The Reedsy Author Survey: a new survey for authors, but why?
Guest column: Ricardo Fayet, co-founder of Reedsy, explains the goals of the company’s new author survey and invites the participation of authors go self-published books and others
How much do authors earn? Where do they get most of their income from? What is the real size of self-publishing? What are the costs associated with it? These are a few of the questions that we aim at providing an answer for through our Reedsy Author Survey.
The idea is not to compete with other surveys, or to provide yet another shocking headline like “authors earn less than the minimum wage!!!”. The problem is that there isn’t any one source of data in the publishing industry that paints a complete picture. We therefore all rely on initiatives like this to make sense of what the industry looks like and sort fact from fiction.
The ISBN issue
The first reason for this is that the international system to track books and gather data on sales has become somewhat obsolete since the advent of digital formats and, more importantly, of self-publishing.
Books are tracked in every country by an agency in charge of issuing the “ISBNs”, or International Serial Book Numbers. Every format and edition of every book traditionally needs to have a specific ISBN assigned to it in order to be released.
This system worked just fine up and until Amazon started allowing authors and independent publishers to publish digital titles (and sell them on the Kindle store) without an ISBN.
Of course, you can still assign an ISBN to your digital book when publishing it via Kindle Direct Publishing, but this is purely optional. And because ISBNs are not cheap when bought individually, many authors do not hesitate to cut corners on them.
What does this mean? It means that all the data released by ISBN agencies (Bowker in the US, Nielsen in the UK) paint an incomplete picture. Of course, the question is: how incomplete is it? What is the proportion of indie-published books without an ISBN?
Well, according to the latest AuthorEarnings report, “indie ebooks without ISBNs now account for 37% of all Kindle ebooks being purchased”… That is a significant proportion and it is likely to increase.
The AuthorEarnings Reports
This is where the AuthorEarnings reports come in. They are an initiative led by famous indie author Hugh Howey and a friend of his — known as “Data Guy” for anonymity purposes — “to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions”.
Their methodology is quite fascinating: they “crawl” the Amazon bestseller list through an algorithm and create a spreadsheet recording rankings, books, publishers, price, metadata, ISBNs, etc. Basically, they scrap all the data that is available to see on Amazon for every given book.
They separate these books into categories, according to whether they are self-published, traditionally published, or published by an independent publisher. They estimate the number of monthly sales of each book based on its ranking. Finally, they calculate the earnings of the author based on the book’s sales and whether it’s self-published or traditionally published. The conclusions of the last report can be read here: http://authorearnings.com/ and you can download the spreadsheets as well to play around with the assumptions.
Now, I’ve always found this approach to be very clever. But it is undeniable that it also paints an incomplete picture. There are assumptions and estimates at pretty much every step of the process:
- Distinguishing self-published books from books published by small independent publishers is not that simple, given that there seems to be a new small publisher sprouting every day, and that most self-publishing authors use a cutesy name for their “imprint”.
- Estimating sales solely based on ranking is a brilliant idea, but can only be done using broad-range estimates. You don’t know how many copies a book ranked 200 on the Amazon bestseller list has sold last month. You can only estimate, based on past experience, that it has sold between X and Y number of copies.
- Estimating royalties and earnings based on sales and publishing path requires a generalization on publishing contracts. You can “assume” that books published by the Big 5 will earn the author 25% net royalties, but contracts do vary.
And more importantly, these reports focus solely on ebooks and US digital stores (Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com).
Putting the puzzle together
There have been a number of other surveys and analyses published in the past few years, trying to offer more and more insights into the publishing industry. The ALCS survey made quite a lot of noise in the UK scene last year. Jane Friedman’s and Harry Bingham’s “Do you love your publisher” survey also offered some interesting results.
I see all these initiatives as pieces of a huge puzzle that we need to put together in order to have “the complete picture”. For example, the AuthorEarnings reports focus only on digital books, but if you think about it, this is fine, because print books in the US are already accurately tracked by the Bowker agency (since they all carry ISBNs).
This is why surveys are important. Publishing doesn’t lack data, it lacks complete data, or rather small pieces of data that make the bigger ones stick together nicely.
The Reedsy Author Survey
That’s the aim of our survey. We don’t want to submit authors to a one-hour-long interrogatory about every single aspect of their publishing career. We want to ask a few simple questions that will help us solve some of the current data pain points, and make sense of the whole.
- What is the proportion of indie authors who use ISBNs to publish digitally?
- What is the average cost of self-publishing?
- How much do self-publishing, hybrid, and traditionally-published authors really earn?
- Is there a correlation between investing in editing/design/marketing and final earnings?
It often seems like only the “indie” ecosystem is interested in getting data, as if it were trying to prove through numbers that “self-publishing is better”. We wish to consider all alternatives equally and invite all authors to take part. To keep it quick and easy, the survey adapts its questions according to the author’s previous answers.
We haven’t set a deadline to collect the answers. Our goal is to collect several thousands of them, to make the results statistically significant. You can find the survey here.
We will provide the analyzed results first to all the third parties who will have helped us spread the word (media, author associations, etc.) and then to the public through our blog.
More importantly, we will group these results together with Nielsen’s and Bowker’s data and the AuthorEarnings reports to, finally, paint a fuller and clearer picture of the publishing landscape.
Ricardo Fayet, co-founder of Reedsy, a marketplace where independent authors can connect with freelance editors, designers and publicists