Amazon is Evil. Authors are Starving. We’re All Gonna Die! (A rant)

I’ve come across this article, and I’d like to call bullshit: The Disastrous Decline in Author Incomes Isn’t Just Amazon’s Fault, which in turn is based on this survey: Authors Guild Survey Shows Drastic 42 Percent Decline in Authors Earnings in Last Decade.

Go ahead. Go read it (at least the first link) and come back, so we can analyse.

You’re back? Good. Let’s rant.

I have two objections, that should make everyone with common sense and a high-school level maths cringe: bad statistics and non-sequitur conclusions.

Bad Statistics

Unless the aim of the article is to show the truth of the adage that you can prove anything you want with statistics, it’s just sensationalist misinformation.

So author’s income have gone down to half over the past 10 years, eh? OK, answer me this: how many authors were surveyed compared to the estimated population of authors? How was this ratio calculated in 2009? What was the (estimated) total market value in 2009 vs today? How many of the survey respondents are traditionally vs self published (then and now)? What is their ebook to book ratio, then and now, and how does that compare to the state of overall book sales?

So many holes, because looking at those questions and answering them doesn’t serve the article writers’ point of view.

So how’s this: is it just possible, just maybe, that there is a bigger pie today — but it’s being divided amongst a much bigger crowd? Hm?

Take Amazon for example (the big baddie named explicitly in the article). Over the past few years, there have been articles quick to declaim the demise of physical books, then of e-books, then back to sunshine. Rinse and repeat. What’s less questionable, is that Amazon’s retail arm has grown significantly, and since 2009 both its book and ebook sales have, at the very least, doubled (probably much more — but I’m too lazy to dig up the exact numbers from a reputable resource. See what I just did there?).

We’ve also been told that the number of titles has ballooned, as did the number of authors who put them up for sale.

So. If the survey respondents income has grown smaller — is it because the big, bad, wolf has been steamrolling everyone else and stealing their royalties, or because there is more competition?

Non-Sequitur Conclusions

And this leads me neatly to the second part of this ranting rebuttal. At the end of the first article linked above, the author quotes guild members and laments:

… we will all be much worse off if we can only hear stories from people who can afford to write.


there will be less for future generations to read: fewer voices, fewer stories, less representation of the kind of human expression that runs deeper and requires and rewards more brain power than the nearest bingeable series on Netflix or Amazon or GIF on your phone.

Yes. Because the 1950’s were a golden time for female authors, for black and other minorities. It was so much easier for them back then to find representation and publishing deals. Ah, the good old times, where publishers only published masterpieces, those coming from all segments of society based on merits alone, where the public participated joyously in artistic discourse and critique, and no one was interested in vapid mass media. Those halcyon days of our youth.

How did I start this rant? I call bullshit.

Women authors did have great success in literature throughout the ages, but no one can argue that society was misogynistic at its core, and not encouraging. With cultural and ethnic minorities the situation was (probably still is) appalling.

More authors today are able to put out their stories and be heard. Getting noticed, however, has always been a problem. Publishers used to have three-martini lunches and advertising budgets that would put a book cover in front of everyone. Not that that tactic worked all that well, hence why they run themselves into financial troubles.

Both publishers and art critics have repeatedly shown throughout the ages that they are uniquely unqualified to predict monetary success and long term success of works (from Herman Melville to JK Rowling). To be fair, no one has cracked that particular code. So publishing has become a numbers game — bet on the ten books you believe you can sell; most will fail, a couple will do OK, and one of them should cover for the rest. It’s not a pretty picture.

But blaming Amazon on this, or lamenting the public’s demand for ‘easy’ entertainment, is the chicken’s way out. It ignores facts and numbers, and is not helping anyone.

Even Publisher’s Weekly notes the criticism on the survey (as in, the author respondent pool isn’t the same), but doesn’t go far enough and still falls on the ‘let’s blame Amazon’ easy bandwagon.

A less-biased look

Is the publishing industry today in turmoil? Of course. Just like the movies and music industries were a couple of decades ago (and no, neither VCRs nor CDs and DVDs spelled the death of those industries, or the impoverishment of working force).

Do I have a solution, or an idea how things will shape up? Maybe, but it’s a guess like anyone else’s. Amazon will keep going strong, because it’s in the business of making money — which means supporting authors in sales. More people will publish their stories, some masterpieces will not get recognised, and some drivel will achieve quickly fading success. Publishers will find a way to curate quality (or at least profitability, which isn’t the same). A small fraction of authors will make a full time living from it, but that has always been the case — the majority have always relied on second jobs. Live with it.

Is digital pirating hurting book sales? Of course. So do public libraries and second hand bookstores, because the neither the author nor publisher sees anything from sales through those channels. Let’s burn ’em all down!

In the same way that HBO is still making money over Game of Thrones, that TV networks and movie studios aren’t dead, that video didn’t kill the radio star (or radio the recording artist, or records the performing artist, or…) — authors will still be there, telling stories and writing books. Sure, the market will change. The information age is new(ish) and the bastards keep changing the rules. Just like they have been for the past 200 years.

So chill, keep writing, keep publishing, keep marketing. If you’re after a traditional publishing deal, prepare yourself for a long slog as you persevere through rejection. If you’re self-publishing, prepare yourself for a long slog as you persevere trying to drum up reach and recognition. Pay attention to your financials — that what you get back from sales covers what you spend (on covers, editing, and marketing). Be wary of scams. Don’t believe everything you read on the net. Play the game smartly.

But above all, chill — and keep writing.

4 Comments

  1. Hey there! Just read this article through a Facebook group, and I, too, noticed that the survey number mentioned is rather small. I’d like to know of that 5067 members, were they all guild members? Or did the guild actually reach out to as many authors outside of the guild as possible? I’ve self-published a few books, I’m working on more, but I never received a questionnaire from the guild. The pool is shallow indeed!
    Thank you for the encouragement to keep writing! ❤ you for it!

    Liked by 1 person

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