Hugh Howey and his team have published the latest Author Earnings update. And the story, as with all previous updates, is that self-published authors (working primarily through the Amazon Kindle marketplace) are doing very nicely thank you. In fact, much better than debut authors published by the Big 5.
The data and methodology used to arrive at these conclusions is questionable to say the least. There’s no reason to believe that any of the numbers presented by the Author Earnings team are accurate. For many, that is reason enough to dismiss the narrative they build on that data. That does however still leave us with an apparently large number of self-published authors making significant sums of money. So Author Earnings saving grace is that it provides a narrative for an existing phenomenon, a narrative that is currently unchallenged.
I’m interested in the phenomenon of self-published authors because it mirrors a much wider trend across the creative industries. Consider the rise of make-up and beauty video bloggers on YouTube. Until recently, the only way to make a living as a television presenter was to work for a major media corporation. Now a relatively large cohort of people are making quite a lot of money presenting their own YouTube videos. Also until recently, if you wanted to make a living as a tutor you needed to work for a large educational establishment. Now you can build courses on Udemy or Udacity and sell them directly to students. With $99 courses frequently attracting 2000 or more students, successful tutors are earning significantly more than a teaching position might offer. And in fact this trend stretches across the creative industries, from crafts people establishing businesses on Etsy, to graphic and web designers working through online marketplaces like Envato. Join these dots together and you have an observable trend towards digital marketplaces that offer an alternative outlet – and income – for creatives.
So it makes perfect sense that writers would also be effected by this trend. In fact it would be strange if there was not an Amazon Kindle marketplace, or equivalent, where writers were selling their wares directly. To this extent the narrative of self-published success put forward by Author Earnings is entirely consistent with the broader trends reflected across creative industries as they are impacted by new digital technology.
While these are very positive developments for creatives of all kinds, it’s worth considering what the current limitations of success in a digital marketplace are, and how these will likely apply to the success of self-pubished writers. A successful YouTube video does not make you Oprah Winfrey, and a successful self-published novel does not make you Stephen King. There are long term structural benefits to being recognised within an industry, that success in a digital marketplace does little or nothing to confer. The viral popularity that drives sales in a digital marketplace is immensely transient. It’s not so much come today gone tomorrow as here one minute gone the next. These digital marketplaces are unregulated. When Udemy reduced its payment to tutors to 50% for internal sales, there was no recourse for tutors whose incomes were slashed. And there won’t be any recourse for authors when Amazon lowers its 70% royalty rate.
There’s every reason to think that the digital marketplace – whether run by Amazon or another player – is here to stay for self-published authors. But it’s essential to recognise the limitations of that market along with the strengths.