Two Surveys

Two fascinating surveys appeared this week. They look at opposite ends of the writing business, but dovetail in interesting ways. (This is going to be a long post, so please bear with me.)

The Writers’ Workshop Survey of Professional Authors

In March, the Writers’ Workshop, a UK-based writers’ consultancy, launched a survey of traditionally published authors. The aim: to discover how authors feel about their publishers in a time of rapid change, where “it has become possible – arguably for the first time in history – for authors to detach themselves from publishers.”

The survey results were posted this week, and they make for interesting reading. Authors are generally happy with a number of aspects of the traditional publishing process–notably, the editing they receive.

Around 75% of authors rated their editorial input as having been good or (more commonly) excellent. Just 14% disagreed…

Similarly – and again contrary to many stories about declining standards – authors rate their publishers extremely highly on copy-editing, proof-reading, page design and so forth. More than 80% of authors regarded their publishers as being good-to-excellent in these areas…

On the matters of cover design and jacket copy, authors remained broadly positive. About three-fifths of authors were highly satisfied with the way these things turned out. The remainder were, on the whole, ‘somewhat’ satisfied.

Marketing, however, was a different story. A majority of authors felt they weren’t adequately consulted on their publishers’ marketing plans, that their skills and strengths weren’t adequately utilized, and that they had little input or control (ah yes–I know the feeling). About half the respondents felt that communication by the publisher was poor, and nearly half said that their publishers never sought feedback from them.

And while there is much grumbling in the writing community about the lack of publisher loyalty, with publishers no longer willing to stick with writers over several books while they build an audience, authors are just as fickle. 40% of survey respondents said they’d move to another house if given the chance. 22% weren’t sure.

Harry Bingham, who wrote the survey summary, concludes:

One, authors actually love publishing. It’s clear from much of the commentary we received that authors know publishers do a hard, essential and wonderful job…But that’s not enough. In truth, it never was, but the world of today is changing fast and authors can glimpse a new mobility just round the corner. As one author commented, it’s ‘Look after your authors, or die.’ Quite so.

Two, these things are simple. Breathtakingly so. I’ve written most of this post while sitting in one of the unrenovated parts of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Unlike the gleaming buildings around it, this part had paint peeling from the walls, curtains that looked to be left over from the 1970s, and a toilet with a high and dripping cistern. Yet in the corner of the unit, someone had put a big cardboard box, above which there was taped a sign: ‘PATIENT FEEDBACK AND SUGGESTIONS PLEASE!’

Publishers have better paintwork, cleaner curtains and only ever the most delightful of toilets. But no box. And it’s the box which matters.

I do have a few caveats. First, the survey sample was small–just 321 respondents (the survey summary notes that “[a]bout two-thirds of respondents were either with a ‘Big 6’ publisher or a major independent,” which raises the additional question of what kinds of publishers the remaining third were talking about).

Second, there are different kinds of marketing–for instance, the stuff a publisher does long before publication (catalogs, ARCs, trade shows, advertising, etc.) and what it does post-publication. Authors naturally tend to focus on the second kind of marketing, and to gloss over the first, which is equally, if not more, important. It would have been useful if the survey had made that distinction.

Third (and of course there’s no way to test this), I can’t help wondering whether, if this survey had been done ten, or twenty, or even thirty years ago, the results would have been much different. Authors can be unreliable narrators, and marketing is an area where hope and expectation often clash unpleasantly with reality–something that I think has always been so. On the other hand, as Bingham points out, we are living in an age where it’s not only possible, but viable, for authors to kick their publishers to the curb…so his final point remains compelling. Publishers need a box.

But before you do decide to take a pass on traditional publishing and join the ranks of self-publishers, you might want to take a look at survey number two.

The Taleist Self-Publishing Survey

In February, Taleist launched a self-publishing survey, with the aim of discovering, among other things:

– What the top earning self-publishers have in common
– What marketing seems to be working
– How much the average self-publisher is earning in royalties
– What types of outside assistance really make a difference

The results are in, and their title says a lot: Not a Gold Rush.

To get the full survey, you have to go to Amazon (here’s a breakdown of the various chapters) but here are some interesting tidbits (for more detailed analyses, see these posts from Catherine Ryan Howard and Joel Friedlander):

– 10% of self-publishing authors earn 75% of royalties–a statistic that’s eerily similar to the income breakout in traditional publishing. (Only about 60% of the more than 1,000 respondents were willing to answer questions about their earnings.)

– Half the authors earned less than $500 in 2011.

– A quarter of books probably won’t make back the authors’ production expenses.

– Earnings were sharply defined by genre. Romance writers earned 170% more than others, with literary fiction authors earning the least.

– Authors who sought outside help (editing, copy editing, proofreading, cover design) earned more than those who didn’t.

– The 29% of respondents who went from a traditional publisher to self-publishing earned twice as much on their own as they did from their publishers.

– The most financially successful  self-publishers write more than their peers, and spend less time marketing. In fact, those self-publishers who marketed the most earned the least.

Fascinating information, all in all. For me, one of the things that’s most unexpected is the way that many of the results parallel the realities of traditional publishing. A tiny percent of authors earning the bulk of the income; most authors unable to make a living wage; the importance of editing and design; the market dominance of romance–all these things suggest (perhaps) that there are universal truths of authorship that transcend context.

Again, though, there are some caveats. The survey sample was sizeable–but how self-selecting might it have been? For instance, the majority of respondents were US-based (72%). Taleist acknowledges this:

For a start, no one knows what the total population of self-publishers look like so we can’t know for sure how closely our sample of 1,007 respondents represents that community. It seems likely that with a sample this size we will have good representation but do the experiences of our respondents match yours? Where are the differences? What do you agree with? What did you disagree with? What else would you like to know?

Also, as Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader points out, the survey needs to be considered in context: “The thing is, no matter how little those authors made while self-publishing their ebooks, on average they are almost certainly better off than if they did not have the option of self-publishing.” Survey results support this: only 5% of respondents said that they considered themselves unsuccessful, regardless of how much they earned–reminding us that “success” is about much more than money.

Caveats aside, we now have a lot more information about self-publishers and self-publishing than was available before. As survey authors Dave Comford and Steven Lewis say (quoted in The Guardian),

The majority of the information out there is about the outliers, whose success is inspiring, but as we can now confirm bears scant resemblance to the experience of most authors.

It’s a valuable counter to the hype that surrounds self-publishing, and hopefully gives authors who are considering this alternative more tools with which to realistically evaluate their goals.


  1. I think that one fact is lacking on this discussion between traditionally published authors and self published authors.
    That fact is that the traditionally published authors in the survey were the cream of the crop. The ones who passed the censors and didn't receive rejection notices, the ones who were awarded the stamp of approval from a publisher.
    This represents about 1% of all the would-be authors who submitted manuscripts or found an agent. On the other hand, 100% of the self-published authors were able to get their works out to the public and let the reader decide who was best. Does this skew the results? I leave it for you to decide.

  2. Thanks for the link, Necia. Rusch isn't the only person who's eager to debunk the Taleist survey, and I do think this is partly because the survey results challenge the picture that self-publishing boosters want to paint of this rapidly-changing new frontier. Empirical data is often the enemy of ideology.

    For me, the bottom line is that this really is the first in-depth attempt to gather actual statistics on self-publishing–something that's sorely lacking amid the anecdotal reports and the hype. The survey needs to be taken with some caveats, but I think it's as disingenuous to dismiss the results wholesale as it is to embrace them as proof positive that self-publishing is a dead end (which some people are doing). Perhaps in a few years we'll look back on the survey as fatally flawed, but I hope we'll also look back on it as the first step in an effort to initiate more responsible reporting on what has become an important publishing alternative.

  3. Victoria is right that this is the first survey to go into any depth with self-publishing and is both interesting and to be welcomed for that reason. I think Steven's point to Claire, and Patrick's later comment, highlights a real problem with it, and that is that to discuss from a position of knowledge one has to pay – the survey's author's chose to make entry into "informed discussion" on a pay to play basis and therefore have to accept a certain amount of discussion both of that fact and the inferences one can draw from it (such as whether this is research for the sake of research and the benefit to self-published authors or research undertaken in order to produce a commercial how-to- I didn't do the survey so I don't know if authors were informed that their responses would be used to produce a pay-for volume). Harry's survey, on the other hand, does make the full dataset available.

    Claire makes some very useful points that are worthy of an answer, especially on correlation and causation – I made some similar points in my piece about the survey ( around the need for further cross-referencing of the data

    That said, the conclusions seem sound, if somewhat obvious – romance sells best, you sell more when you use an editor and cover designer. As how-to goes, though, authors would probably be better served by the 99 cents for Locke's book. What we really need for a definitive "secrets of success" guide is a survey that goes right into the detail of metadata, for example. At one of the events at London Book Fair, an Amazon representative said the single best piece of advice he'd give an author trying to make sales on Amazon was get their metadata right. It would be great to take some cross sections within genres and see some segmented data based on review stats, metadata, price, inclusion in charts, promotional sites used (one thing authors desperately need research on is just how effective in the long run paid-for promotions on sites like Kindle Nation Daily are, with control groups and longitudinal data over several years cross-compared with the dates of other major promotions such as Amazon newsletters and sales containing books in the same genre so authors can see the effect of timing their promotion).

    But those caveats aside, I absolutely concur that some information is better than none, and hope this is the first of many surveys – it would also be great to see some longitudinal surveys following self-publishers forward from the earliest days of Kindle through the next 5 or 10 years to check against a lot of the rhetoric about slow-burining sales and long tails. My main feeling, like many commenters I've seen, was that these results were very surprisingly rosy for self-publishing (far more so than the experience of people I know) – I think it's the surprising positivity that's caused many to question the sample rather than the sample numbers.

  4. I took the Taleist survey because someone sent it to me. I don't know why. Most of the money I've made in writing has been print newsletters and non-fiction. I've been writing longer than most people on these boards have been alive, and the real truth is writers are some of the most abused people on the planet.There will always be a few who get lucky for awhile and have good timing or they land in the right spot or they know how to promote and get lucky, but the days of finding the next Great Novel are long gone. Self-publishing and the digital book ended that. The vast majority of writers will labor for nothing all their lives. It's the nature of the beast, and people will try to rip you off for money the entire way. I got a letter from Kurt Vonnegut years ago and he said even then that as writers we are wretched beasts. He hated publishing, even after he became a success. There is nothing new anyone will come up with in writing. There are only so many plots, and if you aren't a literary writer who doesn't follow plot, you are a genre writer. There is nothing wrong with that or insulting about it. People who get self-righteous about it still haven't realized there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Most people could make more money digging ditches than they ever will at writing because most people never take the time to learn the craft, never take the time to punctuate. That's the way it is. Now, that Taleist survey will be mostly fiction because how many people are going to say they didn't sell anything or very few books? Most will be creative in their response so the survey is more fiction than fiction.

  5. Jenny,

    You are assuming that self-publishing equals e-books. That is a common misconception. Self-publishing often involves printed books, whether print-on-demand or offset. Offset is cheaper and I have offset-printed nine self-published books without ever publishing an e-book. Or wanting to. I see zero advantage in constantly reaching for the lowest price point, whether voluntarily or under pressure from entities such as Amazon.

  6. I find it interesting that so many writers are unhappy with the marketing. But it's like being in real estate – the home seller wants an open house because it provides 'exposure'. The real estate agent, on the other hand, knows that open houses provide exposure for the agent, not the house. But agents tend to give in and have the open house, just to keep the home seller happy. Of course, I imagine an open house doesn't cost quite as much as the marketing writers expect.

  7. Interesting blog. Thanks for posting it.

    I don't remember how I originally heard of the survey, but I kept meaning to take it. Unfortunately, I was too busy and never did.

    I've done extremely well with self-publishing. I think an important point is missed in this discussion. Self-publishing gives authors a chance to publish their fiction that may not work for traditional publishers.

    I'm a case in point. Despite the efforts of two agents, my sweet historical Western romances were rejected all over the place. After a year of self-publishing, I sold almost 100,000 books and made the USA Today list. I'm making two to three times more money on my books than on my private psychotherapy practice.

    I liked the point in the survey that basically says that the successful self-published authors focus on writing, not promotion. I've done very little promotion for my books, just a few blog posts a month.

    As for Dennis… I can understand you did not mean to be insulting to romance authors when you used the term bodice rippers. You didn't realize it had become a politically incorrect (and factually incorrect) term. Now that you know, I'm sure you won't do that again. 🙂 As for rejections… I have a boatload of them for the very book that made the USA Today list. Don't let them stop you! Keep learning your craft, honing your skills, and writing your books. As long as you're not insulting them, your fellow authors will cheer you on. :)Authors are an amazingly helpful and supportive bunch!

  8. Okay, Dennis. What is the formula for romance? What is the formula for science fiction? What is the formula for fantasy? Seriously. Because whatever you think it is, most books will not fall into it. Unless you get so general that it is no longer a formula but a description. (A formula, of course, implies that you plug numbers (or elements) in, turn the handle, and the completed result comes out.)

    As to what I do when I get rejections? I accept them, consider if there are improvements I could make to the story, then send it out again. The difference is, with a rejection, it's an editor saying that an individual piece of my fiction is not right for them, or not good enough for them. That's quite distinct from dismissing a genre.

  9. I didn't know all that stuff was derogatory. If bodice ripper or formula is derogatory, what do you all do when you get a rejection? I think a lot of people just take themselves too seriously. Romance fiction has a formula, adventure has a formula, scifi has a formula, horror has a formula. They all do. That is what is called genre. You want to see derogatory, you should see some of the rejections I got when I started writing. That's the trouble with the world today; everything has to be politically correct all the time or people get their feelings hurt. It's a good thing there is self-publishing now so people don't have to deal with rejection. So the point of all this I don't think formula or bodice rippers is derogatory enough that I should be told I'm ignorant by someone I don't know.

  10. Patrick–as I mentioned in the post, I too am concerned about self-selection in the Taleist survey sample. So I agree that it (and the other survey as well, which may have been similarly self-selecting) needs to be viewed with the awareness that the evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive. On the other hand, it's the first real attempt that I've seen to gather anything resembling empirical data on the new self-publishing, and there is a desperate need for such data to counter the hype and the intensely polarized discussion that surrounds self-publishing–so I'm very glad the survey was done, and I hope that others will be forthcoming.

  11. Yes, "bodice ripper" is definitely derogatory. I encountered that myself with my first novel, which was called "The Lady of Rhuddesmere"–it's actually a historical thriller for teens, but because of the title, I got asked a lot if I intended to go on writing bodice rippers or if I was planning to move on to something more serious.

  12. Dennis, I think the point is that 'bodice ripper' is a derogatory term for romance, based on a cliche of the genre that hasn't existed for a long time. It not surprised that authors don't want to have their work dismissed in this way (or as 'formula writing'). Acting offended when someone points that out is an over-reaction.

  13. Marilynn:
    I don't know how you got prejudice out of bodice ripper. It's true, I don't know much of anything about the romance field but that doesn't mean I'm ignorant; I just never cared for it, and I've always heard the term bodice ripper associated with it. So you can call it anything you want. I'm an older writer who uses older terms for formula writing. I guess now I have to take diversity training for romance writers. Gee.

  14. Dennis, a warning.

    If you ever use the term "bodice ripper" in front of a romance reader or writer, prepare to be laughed at or told off.

    "Bodice ripper" is considered an insulting term, and it is totally inaccurate of the romance market.

    The genuine historical bodice ripper hasn't been written in over twenty-five years so using the term shows ignorance as well as prejudice.

  15. I have to question professional writers being satisfied with the copyediting being done.

    I read lots of genre and mainstream from the major publishers, and the editing is appalling from continuity problems to simple grammar like dangling participles and noun verb disagreement and spelling problems like homonym errors.

    Since these authors should be proofing their galleys and spotting these errors the editor and copyeditor missed, we have two incompetents approving of each other.

  16. I dropped out as an active member in the HWA several years ago because members who hadn't earned enough money writing to become active members were being slammed as inferior because they self-published. Now I see many of those same active members self-publishing, and I find it to be hilarious hypocrisy. Just like Publishers Weekly advertisng for self-publishers. It can be sugar coated anyway someone wants to put it, but the mass market paperback is about dead, except for maybe the bodice rippers. Traditional publishers have to adapt or die, and the flood of self-published novels is going to be the future. The only trouble is most people can't write and most don't read…and people lie on surveys.

  17. I've not read the Taleist report (it's not free, and I'd want to be sure of its reliability before I bought it), but for me the most important question is how the sample of authors was selected.

    The size of the sample is entirely irrelevant if you only sample from a particular demographic of a population. An analogy: in a general election, if you only sample Republicans, it doesn't matter how large your sample is, you will still get a skewed result.

    Similarly, *if* the Taleist report is self-selected by authors who visited the website or heard of it some other way (I have no idea if this is the case, as I haven't seen any info about how the sample was selected), then it might be reasonable to assume that it was biased to those who were more actively involved in self-publishing, and thus actually putting effort into promoting their books, rather than those who simply wrote a book, put it up on Amazon and did nothing more.

    To make a survey like that accurate, you would have to apply some correction to the results, which in turn would imply that you would need to know the true composition of self-published authors.

    Like I said, I have no idea how the report handled this, whether they corrected for it, acknowledged it, or found a better way to sample authors. But I would love to know that before I bought the report or trusted the headline figures being reported everywhere.

  18. Any author who sells books via Kindle or Nook is getting "royalties" which is a huge issue no one seems to have noticed or cares about.

    That's set in the wording of the contract you sign with Amazon and BN, and the way that your payments show up on 1099 tax forms. This is likely to have implications that will only become clearer once Amazon has driven any serious competition out of the marketplace.

    Another issue no one talks about much is that people who hit the NYTimes list nowadays thanks to E-sales are earing far, far less than bestsellers used to. I have friends who have hit the lists so I'm aware of the actual numbers.

    The combination of the low price points enforced by Amazon and the fact that Amazon promotes new books onto the top of their list every single day of the year means that tenure atop any of the Kindle lists is very short for all but a few books and authors.

    Many people get excited when they hit one of the genre sublists Kindle displays. But doing that can represent surprisingly modest sales.

    My most recent book has been on a Kindle subgenre bestseller list for a week and for most of that week was featured as a "hot new release" in the upper right hand corner of the web page. It got on that list by selling less than 100 Kindle downloads and stays there by selling under 10 copies a day.

    For the many Kindle books sold at $.99, 10 copies a day represents earnings of $3 a day. For those sold at $2.99 the take is slightly less than $20 a day. If you could manage to stay at that level for six months (which is hard) your earnings from the $2.99 book would be less than $3,500.

    So what Kindle and the whole Indie fad have done is devalue the classic bestseller lists as a gauge of success.

    Making the New York Times list now just can mean the writer has earned 15 seconds of fame and a corresponding 15 bucks of profit.

  19. Fascinating stuff. It seems to me that traditionally published and self-published authors have more in common than they think, beginning with the fact that neither are truly happy. But that's the nature of compromise, and any time you're getting your work out there, you're compromising in some way. It just can't be helped. It can't be hurt, either.

  20. Wait a minute. Is the self-publishing survey of authors who use vanity presses (now called self-publishing services) or ones who set up their own businesses? There is a huge difference between these two publishing methods. For one thing, publishers who set up their own businesses do not get any "royalties." They get all the profits.

  21. Hi Victoria,

    Thanks for mentioning the Taleist Survey. We're delighted you think it's interesting.

    Claire, you've included with your comments on Reddit a caveat to your conclusions about the survey, but you've not mentioned it here, i.e. that you haven't read the report. I think that's an important point to make. When I'm considering the advice of a book reviewer, I'd like to know that he or she has only read the dust jacket or someone else's review.

    Any report on any data is open to debate and discussion, and we welcome that, but it surely any meaningful discussion has to be based on having actually read the conclusions.

  22. I just want to point out that the Taleist survey is not reliable.

    Correlation does not equal causation, and they have not demonstrated that it was done in a rigorous manner.

    Here's what I said on Reddit about it, for example:

    So previously traditionally-published authors make more than authors who are only self-published. They say: "traditional publishers are decent arbiters of quality". Why? Why does that automatically follow? Could it not be that those authors simply have the benefit of an established fanbase? More experience? Self-publishing has only come into its own in the last few years, remember – that's not enough time for sole self-pubbed authors to build the same kind of career.

    "Those who want to do best at self-publishing, they found, would be well advised to focus on romantic fiction."

    GAAAH. Correlation DOES NOT EQUAL causation! WHY do romance authors have higher earnings?! Was this cross-referenced against the level of marketing or professional editing used by those authors? Was this skewed by a larger number of romance authors being ex-trad, for example?

    In short, I think the guys who did this survey mean well, but my opinion is that it is flawed and unreliable. And I speak as someone who was both trained and employed as a data analyst.

  23. Ooo good post.

    I hadn't seen the first survey which I think is very interesting. I have friends who are traditionally published who just love it and have high compliments for their editors and agents.

    The second of course is flying all over twitter.

    As a self pubbed author (just a couple short stories. I'm still working on edits w/ betas and whatnot for the larger projects) I kinda chuckled.

    No I didn't make $500 last year, nor was I expecting too (my goals aren't monetary, I'm having fun and enjoying the self pubbing process). Perhaps this will weed out the get-rich-quick money seeking writers when they realize this isn't a sure fire way to get rich.

    Anywho, thanks for your thoughts. (and all the work you do with writer beware)

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