Fake Bestsellers, Concern Trolls and Hidden Agendas

boomLast Friday we were treated to a story from the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, where Tony Horwitz claimed “I Was A Digital Bestseller” then complained about how little money this made him, and how he would now stick with traditional, print publishers as a result.

Then this Op-Ed was held up – in outlets like Gawker – as another example of how writers have it so tough in this scary new digital world which is going to lead us all into penury.

Just like the story I wrote in January – Fake Controversy Alert: Hitler’s Mein Kampf Was Not A Digital Bestseller – the key “fact” in Horwitz’s tale of woe doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Can you guess what it is?


Tracker1Boom was published on January 29 this year. According to KND’s Tracker, before the Op-Ed, the highest rank it achieved in the Kindle Store was on one particular day in February when it peaked at #2,345, selling ~50 copies a day. Sales declined in March (best rank: #3,255), again in April (best rank: #5,797), and more in May (best rank: #9,396).

By June, Boom had slipped further, bouncing between #10,076 and #79,820 in the Kindle Store, selling between 15 copies a day on some days, and maybe just one on others.

In other words, Boom did okay, and sold reasonably consistently for a few months, but was no bestseller. Tony Horwitz’s confusion seems to stem from seeing his book on a sub-sub-sub category “Best Seller” list and assuming it meant he was selling lots (and not having access to actual sales figures).

As those more familiar with the Kindle Store will know, Amazon has extremely granular sub-categories, particularly for non-fiction, which will allow a title to “chart” with very few sales. But this doesn’t mean that actual e-book bestsellers don’t shift a lot of copies or make good money.

Of course, after the Op-Ed was published on June 20, Boom jumped to #625 in the Kindle Store. Finally it was a digital bestseller. Kind of.

Well, technically the first time, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

At the end of his Op-Ed, Horwitz gave his thoughts on why he felt his “success” hadn’t translated into enough cold, hard cash:

One reason “Boom” sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.

Several follow-up pieces, like this one from Gawker, didn’t bother fact-checking the bestseller claims before repeating them, and agreed with Horwitz’s diagnosis of why he didn’t make much money.

But that wasn’t why at all.

Aside from not being the “bestseller” he thought he was, another reason why Horwitz didn’t make bank is that a middleman – Byliner – was taking a large chunk.

why-beer-matters-coverEarlier, I spoke with travel writer and author Evan Rail who had a hit with a Kindle Single two years ago to illustrate how large the market can be:

I actually was a digital best-seller — my first Kindle Single, “Why Beer Matters” reached #1 in Kindle Singles, and at least as high as #107 in the overall Kindle Store. It might have ranked even higher than that. I was in Italy at a beer festival when it came out, and I wasn’t spending a lot of time watching the charts.

I have some good news for Evan. KND’s Tracker tells us that Why Beer Matters actually peaked at #96 in the overall Kindle Store when he was at that beer festival. When I asked him about sales figures, he said:

It actually did really well. The first week “Why Beer Matters” came out as a Kindle Single, it sold over 2,600 copies and had over 430 paid borrows.

By my rough calculations, he easily made over $4,000 in the first week alone. Not too shabby for a short book on a relatively niche topic (in publishing terms). And this was back in February 2012 – the digital market has massively expanded since.

I suspect that there are further reasons why Horwitz’s Boom didn’t sell as much as he hoped. For starters, the cover. None of the sexy buzzwords that are keyword-stuffed into that sub-title are represented with this image (depending on your disposition towards pipe, I suppose). As a reader, the cover is nice enough, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the book and doesn’t really encourage me to check it out.

But that’s a very subjective criticism and maybe the real problem was more fundamental. Horwitz is on much firmer ground when he outlines the lack of marketing support from his publisher, something backed up by this tweet from one of his readers:

One thing missed by Horwitz is that his publisher didn’t seem to select very good categories for his book. Aside from the Kindle Singles categories, the publisher could choose two regular Kindle Store categories. These were the choices Byliner appear to have made:

Putting the pieces together, the reason Horwitz didn’t make a lot of money from Boom isn’t because digital publishing is broken in some way. The reasons are actually quite simple:

  1. Boom wasn’t actually a bestseller by any definition. It hit the top of a sub-sub-sub-chart. It doesn’t take very many sales to do this.
  2. Horwitz used a publisher when he could have pitched Kindle Singles directly, meaning he got “a third of the proceeds” instead of 70%.
  3. The publisher, according to Horowitz, didn’t do much to promote the book, and may have made poor choices with metadata.
  4. The cover wasn’t a great fit (IMO, YMMV).
  5. Horwitz fans seemed to be unaware of his latest release.

Horwitz’s solution – returning to traditional, print-focused publishers – isn’t the answer to these problems. In fact, it could easily make the situation worse. He’ll probably have no control over the cover, he’s unlikely to have a mailing list sign-up at the back of his books to notify readers of his new releases, he may still get little marketing support, the metadata might be inappropriate (self-publishers seem more aware of best practices here), and he’ll only earn 14.9% on e-book sales and maybe 10% on print sales.

Once again we have a piece from the New York Times about how horrible this new world of digital is, a piece which – once again – pretends that self-publishing doesn’t exist.

I don’t know why Horwitz seems to think that his only two choices are going with a small digital publisher or a large print publisher, but he never seems to have considered self-publishing at all. (I’ve heard people say he’s a good writer, and he did all the promo for Boom, so there’s no reason he couldn’t make a success of it.)

I don’t blame him for that omission per se, there’s so much FUD being spread about e-books, Amazon, digital, and self-publishing that the situation can be very confusing for authors.

Maybe he wanted an advance, but it looks like Boom has already earned out and now he’ll be handing a huge chunk of royalties over to a publisher that, by his own admission, has done little to promote the book.

Or maybe Horwitz just didn’t fancy the idea, I don’t know.

But in case other writers are steering clear of self-publishing because they think it’s too hard, expensive, or time-consuming, here’s what it took for Evan Rail to self-publish Why Beer Matters then pitch Kindle Singles directly (and receive 70%, keep control of pricing, and get near-live sales reports – helpful for knowing if you actually are a bestseller):

I didn’t use Byliner or anyone else to publish my essay. I asked a fellow writer to proofread it. I got a designer pal to create the book cover, though I roughed out the cover design and shot the cover photograph by myself. I formatted the ebook myself. I don’t know why you would need someone else to do all that. It wasn’t hard. Certainly not so hard that it would be worth giving up control to someone else.

Back to the New York Times and the “bestseller” status that this whole piece hangs on. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that it doesn’t do the most basic fact-checking when it comes to pieces on publishing. This is the same newspaper that regularly runs fact-free screeds against Amazon and uncritical reports about Author Solutions (like here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that standards are even looser when it comes to their Op-Ed pages, considering they regularly feature cloud-shouting from the likes of Scott Turow, and hilariously contorted pieces like this one from the court jester of the publishing business, Bob Kohn, which uses all sorts of dissembling to bash Amazon and support Hachette.

kohn1Yes, that is the same Bob Kohn who filed an amicus brief opposing the settlement in the price-fixing case… in the form of a comic strip.

And, yes, that is the same Bob Kohn who wrote a book called Journalistic Fraud: How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted (a book which you can find on Amazon).

A sample quote from Journalistic Fraud:

When the Times embarks upon a crusade, the op-ed pages, the news pages, and all the other sections of the paper… must follow in lock-step.

Now how do we square this circle? We can’t have Bob Kohn disagreeing with Bob Kohn – a black hole of bullshit might open up taking all rational thought with it. I guess we could say that Bob thinks that it’s okay to participate in what he calls “journalistic fraud” if he’s in favor of the “crusade.” Would that be about right, Bob?

The most disingenuous thing about Bob Kohn’s Op-Ed wasn’t even anything he wrote in the piece (although there were several prime candidates), it was what came after. In a discussion on Twitter, Bob Kohn engaged in some classic concern trolling:

My response to him was pretty simple:

Bob Kohn, of course, didn’t reply. Perhaps he was too busy with his day job as founder, Chairman and CEO of RoyaltyShare (where Hachette is a major client).

When it comes to concern trolling though, it’s tough to beat Laura Miller at Salon. This insane piece urges indie authors to side with Hachette in the Amazon dispute for their own good. This faux-caring is outed by Nate Hoffhelder at The Digital Reader, where commenters noted that Miller completely forgot to mention she is published by Hachette.

Is it any wonder that confidence in news media is at an all-time low?

From Gallup

From Gallup

If the news media wishes to reverse this trend, perhaps it could consider fact-checking the pieces it runs. This is the second time in five months we’ve had a fake bestseller story.

Maybe the news media could also consider asking writers to disclose their personal and financial interests in their stories. I mean, Horwitz’s stake in Boom is obvious (and I wish him continued success), but when writing about a business dispute between Hachette and Amazon, shouldn’t Bob Kohn mention that Hachette is one of his biggest clients? Shouldn’t Laura Miller disclose she is published by Hachette?

(Full disclosure: I once ate some free chicken wings at an Amazon event. They were good.)

And, if it’s not asking too much, maybe the news media could start devoting some column inches to issues where writers really are being exploited instead of some guy who sold fewer books than he hoped and some dispute between two large corporations over who will make a slightly better percentage on e-book sales.

I know. Crazy, right?

UPDATE: Tony Horwitz responds in the comments below.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

91 Replies to “Fake Bestsellers, Concern Trolls and Hidden Agendas”

  1. I didn’t read the NYT Op-ed, but I read this entire post and all of the comments. I’m a guy who is preparing to publish his first book, about a murder in Vermont that I helped the VSP solve, that was featured on Discovery ID. I’m going to spend about as much time reading this blog as I did writing the book, just to make sure I go about publishing it the right way! I want to thank both of you, Tony and David, for this wealth of information. Also, thanks to all the others who posted helpful comments. I learned a lot. BTW, I’m leaning toward self publishing, and am currently trying to recruit helpers, (cover design, proof readers, editors, etc., as you mentioned that I should.)

  2. You have pin-pointed something that has bothered me for some time. I have author friends who consider themselves best sellers because they beat well-known authors in a sub genre, for 10 minutes. I don’t think I’d brag about that without the inclusion of sarcasm….

  3. Hello,

    Nice article, I absolutely loved it! About the overhead of the information and the book “Journalistic Fraud” which follows one of the topic that I write about in my blog: monkeyinthemarket.wordpress.com
    The overload f information is primarily made by the financial markets in order to create “Dumb” money that is used for the Big Guys to get out of the positions. As an example when Financial Times have a sign on the front page “Dollar is Falling” which is in continuous tense it is a sign for regular people to sell (go short) because they believe that it is still falling due to the Financial Times. But in reality they are payed to create the supply for the Big Guys to get out, because they predicted this couple month, if not a year before.

    Did I get your attention? If so, you can read about that schemes all you want on my blog. Take a look at it, and I would love to receive a feedback!


  4. Reblogged this on The Official Blog of Author Brian Cotton and commented:
    Great article here!

  5. The story you bring up about Mein Kampf…that was #1 on Amazon’s very popular propaganda and political psychology list. At the time, I looked to see what was second in that category. It was a 1928 book called Propaganda, by Edward Bernays, who I think later went on to make a nice sauce.

  6. Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say. I can’t help it but 99% of the time, I judge books by its cover. So when I saw the cover of Boom, I I wouldn’t even read the blurb. The pipes are okay, but in my opinion, the title’s font killed it.

    1. LousyBookCovers.com has an updated-daily list of bad covers. The comments are as instructive — and as wickedly hilarious — as the bad covers. LBC is on my daily website look list.

  7. I just zapped two comments, so a quick note on that because it’s very rare (the total stands at 4 in 3 years now).

    I will zap comments straight away that are abusive. People are free to disagree with each other, but please do so respectfully. And there are a million places on the internet where people can shout politics at each other. This isn’t one of them.

    I don’t have a formal comments policy – and please don’t make me write one, we’ve survived for three years without it being necessary. Use common sense.

  8. So true about big media these days. They’re basically just aggregators of news, little fact-checking done, except they throw their full weight behind the stories they like. Kinda makes you not want to believe ANY of the stories they print.

  9. Not crazy at all. Publishers are some times hermits some time they act like pimps or even vampire. I fought with one Vampire for two years in court.
    Great post.

  10. For me this just illustrated again that traditional publishers aren’t moving fast enough to adapt to the new reality – I saw it when I worked in newspapers and I see it again here. They don’t want change so they ignore it until it’s too late.

  11. Reblogged this on Ritter's Ruminations & Ramblings and commented:
    An example of the long tail with digital publishing. Several lessons learned here for authors to be aware of and worth the read. Article details the process and some publishing realities in a niche of a slice of a sub-topic. Also, having realistic expectations is examined here as well.

  12. A really interesting post, David. Your site is a goldmine of information about self publishing, and i have found it really useful. It is a powerful antidote to the scaremongering from the big publishers, and I fully intend to self publish my first book… when I finish it!

  13. Thanks. There’s a lot of good advice in your piece and the comments, and maybe with some of the fixes I’ve gleaned from reading the above, I can get on one of the sub-sub-sub bestseller lists. I didn’t know what I was doing wrongly.

  14. Thank you for posting this. I read the other article, and as a newly self published author (published my book this year), I was very disheartened at reading it. I appreciate you taking the time to do some research and for sharing it with us. Thank you.

  15. David, thanks for another well-thought-out and well-written article.

    Mr Horowitz, after a disappointing career in traditional publishing, I self-published my first e-book three years ago at the age of 67. I hire freelancers for jobs I don’t do myself, such as editing, and I have never looked back. Come on in–the water’s fine.

    1. Bridget, thanks for this. I was thinking of you, Marti Talbott and a few others when I said it’s not about age. Obviously, neither is it about feeling “shut out” of traditional media: I’m working on the final edits for my next NYT Travel cover story as I type this note.

      1. Absolutely, Evan. For me being indie is about freedom to decide my publishing path for myself. It’s more responsibility and more work, but also fewer restrictions and less whining about my fate. Wouldn’t trade it.

  16. Reblogged this on Mark Armstrong and commented:

    This is a really great breakdown of ebook sales and rankings. It’s unclear whether Tony’s book could have/should have been self-published, because the only way he was able to report it in the first place was by receiving an advance from a publisher. Publishers, like VCs, take bets on talent, and they help alleviate financial risk for the creator. That’s why self-publishing (while ideal!) won’t always work for those who need upfront cash to realize their vision.

  17. David, Just got your book “Let’s Get Digital.”  I can’t wait to get rolling.  I’d love to talk to you someday. Fritz Peterson

    PS  Could you please use the following email for me.  Thanks fritzpeterson19@gmail.com    My illustrator, and friend, Tony Ficca did the book cover.  He’s great and reasonable.  He did the Pinstripe Pranks too.

  18. Hi David,

    The Guardian had a few details today about what Hachette and Amazon are fighting about. Still woefully lacking context and facts, though, especially about what’s best for authors.

    Jeffrey Bruner

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. I presume you are talking about this piece by Alison Flood (one of the better reporters covering publishing): http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/25/new-amazon-terms-book-industry-report-concessions

      It’s based on this piece from The Bookseller yesterday: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/amazon-pressing-new-terms-uk.html

      And that piece is wholly based on leaks from Hachette. So, I wouldn’t treat it as fact. Hachette, quite obviously, are attempting to influence public opinion about this, and have a clear interest in making leaks – leaks which we don’t know if they are (a) true or (b) selective.

      I actually disagree with the entire thrust of The Bookseller piece and their whole coverage of this issue.

  19. What Tony Horwitz did was damn clever marketing. He turned his meh sales experience into an op-ed piece in a newspaper of record, which got linked, quoted, criticized, and analyzed by you and others all over the Web. That resulted in a huge spike of many thousands of additional sales. Who wouldn’t love to get what amounts to a free half-page ad in the NYT?

    I tried the same tactic when my thriller Web Games anticipated the headlines about the Olympic Games malicious software attacks on Iran. Without Tony’s rep and inside track, I was turned down by all 11 newspapers I sent my op-ed piece. When I pulled off the same coup with Gasline, scooping Bloomberg by months, I didn’t bother writing an op-ed piece. Ah, well.

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  20. Well put, Evan, but just to clarify, I wasn’t taking any swings at self-publishing in my op-ed, or certainly didn’t intend to. The source of my doubts and frustration in this instance was a fairly specific beast: long form digital nonfiction, a much-hyped hybrid. And my concern wasn’t just the way mine was published, but whether there’s really a big audience for this genre (I worry about longer nonfiction books, too). That’s also why I think Gaughran’s fine critique is unfair in one regard. I was comparing myself to what I’d been told by Byliner and Amazon was my peer group–nonfiction Kindle SINGLE titles, not the entire Kindle population. So while I was attempting humor by calling myself a digital nonfiction bestseller, I don’t think I was being misleading. There Boom was–and am again, thanks to power of the “lame-stream” NYT–near the top of the nonfiction titles on Kindle Singles rankings, not just sub sub genres like environment.
    I hit the road today for a week but am glad I know about this site as I have to lot to learn.
    Cheers, Tony

  21. Tony, thanks for commenting.

    The reason many of us are enthusiastic about self-publishing is not because we’re angry at an older generation: in my case, at least, it’s because I have seen firsthand how digital media and self publishing can bring real benefits to working writers. These new platforms and technologies mean that writers have much more control over their own careers, and that writers get to keep a larger share of the revenue from our work — often 100% of net proceeds. Considering how much writers and authors have struggled over the years — especially during the ancien régime — that really feels like something to celebrate.

    I’m not angry, but I was disappointed by your op-ed piece, because I think it misrepresents digital publishing and self publishing, and that, as “a cautionary farce,” it seems positioned to dissuade other working writers from trying something that could actually improve their lives. (Moreover, for a guy who wants to say we’re all in this together, you seem to take some joy in the decline of the nouveau régime.)

    I think you are mistaken in your comment about age and class. Not all of us who enjoy self publishing and see the benefits of digital feel at all that we were ever “shut out” by traditional media. Many of us have backgrounds in print journalism — hi! — and some of us have published dozens of books with traditional publishers. I’m 41, but many of my self-publishing colleagues are older than you are, some by two decades.

    I think you are also mistaken in your belief that independent publishers are “flying solo,” or that self-publishers must do everything themselves. I’ve been selling freelance articles since 1996, and spent six years on staff at a print newspaper. I’ve never worked more collaboratively than I do in my self-publishing career. Today I share multiple drafts with my fellow writers, trade editing work, hire the copyeditors I prefer, chat with my designer friends about the covers I want, and so forth. It’s fun and social, as well as liberating.

    Finally, you ask: what about those writers who don’t have those skills and instincts? If you adjust your glasses, you might notice that Mr. Gaughran is educating the hell out of his fellow writers in this very post, by correcting the misleading aspects of your op-ed piece. If you stick around, or visit the Passive Voice or the Writers’ Café at Kboards, you’ll find a vibrant, diverse community of writers — old and young, mostly fiction but also nonfiction, located in every corner of the globe — who are helping each other learn the skills and techniques they need to succeed.

    You, and all other writers — no matter what age or “status” or “class” — are welcome to join us. We’d be glad to help you learn as much as you want to know. After all, we’re all in this together.

  22. Thanks for the dissection, and since I’ve already had the forum of NYT op-ed, it seems greedy to comment further. But I will.
    I confess to being unsophisticated about the metrics of a digital “bestseller,” and I intended to be tongue-in-cheek when describing myself as such. Still, I think it’s natural for most writers to see their work not just ranking highly among sub-sub-sub genres but on the Kindle Single List generally, as Boom briefly did, to assume they’re selling decently. Clearly, I wasn’t savvy about digital reality, but nor are many writers who have spent their careers in print and imagine, as I did, that e-publishing in this fashion might offer a great new opportunity.
    I know that some writers have done very well by self-publishing, the other thrust of your commentary. All power to them. But this isn’t for everyone, and I’m a bit downcast by the image of writers doing everything themselves. Like most writers lucky enough to have been published by NY trade houses, I have plenty of complaints, about everything from covers to publicity. But I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from working with editors, agents, designers, proof readers and others. I’m more than willing to chip in, particularly when it comes to publicity. Still, it’s nice to have a partner and to concentrate on writing, where I like to think I have added value, rather than sweating every detail of production and marketing.
    I’ve had the luxury to do that, and recognize that many writers don’t. But money issues aside (for a moment), I don’t see Utopia in a world where we’re all flying solo. Some will thrive in that environment, many others will have no choice. But what of very talented writers who don’t have those skills and instincts?
    Lastly, what the response to my op-ed has brought home to me is the class and status and perhaps age divide among writers. Older (I’m 56) writers like me who have had careers in print journalism and publishing mourn that industry’s decline and feel disoriented in the world of e-everything. Those who’ve been shut out by the old media and publishing, and/or view it as stale and elitist and exclusionary, take some joy in the demise of the ancien regime and welcome the more open and free-for-all world of digital.
    As a one-time union organizer, I like to think writers can be allies in this transition, rather than sub-sub genres sniping at each other.

    1. Hi Tony, you’re more than welcome to comment. My comments are always open to anyone – and I’m glad you responded. I’ll try and deal with your points in turn (and please do reply further).

      1. You may well have intended to be tongue-in-cheek about claiming “bestseller” status, but that’s not how the piece read. And it’s not how it was presented by the NYT. And it’s not how it was digested by writers or the presented in the reports that followed. I haven’t seen any attempt by you or NYT to correct that false impression about the piece. Can we look forward to that?

      2. If you aren’t “savvy about digital reality” or are “unsophisticated about the metrics of a digital bestseller” why were you given the platform of an NYT Op-Ed to talk about how this new reality is awful for writers? You seem to have a single data point (your own ranking/sales) about which your making generalizations about the market as a whole. To be frank, I think this is a little irresponsible. Writers are going to read your piece and make important decisions about their career (i.e. they might decide not to submit to any digital publisher, or might decide not to self-publish). I respectfully submit that you should have done more research about digital publishing before making pronouncements on its general viability for writers.

      3. You seem to be suffering from a number of myths about self-publishing. First, we don’t have to do it all ourselves. I have a whole team of people: an editor, cover designer, print typesetter, illustrator for when I need a map, proofers, etc. I learn from interacting with all of them – particularly my editor who I’ve been working with for three years now. Most of these guys work for trade houses too – publishers do exactly what I do, they outsource to freelancers. I don’t have to “sweat every detail” but instead work with talented professionals who I trust to do their job. What I do have is a final say, so I won’t ever get lumped with an inappropriate cover or a flaccid blurb (or too high a price).

      4. You’re correct when you say that you need new skills and instincts. But these can be learned! Out of the hundreds (and more likely thousands) of writers earning a living from self-publishing, none of them were born fully formed. Most started with zero – no experience, no audience, no history in trade publishing. And they aren’t all young whippersnapper, digital natives – they come from all ages, classes, and backgrounds and have a wide range of abilities, digital savviness and technical/computer literacy.

      5. Self-publishing is not either/or and self-publishers aren’t some amorphous lump who think identically (or cheer the demise of publishers for that matter). I know lots of self-publishers who have taken trade deals for some books (and continue to self-publish other books). And I know lots of traditionally published writers who have self-published something (most of whom decided never to take another trade deal again). This is something that will become even more common, not less common. Then there are the self-publishers who couldn’t get a deal/agent, and there are self-publishers who never even queried an agent or publisher and who went directly to the market instead.

      6. Those that do have a negative disposition towards certain publishers, in my experience at least, don’t tend to be writers who blindly hate all publishers for some Us v Them reason. They tend to hate particular actions that certain publishers have taken for very good reasons (whether that’s price-fixing, DRM, sly contracts, or getting into the vanity press business).

      7. I don’t think there was any “sniping” in my piece (towards you at least, Bob Kohn and Laura Miller totally deserved it). When I wished you continued success (and suggested you would be successful if you decided to self-publish) my comments were genuine.

      8. While I’m grateful that you inspired this discussion, I really think you missed a golden opportunity to talk about issues that truly matter. As I mentioned above, you wrote this piece as if self-publishing was never an option (or didn’t exist). Had you talked about why you felt you couldn’t consider self-publishing, that could have been a very useful discussion. Instead what we have is a lot of writers and media reports holding your Op Ed up as “proof” that the world of e-books/digital (and, by extension, self-publishing) is some kind of shell game where bestseller status is fake and no-one can make any real money. It’s just not true and it’s a damaging view to put out there.

      Finally, I agree that writers can be “allies in this transition” but I think there is a lot of ignorance about self-publishing among writers who have exclusively published with traditional publishers. Which isn’t a great situation when they are offering advice (tacitly or otherwise) to inexperienced writers who should be educated about ALL the options open to them. Because there are a lot more options these days – traditional print-focused publishers, savvy new digital publishers (your tepid experience aside, there are some great ones), and self-publishing.

      I don’t think any writer should close any of those doors. And if a writer is too set in their ways to learn about self-publishing – or just doesn’t fancy it for whatever reason – that’s fine. But they shouldn’t be telling newer writers to close those doors. Especially not with the way things are headed.

      And that was my main problem with this piece (and the NYT’s coverage of digital, e-books, and self-publishing in general).

    2. Tony, thanks for braving to show up here. You’ve been treated far kinder and with more respect than most Indies are in the mainstream press or by any arm of Big Publishing. You bring up important issues for writers, and David’s site is one of the most valuable places where writers can share information.

      As a fan of your writing, I know I’m getting a good read when I see a book with your name on it. You are the brand, not your publisher. I was unaware of your latest, so yeah, your publisher should have been better at getting the word out. With your book priced properly, I’ll be buying a copy.

      Three years ago I was solidly on the path for Big Publishing- but I was researching and found that Indie offered so much more. Every time I hear of another writer faced with miserly advances, forever rights grabs, and draconian contract terms from Big Publishing (far too frequent these days), I dance for joy at having escaped all that. I went with a small press who allowed me total control. And a few books have hit high sub-genre rankings, but it doesn’t take much.

      Age is no barrier, excuse, or divide- I’m a year older than you, just starting this great new career, and I work with writers of all ages. Sure, I’ve had to learn a lot, but as David notes, whatever you need to know about the new world you can learn quickly. Many people who have thrived in a career have wanted it to remain unchanged forever, but that’s seldom the way of the world. It may be Darwinistic, but it’s reality.

      Like you, I enjoy working with and learning from my team of editors, designers, proofreaders and others- and mine are hand-picked. No more agents needed, though I continue to read them and talk to them at conferences.

      Flying solo, though? Far from it. Like many Indies, I’m part of cooperative groups, with a team to help. We’ve published recent guest posts on this subject on two other helpful writer blogs, one on Susan Kaye Quinn’s: http://www.susankayequinn.com/2014/06/innovation-four-indie-authors-one-small.html
      and one on Joe Konrath’s: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/04/guest-post-by-dale-t-phillips-and-vlad-v.html

      As you say, we writers can be allies- and most Indies are sharing. We do object to large corporations taking advantage of writers, which is why we celebrate this new world with such singing praises. When we see op-ed pieces that leave out critical information, or misrepresent what’s happening, there is often a rush to correct the author of said piece.

      For the first time, we writers are in the driver’s seat. While you may mourn the lost world, you can also cheer for the exciting new opportunities you have available- and with your name, experience, and abilities, you can do better than you’ve ever done.

  23. Love the way you connect the dots David – I commend you on your research.
    I am so tired of stories where people whine about how bad things are, how Amazon is changing things for the worst, blah blah…. yet are willing to let someone else control the very things that matter most to their own income (crazy). Whenever you’re asleep at the wheel bad things happen, but then the ‘crying’ was a probably a mere gimmick to get more sales. Lame.
    It is our job to write and try to reach as many readers as possible. No big company will be flawless but Amazon has done more to liberate authors than any other company this century (so far)
    If books remain affordable there will be more readers – that is common sense.

  24. The comment on the Slate article about pricing is particularly ridiculous – other publishers’ pricing has nothing to do with me whatsoever. You can pick up any number of Jack Reacher books for less than $6, but that isn’t stopping people from buying my stuff.


  25. I just linked your to my FB author page, with this text: Some of you don’t know I was once an economist. Yep. I hold a BS and MS in the subject and was a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford in the Dismal Science [that’s what insiders call it. Why? Because when you know all about it, econ is so effing depressing that calling it dismal is too bright and cheery.] In addition to being the Santa Clara County Economic Analyst for a few years back in the day, I was and the economist for the SPUD and JCCEHEP projects. You remember them, don’t you? AND I am a member of Omicron Delta Epsilon, the international honor society in economics.

    Given that experience and the fact that statistics was one of my favorite subjects in graduate school, I’m going to share something THRILLING with you! THRILLING!

    How to use numbers to tell the truth! So much of what passes for statistical analysis is so erroneous that it does not deserve to see the interior of an outhouse door. This does. [That sounds wrong. David Gaughram’s article is really good. It corrects errors of other bits of work.]

    You should read the above article. Then I’ll talk to you about the very unpleasant conversation about the minimum wage I got into with that woman the day. Bottom line? If you’ve got a brain, use it.

  26. Re several comments about the definition of a bestseller:

    It’s not about whether this book was a “bestseller” or not. It’s about making generalizations regarding the health and viability of digital publishing based on one single data point (and not a top-selling one, however you define “bestseller”).

  27. Reblogged this on Ruth Nestvold – Indie Adventures and commented:
    Last week, I read the original article by Tony Horowitz claiming he was a digital bestseller and was particularly irritated by his claim that digital publishing was the problem — *and not that he had given his rights away to an incompetent e-publisher*! I could only shake my head that this was published in the NYT, arbiter of American culture. David Gaughran’s analysis of the “bestseller” status is once again illuminating.

  28. Hi David. Many people go by Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists as defining a bestseller. Selling 50 copies in a day probably made the book hit the top ten bestsellers of the moment. Many people use that to claim bestseller status and have the Screen shot to prove it. So there is a real world perspective (yours) and an online perspective (amazon) that do not coincide as far as a best seller is concerned. The question arises is which is valid? Surely your views, based on sales data, but is not also, in the age of digital publishing, the view that hitting the top ten on Amazon is also bestselling status? Whatcha think?

    1. I don’t know the guy at all, but I don’t think so. It seems like a genuine misunderstanding on his part, with an assist from some unrealistic expectations (not helped by his publisher).

  29. Excellent break down of the piece.

    What I truly found interesting were readers’ comments. One in particular was to the effect that when the commenter (customer) saw the $2.99 price tag he admitted that he immediately became suspicious because how could an author he knew sell a book for such a low price. Another commenter made a good point about how we complain about the prices of hardbacks but won’t shell out $2.99 for a digital copy. And the best was the woman whose point was ‘kvetching’ in the New York Times should be good for sales.

    Not sure of the take-away from all this, but still, it’s good information to have an an indie author.

  30. I actually think that Salon piece raises a good point. If the big publishers insist on pricing themselves out of a large swathe of the market and making self-published books look like a better deal by comparison… well, why should self-publishers oppose that?

    1. Because I don’t think we should cheer any development which actively harms writers. And anyway, this isn’t just about whether Hachette books get more expensive or not.

    2. Plus the world isn’t divided into us v them. Plenty of self-publishers traditionally publish (and I know some who do with Hachette), and vice versa. And Miller is wrong. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t “hate” publishers. I hate some of the things that some publishers do. I hate grabby contracts, toothless reversion clauses, the spaghetti approach to publishing, any time a writer gets screwed by a contract gremlin, flaccid marketing, over-pricing, illegal price-fixing, and every regressive anti-reader decision they have made since the digital revolution began, like DRM.

      None of which Miller addressed, because any negative disposition a self-publisher would have towards any publisher is, to her, purely based on bitterness about being rejected. I don’t know how she accounts for authors who never attempted to get a publishing deal and decided to self-publish, or those who have had traditional deals, then decide to self-publish.

      But there’s not a lot of logic going on.

      1. To be clear, I’m not saying I agree with that article as a whole — it has a pretty unpleasant, sneering tone — just that I think there are one or two valid (or at least interesting) points in there.

        (I *do* hate publishers, but only in a general ‘death to Capitalism’ sense which applies equally to Amazon.)

        It’s a damn shame that lots of writers have signed exploitative contracts, and I feel for them on a human level. I’m pretty sure that one of the members of my writing group has signed on to a vanity publisher, in spite of my efforts to warn him off, and that’s terrible. But, at the end of the day, if people are looking at some hilariously overpriced Stephen King book, and then they look at the suggested alternatives at a third of the price… well, I know who wins out there.

        What do you mean when you write that it’s not just about the prices? I’m sure you know more about this than me, so please do correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the heart of this dispute was agency vs wholesale pricing? The publishers controlling prices (=higher prices) vs Amazon controlling them (=lower prices)?

        1. Hey. What I mean is that it’s about control. As a reader, I don’t want publishers to retain control of pricing and bar Amazon from discounting. I think that’s bad for me as a reader because it makes books more expensive, and bad for the market. And as a self-publisher/writer, I don’t view this as a zero-sum game where each black eye for Hachette results in some advantage for me. Even from strict business perspective, I’m not in favor of things which are bad for the market as a whole (and the situation we had under price-fixing was bad for the market as a whole). More expensive books means less people reading overall. I favor moves which expand the market. In other words, if Hachette and the other large publishers regain control of pricing they will make reading more expensive overall which decreases reading.

      2. I don’t agree with the presumption that if Hachette/Big publishers over-price their ebooks there will be less reading overall. There are way more than enough–some would say too many–books on the market at all prices – including FREE – for readers to find things to read within their budget.
        If Hachette/Big publishers continue to overprice their ebooks, they will simply lose market share and their authors will eventually desert them for greener pastures. IMHO

        1. Fair point, but how long will that process take? Publishers are sitting on moutains of content that they have tied up for a very long time. They will still be able to earn from that even if all writers stop submitting to them tomorrow.

          So while that process is ongoing, and Hachette still have market share, if they have control over pricing and use that to try and increase e-book prices overall (like they did with Agency) then that will have a negative effect on the digital market.

          Some of these effects mightn’t always be visible. Like, we’ll never know if Agency slowed down the transition to digital by keeping prices higher. Logic would suggest that it did, but we’ll never know by how much.

        2. I concur with your conclusions there, Stephanie. Over-pricing of intellectual property like music and books – in any given format – have not only put off potentially interested consumers on a budget, but have also greatly encouraged rampant piracy of such items. As I’ve argued on other blogs, we need to meet our prospective customers halfway, and provide them quality work at an affordable price, sweetened by periodic appreciative gifts like freebies and giveaway contests. If we want their financial support, we need to make sure that this support will not break their bank.

          I had another author argue with me on a different blog that doing the above – selling the bulk of our novels & anthologies at $3.99, and our shorter work (short stories, essays, etc.) at $0.99, etc. – makes us guilty of undervaluing our hard work. To the contrary, I greatly value the hard work I do, and so should every writer. But we need to understand how much our average reader will value their hard-earned dollar during a seemingly never-ending recession, and how high prices will drive them away, resulting in less support from them, more piracy, and less of their money going into our products. Out-of-control piracy was the price many big music companies brought on themselves by duplicitous, outright greedy business tactics like no longer producing CD singles and trying to “bully” consumers into buying entire albums they didn’t want for as much as $26.00 simply to get one song that they wanted. We in the writing and publishing industry need to make sure we do not duplicate such poor and onerous tactics, since in the digital age we can no longer afford to.

          This is not about hating publishers, but adapting our business model to the digital age, and taking the needs and concerns of our customer base into consideration. We work very hard to produce quality product on a regular basis, but they likewise usually work very hard to earn those dollars that we want them to spend on our product when they could be spending it on extra groceries, saving for next month’s rent, the cable bill, a movie they want to rent or purchase, some mp3’s they’ve been saving up for, or book from another author they also really want.

        3. “We work very hard to produce quality product on a regular basis, but they likewise usually work very hard to earn those dollars that we want them to spend on our product when they could be spending it on extra groceries, saving for next month’s rent, the cable bill, a movie they want to rent or purchase, some mp3′s they’ve been saving up for, or book from another author they also really want.” –

          For me, one of the best laid reasonings why I think subscription services for books will win out.

          Even now, most folk I know don’t rent or buy a movie, they subscribe to Netflix. And most other folk I know don’t save up for mp3s, they get what they want, when they want, via subscription. I think Apple is leaning heavily that way itself now. Or preparing itself to anyway.

          It is, I believe, as you say, “adapting our business model to the digital age, and taking the needs and concerns of our customer base into consideration.”

          Either way, interesting times (to continue) ahead.

        4. Thank you for the insightful response, Felipe. I agree that subscription services in the digital age are the wave of the future, and a good way for consumers of intellectual property to have a “buy in bulk” opportunity that saves them large amounts of money. I have a subscription to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus, and they’re great for the very reasons you mentioned, especially now that they’ve added exclusive movies and series that can be viewed “binge-style.” My only gripe with these services is that they have not yet reached their full potential, at least in regards to getting full seasons of shows in a timely manner; it was, for example, not acceptable to me and many other subscribers to Netflix that it took half a year to acquire the 5th season of “Breaking Bad” after it ran its course on AMC. But that’s certainly no reason to avoid subscribing, as it’s still a new service, not to mention a great one, and it will improve as time goes on. I fully remember how long it took for popular films like the original “Star Wars” trilogy to make it to VHS during the early days of the home video market. It’s quite different now that the home video market has long since come of age!

          A version of the subscription market could certainly work for digital books, stories, essays, etc., just as it can for music services. One of my publishers and colleagues, Nick Alhelm of Pulp Empire/Metahuman Press, recently did this via an ambitious project funded by Patreon that paves the way for such a service. But to make it worthwhile to his consumers, he agreed to produce a large number of short stories over a certain length of time in exchange for a reasonable bulk payment commitment from individual supporters. This could easily serve as a viable model for digital subscription services by authors in the near future. Of course, this would entail a lot of work by authors who offer such services, but it may well be worth it if it results in a combination of big savings for customers and big earnings for authors.

        5. “Nick Alhelm of Pulp Empire/Metahuman Press, recently did this via an ambitious project funded by Patreon” –

          Sounds like a great experiment. I wish him the very best. That’d be a really neat report/post someone could do on him when he feels he’s got some bearing on how it worked for him, thanks!

          I have my own work on both Oyster and Scribd, and have found more quality interesting works to read and browse (I don’t have to worry about over-paying for titles I end up not liking as much as I’d hoped).

          They frequently have special offers. I’ll list one for each that is current (best I can tell), and if this is inappropriate anyone (David) please delete, and let me know.

          Each one expires soon.

          Oyster : http://www.giltcity.com/national/oysternat
          Scribd : http://blog.scribd.com/2014/06/17/youre-invited-an-evening-with-juliet-macur/

          I subscribe to both, list at both, read at both. 🙂

  31. Amazing work, David… I know this has to take a lot of your time pulling together all this info, keeping up with all the trends, and making these posts — at some decent personal and professional risk — but it’s much appreciate by probably FAR more authors and writers than you’ll ever know…

    1. “at some decent personal and professional risk” –
      I agree.
      And I don’t know if this growing sense of risk (re speaking out) on my part is simply an out-growth of the shouting from various sides about who’s doing what to whom and how (with little clear analysis like in this article), or just me –
      Either way, I “feels” like it’s taking a lot more guts to post articles like this and from other authors, who take on large corps with real facts. So thank you much, David, I (we) do appreciate it.

  32. It is easy to call a book a best seller if you select a very narrow category. For example, on fiction involving the Queen of Scots, I had the #1 seller for several months, and now after two years it shows #6 with a total so far this month of only 2 sales worldwide. On the other hand, my release this week of Green Woman shows #10 in Scottish fantasy (all formats) and #8 in Kindle ebooks. Is it a best seller? At seven copies sold in the three days since launch, I do not think so. Yet, by some standards used by authors and publishers, I could legitimately claim it as such since it is in the top 10 of the Scottish fantasy fiction subclass.

  33. Thanks again, David, for straight talk. Maybe it was Laura Miller’s comment that If I “liked” (another Hachette author…) James Patterson, then I would be willing to pay up to $24.95 for one of his titles (WTF???) that was the last straw. Look, we can all see the strings they’re dancing around upon while the Big Five pull on them. Publish-speak is another translation of Spin, the lingua franca of the game. Once a writer learns that, trying to find a way to cross the crazy-tilted playing field gets much easier.

  34. Excellent piece, David. I was recently quoted this article as evidence that self-publishing is not a good thing on a recent blog of mine. I argued the point that a) he didn’t self-publish, b) was let down by his publisher & c) had his expectations raised to unrealistic levels. I’m glad you were able to put a lot more substance and background to what seemed obvious to me from a first read. Great, great work!

  35. superbly laid out; like the twitter outtakes; and the logic and bullet points!
    esp liked, “lack of marketing support from his publisher”
    thanks for the cont’d great info david, thanks!

  36. The Salon piece was a particularly egregious combination of concern trolling and deliberate mis-information, although she did at least point out that Hachette had been involved in price fixing (although without mentioning the admission of guilt.) I had no idea that she was published by them, however.

    Perhaps we need to start using the term “Hachette job” to describe articles that don’t reveal the author’s affiliations…

    1. “Hachette job” is a pretty awesome and relevant play on words that should indeed catch on, Andrew 🙂 I will be using it when relevant in the future, and credit you appropriately!

  37. I was surprised at how many news outlets (and many of my trad-pub-employed friends) seized on the Boom story as an example of the evils of digital and self publishing, when it’s clear in the article that Horowitz’s problems stemmed from a lack of control due to the publisher not communicating with him. The takeaway for me was “don’t work with a partner you can’t hold accountable”.

    On an unrelated note, I’m also surprised at how every time I look at your bio, David, you’re living in a different world city. Fess up. You’re Carmen Sandiego, aren’t you?

  38. The Laura Miller piece is very peculiar: she seems to be arguing that we should all be delighted that Stephen King’s backlist is vastly over-priced. I just happened to think about buying a Stephen King book yesterday, had a look at the absurd prices and thought, “no thanks”. Now Mr King is quite rich enough that it’s probably no concern of his that he’s getting a small chunk of a few sales at £5.99 on books which have been best-sellers for years when he could be getting a bigger share of many more sales at £1.49 or £2.99 and netting much more but to the 99% of writers who aren’t as rich as him getting a bigger share of larger sales at a lower prices looks more sensible to me.

  39. There seems to be a lot of confusion over what constitutes a best seller, these days. I personally like the sub-sub-sub-genre lists and love seeing my books ranking on them. I’ve invented my own “best seller” standard: If a title reaches 10 or better on one of the sub-genre lists, then it’s a best-seller IN THAT CATEGORY, and I’m very careful to say it’s a best seller only in that category. A book becomes a best-seller (no qualifications) when it hits #10 overall.

    I keep screen shots of all my ranking and best-seller books. For posterity and for the record.

    But that’s my take on it. I know there are other “rules”.



    1. According to this criteria then, I was ALMOST a bestseller in my category for a day and a half (in the top 15). Seriously though, I think the sub-sub categories in Amazon are a pretty good thing. With so many books around, I think readers need to search more in depth for niches they like to read, and the sub-sub categories can help with this.

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