Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Outliers and Anecdotes: Why epublishing articles drive me crazy

When The Appendix podcast (which I run, along with Sarah Eden and Marion Jensen) did its first episode about ebooks, I declared that I was sick of hearing about them. It seems that another dozen articles pop up every day, and very few of them have anything meaningful to say. (Note: since I initially said that on the podcast, just about every episode mentions ebooks in one way or another. So I'm a hypocrite.)

I'm skeptical about epublishing, for lots and lots of reasons. I'm not saying that no one should dive into it, but rather just saying that a healthy dose of realism is in order.

I don't intend this blog to be comprehensive, and it's certainly not a Should-I-or-Shouldn't-I? guide to epublishing. Instead, I just want to make a couple of points that ought to be obvious:

Without further ado:

Let's define a couple of statistical terms, and a couple of logical fallacies, and then talk about how they knock down 90% of epublishing arguments.

  • Outlier: an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data. In our present situation, I think we can call Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath outliers. We can also call JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown outliers. They are data points that are significantly different from the vast majority of other data points.
  • Availability heuristic: the idea that because you can think of an example of something, it must be significant. For example, "There are three new thai places near my house--it's got to be fastest growing trend in restaurants" or "That guy on the news was attacked by a bear, so bear attacks on humans must be commonplace" or "An author turned down a huge advance to epublish instead, so epublishing must be really better than traditional publishing."
  • Anecdotal evidence: evidence, which may or may not be verifiable, which is used to support a conclusion that does not follow from it. "I didn't get a job until January. The American economy must be better this year." or "I stopped getting asthma attacks after I stopped eating Chex Mix. Chex Mix must cause asthma" or "I'd buy five times as many books as I currently do if they only cost $2.99. Therefore, lowering the price will significantly increase volume sold across the country."

If you can't guess my point, it's this: statistical conclusions cannot be based on outliers or anecdotal evidence. It may be 100% true that Chex Mix causes asthma, but the FDA shouldn't ban Chex Mix because of a single point of data. Likewise, it may be true that Hocking's success is replicable, but you shouldn't go into epublishing just because you heard her story. That makes as much sense as going into computer science because you expect to get Bill Gates' salary, or taking up basketball because you really want a mansion like Kobe Bryant's.

Notice: I'm not saying "you shouldn't pursue great success." What I'm saying is this: don't expect the outlier. Expect the trend.

So, in epublishing, what's the trend? I'm not asking what the hype is--I'm asking what the hard numbers are. How many epublished authors are making decent money? The answer is... who knows? A few? Some? Lots? Not sure?

What does that mean? The market is changing, and while great successes has occurred (Hocking and Konrath, for example), if we're being honest we really have no idea what the trend will be. We can make hypotheses about it. We make assumptions about success based on pricing and distribution models. But what we cannot say is "there is evidence to show that epublishing is better for authors than traditional publishing". So stop it, internet.

This all leads into my long-standing worry about epublishing, which is not that epublishing is bad or wrong, but that people are getting into it for the wrong reasons. Publishing is really hard, but epublishing looks so easy--no wonder aspiring authors are excited about it! But desperation is the WRONG reason to epublish. Rejection letters are the WRONG reason to epublish. Hopes for Hocking-style paychecks are the WRONG reason to get into epublishing.

What's the right reason? Because you've sat down and worked out a business plan, with realistic expectations, and you've fully weighed all your options.

Wait--a business plan!? But I'm an author!

Remember back before everyone freaked out about epublishing, how you used to see article after article warning people about the perils of self-publishing? Well, epublishing is self-publishing. Sure, you have a better distribution method, fewer startup costs (but not NO startup costs), and maybe a little less stigma, but it's still the same beast. When you go self-pub or e-pub, you're effectively starting your own micropublishing company. All the pitfalls that seemed so daunting for decades--managing your own marketing, editing, accounting, graphic design, etc--now seem to be glossed over in a wave of hype.

I guess my conclusion is this: if you want to epublish, then do it. But be skeptical of the hype (because 98% of it talks about outliers, not trends), get into it for the right reasons, and have a solid business plan before you do it.


At 3/23/2011 12:14 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

And here I had my Without a Trace--Rob Wells episode ready to go. Not only do you show up, but you produce an excellent post as well. Welcome back.

At 3/23/2011 1:16 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for this logical and clear explanation--I'm bookmarking this post. It's SO important to go into epublishing--or any kind of publishing--with solid, realistic expectations.

At 3/23/2011 1:39 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Absolutely terrific analysis. Love your logic, your understanding, and your presentation. Very well done. Pass the Chex Mix, please.

At 3/23/2011 1:47 AM, Blogger Marion Jensen said...

I agree with everything you say. Really, when it comes right down to it, it's a balance. :)

But seriously, for me the excitement is not that I can bypass the gatekeepers and finally make the millions I deserve. E-books are causing a profound shift in the model of storytelling. Personally, I think that fact by itself is exciting. Books that agents and publishers had to pass on before "because there is just no way to market them", or "we can't make a return on the investment" can now find their way into niche market. I came across an awesome band last night because their music could be streamed to me electronically. There is no way I would have found them if this was not the case.

Now stories can be streamed electronically, and more and more people are reading them electronically. The data ARE there to support that.

The rise of e-books represent so much more than a path fast/easy money.

At 3/23/2011 2:17 AM, Anonymous Moriah Jovan said...

I just posted a comment here that's not showing up. Have I been banned or something?

At 3/23/2011 2:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably banned.

At 3/23/2011 2:46 AM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

Moriah, I'm not sure what happened. I got a copy of your blog post in my email (I get copied on all comments). I posted to Rob over on my post and Blogger ate it (and the second one isn't nearly as good as the first).

But here is your post:

but that people are getting into it for the wrong reasons

Yeah, what?

People do a lot of things for a lot of reasons, some of which happen to be wrong. Or right. Or both, depending on the day and if they said their prayers that morning.

*I* am sick of publishing being this Speshul Snowflake industry where the unwashed masses aren't allowed to try their hand at it without a good deal of mocking and truly hateful attitudes. But the mocking and hatefulness is always for their own good. Because they doan know no bettah, so they dun gotta be taught right.

I don't have anything against traditional publishing. That said, I also do not have anything against people who just want to see their dream live. It's their money, their time, their enthusiasm. So what if they don't sell but 5 copies--and all of them to their moms? It shouldn't make anybody else any difference.

Trends? You asked for trends? Here's one: Figures for the first month of the new year show that E-book net sales increased by 115.8% vs January 2010 (from $32.4 Million to $69.9M).

Cold, hard numbers and not a self-publisher in sight. Digital publishing is not going away, and further, it's replacing the mass market paperback. Rapidly. To ignore it is to deliberately put blinders on.

At 3/23/2011 10:14 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Both Moriah and Sariah claim I'm wrong and that there really are hard numbers to back up their arguments, and then they both cite numbers about sales of ebooks. But that's not at all what I was talking about in my blog. I'm talking about trends for self-publishing ebooks, and on that topic the jury is still out. (Again--not saying there's anything wrong with it, or that it won't happen. Just saying that I don't like people using poor evidence and claiming it's good evidence.)

As for Moriah's point about publishing being a "Speshul Snowflake industry": I really don't know what you're referring to. My blog was merely saying "make wise business decisions"; I'm not sure how that can be interpreted as "mocking and truly hateful". Forgive me if it came across that way--it certainly wasn't my intent.

At 3/23/2011 10:22 AM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

Sorry, didn't know it was poor evidence. I thought the trends we were talking about was whether or not self-publishing was a viable option. And I thought that the fact that every other fiction outlet is failing while e-books thrive is valid. I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm only presenting my point of view.

At 3/23/2011 10:43 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Sariah, look at exactly what you're saying here:

I thought the trends we were talking about was whether or not self-publishing was a viable option.

Yes, that's what we're talking about.

And I thought that the fact that every other fiction outlet is failing while e-books thrive is valid.

Even if this was true, which is quite a claim when "every other fiction outlet" still accounts for 90% of the market, it still doesn't back up your argument. We're not talking about trends in ebooks. We're talking about trend in self-published ebooks. To make an analogy: you're claiming that tacos are going to be hugely popular, but the only evidence you're citing is that fast food is really popular.

At 3/23/2011 11:52 AM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

The thing is, I can see where tacos are getting hugely popular. I can see individual taco vendors, who thanks to the new E-TacoEater, are able to sell their tacos all over the world. They don't have to wait for Taco Bell or DelTaco to pick up their new recipes - they're doing it on their own.

And yes, there are vendors that are selling tacos that are too greasy or don't have enough meat or have tofu in them. They'll never sell very many tacos no matter what they do. But at least they have a chance to sell them now, which they never had before!

Maybe I'll be that vendor that can only sell 100 tacos. But I don't have to worry about shelf space. I don't have to worry about my tacos getting pulled or discounted to make way for new tacos. My tacos will be available forever, and I'll have that long tail for people to come and find them. Maybe I'll be that vendor that can sell 1,000 tacos a month. Or 10,000. Who knows? :)

At 3/23/2011 11:58 AM, Anonymous Moriah Jovan said...

Your specific points are taken. This is where I'm coming from:

The boat on self-publishing has sailed. Two years ago. The continued use of the tired old arguments about self-publishing, questioning self-publishing as a viable business model, questioning its very existence (because, really, that's what it is) is, quite frankly, pointless. Totally.

It doesn't matter. Your concerns about it don't matter (sorry). It is what it is. And so to my way of thinking, it's a nonissue.

Of course, people are going to point to the outliers to justify going into self-publishing. Why? Because they're tired of waiting for the traditional publishing wheel to grind.

Like you, I have pet peeves:

1. The "never never never never never never never give up" mantra as it pertains to publishing. This is total BS. NO, it is NOT true that if you keep submitting you WILL get a sale. It can't be. The odds are too great. Yet the entire Speshul Snowflake industry is built on this bone-headed belief. It cannot MATHEMATICALLY be true.

2. The "you only self-publish if your stuff is crap" mantra. This underlies every single argument against self-publishing, whether anybody wants to dig that deep or not. Unfortunately, the writers have believed this for so long (during a period of time when it wasn't feasible to self-publish) that it's now part of a writer's DNA.

So now everyone points to the outliers to bolster their arguments because they're ashamed of doing it. They can't simply do it and thumb their nose at the rest of everybody. Because you know what? People ARE hateful about it. And those writers who haven't broken out of that think are scared. They don't want to be seen as losers who couldn't get a publishing contract, so they point to examples that aren't Virginia Woolf whenever the tired old arguments are trotted out.

You say your argument is that it's not a viable business model. Okay.

My point what?

At 3/23/2011 12:10 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

All of which is fine and great, and I wish you the best in your taco pursuits. But those are still assumptions based on outliers and anecdotes ("I can see where tacos are getting hugely popular", "I can see individual taco vendors"), not evidence of a trend.

Granted, people make business decisions all the time where evidence is spotty--especially when it comes to things like disruptive technologies. Again, I'm not complaining about trying this. I'm just saying: make wise business decisions, and have your eyes wide open. (And, I want to point out, I wasn't writing the blog directed at you, Sariah. I was writing about all the endless e-pub articles all over the internet.)

Again, I wish you the best. I really, truly do.

At 3/23/2011 12:11 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

My comment there was directed at Sariah, not Moriah. It's out of order, because I was slow. :)

At 3/23/2011 12:21 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...


I can understand all of your points, and I wasn't really arguing with any of them.

You ended with:

You say your argument is that it's not a viable business model. Okay.

No, I didn't. That's not at all what I've said, ever. Instead, I said that choosing to selfpublish was a business decision and that you needed to have a good business plan in place, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the business, before you do it. Again, I'm not telling anyone to not selfpublish.

Just to quote the final paragraph of my blog:

"I guess my conclusion is this: if you want to epublish, then do it. But be skeptical of the hype (because 98% of it talks about outliers, not trends), get into it for the right reasons, and have a solid business plan before you do it.

At 3/23/2011 12:22 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I agree about the outliers. Everyone knows that JA Konrath went traditional first and his success is based on his already established readership. Hocking is an anomaly and ironically it looks like she is entertaining the idea of going with a traditional agent/publisher now. So she is JA Konrath in reverse.

Barry Eisler just turned down a huge ebook deal with his publisher, but he can get away with it since he's been publishing bestselling thrillers for years.

So I guess my point is that self-publishing eBooks is well and fine, but you need to go into with eyes wide open. It's another option, but it's still a rough game.

At 3/23/2011 12:41 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

Rob, so I went and checked out the Top 100 on Amazon (paid) in the Kindle Store.

I left out any games or magazines.

For the books -

Independent: 32

Traditional: 46

That's not the 90/10 split you'd expect to see based on trends, right? (And some of those are questionable because they had "publishers" that might very well have been themselves using the title of publisher, but to give trad the benefit of the doubt, I counted them as trad because I'm not familiar enough with small presses to know one way or the other.) Is that enough successful individual taco vendors? ;)

Heather - Konrath will be the very first one to tell you he's not an outlier. He will be the first one to tell you that he doesn't think his established readership has helped him as much as people think it has. He'll be the first one to give you a list of 30 authors who are outselling him, making more money, and not a single one of them were ever published by New York.

Hocking is an anomaly, and she freely admits she has no idea how it happened. :) (And I love that she got into publishing because she wanted to make enough money for a plane ticket to go see a Muppets exhibit.) But I think what's nice for her is that the word right now is oversaturation with vampire novels, and yet her vampire series is highly successful. She's said she plans on continuing to self-publish even with her traditional publishing deal in place, and sees this as an opportunity to grow both markets (online readers will buy her new physical books, new readers of her books will go back and buy her online books). It's a very smart move to make. She's already turned down traditional publishing deals, but it sounds like the million plus deal will probably be a winner.

Eisler is the first of many. He does have the platform - he only has to sell a quarter what his publisher had to sell in order to make the same amount of money his publisher was willing to give him.

My eyes are very open. I know what could happen and what the realities are. I'm just excited by possibilities.

(And where's info on your Ammon book? I don't see it on your website.)

At 3/23/2011 12:42 PM, Anonymous Moriah Jovan said...

Robinson, ah, okay. My apologies. I DO have somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to the topic, and because LDS writers are about 2 years behind the hotness of it, I'm just NOW seeing these discussions pop up on the LDS writers blogs, whereas I left the others behind two years ago.

I was on a panel at the Writer's Digest conference in January on DIY Publishing and one point I was very careful to make was that it IS a business and to TREAT it like one.

So. I guess I agree with you after all.

I have my personal thoughts on the outliers, too, and except for Hocking and RJ Keller, they're not that complimentary, so I'll keep them to myself.


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