Publishing’s Bellwether

Welcome to the farm, today, where I’m leaning on my oak crook and feeling the gentle breeze in my hair and watching the lambs cavort. I’m also keeping a weather-eye on the sky, and listening to the animals as they move from place to place. Amanda’s dealing with real life, and I’m lost in a memory… 

A bellwether, in shepherding terms, is the leader of the flock. It would either be a sheep or a goat, depending on the sort of herd (and some weight given to the native intelligence of the animal individually) and it wore a bell on a collar. The bellwether was the critter always out in front, and the rest of the herd would slowly drift in his wake, nibbling and straying, but driven by their instincts to stay with the bell, with the herd. The shepherd (or goatherd. Anyone read Heidi, rather than watching the saccharine movie? Did you know there are sequels?) would follow along after the bell, keeping an eye out for strays or lambs that didn’t know enough to follow the bellwether.

In business terms, the bellwether is the indicator of a trend. In publishing, it currently seems to be ebooks. I posted Dorothy Grant’s post about the implications of the recent Author Earnings report on my facebook timeline, and got a comment: “her article is not correct in its specifics. The graphs are about Kindle ebook sales, not books in general.” My immediate answer, which then led to this post, was ‘That’s because there is NO way to get accurate data on books in general, so the bellwether is ebooks, which are trackable.’

See, here’s the thing. Print books are, in theory, externally trackable through the Nielsen BookScan data, which is notoriously unreliable. In theory, publishers ought to know what their sales numbers are, but there are two problems with that data. First, they aren’t going to release proprietary and sensitive information to the public. Secondly, publishers themselves often rely on BookScan, and as Dorie Clark writing for the Harvard Business Review put it “Shockingly” slow and outmoded: “Publishing through a traditional house? Most of us get weekly Nielsen BookScan reports—courtesy of Amazon—and sales figures every six months from our publisher.” Studies compiling data from both BookScan and the Association of American Publishers have ‘holes’ in their data. “The AAP and Nielsen data, while providing useful information that can point to important trends, does have some holes. As mentioned, AAP data doesn’t cover the entire industry, while Nielsen BookScan data doesn’t cover e-books. And lack of reliable e-book data is the most important omission.”

And here is where the most recent Author Earnings Report comes in. “Here at AE, over the last seven quarters we have steadily built up a comprehensive database of quarterly cross-sectional snapshots of the Kindle store, each of which captures between 45% and 60% of Amazon’s daily ebook sales. And while Amazon’s Kindle store alone doesn’t comprise the entire US ebook market, it does account for 67% of all traditionally-published ebook sales…”

While that might not seem enough, as the report points out, it is better than the claims being made on less data by PubTrack.

“The confusion is worsened by Nielsen’s misleading claims about their new PubTrack data products, which sell statistics about the US ebook market. PubTrack collects ebook unit-sales data from “a panel of over thirty US publishers,” according to Nielsen, who then sells that data back to the publishing industry at large. The fact that those Nielsen ebook sales numbers come from only 30 publishers, however, doesn’t stop Nielsen from claiming that their PubTrack numbers represent “85% of the nation’s eBook sales” and drawing broad and unsubstantiated conclusions from them.”

So if we go back to the bellwether metaphor, and the shepherd trying to keep track of his flock, we suddenly see that print data is like a sheep wrapped up in an invisibility cloak, trying to avoid his annual haircut.

Shrek the sheep, who hid to avoid being fleeced...
Shrek the sheep, who hid to avoid being fleeced…

I ran across an article very recently, and as I was assembling the material for this post about sheep, goats, and books, I knew I had to include the concept of scapegoats. In the publishing industry, the scapegoats are the books and authors that pay for other books and authors to be published. Oh, they aren’t given any choice, not any more than the goat which was symbolically bound with the sins of the people, and then sent into the wilderness to die alone.

Instead, the popular, best-selling books, are bound with the production and promotion costs of the prestigious and award winning books. “Washington Post critic Ron Charles reviews the kinds of books that get nominated for literary awards. These are not the blockbusters, the books written by the likes of Stephen King and Nora Roberts that make millions. Charles knows that. Even so, he was dismayed when he saw a story about the sales figures for the novels long-listed for the Man Booker. The list included The Green Road by Irish author Anne Enright, who’s won the award before. “When I saw that Anne Enright — [who] I think of as giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world — could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K. I was shocked, that’s really low,” he says.”

The numbers for the potential Man Booker Prize winners? Tyler’s book has sold 20,102 copies in total across all editions through Nielsen BookScan. As well as being the biggest selling book of the Man Booker Dozen, it is also the book which has seen the most copies sold since the longlist was announced in July – selling 7,680 copies since then. Most of this is down to the release of the paperback last week, which sold 7,115 copies.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) has sold 2,355 extra copies since being longlisted, for a total of 8,938.

Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life (Picador), which was published three weeks after the longlist announcement, has sold a strong 7,542 copies since 13th August. Yanigahara’s book is currently the favourite to win the prize at William Hill, with odds of 2/1 at William Hill, while Paddy Power is offering odds of 9/5.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Oneworld Publications) has sold 6,694 copies across all editions in total, more than double (3,471 extra) what it had sold before the announcement.

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations (Faber & Faber), has sold 457 copies since the longlist was announced, for a total of 3,273 copies.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Virago) has also sold strongly with 12,184 copies total for the hardback, but only 625 copies are from after it was included on the longlist.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) has sold an additional 589 copies, going from 922 before the announcement to 1,511.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador) had sold 413 copies before the announcement and is now on 1,302, an increase of 889 copies and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes (Sceptre) has risen almost as much – from 411 to 1,008.” 

So the books that pay off for the publisher obviously subsidize the books that are published solely on ‘literary merit’ and the scapegoat trots off blithely into the desert to take his chances with the fickle public. With the rise of Indie Publishing, the scapegoat is no longer a necessary thing. No one can force an independent to bear the burdens of his less fortunate fellow authors, who write for awards rather than to sell books and make money.

The flock is hearing that bell jingle, and they are changing their path to follow him toward the good green pastures. “It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, ‘You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.’ Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice.”

I spent a couple of years as an apprentice shepherdess when I was a teenager. I grew up with a small flock of goats, and I can assure you that not all sheep are dumb, the flock instinct much-mocked is a vital survival tool for them. Goats, kept with sheep, quickly become the trouble-makers, the leaders of the flock, which is why one is usually the bellwether. The goats, in the publishing world, are the early-adopter Indie authors, getting through the fences any way they can to reach the less-worn down grass. The goats know where the noms are, and the sheep will follow them around the gatekeepers. In publishing, we follow that bell to the market.

And finally, don’t stop listening for the bellwether. Today, it’s ebooks and Amazon. But take your attention off the market indicators, and you might lose track of the flock and get too far from the market, getting lost in the process. Amazon might not always provide the greenest pasture, so pay attention to the industry blogs, keep up with the data, and don’t be afraid to move closer to the leading edge. Maybe you can be the bellwether for a while.


63 thoughts on “Publishing’s Bellwether

  1. You need to compare the sell throughs of the Artistic books to what would happen to a normal writer with that kind of sales. 10 k books sold with lots of push would probably mean that a typical midlist author wouldn’t get another contract I think

      1. And we’ve complained about your posts being too long when?
        Yeah, I know, back to homework, the important stuff.

  2. Those numbers for the “literary” books are eye opening. And yet there’s so much hatred from literary elites for people who read “trash” like romance or SF.

    In my more cynical moments I suspect that the hatred is not because we’re reading the wrong books but because we’re reading at all. I mean, clearly the government school system in America is designed to produce workers literate enough to follow instructions, but not interested in actually reading, presumably because then they might get Ideas. And SF is such a very subversive genre…

    1. Which seems to be why they are bent on subverting SF into a sort of homogeneity, promoting only the ‘right’ way of thinking and seeing humanity. True diversity scares the pants off of them, hence the nasty attacks all summer long.

      1. Where the “right” way is a particular Left way of thinking. Not any old Leftist thought either, but one that agrees with the wishes of the would-be nomenklatura.

          1. There is a rather off color joke that involves a shepherd, a sheep, and the edge of a cliff.
            And no, not going to tell it here.

      2. To put the very kindest interpretation I can on it: if you are a true believer in Diversity of Origin (as opposed to Diversity of Ideas) AND you believe that there’s only a finite amount of reader attention/money/publishing space out there, then monopolizing that attention for paint-by-numbers diversity is a logical strategy.

        Of course that requires treating stories as wholly interchangeable widgets and assuming that if I can’t get my fix of rip-roaring space opera or sprawling epic fantasy I’ll happily read message-of-the-day fiction. Whereas what will really happen is I’ll go play Skyrim or Diablo because that’s way more fun than slogging through a story I don’t like.

        1. Ah, but giving you what you want to read would be pandering to the masses. Can’t be having that. We’ll just let someone else do that scut work then we’ll skim the profits to fund literary advances for works we approve of even though they never pay out.

          1. I’ve known for years that the publishers were embezzeling from authors. I had not realized until now that they were not keeping the swag themselves as would make sense, but were distributing it to chorfs and scum (but I repeat myself). That is just sick.

            1. Technically they aren’t be accused of embezzling here, merely using. Embezzlement is a crime where the perpetrator takes money they have access to and uses for themselves. Like if the agent was supposed to give royalties cuz the check went through them but fudged the number sold so they were only giving the author part of what the author should have. What the publishers are doing is legal (unless they’re fudging their numbers) just not best for business.

            2. The SFWA was originally formed when some authors realized their sales figures and royalty checks didn’t agree. And somewhere in there was an Ace Double with substantially different figures for each half…

    2. I also, in my more cynical moments, wonder if the current public school curricula isn’t deliberately intended to make the pupils dumber and more malleable. Sigh.

      Last week at a local book festival sponsored by the town library, I had a chance to preach some subversion to a class of talented and gifted kids; told them that when push came to shove, they were in charge of educating themselves – and if they were truly interested in a subject, likely their teachers wouldn’t be much help. Their best chance was to hit the library, and read everything they could possibly find out about that it was that they were interested in.

      I also pointed out that this would have the additional benefit of scaring the h*ll out of their teachers, because they would eventually know more.

      1. “Current”? That’s been the design for the past hundred years. Check out John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education” (used to be available free online, not sure any more). Or, you know, the first chapter of “Have Space Suit Will Travel” which makes basically the same point you were getting across to those kids and was written in the 50s.

        There’s a reason I homeschool. (Actually, I lie, I’m up to about 2062 reasons, but that’s one)

      2. wonder if the current public school curricula isn’t deliberately intended to make the pupils dumber and more malleable. Sigh.

        Been reading quite a bit about zero tolerance in schools lately (insanity!) and one thing that really struck me was how school officials casually spoke of “not conforming” as a serious problem.

        1. The primary purpose of zero tolerance policies is to insulate school administrators from any repercussions from having to make a decision. It’s very much “you can’t blame me, I was just following the rules.”
          Add in that for far too many their real goal in life is not to educate their charges, but rather to build a position of power and prestige at a very nice salary. There are many good teachers, though we seem to be burning those out at an alarming rate, but it has been my opinion that teachers who move into administration do so because of an intense dislike for teaching, which is why the teachers and administrators are so very often at odds with each other.

    3. To quote: “LaFou I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…” “A dangerous passtime.” “I know…”

      I’ve seen rather more of that attitude NOT played up for comedy effect recently than is comfortable.

        1. Cedar not recognizing Monty Python is like finding out my twenty-something nerd office mate, programmer and geek, has never watched “Office Space” or “The Last Starfighter”

          Sigh. A culture is passing away. It was a grand and glorious thing.

          1. Greetings, Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the KoDan Armada.

        2. “And what exactly are the commercial possibilities of ovine aviation?” But thanks Cedar for explaining the origin of the term bellwether. I love etymology!

          1. I do too! This was a natural fit for the post, and made a charming metaphor (ok, charming if you aren’t the one out there in the cold, wet, and dark trying to find the *^^$^%$%#)(* straying sheep. Or worse yet, stepping on electric fence leads with bare feet. (yes, that was me).

            1. Cedar, let me recommend *Bellwether* by Connie Willis. The protagonists’ experience with sheep will either trigger a wince or a laugh. It’s my favorite Willis novel 🙂

            2. Heh. I never had to work as an actual shepherd, but our close neighbor when I was a child was an old age home for deaf people (and had once upon a time been a facility for any age deafs and deaf mutes – or whatever the current term might be – so some of the oldsters there had lived there their whole lives) and for some reason they kept a flock of sheep there. Which occasionally got out of their enclosure. And the director’s daughter was my best friend. So I have chased them a few times.

              1. Never got in touch with electric fences doing that, but did ran into a big patch of stinging nettles once, while wearing sandals and skirt. Should have looked where I was going instead of only at the lamb I was chasing.

          2. I actually looked that word up in a dictionary once. It wasn’t there, of course.

            The dictionary makers apparently feel that people want to look up common words, possibly so they can spell them properly. Uncommon words, being uncommon, are left out.

    1. I’d forgotten that bit of Monty Python. Thanks for reminding me of it…

      Now, there is just one thing that I have to point out, that Cedar failed to mention: A wether is a castrated male sheep or goat, usually done in early life. You supposedly did this because sheep will only follow a male, but you didn’t want to have your rams constantly at your ewes, soooo… Bellwether. The castrated sheep you hung the bell on, and used to fool the other sheep into following him where you wanted him to go.

      I’m not sure how that little detail plays into the metaphor, but it somehow seems like it should. At least, with regard to the “leaders” in the SJW and left in general. Also, see “Judas goat”, the animal that was used to lead the masses into the slaughterhouse, and which would be saved from the slaughter due to the valuable nature of its contribution. Sometimes, following the leaders of the flock isn’t in your best individual interest…

      1. I couldn’t think how to work that into my metaphor without breaking it 🙂 sometimes you just have to go with what you’re doing. And as for following the flock, sometimes it can work in your favor. Other times, you’ll do well to follow the goats over/under/through the fence. Never through the gate and the gatekeepers…

  3. Would any of the resident Mad Geniuses here care to take on the topics of Amazon Press or Kindle Scout? How do they fit into the jumble of things? I’ve read up on the contract for the Scout program, but I have no idea how that compares to straight Indie or even TradPub.

    It that too off topic? Am I a stray sheep?

    Tawk amongst yaselves!

    1. Well I’m not a Mad Genius, but I did sleep in my own bed last night! (Sorry, just got home from the Air Races).

      Kindle Scout is basically a small scale sales program. You put your book in it 30 days before you are going to put it up for sale. Then you promote your book to all of the other people in the program, to get them to vote for your book. If your book wins, you get published under the scout program! And of course you are locked into it, for as long as your book sells ‘well’.

      What do you get for this? Lower royalty, but some level of Amazon promotion.

      What this looks like to me, a regular indy:
      It looks like I’m wasting money promoting my book to get into a program that will limit the return on my work. I may be wrong, but to me it seems you would be better served by skipping scout, publishing your book, and putting the effort into promoting your book with -readers- and not other authors (who you may be competing with for a scout slot) and taking the higher royalty return without the strings Amazon may be attaching to you.

      I see absolutely no upside to Kindle Scout, and lots of downside. Maybe for a new author it might be worth it, but I don’t see it. YMMV

      1. I’m asking this for myself, obviously, because I don’t know how much time I will have to devote to promotion and marketing once I finish my book and get it ready for release into the wild. I have a profession, so I’m coming at this as a hopeful hobby right now.

        It isn’t just authors with KS submissions voting, it can be anyone with an Amazon account. I think begging for noms is part of the process. (errant thought- that sounds like my cat /errant thought) That’s not the only criteria for ‘winning’ though…they do have a set of gatekeepers that make the final call.

        The biggest benefit I can see (as you say) is the Amazon mailing list and promo. Esp. for a new author with no established reader network.

        The long term contract thing is probably my biggest question. $1500 advance (if you are selected), 50% royalty on ebook sales, but then a 5 year rights lock in unless you don’t make $25k on the book in that time.
        5 more locked in years if you DO make >$25k

        I guess my question is: Is that an absurd contract for a first time author? Stated with more detail: Is the 20% royalty difference (assuming you choose the 70% rate for a first novel instead of the 35% & lower price) a fair exchange for the advance, promo, and subsequent help in establishing a reader base?

        Thanks for helping to edumacate the ignoramii ! 🙂

        1. Well, if you think you can get enough votes to win, and don’t mind waiting 30 days, then there is nothing wrong with trying it. I don’t know if the exposure you may get is worth it however. I had Amazon promote one of my novels for the entire month of February and I’m not sure it made me any money at all, because while sales tripled, Amazon cut the price by a third. So all in all it was a wash.
          Now I may have gained more readers from it, but it’s kind of hard to tell because Amazon doesn’t give me any data on if the people who bought that book bought the next one in the series. Amazon is really stingy with data sharing, which is a bit of a shame, because it would help some of us to try and do a better job.
          But that being said, basically what the contract means is that if you sell your book at 2.99, you will be losing 6K per ten thousand books sold, in exchange for Amazon’s advertising it. For a first book, I’d say give it a go, because that sounds like a reasonable ROI. But I wouldn’t use it for subsequent books (and I’d be sure to get the next book out within the year).



          I can never emphasize that enough, because most people don’t even read their contract with Amazon when they sign up with KDP, and then get all butthurt when Amazon pulls their leash for violating contract terms.

        2. The really short summary, because I am desperately short of sleep and overfilled with Life Is Happening: Amazon Publishing is not a 100% guaranteed magic money faucet. However, they do have access to all the Amazon data, and have used it to massively grow their market share without massively growing the number of books on the table. Most authors who go with them from Trad Pub speak very highly of them. Most authors who come from indie-only speak well of them, though some very popular indie authors feel book-for-book they do better on their own. Agents can submit to them, but authors can’t. They usually pick out of indie published authors, not agent-submitted; don’t call them, they’ll email you asking you to accept a call if they want you.

          Kindle Scout is a crowdsourced slush pile, built to mimic similar programs by other publishers. They strongly encourage entrants to get “their fans” to vote for them, BUT the ones that are picked are not always the ones that get the most votes. Basically, it looks like its best niche would be for brand new (but good) authors with minimal to no following, as it’s exposure to people who are interested in picking the diamonds out of the rough. Even if not picked for APub, Amazon will email people who liked your book enough to vote for it should you publish it through KDP… creating a starting pool of buyers that boosts discoverability.

          Is that absurd contract? Compared to any publisher but Baen, it’s an absurdly good contract for first-time-unknown, or midlist. Compared to high-selling indie, it’s a money loser… but if you expect to have marketing chops & fan base for high-selling indie on first release, you wouldn’t be losing a month’s worth of income to pitch in this program.

          Yes, you’re supposed to round up votes. That’s also known as “Learning to Market 101”, using an already-built captive audience to try it on.

          Hope some of this makes sense; will check later.

      2. I was a little annoyed when I read the Kindle Scout terms–“give us a complete and publishable novel and tell all your followers to vote for you!” I mean, the basic selling point of the program is getting greater exposure thanks to being backed by Amazon. If I had enough followers/fans to make myself popular in the Scout program, then I have enough to drive a really good launch for myself.

        Still, I have a standalone that I might submit without any promotion just to see what the results are. It’s all in the name of research 😉

    2. Scout doesn’t look compelling to me, but I don’t think I’m in the core demographic: competent new writers who have no fanbase, no reputation, and no desire to build either the old hard way. For such it might work, at least if the book itself is good.

      I will go a little meta here and point out that what Amazon is doing is trying all sorts of things to see what works in our currently chaotic publishing scene. If Scout doesn’t work it will die, and something new will be tried in its place.

      1. There’s also “not-Amazon.” If the sales through Kindle don’t meet your expectations, there’s nothing stopping you from putting up a download button on Contrapositive and selling direct. There are lots of people out there *not* using Amazon or their Kindle reader who could figure out what to do with an .epub file.

        “The Technium” has an article called by Kevin Kelly called “1,000 True Fans”, a development of “the long tail”. I think he’s wrong with some of it – indeed, Kelly even provides a link to an article with an opposing viewpoint – but the basic idea is that a “true fan” doesn’t want a vast selection of who-knows-what from the book store or Amazon; he wants a Jeff Duntemann story, or a Larry Correia story, or a Robert Heinlein story, and instead of passively purchasing whatever alternatives are presented, he’ll actually go off and LOOK for more Duntemann, etc.

        If you had a dozen offerings up on Amazon, and some random person bought six of them… he’s not an Amazon customer, he’s a *Jeff Duntemann* customer.

        Your competition isn’t Sarah Hoyt or John Scalzi. Your competition is Amazon itself, spreading an array of not-Duntemann in front of *your* customers.

        1. I read Kevin Kelly’s piece years ago, and I think that from a height it’s true: If you have 1,000 people who will buy anything you produce, you can make a decent living. The catch, of course, is that you have to produce enough so that those thousand fans can keep buying. This is harder for some authors than for others, but it’s been particularly hard for me. In other words, the trouble with being a Jeff Duntemann customer is that you run out of Jeff Duntemann mighty quick. Less quick for Larry Correia customers, but I realize, looking ahead in the queue, that I will run out of him sooner than I’d like, just as I did with Clarke, Heinlein, Niven and pretty much all of my other favorites.

          So Amazon has an important role in facilitating discovery, and they have developed all sorts of mechanisms to help people discover new products. (“People who bought this also bought this…”) It isn’t enough for Amazon to deliver me 1,000 fans. I may already be there; I’ve sold almost 1,500 copies of my first novel. What Amazon actually has to do is keep delivering new fans in a steady stream over time, which is a surprisingly gnarly challenge. Scout is one mechanism, but not for an author like me. Their category stack-ranks work well for authors who publish a lot. I think we’ll keep seeing more and different discovery mechanisms from them, and I’m all for that. The newly revamped KU plays precisely to my strengths, and I’m very anxious to see what other tricks they’ve got in the works.

          I don’t mind Amazon making a multitude of books available, because hey, I read too. Competition really isn’t the core issue. Reading has become popular again now that books are $2.99 and the gatekeepers are lying in the bushes, wondering what the hell hit them. It’s about discovery, as it has been for a long time. There are more than enough readers haunting Kindle to make me a very happy (and prosperous) author. The trick is helping them find me. That’s a very big bone that has so far gone almost completely un-chewed.

  4. Just a propos, some years ago I listened to Jim Crace talking about the reality of “award winning” publishing. One of his comments was that the majority of his income for many of his very well-written award-winning books came from the awards themselves, and not from the book sales. The winner of the Booker prize gets a reasonable amount of money, way more than from potential book sales from what is reported here. Think of prize money as a way of subsidizing “art authors” income. (The Folio Society is now using its member’s money for this purpose also.) But worse than all this, far worse!, is the grim reality for academic tomes, many of which are subsidized by taxpayers, and Universities, and yet have no readership at all, none.

  5. Lost in all this talk bout TradPub vs. SelfPub is a lack of discussion about what SelfPub service works best. Specifically, Draft2Digital and what appears, on the face of it, to be their no-hassle ebook creation service as well as the smaller epub services. You guys talk about Kindle Pubbing as if its the only game in town.

    1. Actually if you do a quick search on this blog for Draft2Digital there’s a write up on it. From what I’ve seen from reading this particular blog and Sarah Hoyt’s for a couple of years now is that Kindle is the BIGGEST game in town, and several of the authors here report negligible sales through other venues. Might want to do some digging before you draw too many conclusions.

    2. For now, it’s the big boy on the playground. D2D is indeed the other distributor I recommend, but I recently evaluated my sales and 90% or more of them were coming from Amazon, so I switched to KDP exclusively in order to take advantage of the KU program. You will note at the end of this post I caution that Amazon might not always be the greenest pasture… but for now it is the best place to sell ebooks.

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