LynneQuisition: Hugh Howey and AuthorEarnings.com

Interviews by Lynne CantwellUnless you’ve been off-planet for the past couple of weeks, you have probably heard about bestselling author Hugh Howey’s new website, authorearnings.com. Hugh and an unnamed number cruncher have been studying the bestseller lists at Amazon, and they’ve come up with some pretty amazing numbers. For instance, according to their numbers, indies who write genre fiction are taking home nearly half the author revenue generated by eBook sales on Amazon.

Of course, the blogosphere has blown up since the release of the initial report Feb. 12th. Trad publishing industry apologists like Mike Shatzkin have been loudly dismissive of Hugh and Data Guy’s numbers and methodology, while Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler (among others) have been busy picking apart the critics’ arguments.

In the meantime, Hugh is continuing to work on the project, with the aim of convincing traditional publishers to provide, among other things, more author-friendly contract terms. He has consented to sit in the comfy chair under the hot LynneQuisition lights and tell us a little more about his new venture.

Hugh, thanks very much for stopping by Indies Unlimited. What prompted you to start authorearnings.com?

Hugh: I was contacted by a self-published author and savvy programmer who had developed a method for capturing lots of information about sales rank on Amazon bestseller lists. What we saw in this data helped answer some questions about the strength of self-publishing in the larger e-book market. We wanted to share those results and create a portal for authors to discuss earnings and contract issues. The effort is still in its infancy.

Lynne: The takeaway I’m getting from the earnings numbers you’ve been sharing is that if you’re a genre author, self-publishing is a no-brainer. Is that about right? And what about literary fiction and other “non-genre” categories?

Hugh: We released a wider report last Thursday, one that grabs information for over 50,000 titles. My view is that books are now available forever and that to sign away lifetime rights for less than they’re worth is inadvisable. We hope to help authors determine what their art might truly be worth, as the market is changing very rapidly.

Lynne: I’m sure you expected some blowback from the trad publishing industry. Has any of the reaction surprised you?

Hugh: Not at all. I want people to disagree. I want them to show us where we’re wrong. Unlike some other efforts to answer these questions, we are releasing all of our data for others to analyze. Our goal is complete transparency and to learn.

Lynne: What do you think it will take for trad publishers to realize they need to cut better deals with authors? If they won’t acknowledge the danger they’re in, given the numbers you’re publishing, it seems to me they’re going to end up going the same way as the music industry.

Hugh: I think it will take a handful of brave leaders at the top of a few publishing houses. Most of the people in the major houses would love to soften up contracts and pay better royalty rates. I’ve dealt with some of these people, and I’ve watched them fight for authors’ rights. But the change is slow to come at the very top. And when the change does occur, it’s locked up in non-disclosure agreements, so agents and other authors can’t know about precedents being set and fight for other clients. But it’ll come. I believe it will.

Lynne: I hope you’re right. For now, what can indies do to help? I see you’re collecting author earnings info on your landing page. Should we plug in our info there, even if we’re not making much money?

Hugh: Absolutely. The data is only as meaningful as the participation is extensive. We want to hear from people all across the publishing spectrum.

Lynne: Consider the message delivered. I’ve already plugged in my earnings numbers. Thanks again for stopping by, Hugh, and good luck with this project. Here’s hoping it leads to better future earnings for all of us.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

39 thoughts on “LynneQuisition: Hugh Howey and AuthorEarnings.com”

  1. Thanks, Lynne, for bringing the issue—shall we call it that way?—to IU. What I think is now clear, and publishers shall take notice or else, is that the traditional contracts, with risible royalties, lack of proper marketing efforts and if ever out of the authors’ pockets, rights for printed and digital editions in one basked, and a contract that feels worse than a bad marriage is a thing of the past.

    I’ve refused a $2000 advance on 10% royalties. I would still adding dollar after dollar to that $2000 growing at 10% of sales while I’ve passed $2000 in Amazon royalties at 70% in 4 months. Can a publisher do a simple math? No? Maybe that’s the problem.

    1. Massimo, I think the publishing industry is seeing its way of life crumble and the top management is going through the four stages of grief over it. They seem to have passed mostly through the denial stage and appear to be stuck at anger. When they get to bargaining, that’s when we ought to start seeing some results. 😉

  2. It was good of Hugh to stop in. I haven’t had a chance to read the most recent release, with Barnes & Noble data, but the earlier ones I’ve read clearly show indie publishing is has better terms than standard contracts for newbies.

    I wonder if the report is already causing traditionally pubbed midlisters to jump ship. I’ve seen a few written responses, but I’d love to know what is going on with traditionally pubbed authors who make a company a decent profit and are looking at this report and thinking of going it alone. I’m also curious if it affects the slush pile or if a report like this mainly speaks to the choir, and newbies are so new they don’t stumble across it. And im also curious what agents think because indie publishing totally changes their role. But if big publishers start offering better terms, it gives incentive for more authors to seek agents to deal with traditional deals/contracts.

    Though all those questions probably won’t be answered for months to come. Still, the report is excellent in all the data it gives and discussion it generates.

    1. Thanks, RJ. I happened to have a conversation with a trad-pubbed author today who knew all about Hugh’s site. I think the word is making inroads, bit by bit.

      And I think agents have the most to lose under the new paradigm. I’ve heard some of them have tried to set themselves up as editors, but they’re discovering indies can’t pay them what they think they’re worth. 😉

  3. Thanks, Lynne; great reporting. Hugh’s breakthrough data just might be the thing that brings critical mass to indie publishing. And I think you’re absolutely right about trad pub being stuck in the anger stage of grief. Excellent analysis.

  4. Nice job, Lynne. Good to see that you’ve added your data. I think that everyone regardless of sales should be adding their numbers in order to paint the most inclusive scenario possible. Thanks for bringing this to us.

  5. Great interview and very important in the publishing world! I wonder if by “Indie”, in this particular situation and interview, you truly mean “Indie” or does this include small press published, too?
    The reason I ask is that I am hearing from more and more authors who are small press published that they no longer consider themselves as “Indies.”

    1. Thanks, Nickie! The results separate out small- and medium-press-published authors from indies. They also break out the small percentage of authors whose status was indeterminate; I think that includes indies who set up a publishing company to publish only their own stuff.

      1. Hi, Lynne –
        I’m one of those ‘small press’ published authors – though I’d say ‘micro-press’ is a more accurate term these days! I’m REALLY curious as to how Hugh (God bless & keep him!) managed to assemble any numbers on small press published authors. I’m a sci fi writer, so I fit the genre category. My publisher’s doing far more to promote my book than any trad publishing house would do, so no complaints. However, two things don’t seem to add up based on Hugh’s numbers:
        My publisher has not been able to provide me with any way of tracking my sales data at all so I wonder how other authors in my situation can do so;
        Secondly, when I calc’d out estimated earnings based on Hugh’s methods, the numbers were REALLY depressing – and less than 10% of what my earnings to date have actually been.
        Any idea what I’m missing?

        1. Bonnie, we’ve got a hybrid author or two here at IU who might be able to give you a hint or two about tracking sales numbers.

          But if your publisher paid you an advance, that could explain why your earnings to date have been higher than his formula would indicate — you may not have earned out your advance yet.

          But I am totally just guessing here. My best advice would be to talk to your publisher about it. Sorry I can’t be more help.

          1. Lynne! Kind, sweet, beautiful lady! THANK YOU SO MUCH for the prompt reply. Just for the record – nope, no advance. Straight royalties. According to Amazon, all the tracking info is only accessible by the publisher as the link owner; according to the publisher he can’t grant me access to MY sales info without jeopardizing the confidentiality of his other authors’ info. I understand that one, I just think there should be a viable, safe way to split my numbers out.
            Has anyone else found a solution to this problem?
            Hugs
            Bonnie Milani

          2. Hi Bonnie, I’m with a small indie publisher – and she gives me a quarterly sales report which breaks down how many of each book was sold and through what channels. Does your publisher not do that?

          3. Hi, K.S. –

            Yep, get the quarterly report. Thanks for making me think my question through more thoroughly – really helps! What I SHOULD have said is that I’ve been looking for real time sales info so I can track results for any given ad campaign. That’s the degree of specifics I had in mind, but failed to make clear.

          4. There are some online tools you can supposedly use to get more up-to-date sales information. Your Amazon Author Central account has a sales page which is supposed to give you real-time reporting as to what you are selling. I’ve never had much luck with that, maybe because I don’t sell anything. Another site you can sign up for (free) is NovelRank.com. Our Carol Wyer wrote a tutorial about that here: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/2013/02/12/turorial-novelrank/.

          5. Ooooh, K.S., you are a beautiful woman! Tried Amazon many times, but their data are ONLY available to the actual publisher, so I don’t have access. (This is one of the areas I’ve been discussing with my publisher) Never heard of the Novel site before so THANK YOU (again!) – will most certainly check it out.

          6. Hi Bonnie, I’m not talking about Amazon’s KDP or Createspace reporting. I’m talking about your author central account. That will give you numbers no matter who the publisher is.

          7. Wahoo! Found it. Mind, they don’t report Kindle sales, so it’s not functionally helpful for me but I would never have known the site existed if not for you. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  6. What a breath of fresh air your data has been, Hugh. For the first time, we Indies have facts to back up our gut feelings, but these facts only tell the money side of the equation. Until we take pride in our achievements, and stop dreaming of the ‘big contract’, we will continue to provide trad. publishing with a huge, organic slush pile. Why should they change their business model when they can cherry pick the most profitable Indies at very little effort, or cost?

    Thank you both for a great interview.

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