Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Statistics and Writing

Twitter is quite an amazing website, especially if you are interested in learning about the in depth details of certain industries. I peek at twitter a few times during the course of the day, which spawned an interesting conversation. Thanks go to Jane Smith and Carole Blake for bringing this subject up to my attention. If you have a Twitter account, I suggest that you follow both of these ladies. Carole is a writing agent, and Jane is a writer and editor who has a little blog that you can find here.

The article in question can be found here. I suggest you read it so that you are aware of what I am speaking of.

There are many, many opinions on the writing world, which in turn includes the discussion of publishing through a publishing house (see Tor, Penguin, DAW, Random House) or through a self-publishing agency (see Lulu). Both have their advantages, both have their disadvantages, and both have those supporters who believe one or the other will be the death of the publishing industry.

For the sake of argument, publishing houses are oranges and self-publishing agencies are apples. We all know that comparing apples and oranges can cause problems. Mixed together, they can make a delicious drink. In this case, they only cause problems. Perhaps the self-publishing agencies should be milk in this example. Then you could see how milk curdles when you add orange juice to it.

I have a few issues that i have with the article that I linked above for your reading pleasures. Above all, he compares apples to oranges and expects grape juice as a result.

What do I mean by this? Let me show you.

As Jane Smith mentioned on her twitter:

Para numbered 5: "The average book in America sells about 500 copies"
Paragraph numbered 8: "And the average new book generates only $100,000 to $200,000 in sales"
From that we can assume that the average book price in America is $200-$400. See the problem?

Apples and Oranges, ladies and gentleman. I preserved her tweets as they were in their form, only switched around so that they are easily read. (Twitter organizes by time published.. so it reads backwards according to regular logic.) This is directly from our discussion.

In the self-publishing world, it is true that the average book will sell somewhere between one hundred to five hundred copies.

In the publishing house world, a book is not viable for publication unless it can pay for the advertising and the editors that work on each book. As such, they need books to sell significantly higher in order to be viable. Because of this, the quality of writers for these publishing houses is also higher. After all, most self-publishing agencies do not require quality checks in order for a book to be printed with them. This is the beauty of print on demand. However, this lack of quality control is exactly why many of these books never make it onto a book shelf.

If you are a writer and wish to become published, just as I wish to become published, open your eyes, take that pinch of salt, and swallow it. While I try to expose the in depth world of writing to you even as I take that journey myself, you need to make certain that your sources are reliable.

Every advice, every grain of knowledge, you should approach as if it were a spider. Sure, some spiders are harmless, but others are quite poisonous. Some spiders even enjoy being pet! Others will put hairs in your eyeballs if you even think of trying it.

Even publishers have opinions. Just because an agent or a publisher states something is so, it is your responsibility to check your sources. If a publisher states something? Find out just what type of publisher that they are. Every genre is different. Harlequin, for example, functions far differently compared to Tor.

I might suggest you buy salt in bulk. It will save you a little money down the road.

Now, I will approach the meat of this, and go into what I feel are some of the misleading aspects that you should in turn research for yourself and make your own conclusions on.

Point 1: On Book Growth.

Truth: Self-Publishing has picked up phenomenally.
Misleading: Self-Publishing number focus does not indicate the health of the standard publishing industry. It just shows that people are willing to dip into their own pockets to see their book in print in any form.

Point 2: On Book Sales

This is misleading. First, he doesn't account for aspects like the recession. Inflation aside, that there was any increase at all % wise is phenomenal. That means people are still spending money despite that fact that many people have lost their jobs and have less money to spend in the first place. Second, he does not mention if the sales are by book or by retail value of the book. These numbers are rather meaningless in the long run. Nor does he account for whether or not these are publishing house or self-publishing sales. These are two totally different industries.

Point 3: Book Sales, by the book

Read this carefully. Then, I refer you to Jane's commentary above. She says it best.

Point 4: On Stocking.

Once again, I return to the differences between self-publishing and a publishing house. Of course many books will never make it on the shelf. Most people who purchase a self-publishing option acquire an ISBN. This allows them to be put on the shelves. This does not mean that the bookstore will be willing to carry a book from an unknown author without the backing of a legitimate publishing company. That would be like putting a blindfold on and driving 95 miles per hour down a busy highway. Someone is going to crash. The bookstore would be making a rather stupid error if they took every single self-published novel and stuffed them on the shelf. They want novels from the major publishers that have a good chance of being sold.

Point 5: How hard it is to sell books...

Of course it is hard to sell books. It is much harder to sell a book unless you have a name for yourself or you have a reliable company vouching for you. I don't know about you, but I choose TOR and DAW books over other publishing houses because that is the type of writing I enjoy reading. I am certain many other people have similar preferences.

... to be blunt, I have made it to the half way point and I am spluttering. There are many misleading details. Each one of these points could have their own blog post of notable length to the entire blog post in question just clarifying where these numbers come from.

Statistics, ladies and gentleman, are often assumptions that support your opinion. When someone mentions a statistic, I get nervous.

When someone mentions a statistic without specifying which of two very different industries it comes from... then I get disgusted.

Please be careful about what you believe. A nice presentation does not necessarily mean that something is true or completely accurate.

Personally, I will judge the publishing industry by one simple fact: There are books on the shelves that I have not read and wish to buy. So I continue to buy books.

Until the day comes where I cannot find an interesting novel or four to buy in a bookstore at any one given time, I do think the publishing industry is safe enough. Especially if you go with a reliable publishing house.

1 comment:

  1. Talk about apples and oranges...

    You did take note that the "average book sells 50 copies" statement was written in a 2006 article using 2004 data, right? This outdated information keeps getting regurgitated, continuing to clog the drains whenever the viability of mainstream publishing is discussed.

    In point of fact, basing ANY discussion of the state of mainstream publishing solely on Bookscan information is already flawed, because even they admit they track only specific sales channels--which don't include Amazon. Rather like discussion the state of the computer industry and ignoring Microsoft.

    You are also aware, I trust, that there are more publishing alternatives than (a) mainstream houses and (b) subsidy presses, yes? These publishers produce books every bit as good and well-produced as the Big Six--perhaps even better. Yet they are stymied from getting onto those bookstore shelves because they refuse to accept returns.

    If you really want to know what's wrong with the established industry, start there. Ask why it is that publishers must not only spend large sums of money to produce books but must then subsidize the sales channels because 80 years ago someone decided it was the only way the industry could survive.

    Eighty years ago, that was true. Without bookstores, publishers were dead in the water. That's no longer true. In fact, direct-to-consumer sales are now being recommended as one way for them to improve their bottom lines because the Electronic Age has made it possible for them to do that at relatively low cost.

    Should we give up on bookstores? Of course not. But like any other business confronted with major changes in the commercial world, they need to adjust. Those that already have are, for the most part, at least surviving and in some instances doing quite well.

    As a publisher, I appreciate deeply your commitment to books. However, it's time to look at actual facts. There is a real, viable publishing industry that exists outside the New York city limits. If the established channels are blocked to them, they are more inclined to dig new ones than accept defeat. So, whatever remains when the dust of this particular eruption settles, there will always be books.