Caesar Augustus: All Is Forgiven
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
Luke 2:1, King James Version, New Testament
That glow on the faces of so many of us Protestant ministers’ children this time of year is a reconnection. Like sticking our fingers into the science-project sockets of our childhoods, we sit around tempting mythology to fry us again, gazing at this verse and that phrase by the self-published (papyrus format) author Luke.
And, lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone ’round about them: and they were sore afraid.
We read Luke as we still hear him: in the heaving, ancient, world-splitting spectacle of the King James Version of the New Testament. Those wild, even preposterous images thunder again in our heads:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Our good colleague, the publishing consultant-prophet Brian O’Leary  has reminded me in the Tweeterie this week that, of course, we may well be hearing more from crafty translators than from that busy desert scribbler Luke, himself.
And what would the everlastingly quoted apostle say now if he could see how many times he has been published?
In how many translations?
In how many formats across the millennia?
Right up into our era, you catch the voice of this bestselling Luke, even in the purposely attenuated annunciation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America:
Greetings Prophet! The great work begins! The Messenger has arrived!
And like the riven skies above devastated shepherds, our modern ceilings collapse in heart-stopping pageantry that, truth be told, has much less to do with religion for many of us than with consummate expressions of scale.
Scale. “Can this scale up?” “How do you scale that idea?” “It’s all in how quickly we can scale it.” “Without a Big Five publisher, you’ll never have that kind of scale.” “These are changes in our business on a scale not seen since Gutenberg.”
Right? We hear such phrases a lot these days.[pullquote]The radiant mythology that once could slam my boyhood imagination against the wailing wall of a dying faith now makes me get what Augustus needed: scale.[/pullquote]
As I like to remind folks, the digital dynamic—from whence cometh the Great Disruption—is all about scale. It is a crashing, wide-winged engine of distribution. It scales up like a wildfire does, consuming the fuel of our content—good tidings of great joy—and looking for the oxygen of big, big, big audiences of fans who are less, less, less discerning by the day—which shall be to all people. Amazon  is digital at a scale now staggering our pre-digital publishers. It bought Goodreads  because that platform has more than 20 million members, such scale! You know this story.
So enraptured are we by explosive scale these days—Fear not!—that we now assume we have it where…we don’t.
And once the excitement subsides—as the angels were gone away from them into heaven—I’m left feeling a lot better about Caesar Augustus than I used to. The radiant mythology that once could slam my boyhood imagination against the wailing wall of a dying faith now makes me get what Augustus needed: scale.
That all the world should be taxed. No, not taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. In publishing today, what isn’t taxing?
Augustus was counting. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. Can you imagine? Augustus was capable of compelling each male human in Roma’s far-flung empire—all the world—to travel to his home city-state, stand forth, and be counted.
Such a dude, this Augustus, I cannot tell you. That’s scale.
Where is Augustus when we need him now?
Some observers say that our industry’s surveys can imply that traditional publishing is the best hope of financial success. The concern is that they might wrongly disparage the potential of other paths, such as self-publishing.
This is irising into manger-tight focus and will factor noisily, I think, in publishing discussions in 2014—this thing which has come to pass—hence my coming to foretell it to you now.
The self-publishing author Hugh Howey —he of the Saga Silo trilogy (Wool, Shift, Dust) and of many new works (Sand, Peace in Amber, the Apocalypse Tripitych)—knows a few Augustan-sized things about scale. He has 30 foreign publishers and just spent two months touring his empire on the Continent, shaking those international hands. Howey has sold more than 2 million books.
He has become concerned that such survey efforts as the “What Authors Want” survey that’s produced by Digital Book World  (DBW) and Writer’s Digest  (WD) don’t adequately reflect the earning potential of every path to publication. Updates to this survey effort are part of the reports delivered to attendees of the Digital Book World Conference & Expo , which comes up January 13 to 15 in New York (hashtag #DBW14 ), and iterations of the Writer’s Digest Conference.
This is not a fight. Howey, himself, has gone to the mat to say, expressly, that nobody does this survey work better than DBW.
But this is a crisis of characterization and it affects every author now keeping watch over her and his books by night, traditionally or self-published.
We have no imperial swell like Augustus today who can decree that each author—all the world—shall step forward and state his and her output and earnings.
In fact, Howey has identified a precise flaw in how we survey and then interpret results in these issues. I can give it to you with my evolving bullet points on this story:
- If you’re a traditionally published author, surveys will ask you how much you are making from your books—once you’ve been published.
- If you’re a would-be traditionally published author and have not yet been published (you’re “in the slush pile” waiting for the Angel of the Lord to show your book to the right literary agent), you will not be asked how much you’re making from your books—you are making nothing, you have not yet been published.
- If you’re a self-publishing author (maybe because the Angel of the Lord hasn’t made his move with the agents and you’re sick of waiting), the surveys will ask you how much you’re making from your books—no matter at what level your output is being seen and sold. You are, effectively, still in the slush pile that’s being discounted by the traditional world and by surveys, and yet you are being counted because you published yourself.
- So surveys make self-publishing look like a lot less lucrative path in publishing than traditional. Because your aunt’s lovely memoir of life as a Methodist minister’s daughter—Abiding in the Fields—which she created and self-published for 15 members of the family, is being counted as the badly selling output of a published author who has sold only 15 copies of her magnum opus.
It gets worse.[pullquote]We don’t have a way to count what’s really happening in self-publishing revenue—we don’t even have a way to count how many self-published titles are out there.[/pullquote]The data we need on all this is not available. Nobody has to cook the books on this because the books are not there to cook.
- We cannot see, let alone survey, all the output of self-publishing because many entrepreneurial authors decline to pay for ISBNs, the universal standard tracking identifier that lets survey-takers monitor the market. ISBNs are pricey. You need six or so to cover each format of a given book. Ten ISBNs will cost a self-publishing author $250. But a publisher can buy 1,000 ISBNs for roughly $1 each. (Maybe we are talking about taxation, Augustus.)
- We cannot see, of course, all the many, many, many books that never came out of the universal slush pile when agents didn’t choose to pick them up.
- And we also cannot see the sales numbers of our great houses of retail—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, et al—because they hold those figures as trade secrets, legally and exasperatingly making it impossible for us to understand the full scope of our own industry.
The custom in survey-making and -reporting is to say something along the lines of: “We have determined that traditionally published authors make this much money; self-publishing authors make a lot less money; and ‘hybrid’ authors (who publish both ways) make the most money” because hybrids have income from both traditional books and their self-published efforts.
Every word of that might be true. But we don’t know it to be true. Because, in fact, we don’t have a way to count what’s really happening in self-publishing revenue—we don’t even have a way to count how many self-published titles are out there.
In 2012, Bowker , the US agency designated by the International ISBN Agency to sell and do the tracking of ISBNs in the States, could spot some 391,000 “self-published ISBNs.” Meaning books. Meaning 391,000 self-published books that did get ISBNs attached to them by their authors. Huge.
But how many more self-published books were invisible to trackers because they didn’t get ISBN’s? That number is thought to be huger still, something that might rival the multitude of the you-know-what in Bethlehem.
An interesting sidelight: We’ve just learned this week from Bowker’s Laura Dawson —a fellow preacher’s kid being battered along with me by the Glory of the Lord shining ’round about her this time of year—that the 2012 figures showed a major jump of 60 percent in self-publishing authors using ISBNs over 2011.
This is heartening to a Judea-crazed journo like me because it makes me think that more self-pubbers are realizing they need to stand and be counted—every one into his own city—so we can actually start getting a handle on just how fabulously massive the scale of self-publishing really is.
All Things Heard and Seen
After Howey wrote an essay, You’re looking at it wrong , to explain this dire flaw in how we survey author earnings, I followed up with my own oratorio in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go . (A fine brace of comments follows, if you have time to look.)
Then the author Chuck Wendig  came through, as he often does, with a couple of finely distilled observations on why so much emotion can gather ’round these issues for us—this thing which has come to pass—in Writing vs. Publishing (or: “No More Half-Measures, Walter”) .
First he states Howey’s concern nicely:
Howey’s right-on with the error on how one calculates income from traditional works (which had to be vetted through various stages) and income from self-published works (which are not whittled down by that vetting process and so represents a far larger bulk of work, roughly equivalent to the slush-piles that fail to dwindle due to the varying kept gates of the system). It’s not that we’re comparing apples to oranges: we’re comparing a bushel of apples here to a truckload of apples there.
And then he gets at the evaluative element this way:
While I totally share Howey’s excitement over the sheer joy and power of creating stories out of nothing, I think his posts…maybe conflate writing and publishing, which has for a long time been one of my overall theoretical problems with not the act of but the culture of self-publishing. (It’s why I prefer the term “author-publisher” because it clearly separates out those two roles, yet keeps them joined by that magical hyphen. A hyphen is like a bridge made out of pure punctuation.)
I love Wendig’s delineation of the act of self-publishing vs. the culture of self-publishing, don’t you?
Like a holy ray of light on the nighttime pastures around Nazareth, it flashes into relief the approach-avoidance so many feel about the whole business.
And when Paul St. John (not the apostle) Mackintosh at TeleRead performed a handy recitative on The Big Reporting Gap in Self-Publishing Income , a commenter named Stephen  (not the saint) reminded us all of an annual accounting that Howey’s own agent, Kristin Nelson , has done in the past on a year’s work. Stephen gives us Nelson’s 2010 agency numbers this way:
Queries received and responded to: about 36,000
Sample pages asked for: 829
Full manuscripts asked for: 98
New clients: 9
They ask for sample pages for about 2.3% of queries. They took on a new client about 1% of the time they asked for sample pages.
The slush pile is huge.
Like the man says, the slush pile is huge. Just look at that scale.
I’m hoping that as we consider these figures—they made known abroad the saying which was told them—we can prevail on Nelson to give us her 2013 figures once we’re on the other side of this year’s tour de Bethlehem.
Howey, meanwhile, is in hot pursuit, commenting back .
Stephen: Those are terrifying numbers…I think you could very easily and conservatively put the estimate of slushpile books that go on to get published at .25%. That’s one quarter of one percent. I think is is probably too high, but I would rather err on the side of caution and give traditional publishing all the help I can possibly give it.
Howey now is looking for a formula that might far better approximate than our current models what earnings an author could anticipate from various career approaches.
The easiest comparison of earnings would be to compile the total from traditional publishing and line this up against the top quarter of one percent from self-publishing, and see how those earnings stack up.
He details his workup of the .25 percent calculation in that same comment chain .
And he’s coming into this as an increasingly influential authorial voice in our industry with a humility that my man Augustus probably didn’t worry himself about too much:
[pullquote]We have no imperial swell like Augustus today who can decree that each author—all the world—shall step forward and state his and her output and earnings.[/pullquote]
I want to see real results so that aspiring writers can make the best decision possible. If that ends up being that authors are better off braving the slush pile and waiting years for a book to come to market and only having that book on store shelves for 3-6 months rather than publish now and publish forever, I will stop evangelizing for self-publishing as hard as I have been.
There are more discussions in play now on this issue. We need a handle on the scope of the industry and the scale of self-publishing within it. In coming months, I may come back to you with more on this and ask you to offer your input on further considerations. Unless we can get another decree out of Caesar Augustus, we’re going to have to sort it out, ourselves.
One of Luke’s most marvelous lines, usually considered a throwaway, is this:
All they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
For now, as seasonal, primal mysteries crowd in on us so deeply, all I ask is that you do a little pondering.
Tell me whether you’ve questioned the scale, the reach, the sheer power of this new author-centric evocation of publishing (both traditional and self-) that’s rising all around us, as Howey is pointing out, so curiously all but unseen. Some authors say they don’t think quantifying their ranks is important. Do you?
Main image iStockphoto: eZeePics Studio