Survivorship bias and electronic publishing: practically no one is making any money

Toby Buckell has posted a great piece on "survivorship bias" and new models for electronic publishing. Survivorship bias occurs when we only hear about spectacular success stories, and not the vast number of modest success stories, and the titanic, unbelievable number of failure stories, and therefore conclude that spectacular success is the norm. This is a recurring problem in many domains, but as Toby points out, it's a major flaw in the way we think about the arts, a domain where, by definition, only stars rise to the level of most of our attention.

This is doubly true in the world of electronic publishing, where the stars' stories are inherently interesting and sexy, meaning they're even more disproportionately represented in our discussions of the economics of the arts.

The truth -- as Toby points out -- is that the arts are a terrible way to make a living, and always have been. Practically every person who sets out to make a living in the arts loses money; a tiny minority earn a small sum, a statistically insignificant fraction earn a full-time living, and a vanishing few meteor-strike cases get rich.

If you’ve been successful, good on ya. I’m thrilled when any artist breaks out to making a living. But genuinely understand that survivorship bias means there are plenty of people plugging the same formulas and not getting results that look even similar.

This is not bitterness on my part. I’m actually thrilled with where I am, which is far ahead of many. Over half my income comes from writing fiction (and if I weren’t in debt from having a medical crisis in 2008 I’d likely be able to make a living just on my fiction). I’ve been slowly building my career since 1999, since my first tiny sale. Each year my readership grows, my blog audience grows, the money I make off my fiction grows. I use eBooks, traditional publishing and crowdsourcing all as tools to survive. I’m playing the long game. And maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m pretty open to that, but I’m always happy to report on what’s going on. Each successful career I’ve seen, though, requires a ton of hard work, and many people I see trying any method with a focus on shiny and new and ‘beating’ some system often flame out and fall away. Lots of people who’re doing the right thing and working hard flame and fall away too.

Making a living off art is hard.

But that isn’t a sexy sell.

Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now (via Making Light)


  1. I don’t get it. Yes, we all know not everyone can be a successful writer. Most peeps can’t even finish a novel. But if are and can make money from writing (I.e. an existing author) digital publishing is almost always more lucrative.

    There’s no reason you can’t do both traditional and ePub, but the more you do, the more ePub starts to make sense.

    Sure, there’s a few scenarios where traditional publishing pays better: your audience is older, you are a literary author, you are a celebrity, or you have huge name recognition. But those are fringe cases where you can convince publishers to pay you more than you can make on your own. Plus, publishers are increasingly buying material that proved itself in indie pub (ala 50 Shades).

    1. Mainstream publishers offer one thing that self-publishing does not (at least while bookstores continue to exist).  They put your book in front of perhaps half a million people who are interested in buying your type of book right now.

      With a half-decent cover, you might make 5K sales.  And *that* is enough that if you’ve got something readers want (and God knows, there’s no predicting that), word of mouth can propel you from there.  No-one else can offer anywhere near that, and that is why main-stream publishers can offer you only 8%.

      The majority of self-publishers I’ve talked to have sold double digits.  Sadly, even if the book has whatever the magic is that makes readers want to buy it, those sales numbers aren’t enough to initiate critical mass.

      Now, yes, there’ll be a handful of exceptions, but statistically speaking, they’re pretty much ignorable.  The *big* exception: already established authors who don’t have the sales to keep themselves mainstream published, but can earn a decent middle-class living publishing electronically to their fans.  10K paper copies sold might make for $8K of royalties (not great for a year’s work).  But 10K self-published electronic copies might mean $28K, which is not great, but doable.

      1. Your numbers also depend on the country.

        In the US, a best-seller is 10,000+ copies. In Canada, it’s 1,000+. Do the math on how many copies you can expect to sell if your name isn’t Margaret Atwood.

        Also, most traditional publishing houses in Canada can only afford to put out about ten books a year.

        1. Quite.  I assume that most Canadian authors sell to an American house, at least in genre, for exactly that reason. 

          As well, if it’s not abundantly clear, the economics for non-English speaking novels (or for that matter, non-fiction) is beyond my expertise (such as it is).

      2. Distribution isn’t what it used to be. The last time I was in a bookstore, they had a bunch of bestsellers with a handful of other books buried spine out. Oh, and shelves and shelves of board games and other nicknacks.

        If someone is only selling double digit ebooks, they are not a pro author. They are a hobbiest. And advice for them should be completely different.

        I’m a software developer. If my cousin Joe asked me advice on being a successful developer, I’d tell him to get a college degree. If someone I went to school with asked the same question, I’d give very different advice.

        A new author trying to make it probably should focus on building a brand just like before the epub era. The only difference is that now there’s all these new opportunities to make a splash. BTW, putting up a free novel on Amazon is a great way to gain exposure.

        On the flip side, there are a lot of successful authors turning down 5 and 6 figure contracts to ePub. Why? Control of price, covers, titles, editorial control, release schedule control but most of all more money.

        And the most successful ones are turning around and selling print rights back to traditional pubs.

        It’s not survivor bias for professional authors to ignore the hordes amateurs out there.

        1.  > Distribution isn’t what it used to be.

          True.  God help the publishers when the last chain closes.  Suddenly the value proposition they offer to writers disappears.

          BTW, putting up a free novel on Amazon is a great way to gain exposure.

          Along with 100K other free books.  The fundamental problem of self-publishing for someone who isn’t famous is that every tactic that can be used to promote a book *is* being used by 10,000 other desperate-to-succeed writers. 

          Even worse, an author has to remember that the readers time is money.  At say $10/hr, a 2.5 hour to read book costs the reader $25 of time.  If they’re not at least somewhat certain that the enjoyment value of the book is going to meet or exceed that, then the book is a net loss for the reader, even if it didn’t cost them a penny.

          At least with mainstream published books from unknown writers, the reader can bet that the publisher thought it was good enough to invest ~$10K to publish it (not including what it paid the writer), so the odds of it being readable are much higher than any randomly self-published work. 

          To me, *that* is the huge challenge.  If Amazon is publishing 1,000 or 10,000 books a day, most of which are free, but not terribly good, how do you prove that yours is one of the 5% that is actually worth the readers (or reviewers) time to read?

          I haven’t got an answer to that one.

  2. Next up, convincing family members to/finding significant others who…support our life of futile wall-banging .

    1.  It’s not *that* bad.  My wife wrote her first several novels 45 minutes a day over lunch in her job.  Admittedly it does help if the job is not too high-stress/brain-eating.  But you can have a productive life *while* finding out whether your books will be commercially successful.  (I consider any book that the author is satisfied with to have been worth writing.)

      However, I’d strongly caution against anyone with a partner/dependents quitting the “day” job before making a meaningful income from writing.

      (Some folks feel they’ll be a much better writer if they don’t have any distractions, and that may be true.  Unfortunately, what happens to trigger reader enthusiasm is pretty much independent from whether a book is “good” (not opposite, independent), so being an excellent writer does not statistically increase your chances of making a living.  (Though yes, being a… let’s say “less polished” writer probably does diminish your chances…))

      1. I guess I need to restate that. I mean family members and significant others who don’t feel that your pastime is a wasteoftime.

        From my perspective, your wife is lucky she has someone who appreciates or at least accepts their talent.
        My family knows how good I am, yet strongly discourage me from pursuing my interests (I paint a lot, only write a little, and capture an excellent likeness), because (of course), money buys love and happiness – rather than happiness arising from doing the things you love.

        I have no dependents or significant others because I knew how things would end up if I pursued my craft. Getting by is okay with me. To my family, it’s a foolish thing I’m doing.

        1. Despite never having had any interest in being a writer, I suddenly have a book in my head. I’m going to write it mostly just because I want to read it.

          1. Get on it and don’t stop. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s no good without a damn good explanation why, either.

            I have 4 three-quarter written screenplays I never finished because I listened to people who wrote even less than I did. I really should dig them out and finish them, at least for the sake of finishing them.

            This is one of the main reasons I switched to painting. It’s easier to tell at a glance whether something is shit or not, unless maybe it’s abstract expressionism.

  3.  > To my family, it’s a foolish thing I’m doing.


    As a parent, I should point out that (1) they are looking at the perspective of what is making them happy *now* (and what they think will make you happy in the future) and how best to achieve it and (2) they’re wrong.  Even if you don’t succeed commercially, if you are truly driven to the arts, then never even trying would eat at you for the rest of your life.

    And truly, now is the time to try.

    Personally, I don’t consider that all-consuming drive to be any favor to the one who holds it – the odds of success are just too small.  But pretending it doesn’t exist is likely to maximize misery.

    1.  The one good thing about drive is that despite their best efforts to hamper your own efforts, they can’t completely stop you.

      I paint when they go on overnight trips, and hide them behind various pieces of furniture in my bedroom. The 3 X 3’s I hide behind the bedstead. I think I’ll have enough for a solid portfolio to post online in a few months.

    1. No.  For most careers, if you’re reasonably good at it and there’s commercial demand, you’ve got a pretty good chance of making a decent living out of it.  Now “pretty good” is not ideal, as you really want that number to be in the high 90’s (as a percent), but it’s not the same as writing, we’re making $20K/year probably puts you in the top 0.5% of writers, and $75K/year in the top 0.1%.  (Those figures are estimates.)

  4. It depends why you write.
    If you’re money-oriented there are far better ways of making a living. If you want to say something, then discover the way you want to say it and go ahead. But don’t expect to make a fortune. Like all the arts, there are far more players than winners. 
    Is the validation you want money based? Want to produce an “All my Children” rather than “The Wire”? It’s up to you, but knowing your own goals can help immeasurably.

    1.  As well, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that anyone participating in a “winner-take-all” field really needs a healthy dose of self-deception in order to succeed. 

      No Olympian starts their career thinking how unimaginably low their odds of success are.  Instead, they have an irrational belief that the odds don’t apply to them.

      Rationality is useful for those of us who look for middle-of-the-road success.  But for those who a truly driven to try for the heights, excessive rationality is not helpful.

      In other words, if you *can* be demotivated by statistics, then perhaps, for the sake of your future happiness, you probably should be :-).

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