The Shatzkin Files

New data on the Long Tail impact suggests rethinking history and ideas about the future of publishing

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For most of my lifetime, the principal challenge a publisher faced to get a book noticed by a consumer and sold was to get it on the shelves in bookstores. Data was always scarce (I combed for it for years) but everything I ever saw reported confirmed that customers generally chose from what was made available through their retailers. Special orders — when a store ordered a particular book for a particular customer on demand, which meant the customer had to endure a gap between the visit when they ordered the book and one to pick it up — were a feature of the best stores and the subject of mechanisms (one called STOP in the 1970s and 1980s) that made it easier. But they constituted a very small percentage of any store’s sales, even when the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor made a vast number of books available to most stores within a day or two.

It was an article of faith, and one I accepted, that if you could expose most books to a broad public, they would “find their audience”. The challenge was overcoming the gatekeepers or, put another way, the aggregate effect of the gatekeepers (the store buyers) was to curate, or act as a filter, to find the worthwhile books that the public would really see from which they would choose what to buy.

There was also ample evidence over time that a large selection of books in a store acted as a magnet to draw customers. That fact was noted by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, in the early 1960s, when they doubled the inventory at the Short Hills, NJ, Brentano’s store (the chain reported to my father, who was a Vice-President of Crowell-Collier, the company that owned Brentano’s, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and Macmillan Publishers, among other things) and it went from the worst-performing store in the chain to the best. In the 1970s, BP Reports published a survey that said that nearly half of bookstore customers chose the store they were in on the basis of the selection they’d find and more than half reported their particular purchase decision was made in the store.

By the late 1980s, both of the big national bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and Borders — were undergoing a massive expansion of “superstores”. Whereas chain bookstores (B&N’s B. Dalton and Borders’s Walden) carried 20,000 or 30,000 titles, and large independents carried as many as twice that, now the new superstores would carry 100,000 titles or more! Customers flocked to the massive bookstores and the ever-expanding chains ordered lots of the publishers’ backlists and everybody celebrated a new era, except the independent bookstores who were increasingly squeezed by their new large competitors. The era was less than 10 years old when it got disrupted.

In the 1970s, it was my responsibility for a couple of years to write the orders for stores that accepted vendor-managed inventory from Two Continents, my family’s distribution company. I was being careful to make sure that each store earned $2 gross margin per dollar of inventory investment, which was what you’d get from 40% discount with inventory turned 3 times a year. This gave me a hands-on look at how stock turn in the aggregate was affected by the inventory decisions on specific titles.

When you do this, you figure out pretty fast that you can produce very high stock turn on books that are moving consistently. If a store were selling five copies a month of a title on a sustained basis and I put in 10 and replenished monthly, they would be getting an annual turn of 10 or perhaps much more on those moving books. (Turn calculation: sales divided by average inventory for a period multiplied by the number of such periods in a year.) That would support a lot of single copies of books that moved very slowly or, as it turned out, not at all. Since very few stores managed a turn of 3 or 4 on their own (chain store turns were usually under 2), giving the stores on our Plan a good result with the advantage of shipping monthly was shooting fish in a barrel.

But if you think about the turn you’re achieving with the titles that really move, know that the titles that move are a large percentage of the store sales, and take on board what stores’ overall turns tended to be, it leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling, or calculation, that a very high percentage of the titles each store ordered didn’t sell a single copy in that store. In fact, one big advantage of vendor-managed inventory is that it gives you the ability to use the high turn on your titles to stock the titles of yours that turn slowly or don’t sell at all, rather than having the store “waste” those margin dollars your books produce stocking somebody else’s slow-moving books.

Remember, in physical retail, selection was the magnet. The books that didn’t sell were helping to pull in the customers for the books that did sell. Stores knew that too. Later work I did demonstrated that there were whole store sections that turned at half or less of the rate of the store as a whole. But if you want, say, a philosophy section that “turns”, it would only have about ten titles in it. If you want a philosophy section people will browse and shop from, you have to carry a lot of slow-moving titles.

But just when the bookstores put the inventory in place to stimulate book buying all over the country, along came the Internet,, print-on-demand, and ebooks, in that order. All four were fully integrated into the book publishing ecosystem over a decade-and-a-half starting in 1995. As quickly as the magic of selection via the 100,000-title store was implemented, it was superseded by the “total” selection provided by Amazon’s, and then’s, “unlimited shelf space”. Now every book would have its full chance to sell, or so it seemed.

Unlike the period of superstore expansion, when substantial orders for deep backlist suddenly became commonplace in a continuing windfall for publishers, the new era with Amazon was characterized by things getting harder for many publishers. That wasn’t necessarily clear at first, but the impact of Amazon, and then Lightning (print on demand offered by Ingram) was to dramatically increase the number of titles competing for sales. It gave the Long Tail a real opportunity to get to customers which, through bookstores — even very big bookstores — only the top 100,000 titles were able to do. Publishers were a bit like the metaphorical frog in heating water; the challenges imperceptibly became greater over time. In 1990, a new book competed with about 100,000 available titles. In 1997 it competed with many hundreds of thousands and that number just kept growing. Today it competes with millions.

The challenges for conventional publishers got steeper again when ebooks became mainstream, pioneered by Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007. There had been a modest ebook business building for about a decade, but until Amazon committed its resources to creating a dedicated device, a repository of content, and audience awareness, it had a trivial impact. But a full-fledged ebook business unleashed a new wave of competition from self-publishing authors. Amazon fostered growth by creating an easy on-ramp for self-publishing, a move quickly copied by B&N, Apple, and Kobo. In the several years that ebooks have been commercially important, many — certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands — of authors have achieved meaningful sales. Many of those have been of backlist books originally published conventionally but there have also been thousands of successful original ebooks. Whether revived formerly-dead backlist or new titles, these are books that are competing with the output of the conventional publishers and wouldn’t have been a decade or two ago.

So the Long Tail for books has been a topic of conversation for most of the past 20 years. Amazon’s limitless shelves and Ingram’s Lightning contributed heavily to this before the turn of the century; self-publishing has accelerated it dramatically. The early expectations, including mine, were that the Long Tail would take sales from all the books being “currently” published. But it became evident pretty early that the big books were just getting bigger: the head of the sales curve wasn’t diminishing. In fact, both the head and the Long Tail took sales from the middle of the curve. This was particularly challenging for publishers because publishing mid-list, those books they do that aren’t bestsellers, became much more challenging.

The Long Tail continues to grow. There are a limitless number of aspiring authors and their aspirations to self-publish successfully are fueled both by success stories and by a growing band of indie authors who tout their success and question the business models and practices of the majors. Because being conventionally published has its own set of hurdles and time requirements, it has seemed to many (and I haven’t been immune from this thought) that self-publishing would just continue inexorably to take share from the publishing business.

But now we have some data that calls that assumption into question. I encountered two examples of that in the past week.

In Toronto last Wednesday, Noah Genner of Booknet Canada presented information about the Canadian market showing that the number of ISBNs was expanding rapidly, but that the number of individual ISBNs selling at least one single copy was about flat.

Then this week, Marcello Vena of RCS Libri in Italy published a White Paper based on his company’s data (link through to the White Paper from the DBW piece introducing it) which showed something similar. Sales of his company’s books were becoming increasingly concentrated in a small number of titles. Vena added an analysis using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). HHI measures the concentration in a market and is, according to Vena, used by the US Department of Justice to measure concentration in an industry. The HHI is calculated by adding the squares of the market shares of the players. So if one company owned 100% of a market, the HHI would be 100 squared, or 10,000. But if 100 players each owned 1% of the market, the HHI would be 100 times 1/10,000 (1/100 squared) or 0.01. Using the market concentration and title concentration numbers in tandem, Vena finds that they’re linked. As market concentration increases, the sales move to the head of the sales curve and flatten further in the Long Tail.

Of course, Italy and Canada are not the United States. Our market is bigger and richer. But Italy and Canada are not trivial samples, either.

One further point about Long Tail sales. In the aggregate, they can be very significant. But for each individual title, they are trivial. So the real commercial benefits flow to the aggregators — Amazon and Lightning — and much less to the publishers or authors of the individual titles. There certainly are situations where particular publishers have a lot of Long Tail books: the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses would be prime examples of this. For them, with thousands of titles in the Long Tail, the aggregate sales are probably commercially significant. But for a publisher with 100 titles, or even 1000 titles, selling a copy or two a year (or none), and that’s what we’re talking about here, it hardly makes any difference. I personally own several Long Tail titles. I get checks from somebody every month, but it adds up to three figures a year, not four.

The implications of this in the discussion of how the publishing industry might be affected by self-publishing disruption are interesting. It would suggest to me that the boosts publishers can give a book — even their catalogs provide more marketing lift than most self-published books start with — will become increasingly important as the market becomes increasingly flooded. If the data Vena has presented turns out to be the future trend, the increase in self-published titles will drive more and more sales to a smaller number of winners, and my hunch would be that the winners will most likely be from publishers. That would indeed be a paradox and a totally unintended consequence.

Of course, the publishing business isn’t one business; it is segmented. So far, the commercially successful self-published authors overwhelmingly, if not entirely, fall into two categories. There are authors who have reclaimed a backlist of previously published titles and self-published them. And there are authors of original genre fiction who write prolifically, putting many titles into the marketplace quickly. Successful self-publishing authors are often in both categories but very few are in neither. Those two categories are nearly 100% of the self-publishing success stories but a minority of the books from publishers. So, even before Vena published his White Paper, the idea that self-publishing would upset the commercial establishment was way overblown. If Vena’s data turns out to be prophetic, the road is going to get harder and harder for all books, but especially the self-published.

Two big items in the news today. On B&N’s decision to spin out Nook and college into a separate public company, I have little to say except to wish them all well. On Hachette’s and Ingram’s division of the two Perseus businesses, I’d say this. 1) The notion that this is about Hachette “bulking up” for the Amazon battle is almost certainly wildly wrong and anybody saying that has disqualified themself as an expert. 2) The titles Hachette get here really change the character of their list, adding a non-fiction and academic dimension they never had. 3) Ingram has made a major leap in scale for their Ingram Publisher Services business which now, in the aggregate, is Big Five sized.

Once again, the Feedburner service failed to distribute my most recent post, which was a graf-by-graf disagreement with a post by Hugh Howey. The comment string of that post contains ample evidence that the fact contained in the last paragraph here is not widely acknowledged.

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  • jellybooks

    which why Amazon can make the kind of demands it is makingof Hachette

    • I’d actually read it the other way. To the extent that Vena’s analysis is right, Amazon will be increasingly dependent on Hachette, assuming they can continue to corral bestsellers. Amazon’s position is still the stronger one but they’d be stronger still if the Long Tail were more successful taking sales from the head.

      • jellybooks

        Books are a tiny fraction of Amazon’s sales, while Amazon is a HUGE share of Hachette’s sales.

        Also Amazon could in principle outbid Hachette for BIG books, if (if !!) that is the route it would wish to take.

        It’s all down to the relative strength of your negotiation position. Holding an ace or two may look good, but what if the other party has a Full HOuse?

      • Oh, I agree with that! All I’m saying is that IF the long tail trend is true, then the strength of Hachette’s (and all big publishers’) position grows with time. No question that Amazon holds the whip hand over all publishers (except Penguin Random House) today and for the foreseeable future.

      • jellybooks

        mobile operator “decks” with their poor discoverability favoured games publishers over indie publishers.

        the original Apple app store on the other hand favoured indie game developers instead. Since then the big games publishers have adjusted by gradually cracking the “marketing formula” without gaining a strangelhold that blocked Rovio (“Angry Birds”), Supercell (“Clash of Clans”) or an obscure developer from Asia (“Flappy Bird”)

        Whenever serious skill and resoucres are required to crack the all-important visibility location (operator deck, front-of-store display tables, etc.) it favours a large and sophistciated publisher

      • Agreed there for sure. And the bigger they are, the more sophisticated they’re getting all the time (rumbles from the indiesphere notwithstanding). If the Long Tail thesis posited by Marcello Vena proves true, this observation of yours becomes more and more prominent.

      • jellybooks

        here’s the full reposne for the benefit of everybody else 🙂

      • Mike, as always, a fascinating post. My small (350 titles currently) press has always championed the long tail, and even with our modest list we do depend on the little revenue stream from our backlist. But now that the ebook gold rush is over we’re having to concentrate on our “head” a whole lot more. We’re hoping for new marketing platforms that suit our midlist. Amazon is not making our job easier. The big pubs aren’t the only ones getting squeezed and manipulated. But they have deep pockets. Small presses don’t.

      • And thanks again to you for sober and serious reporting from the front. One of the things I pointed out in the Hachette post is that Amazon didn’t want to pay Hachette 70 percent when they were paying indie authors 70 percent, which didn’t make a lot of sense. Even after the changes in compensation at Audible, indie authors seem to cling to the belief that their revenue streams with Amazon are sacrosanct. The naivete is charming, in its way, but it is highly misleading.

        It is almost always easier to sell more of something that sells well than it is to get something that doesn’t sell well to move. That’s a fact that explains a lot of publisher behavior authors find unappealing, but it is a fact.

      • T.K.

        I don’t hear Indies claiming their income from Amazon is sacrosanct. Quite the contrary. What I understand from the Indie community (and what I believe) is that when Amazon stops being good place to sell Indie books, other avenues will open up. Indies believe that Amazon is pioneering technology and new methods of distribution and ways of reaching an audience, but the first to come up with new methods is generally not the only or the last.

        I find a few of the Indie writers extremely sophisticated in their predictions and understanding of business in general, and publishing in particular. Kristine Kathryn Rush, for example, blogged for years about the changes in distribution methods for Indie authors. There is nothing quaint or charming about her views, if you ask me. I

      • Well, good luck with the idea that if Amazon uses owning the market to reduce the share of compensation that the indies will somehow make other avenues open up. The majors haven’t been so good at making that happen.

      • T.K.

        The majors can’t make it happen because they can’t compete with a high tech company in the field of high technology.

        What I’m talking about is another high tech company coming along and challenging Amazon. I know right now that doesn’t seem possible, but high tech companies — like all empires — rise and then are replaced by a better, more innovative companies. Look at IBM, and Microsoft. Apple had an amazing comeback, but only when they become technological innovators.

        Another Jeff Bezos-type will come along with a new vision and new technology and even more innovative ideas and will become the new Amazon.

        If I’m right about the you-tube generation seeing things differently, new innovations in the coming years will make things easier for Indies, not easier for Big Publishers.

      • Well, if the world changes and people don’t read “books” anymore (format doesn’t matter…long form does), then anything can happen. And over a long enough period of time, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. But Amazon’s position isn’t just built on technology, although they’re very good at it. It is built on a huge installed loyal customer base and extraordinary management of logistics. They will be even more difficult to dislodge than Microsoft which has been suffering serious disruption for two decades or more but still manages to eke out a bit of a profit. And most assuredly hasn’t gone away.

      • T.K.

        I’m not talking about changes in which people won’t read books anymore.

        I’m talking about changes and in distribution and technology which will make it easier and easier for Indies to reach an audience.

        My point was to defend Indies against the charge that they are charming in their naivety (which was, you have to admit, a little condescending toward a group of savvy entrepreneurs.)

        More specifically, my point was why Indies aren’t worried about Amazon squeezing their profits. First, as they joke, Amazon would have two squeeze pretty hard to bring their percentage down to what traditional publishers offer.

        Second, they are convinced Amazon is making a lot of money selling Indie books. Perhaps the bulk of Indies aren’t making much individually, but the total provides a good income source for Amazon.

        They believe if Amazon squeezes them, someone else will step forward and figure out a way to help Indies sell books.

      • OK, whether insulting or not, that strikes me as an extraordinarily naive belief. I believe we’ll ultimately have an opportunity to find out.

        And Amazon pays more per DOLLAR OF SALES less so on their publishing deals, by half) and has certain tools to reach an audience, but doesn’t have the reach of publishers that pay less per dollar of sales but have more ways to sell and often at higher prices.

      • Greg Benage

        Things will get better and easier for readers. Long-tail *writers* will be writing for free — actually, they’ll pay to be read (for distribution and discoverability). The only thing propping up prices for text content today is, ironically, the titanic battle to preserve print during this transitional period in which revenues are still dependent on it.
        Even so, there are 73,000 free ebooks in the Kindle store right now, more than anyone could read in a lifetime.

      • Right. There is already a surfeit of free and very cheap material. But most people choose to pay more for branded stuff and stuff that they’re finding about through the often derided but still superior marketing efforts of publishers.

      • Greg Benage

        I agree. There will still be a “head” — a handful of writers people are willing to pay for text content. The “publishers” of tomorrow will provide needed services to them and sell it (“self-publishing services”) to the long tail.

      • Guest

        We already have that. As a publisher I guarantee you that I have books that readers pay a substantial price for without batting an eyelash. I’m confident that will continue to be the case. As always, people will pay good money for the books they want, and the rest will be free or cheap. That’s pretty much the way it is now and always has been.

      • In your world, only hobby writers will exist. Just as only musicians who can afford to play for fun will exist. Good luck.

      • Greg Benage

        As I said below, I think there will always be a “head.” There will be writers whose work is so valued that people will pay for it, though prices for this work will be much lower (even) than they are today and such work will be a *really* tiny percentage of all the written work produced.
        But yes, the “professional writer” hasn’t existed all that long in the grand scheme of things. It’s the product of a particular technological milieu. There’s absolutely no reason to expect that it’s a permanent feature of human civilization.

      • It’s existed a lot longer than either professional technologist or professional coder.

      • Greg Benage

        That’s true! And wainwrights existed much longer than automotive engineers. Our concern is presumably their future rather than their past.

      • The percentage of authors who make a living is tiny and always has been; that will likely continue to be the case, with the readers paying a good price for the authors they like best. My beef with the self-pub leadership is that the snake oil being sold to millions of writers says “you can be a star,” not “you can enjoy being an author and sell some books and get great satisfaction from the craft of a wonderful storytelling skill.”

      • It’s not about how easy it is to distribute books — it’s already easy to reach readers. it’s just not easy to get their attention once you reach them. Amazon not only has massive pipeline to readers, it has a massive marketing system. The reason indies need to stand *with* traditional publishing and traditionally published authors is because we need to be building systems to engage the readers, to create communities that connect booklovers with writers *and* publishers. Distribution is easy in the ebook age. Marketing is hard as hell.

      • Steven Zacharius

        How about Alibaba? Bigger than Amazon but not in the book market that I know of. And of course if Google wanted to be a bigger player, with the android base is which 75% of the mobile market, they could really be a player in ebooks.

      • Google could do more if they wanted to do more, but it’s not in their DNA. Google cares most about getting information for search, not about selling ebooks. They will never drop out of the running, but they will never seriously try to compete with Amazon. Apple is the same way. They want to sell devices, not ebooks.

      • Steven Zacharius

        They tried that with Penny Marshall’s book and it was a bomb.

      • Steven Zacharius

        It will be interesting to see how far this goes. Will the same thing happen with negotiations with the remaining big 5 publishers? I can’t ever imagine it happening with Penguin Random.

      • We agree on that for sure. I wrote a piece based on making that point. PRH is going to end up with better margins than their competitors over time as a result.

      • jellybooks

        also note that Amazon did not pull any Hachette books, they just made it less convenient to buy them and placing the blame on Hachette

      • Which is all they have to do!

      • Steven Zacharius

        Saying print books are available in one to two months is the same thing as removing them as far I’m concerned.

  • jellybooks

    the thing to remember though (2nd part of “The Long Tail”) is that availability alone does not create long tail sales. Filters and other tools that guide the user and create a path of discovery are absolutely critical or the head will dominate, so the data highlights just how poor Amazon, iBook, Nook and Koo are in this regard (no surprise)

    • There is a good question whether better merchandising would tend to undercut the effect. Certainly, the implication in Vena’s piece is that concentration in retail gets part of the blame. That stands to reason; the more variety in the curation efforts, the more likely it is that more titles will get opportunities and it will be harder for titles to monopolize them.

    • Steven Zacharius

      I wonder how many people use the advanced search features on Amazon. I use them all the time when I buy books to filter out new releases, categories, format, etc…

  • ahoving

    great post, mike. since ease of use trumps everything, i look forward to the next disruption (navigation of online content in 3D webspace)

  • William O’Neil

    Having published both with a trade publisher (Norton) and independently (Amazon’s Kindle Direct and CreateSpace) I read this thoughtful and informative post with intense interest.

    My latest book doesn’t fit any of the lessons drawn from the studies you cite—it’s non-fiction about the decision-making behind Germany’s fateful (and fatal) entry into World War I, written for a popular audience but very, very far from the genre fiction that so dominates independent books. And yet after three months of virtually no promotion its sales are already strong and still accelerating exponentially. Right now it’s No. 10 among Kindle World War I titles on Amazon and No. 23 among all World War I books (print and Kindle).

    It’s a good book, definitely superior to the vast majority of independent titles in writing and production, but a lot of its success is due to Amazon’s finding aids—the ways it provides to reach into the long tail to find the books that suit your interests or whims. It will show up in a search on Amazon for any of several different themes. Amazon has allowed me to make a page for the book that is inviting to members of my target audience. Prospective buyers can use the Amazon “Look Inside” facility to browse the book comprehensively enough to get a clear idea of its attractions. And as sales have accumulated, it’s begun to get picked up by Amazon’s association algorithms and suggested to users whose buying patterns suggest possible interest.

    Moreover, it’s the sort of title that has traditionally done well in back-list, and Amazon’s system allows it indefinite life in both Kindle and POD forms.

    I don’t expect that my book will ever compete with the bodice-rippers or soft porn for top-ranking among independent titles. But I do feel confident that Amazon and I will both do well on it (all the more so since the unit value is a good deal higher than the prevailing prices for independent genre fiction). And I see Amazon as having done much to earn its share.

    So I’m skeptical about the global applicability of studies from other domains. It seems to me that Amazon has worked hard (and invested) to make the tail more of an asset. I doubt that they’ll ever tell us, but I suspect that they make more out of it than anyone else ever has.

    • Thanks for the info. I wonder whether you self-published this book with Amazon because you didn’t try to get an offer from a publisher or couldn’t get one after trying.

      For a book of this kind, often there are non-sales “values” of importance to the author: reviews and academic attention. Publishers have “machines” to go after that; Amazon really doesn’t, although I take you at your word that they’re doing a good job for you. Since you’ve been published by a major publisher below Big Five (Norton), you are in a position to know how much work you had to do to make the Amazon book succeed and whether that is more than you would have had to do if it had been published by Norton or another house.

      I don’t think the long tail and long backlist point matters much. Most good agents negotiate reversion clauses based on whether sales fall below a threshold level. If the book stopped selling with the publisher, it could revert and you could *then* put it into CreateSpace. But it is interesting to hear about a non-fiction book like this that is achieving decent sales levels through self-publishing. I think it is rare. But whether or not it is, my core point was that writers *making a living *through self-publishing fall into the categories I defined. I know you’re making no such claim about your one book.

      • William O’Neil

        I’m not sure how much it pays to try to generalize from my experience with this book. It’s the first of an intended series (with outlines and first drafts for each already written) addressing major decisions that went badly, and why they did so. It comes with a fairly complex and subtle concept for how the books should be marketed. The publishers (and agents) I talked to mostly seemed to like the book, but did not feel comfortable with the marketing concept—nor even really understand it. I had anticipated this from the beginning and so had planned (and prepared) all along to publish and market it myself, if need be. It’s much too soon to say whether I’m really right in the larger sense, but so far it looks promising.

        Conversations with a number of mid-list authors I know leave me convinced that the marketing support provided by the trade publishers isn’t what it once was—not that it ever was all that good for titles they saw as lacking in best-seller potential. Simply being in the catalogue of course is worth a good deal, and I estimate that my sales potential is probably no more than a third as great (in units sold) as it would be if published through a trade publisher. But I can compensate myself through higher royalties while still keeping the price competitive. My own reputation and contacts suffice to get a certain amount of academic attention and some reviews, and they aren’t matters of supreme importance to me in any event.

        If I prove to be right regarding marketing strategy, I will make a return on this series fully comparable with the best I might have expected from trade publication. Ask me in a few years whether I was right.

      • Thanks, William. At the very least, you have reasonable goals and expectations. I wish you the best of success and I will definitely be interested in hearing about further developments.

      • William O’Neil

        Thanks. I think that one lesson that can be drawn here is that self-publishing as implemented under Amazon offers a great deal of flexibility. There’s a price for that flexibility, but there’s a potential for payoff.

      • I suppose you checked the box for “extended distribution” so you’ll be at Ingram too, which will perhaps get you into BN, Kobo, and other places. But no doubt Amazon is the key to successful self-publishing, and they’ve done a masterful job of making it easy and effective. There’s no doubt about that.

      • William O’Neil

        Yes, and I get some “extended distribution” sales. I also find that I get considerable UK, European, and Australian sales, as well as scattered sales in Brazil and Japan.

    • Steven Zacharius

      I think one of the problem with all of the amazon rankings are that they break down the rankings into these tiny little slivers of categories….like, history, war, world war I….just speculating….then writers see that they’re ranked in the top 10 in some of these categories and it very likely just means a handful of books were sold; even though they might be number 1 or 2 in that category. Sometimes this can be very misleading unless you’re talking about the big broad categories.

      • William O’Neil

        Amazon gives both broad and narrow category rankings, but I cannot imagine what the broad ones are good for. For the most part, books compete for readers only in fairly narrow categories, so these are what tell you what’s important for marketing.

      • Steven Zacharius

        Actually those broad rankings give you a better idea of how you’re book is selling. Number. 50 in the kindle store is in a different level of sales than #1 in history/world war 1. It could be a difference of 1500 copies sold versus 3. It’s just as a point of reference.

      • William O’Neil

        To me, my actual sales numbers are a far more useful guide for such purposes. If they are useful to you for your marketing, more power to you. But for mine they are useless, whereas the rankings within the category I compete in are somewhat helpful.

      • Steven Zacharius

        Actual sales numbers are the ultimate but when authors post online that they are #3 in a contemporary romance/shapeshifters/ that’s what I’m saying is very misleading. Actual numbers trump everything but as a consumer or publisher you can’t see those sales of other authors; that’s why I’m saying only the overall ranking on Kindle gives us any idea of the relative success or failure of a book.

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  • T.K.

    I also have my feet in both camps. I publish traditionally with 2 major publishers, and I self publish. I have a pen name under which I self publish original material. So far I have only self published (a small) backlist under my own name.

    Even though I earn more money traditionally publishing, the money I get self publishing comes with much less aggravation.

    I disagree with your conclusion for a few reasons. First, most indies don’t bother with ISBN numbers, so those statistics don’t tell much.

    Another reason I disagree is that the new generation coming up– I think of them as the you-tube generation — naturally see things differently. My children are in their early 20s.The you-tube generation doesn’t understand the concept of spending years finding (and hassling with) a literary agent and publisher when you can hit a button and be published. They understand very well the hurdles of making a name going Indie, but those hurdles generally look more attractive to a very young person.

    Finally, I disagree because of who Amazon is: Amazon is, at heart, a high tech company. Selling books is only part of their retailing business, but retailing is only part of what they do. Some of their high tech innovations are changing technology everywhere.

    I think that as technology advances and as a new generation comes up with an entirely new view, traditional publishing as we know it will morph so entirely over the next decade, we won’t recognize it at all, partly because they’re going to continually get hit by new technological advances which will entirely change book buying.

    • I have no doubt that “big publishing” is going to change, morph. Part of that is because it will consolidate. “Big Publishing” could be — I think probably *will be *– one or two companies ten years from now.

      The problem with the “push the button” pardigm, which is true, is that it takes more than just pushing the button, particularly when you’re starting out. I think creators of all sorts will want to focus on creating and will be happy to have somebody else handle the business for them. What that means and how the money is split obviously changes and what a Big Publisher does exactly might be quite different 10 years from now, and almost certainly will be 20 years from now.

      But all of that is different from overinterpreting the evidence we have so far, which is that people like you who have been developed by big publishers and genre authors who are prolific are the only broad categories of people making self-publishing “work” commercially. Others are trying — like the history author who has talked about his work on this string — but those trying in a serious way who don’t fit my buckets are, at least so far, outliers and rare birds.

      • Paul Draker

        Even a brief scan of retailer bestseller lists will show anyone how silly your “two-category theory” of successful self-publishers is. It fails even the most trivial “sniff test,” because it doesn’t explain clearly observable reality.

        Today, 1 out of every 3 ebooks purchased in the US is a self-published title. $1 out of every $5 spent in the US on ebooks is spent on a self-published title.

        But who are these indie authors? Some might actually fall into your “two categories,” but a whole lot more of us are entrepreneurial ebook-era newbies who published our first book after 2010, and who have zero history (positive or negative) with traditional publishers. We only have a few books out — we are just starting to build our backlists.

        While some indie newbies are “tradcurious” or plan to pursue a hybrid strategy, many, perhaps even most, have never submitted a query to anyone. A lot of us see traditional publishing as quaint, old-fashioned, and not really relevant to our writing careers, which are off to a promising start 🙂 Thousands of us are already earning a living wage from our writing.

        Contrary to the misinformed — and often insulting — characterizations and memes that we see propagated about us by various clueless assclowns, a lot of us aren’t “angry trad-pub rejects.” We aren’t “amateur writers.” In fact, we don’t bear any animosity — or unearned loyalty — toward any player in publishing. We’re just dispassionate business-folk who evaluate the modern era’s choice of publishing paths using the unbiased information that is now available to us, and choose our route accordingly.

        Am I an “outlier,” with 45,000 paid indie sales of my two books in nine months? Am I a “rare bird”?

        Nope. There are thousands of successful new indie writers just like me earning a living now.

        I’m legion.

      • You lost me with your first two fauxtistics which are not only wild fantasies, they are mutually inconsistent.

        Sorry if you’re “insulted”, but when you say things like you say in your lead you destroy your credibility with me. I’m sure other people find you totally reliable.

      • Paul Draker

        I couldn’t care less if I’m “credible” to *you*, Mike. You lost your own credibility with informed authors a while ago.

        My comment is actually meant for the writers in your audience.

        “Fauxtistics”? Only if one takes the fatally flawed BISG/AAP studies at face value.

        If you look at objective data on the overall US ebook market, instead of only the self-selected corner of it where the AAP collects their stats, you’ll see that sales of ebooks have only “flattened” for traditional publishing. In fact, indie market share grew 150% between 2012 and 2013 — from $300M/year to $750M/year. But perhaps that “fauxtistic” will also be confusing to you because, you know, math and stuff.

        But no one should simply take *my* word for it, either.

        The real numbers supporting my “fauxtistics” are out there, for anyone who chooses to look at the detailed data with an unbiased eye.

        In 2014, it behooves all authors to do your own homework. Don’t rely on the subjective, opinionated handwaving of “publishing experts.” You’re smart enough to look at the data and draw your own conclusions.

      • Your numbers and the world around us speak for themselves. There is no need for any further reply.

      • Paul Draker


  • Please, when you find the “secret” please let us know.

  • guest

    Mike, I’ve been thinking about this blog post. I learned a lot. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but you make very strong arguments for self-publishing.

    Your paragraph beginning “In retail, selection is the magnet” explains what most writers already know: the majority of traditionally published books don’t sell many copies. To keep this post short, I won’t go into how much of my experience with traditional publishing (and the experiences of my friends) was illuminated by this paragraph.

    But if the majority of traditionally published books don’t sell much, it seems better to do it myself. That way I save years of time, and get whatever money there is directly. Self publishing means I can get my book for sale within a few months (hire an editor, hire a cover designer, and presto). One of my traditional books was 6 years to publication because I had to go through a few agents (they kept dumping me after a few rejections so I had to start over) and even after I landed a publisher, my book was delayed.

    That was 6 years I could have been earning something rather than nothing, and since the majority of traditionally published books are slow moving, the time drain isn’t really worth the off chance that my book will be one of the few to take off.

    Also, you explained that the writers with big advances not intended to earn out earn higher royalties than those writers at the bottom.

    My books tend to earn out, which means I’m one of the suckers earning very low royalties so that the publishers can give millions to the Turrows and Pattersons of the world.

    I’m feeling like a sucker for selling my books to traditional publishers.

    • guest

      Also your comment that it’s easier to get something already moving to sell more than to get something moving which isn’t is another good reason for self-publishing.

      What me and my writer friends have noticed is that the big publishers put out hundreds of titles – just throw them out in a catalogue and send out review copies, nothing more than that — and sit back to see what starts to move. The publisher then gets behind the books that move.

      This makes very good sense from the point of view of the publisher, but it’s a very poor risk for the writer.

      It seems to me that if a book will move on its own with nothing more than catalog copy and a review copies sent out, the book will also move self-published. Again, the time drain of years isn’t worth it for all the writers not earning six-figure advances (like me).

      • Bunch of leaps here that are sloppy thinking.

        First of all, throwing books in a catalog is NOT all publishers do. But even if it were, those catalogs are much more powerful marketing tools than most authors command.

        Second, the publishers risk money on every book they do. And take risk away from authors on every book they do. They can’t just casually lose money on each book and they don’t. Just not true.

        And the leap that if it sold when a publisher just issued it that it would do the same if the author just issued it is a wildly erroneous assumption. The two are not equivalent and the gap between the two will widen, not narrow, particularly if the Vena view of the Long Tail proves true.

      • guest

        Given how low my royalties are (my books earn out) the long tail doesn’t help me much. The long tail, though, very much helps my publisher given the fact that my books earn out.

        Just because a publisher doesn’t lose money doesn’t make the choice wise for the writer, particularly a writer like me earning the stated royalties.

        If my books continue to sell years down the line, it’s hard to believe it’s because of something the publishers are doing. I’ve never heard of a publisher putting much effort into marketing a book years down the road which never sold many copies in the first place.

        On the other hand, an author can always do things down the road to push a few books, like signings or give interviews, which she is more likely to do with 70% of gross going immediately into her pocket.

        I completely agree that publishers do more (sometimes) than slap the book into a catalog and send out review copies — although I have friends and colleagues who swear up and down that’s all they get.

        The question is whether the enormous difference in royalty payments (70% of gross vs. 25% of net) makes up for the difference in units sold.

        There is just no way to know for sure, particularly for a writer like me, who is not a name brand, who earns out, but doesn’t sell boatloads of books, particularly when you factor in the many other advantages of self publishing (money directly into my account each month, not having to wait years and years for a book to be published, etc) because all we can do is speculate or guess.

      • guest


        I do agree, that a title is likely to sell more copies traditionally. I also agree that with many types of books, publishers can do things that a writer has trouble doing for herself.

        But with the royalty difference, the only way to know if a writer can earn more money self publishing is to try, and even then you only know for that particular book, because each book is different, so you really can’t generalize.

      • In the current state of publishing, if the book is selling purely on the momentum of its original publication, and it is not a book where print matters much, that’s a sweet spot where self-publishing makes sense. In fact, that’s one of the two and only two categories where it routinely DOES. Publishers, of course, try for life-of-copyright contracts; most agents manage to get a minimum annual sales number instead. And rights revert and, as you say, authors do some marketing and breathe new life into backlist.

        But that will change. Publishers are developing tools and techniques to do a better job on backlist. My digital marketing partner, Pete McCarthy, is has great war stories about books they produced big results for when he was at Random House and in fact, we are developing some tools ourselves that our publisher clients will use.

        I’d bet that by two years from now, every major publisher has a dedicated backlist marketing program that both algorithmically and with elbow grease looks for opportunities across thousands of titles on a daily basis. It would be a bad bet to assume that publishers won’t see both the risk in the status quo and the opportunity in improvement.

    • Of course, the part you leave out is the marketing. If you think you can do it just as effectively as the publishers (and would have delivered just as good a book), then your logic is right. I don’t think it would work out that well without a lot of additional work that isn’t accounted for in your calculus.