Shot Out of a Cannon
I’m told that there are people who find the holidays restful. I have yet to meet one of these extraordinary creatures, but I think they would find holding the publishing industry’s first grand-slam conference of the year in the second week of January to be a dandy thing. Bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, they’d dash out, we must assume, tinsel still in their hair, ready to take on the rigors of Digital Book World’s (DBW) day-and-night glad-handing and info-processing with “Happy New Year!” energy.
Those of us who find the holidays something less than restful are cheering the news that Digital Book World next year moves to March 7 to 9 .[pullquote]What do we expect in return for heavy investment in our work? What do we expect a publisher to invest?[/pullquote]
For now, the sixth annual doing of Digital Book World in New York City — the 2015 edition — has just closed, with the Avenue of the Americas’ face-freezing winds to slap us out of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
Expertly mounted and run like clockwork at the Hilton Midtown by David Nussbaum’s F+W Media staff — led by David Blansfield, Gary Lynch, Beth Dean, Taylor Jacobs Sferra — Digital Book World drew more than 1,200 attendees this year, plus a lot of industry folks who needed to meet those attendees. I can’t remember a conference with so many requests for private chats with start-up personnel and key services outfits. Many of them “surround the conference,” as one observer put it, meeting harried attendees for coffee and a deal on West 53rd, 54th, 56th. We gave nearby cafes, restaurants, and lounges a lot of business.
Mike Shatzkin once again programmed the event, somehow achieving 12 keynote events, a DBW record, I believe, including an impressive conversation with Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti and a rare sighting of an Apple exec, the iBooks chief Keith Moerer.[pullquote]Is it possible that we assign a causal effect — “the more I invest, the more I’ll get back” — to this kind of work, more as a common way of thinking than as an accurate view of market conditions?[/pullquote]
#DBW15  to its Twitter friends is an industry conference, not a writers’ conference. That distinction may not be the one everyone would prefer, but the event — focused on business movements, trends, and perspectives — throws off all kinds of energies and implications for writers, of course.
One annual element that directly involves writerly talent is the delivery of the Digital Book World author survey. This year it has a small novella of a title: Authors Facing the Industry: Data and Insights from Authors on the Publishing Business, Author-Publisher Relations, and Marketing . It’s for sale, as you can see, but I’ve talked with DBW editorial director Rich Bellis, and he’s going to be making available some insight articles about its details soon, from the survey’s author, the sociologist Dana Beth Weinberg.
My close colleague and WU icon Jane Friedman — also known as Porter’s Brain — was with us this year at DBW, looking good in her cannon helmet and ably moderating a panel discussion that was prompted by the new survey.
Can We Survey Our Own Expectations?
I had been provided with a copy of the executive summary in advance and I’ve written up some of the key points of what turns out this year to be a very thoughtful bit of work.
You can read that piece here at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook: Digital Book World surveys authors — ‘Risks, Rewards, Commitment .’ If you’re not familiar with it, The FutureBook is our no-paywall, read-it-free digital-publishing-community site. You’re always most welcome to join us there.
The DBW survey is voluntary, meaning that the 2,545 authors who answered its questions were responding to a call for input, not selected in a controlled sample.
The report that Weinberg has produced puts its attention on the 1,879 published authors included in that survey universe.
To quickly recap here some of the more interesting components of that group, and quoting from Weinberg’s commentary:
- More than half of this author sample group has only indie-published (55.8%, n=1,049).
- 13.0% have only traditionally published (n=245).
- Close to a third (31.1%, n=585) have done both.
- The sample includes a mix of both experienced and relatively new authors as well as a mix of prolific and less accomplished authors.
- Compared to the other two types of authors, the hybrid authors in the sample tend to be older and to have had longer and more prolific careers.
- The vast majority of authors in this study reported that their latest book was fiction, with romance representing the most popular category both for traditional and for indie publications. Thus, the results of this report will be most applicable to genre fiction publishing.
- The “average” respondent to the survey (based on median results) is a college-educated woman in her mid- to late-forties who indie-publishes genre fiction, most likely romance, has published three books and began publishing in 2011.
- In all, a total of 830 respondents provided information on their most recent traditional publishing experiences, and 1,634 respondents provided information on their most recent indie-publishing experiences.
And the issue I’d like to pull out for you today — your bit of Porter-provocation — is the sensible question Weinberg is able to extract from the mass of data produced by the survey: How does your investment in your work affect its performance in the marketplace?
This is an intelligent framework for weighing questions of traditional- and self-publishing, in that the “risks and rewards” context Weinberg is using lets you think of the main available pathways to market in light of how much they require — how much expense, in other works, in many terms: financial, time, impact on lifestyle, health, energy, outside support, internal fortitude…investment. It takes a lot.
Print and Digital, Time and Money
Weinberg, in her executive summary writes:
Within the different modes of publishing there are also differences in the level of investment on the parts of both authors and publishers.
For example, even when publishers absorb the bulk of risk, as in the advance-paying model, there are still wide variations in how much money a publisher may invest in any given book, starting with the amount of the advance itself.
Within indie publishing, there may be differences in how much the author invests in producing and distributing their books. In addition, authors who start their own companies commit to the investment of legal fees, above and beyond the costs of producing and promoting their books.
In that last point, Weinberg is referring to the LLC or other incorporation that some authors use to handle the business side of their work. She’s careful to count that step as part of the expense, the investment, that a writer may make during a career tilted at the marketplace.
But without going into the full sweep of her study — I’m extracting only one of its points of emphasis — it’s interesting to consider this “investment” element of her findings. ROI, return on investment, is a common factor in much business calculation. But in creative work, and even in relation to selling creative work, I wonder how clear our heads are at moments we should consider any number of ROI dilemmas.
Authors whose books are selected for print distribution tend to earn more on those books than authors whose books are not—a median of $1,000–$2,999 for digital-only and print-on-demand books and $5,000–$9,999 for books with print distribution.
However, for advance-paying publishers in this sample, the majority of whom invested in print distribution, this factor is not as predictive of book earnings as advance amount is
The findings clearly suggest that the investments by publishers and indie authors in their projects directly relate to sales and earnings. Moreover, these findings suggest that the difference in expected outcomes for an author’s books correspond not only to publishing mode but also to the level of investments made in a given project.
A hybrid author, herself, Weinberg is sensitive to expectations, which is where I think so much of this discussion is richest for authors:
What do we expect in return for heavy investment (of whatever type) in our work? — for our own investments? — for a publisher’s investments? — an agent’s investments? — even a family’s investments of support for a writing parent or child?
- What would you say are your key investments in your work?
- Can you expect them, realistically, to affect the outcome of that work in the marketplace?
- Is it possible that we assign a causal effect — “the more I invest, the more I’ll get back” — to this kind of work, more as a common way of thinking than as an accurate view of market conditions?
- Does your experience, if you have it, with publishing houses seem to reflect what Weinberg is saying? — print drives better returns?
- Let us know.