardcovers and paperbacks; and in December, Barnes & Noble announced that ebook sales had surpassed print sales on the B & N website.

Everyone loves a juicy news bite. But before you decide that ebooks rule and print is dead and it’s time to self-publish your magnum opus online, there’s a bit more to be said about all these stories.

The “Gatekeepers” article does something that many discussions of the seismic changes that are rocking the publishing world too often seem to do: it takes several non-typical examples, and, either by implication or omission, makes it seem as if they can apply to anyone. The authors discussed in the article are successful, established writers–in some cases, best selling writers–who possessed substantial platforms and self-promotional savvy before deciding to bypass their commercial publishers and self-publish. These are advantages that your average debut author, who must begin from scratch, or your long-time midlister, whose small audience is mainly characterized by the fact that it never gets much bigger, don’t possess. What Seth Godin can do, in other words, probably isn’t what you can do.

Are there platformless authors who’ve achieved self-publishing success? Absolutely. Right now, this seems especially to be a phenomenon of the Kindle, where self-publishing authors are tapping into the growing enthusiasm for ebooks (and for the Kindle itself). In a recent blog post, Joe Konrath provides a list of self-pubbed Kindle authors who he says are selling at least 1,000 ebooks a month. Even here, however (and assuming these are documented figures, rather than anecdotal reports), things need to be put in context. Many of these authors have multiple books on offer (i.e., they may be selling 250 copies each of four books, not 1,000 copies of one book), and/or are pricing them well below what larger publishers charge (which makes them extra-attractive to ebook enthusiasts, many of whom are very hostile toward trade publishers’ ebook pricing strategies). And even if, as Konrath claims, the list is only a small sampling of high-selling Kindle self-publishers, these success stories have to be considered in the context of the thousands of self-pubbed authors whose ebooks aren’t selling in large quantities. Konrath seems to assume that just about anyone, with some effort, can move a substantial number of ebooks, but I’m betting there are a lot of writers out there who know it’s not that easy.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t self-publish if you want to (though I would urge you to do so on the basis of knowledge rather than hype), or that self-publishers can’t become successful (clearly, they can–something that has always been true, for every possible value of success). I’m just saying that it’s risky to assume that others’ success stories will apply to you. “Anyone can do it” are dangerous words. Look for the story behind the story–it may be as instructive as the story itself.

What about ebooks outselling print, though? Doesn’t that say something about the potential for self-publishing success in a digital world? Doesn’t it prove we’ve reached a tipping point, beyond which the dominance of digital is assured?

Well, there’s some context here, too. As USA Today notes, the surge in e-sales is a post-Christmas boom, spurred by all the people who got Nooks and Kindles and iPads for Christmas and spent the holidays busily filling them up with ebooks. A better test of the trend, if it is a trend, will be to take a look at the situation a few months down the road. It’s also good to remember that the ecology of best-sellers is rather different from that of other books, and trends displayed by high-selling books may not apply across the board.

As for Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s ebook figures, they say something important about the huge popularity of those retailers’ ebook devices. But while ebooks can only be bought online, print books are bought both online and off. In other words, Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s figures represent the totality of Kindle and Nook sales–but only a fraction of print sales.

Per current estimates, ebooks account for about 9% of all trade book sales (a figure that’s probably a good deal higher for some genres and some books). Ebooks are rapidly gaining market share, and this time next year they’ll undoubtedly hold a bigger chunk of the market. How much bigger, though, is anyone’s guess. Beware of prognosticators–nobody owns a crystal ball, no matter how much they may want you to think they do.

Be forward-thinking in your quest for publication. Embrace trends; take risks. Just be sure to research everything, investigate everything, and remember that facts and statistics don’t emerge from a vacuum. They may look very different when considered in context. Whatever decisions you make about your publishing future, you’ll be most assured of achieving your goals if you proceed on the basis of knowledge, rather than headlines and hype.

Oh, and happy 2011, everyone!

2 Responses

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  2. JA Konrath

    It isn’t easy to be successful no matter how you publisher, either through and agent and the Bi6 6, or uploading ebooks to Amazon yourself.

    But I’m convinced the majority of writers will see more success and make more money focusing on ebooks.

    Crap won’t sell. But good books, priced low, with good covers, can compete against anything NY puts out.

    As for the low price: I eanr $2.04 royalty on a $2.99 ebook. Compare that to 64 cents on a $7.99 paperback sale.

    All writers need to go the self-pub route. If you follow my blog, you’ll know I can’t come up with a single compelling reason to sign with a NY house. And this is coming from a man who used to warn authors against self-pubbing.