Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Do Authors Want?

Not too long ago, Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest conducted an enlightening survey of 5,000 authors - "What Authors Want: A Survey of Authors to Understand Their Priorities in the Self-Publishing Era."

The survey was prompted by the enormous jump in revenues from self-published books. The migration of authors to epublishing, and of the book-reading public, which took advantage of the accessibility of low-priced self-published ebooks, took a huge bite out of the traditional publishing market, leaving, as the report put it, "publishers ... scrambling to explain to authors, agents and the rest of the world how they add value to the publishing process."

Explanations demand research. The input of 5,000 writers provided information useful to the publishing industry (which, for some reason, does not already understand what writers want). More to the point, it provided useful information to writers - especially aspiring authors, who, hopefully will one day join the ranks of the published.

Four types of authors

Of the 5,000 authors who participated in the survey, 90% wrote fiction. The writers had completed an average of roughly six manuscripts, and were currently working on their next book, which means they took their work seriously on the whole.

The survey identified four types of authors:
  1. aspiring authors, who have not yet published 
  2. traditionally published authors, who have only published their books with traditional publishers 
  3. self-published authors, who have only self-published
  4. hybrid authors, who have both traditionally published and self-published their work.
Of the four groups, published authors had completed an average of roughly nine manuscripts, while aspiring authors had completed only two. Not surprisingly, published authors also garnered the greatest income.

Priorities: Why do writers publish their work?

What was most interesting about this survey was the way the priorities, and subsequent behavior, of these four groups sorted out.

Dana Beth Weinberg, in her analysis of self-publishing, wrote that "emotions run high when writers and publishers debate the merits of self-publishing." Although many writers like to believe that the debate centers around income (traditional publishing houses are notorious for the tiny percentages they allot to writers), or perhaps artistic control, a brief look at the survey results gives a different picture.

The principal motivation behind an aspiring author's desire for publication is not money, or fame - it is personal satisfaction. They wish to publish their writing to fulfill a lifelong ambition ("living the dream"). Self-published writers don't differ much from aspiring authors, but they have a greater drive to share a personal experience.

Hybrid authors have the most interest in making money. This is not a surprise; those who self-publish and have the backing of a publishing house can reap the benefit of higher royalties from self-published ebooks, as well as enjoying the wide print distribution offered by a publisher. Those who take the traditional route are primarily interested in building their careers. For these writers, having a pedigree is more important than raking in big bucks.

Priorities determine behavior

Because each group of writers has a unique set of priorities, they approach the business of writing using entirely different strategies. For example, if a writer's desire is to build a career, it will be crucial to build a platform - to become known. (Of course, this is the area agents and publishers are most concerned about. If you are well known, marketing and promotion are that much easier.)

Aspiring writers spend relatively little time on building a platform, in part because they have no idea what the publishing world is really like, but in part because their motivation for writing is strictly personal. Aspiring writers are, in that regard, similar to aspiring mothers. Women looking forward to having their first baby seldom envision life with a teenager.

Here are some key ways in which the groups differed:

1) Published authors are far ahead of aspiring writers when it comes to social media and self-promotion:
  • 54% of published authors post writing-related Tweets on Twitter versus
  • 30% for aspiring authors
  • 66% of published authors have an author or book page on Facebook versus 18% for aspiring authors
  • 52% of published authors maintain an author presence on Goodreads versus 10% for aspiring authors
  • 24% pin writing-related items on Pinterest versus 14% for aspiring authors
  • 59% of published authors write a blog relating to either their books or writing versus 37% for aspiring authors.
2) Their increased efforts have led to increased results in terms of platform building:
  • Published authors have, on average, 1,271 more Twitter followers
  • Published authors have, on average, 715 more “likes” on their Facebook fan pages
  • Published authors have, on average, 277 more friends on Facebook
  • Published authors have, on average 176 more followers of their boards on Pinterest
  • Published authors get, on average, 2,012 more visits per month on their blogs

Attitudes and platitudes

The report not only revealed a striking, if expected difference, in the priorities and behavior of published versus aspiring authors. It also showed some important differences in attitude.

According to the report,
"While self-published authors seem to be fairly invested and in favor of the institution of self-publishing and traditionally published authors seem to be slightly more wary of self publishing and invested in and in favor of the world of traditional publishing, hybrid authors-those who have done both self- and traditional publishing-are mostly in favor of self-publishing and critical of traditional publishers, even more so than the self-publishing group."

The reasons for the critical attitude of those authors who had opted for both routes - traditional and self- publication can be chalked up to experience. The vast majority of writers who publish their work through traditional publishing houses receive very little compensation for their work. Their royalties seldom exceed their advances, and publishers - as a rule - spend very little time and energy promoting works by authors who are not already famous. In short, they get a raw deal. And if they wish to devote themselves to a career as writers, they have no choice but go hybrid.

The writers of this report consider the critical attitude of hybrid authors towards the publishing industry to be "unreasonably" bitter, perhaps due to "some slight they experienced at the hand of a publisher." This has more than a grain of truth to it, not because authors are unreasonable in their quest for recognition, and perhaps even reimbursement for their efforts, but because publishing houses treat authors - at least the non-famous ones - the same way dairy farmers treat their cows. 

The good news, according to this report is that "aspiring writers still believe in publishers' ability to help them. It’s not too late for publishers to improve their services to authors to attract and retain the next generation of best-selling authors."

The question is, will those aspiring writers turn into embittered authors once they get published? My guess is that they will. While it's not too late for publishers to treat authors with a modicum of respect, it's also not very likely.

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