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What Do Author Income Surveys Mean For Indies? AskALLi Advanced Self-Publishing Salon February 2019

What do Author Income Surveys Mean for Indies? AskALLi Advanced Self-Publishing Salon February 2019

In this month’s Advanced Self-Publishing Salon from the Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross and Joanna Penn explore the findings of the US Authors’ Guild Survey on author income and issues arising, including the problems with most author income surveys. What are the takeaways for indie authors who want to make a decent income from their writing and publishing?

The AskALLi podcasts are sponsored by Damonza: Books Made Awesome.

Topics discussed this week include:

  • An update from Orna on what ALLi is up to, leading up to the London Book Fair; also, Orna teases some upcoming changes and new programming on the AskALLi podcasts.
  • An update from Joanna on her new ventures in audiobook narration; also, Orna is recording a poetry audiobook and has started an online open mic for poets.
  • A discussion on the Author’s Guild Survey on author income. What does it mean? What are its shortcomings, including some of the questionable assumptions it makes about self-publishing.

And more!

If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.

Now, go write and publish!

Listen to the AskALLi Advanced Self-Publishing Salon

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Watch the AskALLi Advanced Self-Publishing Salon


About the Hosts

Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author, as well as writing non-fiction for authors. She is also a professional speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. She spent 13 years as a business IT consultant in large corporations across the globe before becoming a full-time author-entrepreneur in September 2011. For more information about Joanna, visit her website: http://thecreativepenn.com

Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com

Read the Transcripts

Joanna Penn: Hi everyone and this is the Alliance of Independent Authors, Advanced Self Publishing Salon for February, 2019 with me, Joanna Penn and Orna Ross:. Hi, Orna!

Orna Ross: You got It all in there. Well done.

Joanna Penn: Yes. It’s a bit of a mouthful. And tonight we are talking about the Authors Guild Survey. So the US Authors Guild Survey on Author Income, that is what our theme is going to be this evening because both Orna and I have a few opinions on that.

Orna Ross: So unlike like us.

Joanna Penn: So very unlike us, indeed. So and we, we’re aiming to make our opinions useful for you all as ever. So first of all, as we always do, we are writers too and we always like to make sure that we are giving you an update on the Alliance but also on where we are in our own writing journey. So Orna, do you want to start by telling us any updates from the ALLi side?

Orna Ross: Yes, I have. Is having a busy January as it always does. We’re on the lead up into London Book Fair. So getting ready for all of that. We will have a presence there again. This year we’ll have a booth again, and some sessions in Author HQ and lots of ALLi’s heading to London from all over the world really. And we will also be doing a new experiment around rights. Every year we try to get this whole thing about indie author rights right and haven’t quite cracked it yet, but I’m trying a new approach this time. We’ve also been doing a lot of work around copyright and it’s this whole idea of the new author and their needs being very different to the traditional view of the author who, you know, needs grants to kind of keep them going that actually what authors need most now is mindset training and business training and we’ve been reaching out to various governments around the world on that.

We made a submission to UK all party committee on writers’ income before Christmas and now have been invited to submit to the New Zealand copyright review, which is, we have to get the submission in by April. So lots going on at that sort of level and we’re also making some changes to this very podcast, so keep an eye on the podcast page people, we’re going to be adding a writing session which is new and also doing a whole stream on inspirational indie authors and they all have very different things that our members are doing and just making everybody more, both outside of ALLi, but also within ALLi, you know, more aware of what’s going on and what they’re doing. Speaking of people who are doing amazing things, why don’t you tell us what you’re doing?

Joanna Penn: Well, it’s so funny because I was away in December and you know, I’m always a bit down in December with the seasons, December is not good for me, but January is hell of a good. So, you know, we came back and I’ve just been super productive. So I talked last time, I’ve been having voice coaching for narrating my fiction and I’ve really turned a corner on that. I just today have uploaded A Thousand Fiendish Angels my three short stories.


So it’s 90 minutes and with different characters. And I’ve been actor kind of training. So what I’ve really learned, I’ve learned so much about writing because I’ve actually re-edited, oh, and in fact I have it in hardback because we’ve talked about hardbacks before. You can even do short stories in hardback. That’s what’s so awesome. And it’s such, it feels so good.

And this is just the normal size. It’s not large print. I am doing large print as well. But basically what’s so fascinating if people are interested is, it is an interpretation of my own work, which is kind of crazy. Like, when you work with a narrator, they are interpreting, but it’s, I’ve never been that good, I think, at building in my secondary characters. But when you have to give a character a voice, you actually have to give them a voice. You have to think a lot about where they’re coming from. So I feel that my writing is both better from a speaking point, but also in the characterization I’ve deepened a lot in this edit.

So I wrote those in 2013, 2014. So this is a new version for 2019 with the audio, so it will be about three weeks before that’s out, but I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s been a huge investment. Obviously I’ve had one on one coaching, voice coaching and but I think I’ve always been so scared of my fiction, of reading my fiction aloud, of performing my fiction. It’s felt very intimidating and I feel like I’ve turned a corner. So that’s been like magic. Really super magical.

Orna Ross: Good for you. Amazing. And I’m really interested in that idea of when you do it yourself, you’re not just putting out another format, you’re actually, it’s an, it’s almost like a new art form experience for you. It’s like you’ve, you’re doing something else creatively completely different.

Joanna Penn: That’s exactly the point that I’ve discovered after. And I went through a lot of mindset stuff and you and I both being on this journey like four years ago, I think we would have done this and we both said we’d never do audio book stuff. And now here I am. But it’s so interesting because, yeah, I feel like my mindset shift has happened and this feels more like the print format, you know, this is no different to the Ebook, it’s just a format, but I don’t feel like my own audio narration is another format.

It is an artifact of its own and I’m really, I am going to do one more short story and then I’m going to tackle a full novel. I’m going to do Map Of Shadows, which is my dark fantasy and I’m just about to start writing the next one. So I think narrating the first one is going to help me do the second one. So, I know this is a big deal for people and absolutely it’s not for most authors, at all, but I never thought I would do this and I’m loving it. So that’s been a real surprise.

Orna Ross: Oh, that’s the key, isn’t it? I mean, that’s how you know, you’re on the right track. And you know, one author wants to do it, there are thousands of authors who are going to want to do it, you know. So as usual, you are there, blazing a trail.

Joanna Penn: Nope, not quite. I know there are lots of people do it, but the other thing that happened is, and you know, I’ve talked about this for many years as well, is saying that 2019 would be my year of no speaking and I’m really, I’ve also had a real sort of turn the corner on productivity. I feel like my calendar feels like my own and so I just feel deliriously excited about this, which is kind of crazy.

But I think the, and I’ve been reading a lot about when you say yes to things that are good and then you miss out on the things that might be the best for you, like opening up space for this audio book narration feels like the right thing because we’re all about IP. We’re all about intellectual property and this is now not just an artistic artifact, it’s another IP, you know, property that I have that I’m going to hopefully make money on for the rest of my life and 70 years after I die. So that’s so exciting. So anyway, you can tell I’m giddy, I’m giddy with January and creating stuff.

Orna Ross: It’s great. Yeah, I can’t think of that many authors who read their own fiction, lots who do their own nonfiction, but not so many, you know, often people who have a background in acting or something, but to actually go off there, call yourself an introvert, and then go off.

Joanna Penn: Narrate your own fiction.

Orna Ross: Nothing’s more terrifying except stand up comedy than narrating your own fiction or poetry, I think, personally.

Joanna Penn: This is the beginning of the journey and I hope everyone, for everyone listening, I think the part of this point is that I’m pushing myself into an area where I have been really scared and many people think that, you know, we both seem pretty confident with how we do stuff. But every time you tackle a new thing, you are coming up against fear. Fear of what people, fear of, I mean, my fear of judgment is right up there because I know that I’m going to get comments saying I’m not very good. It will inevitably happen, like, we get one star reviews. That will happen, but equally I just feel that you have to face that and do what you want to do. So you’ve also been doing some new things, haven’t you? So tell us what you’ve been up to.

Orna Ross: I would never narrate my fiction, but I have enjoyed, I’m putting together my first audio book of poetry so there is a lot of doing and redoing. So I thought it was finished but I’m not, and some of it’s tech and some of it was just when I heard them more needed revising. But yeah, it’s enjoyable. I definitely don’t love it enough, certainly at this point in time, to even contemplate doing fiction. I would do nonfiction possibly again, except it’s very time consuming. So poetry is just perfect for me. Also, I have been, I’m just really in love with the poetry community, which is a new discovery for me even though I’ve been writing poems forever and I started publishing poems. It was, my first self-published book was a pamphlet of poetry, but I didn’t really go there.

I just quietly did them and kind of put them out and was so astonished that anybody bought them at all. But I didn’t even, I had an unexamined assumption about marketing poetry. I just assumed that, you know, I was doing very well to be selling any and that was it. So, as you know, as I’ve spoken about before on this show, I suppose it must be nearly six months ago now, I decided what would happen if I actually treated poetry just like everything else?
So I went back in there, redid all the books, put in back matter, you know, set up links, all the stuff on. And the takeaway from that for everybody, I think, is every book, all of this has now become the basics for every book. So if you don’t have those kinds of things set up where you have a tidy link for each title and the front or back matter leads onto the next thing that you want your reader to do and you’re inviting them to leave a review and you know, all that kind of best practice stuff which you can find on your site or on the ALLi site.

These are now the basics. These are not going to actually see you selling lots and lots of books, but without them you kind of have nowhere to go. And that applies for every single book. So I’m just saying that for anybody else who might have an unexamined assumption about both their books and what is necessary there. So the email list remains, I think, and I think you would agree the central bedrock of all our lives and our websites need to be the heart of what we are doing ourselves.

And you know, I still see so many authors where the website is not doing the work it should do and the books are not doing the work they should do. I may have called to mind where my poetry books weren’t, so it feels great to have them there and just, you know, just by doing that, that has made a difference, but then you find that actually poetry is a little bit different in how it is consumed and how it is thought about and so on. So I’ve started an open, an online open mic for poets where we will read and share our poetry, but also talk about money because poets don’t, you know, and there’s a whole polarization. So it’s called the Prosperous Poet and it will be a mix of poetry and talking about how one publishes poetry for profit.

Joanna Penn: I know you’re not thinking about more nonfiction, but it’s a hell of a title, the Prosperous Poet you get, that is so controversial.

Orna Ross: Eventually, you know, if I reach and I’m doing it through my Patreon page, so if I reach the goal, the financial goal that is there. I have one of the things I’ve said that I will do is put a nonfiction book together from the learning that that will happen. So I don’t expect it to happen overnight, a nice slow build of a nice poetry community. So if any of the ALLIs are listening, I found out that loads of you write poetry that I never even knew wrote poetry. So do reach out and let’s see if we can create this nice community where we will actually think about poetry and how it is consumed and put out there in a different sort of way. So yeah, that’s me at the moment.

Joanna Penn: I think that’s really, I mean, of course, in the last week or so, Mary Oliver died and, you know, beloved poet and, you know, certainly I’ve been reading her work, lots of people have, you know, try getting one of her books at the moment. They’re all, like, sold out and, but, you know, it really made me think also about our body of work and what we do in our lifetime and how her death is not a tragedy. She was, you know, of a decent age and, but what she leaves behind is just incredible. And may we all create a body of work so that when we pop off we’ll be like, you know, proud of everything. So I love that.

I love the unexamined assumptions, everyone. So we’re challenging you this week also on unexamined assumptions as to, for example, me, definitely, Orna was the one who got me into print a couple of years ago. I was doing just normal paperback print on demand and Orna’s been challenging me over Ingram eventually got me there.

So now I’ve got blooming everything and I’ve overtaken Orna on my print production. All my large prints and my hardbacks and my everything, my workbooks. And so, yeah, sometimes you just need to be challenged. So may we continue to challenge you? Right. Anything else? What else? No, I think we’re good.

Orna Ross: Yeah. I think we’re good. I’m slowly, slowly doing the hard backs too and I think, I would encourage everybody to investigate all the different formats. And even if you don’t want to do them straight away, some of them are very easy. It’s very easy to do a hardback if you’ve already got a paperback release.

Joanna Penn: Oh yes. And actually I should say, Vellum is soon to be releasing in the next edition, large print settings based on the campaign I have been waging, thank you to all of you who emailed them, it’s bumped up the queue. So that’s coming. That will help people. Um, yeah. Oh. And the other thing I was going to say on that is, remember, if you’re, like, just starting out then you don’t have to do all this now. Both Orna and I’ve been doing this for a while and we are now, like, again The Thousand Fiendish Angels. This is five years, six years old and I’ve re-edited it, now done the print, now done the audio. So you can do all this later on. It doesn’t all have to be done at the same time. So I think that’s important too.

Orna Ross: Very important. It can’t be done, all done at the same time. And this is the Advanced Salon. We do have a Beginner’s Salon if all of this is sounding overwhelming and that’s next week. So yeah, start slowly. I started with 10 poems and a little pamphlet. That’s where it started. You know, 84, whenever it was. So yeah.

Joanna Penn: Yes. Good point. This is the advanced one. Let’s get into the advanced stuff, which is the Authors Guild Report and we will, of course, link to this in the show notes, but if you just, at the moment, if you google Authors Guild Authors Income Report, then you can, you can find that quite easily. So that’s what we are talking about. Obviously we can’t go into all the detail. You can read that, but we’re going to start, the sort of hyperbole of the whole thing is around, basically people just can’t make any money. It’s just awful. And even things like crisis of epic proportions, full-time mid-list and literary writers on the verge of extinction. So, Orna, I first want to get your remarks on should we all just give up and you know?

Orna Ross: No, definitely not. I think the first thing, every survey has, actually, just before I get onto this, there are lots of questions coming in about what we were talking about earlier and just to say we will, I will answer the questions in the comments after the show because we’re kind of timed tight and I want to get into this income stuff. But your questions will be answered. Yeah. Crisis of epic proportions, especially for literary writers.

And I think, it’s back to this thing, when I read the survey, I’m hugely interested, as we all are, in author income obviously and dedicate my working life, really, to trying to enable and empower authors to earn more and to know that that’s what we deserve, just like anybody else and that requires the change of system that we have now. So what has happened here is while the survey did include self published authors and for that, credit is due and they, you know, they worked with people like Reesy and others who are good in the indie space.

Orna Ross: The whole thing is embedded with unexamined assumptions about what is important in writing, what is important for writers, who’s good, who’s bad, you know, and what the problem is. So, the whole way of looking at writer’s income and we’d go through it now as we go through the different points that they raise, but the whole way of looking at how authors earn is, to my mind, well, it’s completely different to the way you and I look at it, but also to my mind it is stuck in an old way that is over. And therefore, by looking at what’s there and by giving the recommendations based on that very traditional view of how earn money, it’s doing authors, it’s not really doing what it could have done. And the second thing I think that’s worth saying is we have a problem with surveys into author income and Jane Friedman has a very good article which analyzes that.

And you can find it on janefriedman.com/author-income-surveys. She just talks about it. I’m not going to talk about here because we don’t have time, but she talks about the methodologies that are used and why they are deeply flawed. And why, in short, don’t believe everything you read about falling author incomes and so on, because all of these statistics, generally, are always a proportion of people and there are so many, again, it seems to be theme of the unexamined assumptions embedded in how you ask questions and so on and so forth, and then what they’re going to be used for. So yeah. What was your feeling overall?

Joanna Penn: Yeah, I mean, I think also that you, you know, going a little bit woo woo, you get what you aim for, you get what your expectations are and if you expect to not make any money as a writer, which, let’s face it, most people who have not had education around what being a writer can mean, those, all the things, you know, Dean Wesley Smith talks about it a lot, the sort of the sacred cows, the myths of writing, you know, those are the things that you have to educate yourself about and you have to change your mindset around. And we talk a lot about mindset.

So much of this, and I almost feel like, just the audio book thing again, I feel like my own mindset was “I could never do that” and I’ve said it, “I could never narrate my own fiction” like you did earlier and yet by changing my attitude, by changing my mindset and then taking action towards changing my behavior, then I was able to kind of overcome that fear and start investing in myself in a new asset that is myself and I think that was my main issue with this report is that it’s reactive and fair enough, like, you know, you can have a reactive report, but it doesn’t offer what we are going to offer, which is how can you change your mindset so that when you see things like this, I see this and go, “Ha! Hell yeah, I’m going to just take this on.”

And you know, I see it as a trumpet call, I think Sylvester Stallone, that’s his quote. When people rejected him in the early days, he saw it as a trumpet call to actually get on with it and that’s how I always feel about these things. It’s sort of a, “Well, let’s go do it anyway then, like, don’t tell me I can’t do that because I’m going to do that anyway.” And you do have to have that kind of, that’s an independent author attitude really, isn’t it?

Orna Ross: Absolutely. Empowering ourselves and helping each other to do that. The thing about this report is the way in which it completely polarizes the creative and the commercial and that is a mindset that we see in a lot of authors and it’s one I understand because I started off there many, many years ago, I’m talking decades ago now before getting into the business of publishing at all. But in my mind, again, in an unexamined way, they were poles apart and almost, you know, by devoting yourself to poetry and the higher things you were stepping away from commerce and it made you feel superior or something, almost, you know, not quite, but it’s that kind of thing going on here where they’re talking about literary fiction as if it is more important than another fiction.

And assuming that, that kind writing, which is, you know, the kind of writing that the publishing industry itself likes to read, obviously the kind of writing that, you know, lots of people write, but lots of people don’t write. We cannot ever know what’s important, which books are actually going to outlive their own time or which are going to cross boundaries. We just write our stuff, whatever we’re moved, write and we put it out there. So the idea that literary writers are in some ways more important than other writers is an assumption that I would really kind of question and I would also question whether there is this actual crisis for literary writers that they’re talking about.

Joanna Penn: Well, I think, I think that’s the first, and we’re, you know, we’re doing tips. The first tip is a mindset shift. If you hear yourself saying things, then challenge that. And how can you change your mindset and your behavior in order to prove that wrong? And you can. I think the second thing is the, just going back to literary writers and writers in a wider sense. It says, you know, it seems to suggest that literary writers or other authors have always expected a full time income and that this is now a sudden shift. Whereas I believe the reality is that actually most, like, 95 percent I think it is of writers have other forms of income and that may be a day job, that may be teaching and their suggestion that now you can’t do it. I mean, it seems to me to be slightly wrong because everyone has always had to have different forms of income.

Orna Ross: Yeah. More literary in inverted commas than experimental whereas a writer, the smaller your audience was and you could actually argue now that with globalization of the audience, of the readership, that a literary writer has more chance of making money from their books because literary readers will pay more and if you expand your readership beyond your own territory, beyond your own country, of course you need to become a good publisher to do that.

You need to know how to reach a reader, you need to know how to appeal to them, you need to know how to stand out in a very, very crowded market because with both poetry and literary fiction, you’ve got more people wanting to write them than to read them and I think that’s an interesting kind of shift, but there is, you’ve talked before about this, self sustaining ecosystem that we create whereby we are both creators and consumers within our micro niche and I think that is, you can see that really working in poetry now, at the moment, which is having its moment.

Literary fiction is on a bit of a dip at the moment and there are cycles in these things as well, which, when you’ve lived as long as I have, you come to recognize and see that people are always going to want story, people are always going to want poetry. People are always going to want all kinds of writing and that’s not going to go away any time.

So it’s up to each of us as an individual to find out what our offering is and to set it up in a way that it actually does work for us and you know, to put money and meaning there in the heart of what we do and how we do it. And I think that’s something that an indie author can do in a way that is almost impossible if you only go through the traditional system.

Joanna Penn: And of course you’ve written a great blog post on business models and that was your talk at Digital Book World last year and so we’ll put those links in the notes as well because I think that’s the point. The point is, as you said, the old models are not working, which is why those figures are showing. But what’s interesting for us, all of us, is the new models. Like, again, I’m just going to keep harping on about audio books, but what, you know, even a couple of years ago, indies didn’t even have access to publish with narrators or do royalty split deals or you know, we didn’t have preorders a few years ago. Do you remember that? Like, we weren’t allowed to do preorders. We weren’t allowed to do, you know, I mean, hardbacks at Ingramspark. That’s just awesome. There’s so many things that keep opening up for us, opening up to indie authors as the Alliance would say.

But also, I just noted, one of the news things we forgot to do some news, but Wattpad just launched Wattpad books this week. So, and the numbers on Wattpad are incredible and there’s no way that the industry, the publishing industry, would consider Wattpad a publisher up until now. I mean, they weren’t officially a publisher and yet they have like so many millions of active users every month globally. And they’ve now had over a thousand books, TV deals, movie deals out of Wattpad? Now what the hell is that form of writing that people on their phones, I think something like 70 percent of the users use mobile, so that’s just incredible to me. And that is a new, they’re experimenting with micro payments. They’re experimenting with payment for advertising. So things like, that’s just one example of a new model.

You and I both using Patreon, for example, wonderful author Seanan Mcguire who I sponsor on Patreon. She puts out one short story a month and I think now it’s over 30 grand for her Patreon and I love her books and I’m happy to chuck in a dollar or two for that because, and that’s really awesome. That’s a short story. There is no way she’d be making that much on a short story. And she also keeps the rights so she can also go publish that too. Plus she’s traditional and all kinds of things. So I don’t want, I want people to look at this and go, this is based on the old model. So what are the other things I can do in the new model to expand my IP into other ways?

Orna Ross: Definitely, that is what leaks out from this. There’s also assumptions around self publishing in the report, which I would question. Actually, they say that self published authors earned less than traditionally published authors. Now that’s a sweeping statement and it’s not that easy to see exactly what was being said there, but I think, you know, that implies that the traditional publishing model pays more and pays better whereas I don’t believe that that is the case for vast majority of authors.

It definitely does for a tiny few, a tiny few get access to a global promotional set up through traditional TV and media that most authors don’t get. Most authors who are traditionally published don’t get it and obviously most indie authors are locked out of that. We haven’t seen anybody really kind of take that on, unless a movie has been made of the book.

Orna Ross: And then that opens those doors, but a straight indie book has not yet managed to, just doesn’t have that kind of investment, doesn’t have the economies of scale, but I think it’s very obvious why in a survey of all kinds of authors, you would have people who you would come up with a conclusion that self published authors earn less because a lot of these authors that were being surveyed have been writing, publishing for a very long time, but also, whereas most indies can only, by definition almost, have been publishing for under a decade.

But also, it doesn’t, you know, you’re always going to have the non curated thing in self publishing. And so you’re always going to have within self publishing books that are not properly published either in terms of their design or their editorial or their marketing or their promotion. The publishing job hasn’t been done properly and therefore they’re not going to sell. So it doesn’t mean that those people who are putting out the equivalent product, which is what we’re always talking about and bring it to their readers, are earning less. I would argue if everything else is like for like, if the editorial, the design and the promotion and the marketing are equivalent, the self published book will earn more for its author hands down.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, I mean I agree with you and I also think a lot of indie authors don’t necessarily publish to make money. Whereas if you are traditionally published then, as you say, you have been curated in some way and certainly up until quite recently, I think it will be interesting to see whether things change in the next couple of years with these type of figures because, of course, there’s a lot of authors now who were taking zero advance digital only deals with publishers and I think that’s going really change.

I think with the change in, we talked last time about the kind of pay to play Amazon advertising, the change in algorithms, that type of thing so that you really do have to be putting more money into marketing. The sort of throw 100 digital books at a wall and make some money from some of them won’t work anymore for traditional publishers in the same way it worked for individual authors, so it is really interesting, but again, it doesn’t matter, like, I always feel like with these, it doesn’t matter, like we’re not being average, the ALLi membership is not average.

We are amazing, but I mean as in people who join the alliance are usually committed to the process of becoming a better writer but also a better publisher, better marketer, better businessperson and committed to excellence which is among our values. And so I feel like there’s a, and there’s a growth curve. We’ve talked about that before. You know, I look at my first book in that first year and kind of go, “Oh dear, what was I thinking?” You know, “Why didn’t I do all of the things that we now know are true?” But you go through your learning curve and you learn this. So, you know, again, we’re just todding, the indie movement is toddling along. Come see us when we’re gray and old and we’ll still be doing all this stuff. Though we will never be gray because we dye our hair. So-

Orna Ross: That’s a whole other podcast sometime.

Joanna Penn: So should we talk about Amazon, the blame Amazon fun?

Orna Ross: Yes. But just before we get into that, because that’s kind of hilarious, the other thing I would like to say that the bizarre kind of finding in the survey that just made no sense to me, roughly 25 percent of all the authors surveyed had earned $0 in book related income and 2017, 18 percent of full time authors had earned $0 in book-related to income at the same time, and this was attributed by the survey to the decline in royalties and advances.

Joanna Penn: How are they full time authors if they earn zero?

Orna Ross: But that’s my point. I mean how can you be, especially when there is self publishing, you know, okay, maybe you can be if you are only writing one book, you know, and it’s taking four years or something and that’s what you’ve devoted yourself to. But I can’t imagine that a quarter of all writers are doing that. And even if you were doing that, couldn’t you publish some short stories on the side and get some income for that? I just don’t understand that at all. So yeah.

Joanna Penn: I think I do because when I spoke, I’m not going to name a particular event and was with a membership which was very traditional. And when I talked about things like, oh, again, audio, if you haven’t signed away your audio rights, why don’t you get on and get your audio book out there, you know, work with a narrator and they were like, “But I couldn’t do that, you know, that’s too much to learn.” Or you know, if you haven’t signed your, if you signed a contract over 10 years ago, chances are you didn’t sign away your ebook rights. You didn’t sign away your audio rights. So go exploit those.

So I feel that the $0 thing, I mean you could say, I mean some people might be breaking even. So the publishing costs might offset with the self publishing costs, for example. But I think again, the point is you see your own future. I mean, I get upset if my income dips even a little bit. I’m like watching this stuff and then I go, “Okay, well, what can I do to bring it back up again?” That’s a kind of active management of your author career. But anyway, so let’s come back to Amazon. So sorry.

Orna Ross: I was just going to add to what you were saying. Absolutely agree. One hundred percent. I’d also say to authors, make money your measure, you know, there are lots of ways you can measure your success. Money is a good way to measure and too few authors use it I think. We use other ways of thinking about our success, Facebook likes and you know, we got a lot of attention or whatever for a particular thing. But actually if you make money your measure it’s very grounding and very real and very useful. So yeah, I would take that as a takeaway from this quarter of writers who are full time authors and don’t turn any money at all.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. And I still remember that first $10, I mean, the first $10 is special time and my first $10 was from Amazon. So there’s a nice segue into Amazon because they say the Amazon factor plays a large role in the apocalypse and it’s Amazon owned 72 percent of the online retail book market. I thought this was interesting. This is in the USA, obviously, and nearly 50 percent of all new book units sold in the US, according to Amazon’s annual reports, the growth of subscription programs, fiction sales, moving to Amazon and “Self publishing is at the mercy of Amazon.”

And I’m like, “What? Don’t be silly, you know.” But we talk about this a lot. Obviously multiple streams of income and independence is not dependent on Amazon, but we can say all that, but it’s still entirely true that most indie authors make their money, most of their money from Amazon. So what are your thoughts on all those comments? Oh, actually there was a Wall Street Journal as well with a great quote in the last week saying Amazon is not exploiting the system. Amazon is the system. A great, great, awesome quote.

Orna Ross: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well I think, you know, one of the things is that Amazon’s very visible and without a doubt it is the dominant player in the market-

Joanna Penn: In the USA.

Orna Ross: In the USA, without a doubt, that’s what I was just going to say in that one place in that territory and it is a very clever and good player, but it is not the only player and it is not the only game in town. If the world is your town, which it can be in self publishing, which it can’t be in traditional publishing, but with which it can be in self publishing. So, I think, for me, all of this comes back to what I find just rising up. You were talking about, you know, feeling, “Disobey! I don’t agree with any of that. I’m going off to show that it’s not true.”

I think I absolutely understand that rising up and what I feel is that we play such a huge role in what self publishing actually means. We are the ones who get to define that. We are the authors. We’re a movement and each of us has a part to play in how dominant Amazon is in the market, for example, and how many territories we are reaching, how many formats we’re putting our books out in, all of that.

I think that’s really the most important thing for us to realize so that if there is a dominant player in the marketplace and we are just going along with that because it’s the dominant player, I better be there and I’m not going to bother with anything else and then we reinforce them and we replicate that. But if we start thinking about our own business and put that at the heart of it, and we start thinking about, you know, “How do I make money? What’s best for me? Okay, I can do this. I can sell books on Amazon.

That’s absolutely one way I can do it, but it’s not the only way to do it and once I, you know, I’ve done that, what else can I do or how else can I shape this? I think it’s really key that we do that and we share and we are doing, sharing all these different ways in which you can make an income. And I think that’s the thing we need to take away from this report more than anything. If people who are answering an author’s survey on income are able to say I earned zero percent, we have to realize we’re not writers if we’re not writing and we’re not publishers if we’re not publishing, you know, we’ve got to be doing the work of putting the stuff out there.

That’s where it begins. And that’s what I was left with more than anything from this report was that it just looks at things through the wrong end of the telescope in terms of advising authors, which is really, it’s an important body with a lot of influence. And I think a lot of authors are going to go away from reading that survey, feeling deflated and, unnecessarily, you know, in fact, may give up because there’s a whole sort of, as you say, apocalyptic feel to it. It’s not just stated “Here are the facts, you know, here’s what, see, here’s what our survey found.” There is an interpretation here and use of language that is., yeah, I don’t know what word I would use.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, I think, and the point is, it can, this environment that we’re in, you get to choose whether it’s what it is for you. I mean, you could say, “Oh, you know, there’s no privacy. There’s too much email. There’s too much noise, too many people writing. There’s too many books out there. There’s, you know, I just can’t do anything” or you choose the future of “I’m going to use the tools there are to create.” Like both of us, you know, getting little audio studios in our houses and making the most of audio. I’m starting another podcast next month, which is just mad, but you know, the power of voice is only going to get more exciting. So embracing, and this actually, that’s the other thing I was going to say, there is a fact and the fact is that there are more forms of entertainment than ever.

You know, Amazon prime and Netflix and all the others doing their thing. People can do that. People can play games. People can read any one of all these hundreds of other things, but you don’t, you don’t let that put you off. We are writers. We write and then what you do with that, you get to choose. You get to put it out there. You get to build your 1000 true fans and you don’t, you don’t need to be, J.K. Rowling, you know, you can make a good living without anyone else even noticing.

Orna Ross: Absolutely. Written Word Media did a survey and found, the exact percentage escapes me because it is a number and that’s how my brain works, but it is in our member magazine last issue. But there is a significant percentage of writers who are earning over six figures. So, over 100 thousand, I think it was dollars US who have never appeared on any bestseller list. And nobody has heard of their name, but on they go just quietly. We know this is one of the reasons that we wanted to do this inspirational indie thing. We know lots of people who are really, really happy making a great living and life in writing in all sorts of different ways and they don’t figure in any surveys and they don’t figure in any research because they are under the radar.

They’re selling through special stores outlets or through their own websites or you know, they’re turning up on an ISBN one country that is in no way a measure of how they’re actually doing. So, you know, pretty much anything you hear about this stuff you can take with a grain of salt. And as Joanna said, you take from it what you want from it. What would be most creative thing for you to believe? Go believe that and act from there. And you might as well as believing these expensive surveys that actually don’t certainly don’t bring you any closer to the truth of what it is to be a writer today.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. So on that happy, productive, creative note, you get to choose your 2019. Orna, what are you getting up to you in the next month?

Orna Ross: So I’ll be (inaudible) the open mic and I have two workbooks coming in hardback, paperback and if Vellum obliges soon. large print. Yeah and getting ready for London Book Fair and all that we’re going to be doing there. Yeah.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. That is early, early this year. I will be at London Book Fair and I will be on the ALLi stand along with some of the other volunteers over the couple of days. But I am starting my next novel on the first of February. I like to have a start date because it kind of fixes it in my mind. So I’ll be starting the next Matt Walker dark fantasy. And also I’ll be narrating another short story. I’ll be having a whole load more audio on wide. So I’ve gone wide with Find A Way. Once you, if you signed an exclusive deal, non-royalty share with ACX, once they’ve been there a year, you can take them out so they don’t have to be there for seven years. So I’m taking mine out after the year.

So I’m doing all of that, getting as much audio wide, Google play for example. You know, I did an interview recently on voice technologies and the in-home assistants and Google, the Google assistant is on something like 9 billion devices, which is just crazy. So I’m like “Yeah, I want to be there.” So lots of things going on and actually I have an interview coming up with, Will from Find Your Way. So very excited about that. But yeah, I’m going to be back on it in terms of first drafting. So the cycle continues.

Orna Ross: Good luck with that. It sounds nice. I would like to be there. I’m in editing heaven for a little while.

Joanna Penn: Fun everything and that’s another truth. We’re always in the cycle somewhere. So hope that has helped everyone this evening. So we will be back next month for, at the end of February, I guess, for the March show. So, yeah. Thank you for listening everyone and happy writing.

Orna Ross: And happy publishing.

Joanna Penn: Happy publishing. Bye!

Orna Ross: Bye!

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Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an editor and writer with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, from newspapers to magazines specializing in business, science, and technology. He has spent the past few years guiding coverage of independent publishing, amplifying voices of the marginalized. Howard is also a book doctor who enjoys working with authors to get their work ready for publication.

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