On Defining Writerdom

As I increasingly have to confront the possibility of self-publishing, a thought that brings forth all sorts of issues regarding the relationship between success and self-promotion for such an endeavor, I find myself increasingly attuned to news about the overall state of the market and how prospective authors should expect to fare. Granted, the news isn’t often good, but there are nuggets worth mentioning from time to time.

About a month ago Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest released the results of a survey that caused no small amount of discussion, especially regarding its findings for what self-published authors could expect in compensation. Hugh Howey, a sensible, if not unbiased source, took apart those numbers in a blog post that’s as good a starting point as any in this debate. What I’m going to focus on though is more the methodology of the report and what it means in the greater scheme of things.

According to Digital Book World, in discussing the survey results:

More than 9,000 authors responded to the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Of these, about 58% had completed manuscripts, and more than half of these authors, 33% of the entire sample, went on to publish their work.

Among the nearly 6,000 aspiring authors, over a third (36.7%) had completed a manuscript. Of these, almost two thirds (62.5%) had submitted their work to agents or editors, representing about a quarter of all of the unpublished authors in the survey (23%).
Among these aspiring authors who had completed manuscripts and submitted their work to the dreaded slush pile, about a third (32.1%) reported that they only wanted to publish their work with traditional publishers.

While I can’t possibly get into the reasons behind it, I find the methodology used here questionable to the extreme. These numbers suggest that almost 4,000 of their 9,000 respondents hadn’t finished a novel. Why these people are factored into a discussion about the difference between self-publishing and publishing through an established house? A survey of doctor remuneration certainly wouldn’t include results from those in their second year of school, but somehow this is OK to do with authors. The only way this could possibly be alright is if the respondents were short fiction writers, who certainly deserve to be considered when pondering the monetary rewards of self-publishing, but if that’s true than the reports of the survey should note this. Of course, that’s probably not the case, as a graphic on the DBW page shows that eight percent of respondents, that’s about 800 respondents, had yet to start a novel. WTF? I once thought about playing pro football, when I was like six and before my mother forbid me to play. Does this mean that I get to be considered in a survey asking football players about their income? Seriously? One can only hope that these responses were culled from the financial data, but given that the survey controllers consider “aspiring” a class of author that’s probably not the case. Should those who have finished a book but can’t get it published through traditional means be considered? That depends on who the survey is aimed at helping. But should those who haven’t even finished a work be considered in any survey of authors? I can’t possibly see why.

I guess at issue is the nature of writing, especially long-form writing. It straddles the line between art and more definitive endeavors. Who am I to judge whether someone who considers themselves to be an artist is correct or not. I may, and probably do, but not to any significant realization. There’s a hazy middle ground there that covers both those who try to generate income from their artistic endeavors and those who simply do it for themselves. But still, even in the loosest terms, the word “author” should be reserved for those who have finished something marketable. Not “marketable” in a sense that is worthy of selling, but “marketable” in a sense that it is a completed (even if massively flawed) product. A terrible, terrible book still has a chance at selling, a half-written, or just concepted, book doesn’t (unless the writer self-publishes and lies).

It’s a debate that came up often during my time as a freelance writer, as I frequented message boards designed for those like myself. In the end, terms like “author” and “writer” tend to be loose enough to be used for a variety of different purposes, but for surveys designed to shed light onto the realities of the publishing market, opening up the boundaries of those words doesn’t do anyone any favors. Granted, the full results of the survey are paywalled, so hopefully those behind the work make some of these distinctions clear, but if so the should really ensure that these conditions get mentioned in write-ups of the information.

I had hoped that the survey results would shed some light on my eventual path, would help me understand some of what I may be giving up and may be getting by going the self-publishing route. But in the end the apparently questionable methodology makes this information worse than useless. I’ll continue my investigation, and hopefully will eventually find results and conclusions worth sharing here. Until then, I’ll continue my attempts at finding representation so I can get my completed manuscript in the hands of readers.

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2 thoughts on “On Defining Writerdom

  1. You’re right on the methodology of that study being a total bust. Keep in mind that DBW makes a lot of its money by putting on a publishing symposium every year. They have to have something to present at this symposium, and they need to appeal to traditional publishers, who comprise their customer base. If I had to guess at how this survey came about, the conversation went like this:

    “We need data and charts and stuff to present in 2014. We’ll also want to drib and drab the results in the months prior to boost sign-ups. Any ideas?”

    “Author earnings are a hot topic.”

    “Great idea. Let’s do a survey.”

    “How do we find writers?”

    “What about Writer’s Digest?”

    “Brilliant! I know someone over there. Maybe they’ll want to be a sponsor for DBW14 as well.”

    “Great idea. Make sure you let them know that we sell the results. We aren’t running a charity around here.”

    So the goal was to grab a bunch of data. Didn’t matter where. Didn’t matter who from. Just needed a pile of it. Which is why none of the authors I know (and I know a lot) even heard about the survey. Like you said, the results are worse than useless. They do real harm. But the answers are right around the corner…

    • Great points. Unfortunately I find that your prediction is how a lot of survey results that get bounced around the Internet originate. I still have my doubts about self-publishing (for myself, given my difficulty with self promotion) but the more investigation I do the more I see that there may be a path there. I can only hope that by tossing aside skewed reports like DBWs it may open the door for more comprehensive, unbiased looks at the industry that can help those like me.

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