One-Layer Thinking or How Not to Understand Authors

mytwocentsWriter’s Digest and Digital Book World conducted a survey of over 9000 authors on their preferences for traditional or self-publishing. The full results will be presented at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference, but DBW has published preliminary findings online, in a post titled “Indie Authors and Others Prefer Traditional Publishing…Slightly,” which publishing mavens have already started pontificating about.

And, as is typical, the analysis is shallow and misleading. Here’s the part the LA Times, in a piece titled “Authors prefer traditional publishers to self-publishing,” chose to focus on:

Despite the rise of self-publishing and the enthusiasm with which self-published authors celebrate its ascendance, overall, the authors surveyed are more interested in traditionally publishing their next book. The greatest preference for traditionally publishing was reported by traditionally published authors (87.2%) followed by not-yet-published authors (76.8%). Among authors who have self-published, more than half hoped to publish with traditional publishers — 53.5% of self-published authors and 57.8% of hybrid authors.

If you take a look at those numbers one layer deeper, however, you can see the real story: the continuing stigma against self-publishing among those who have never tried it. First let’s calculate the gap within each author group between those who “prefer traditional publishing” as the headlines announce, and those who have no preference or prefer self-publishing.

  • Self-published: 7 percent
  • Hybrids: 15.6 percent
  • Aspiring: 53.6 percent
  • Traditionally published: 74.4 percent

The largest preference gap is over 1000% the size of the smallest gap! Right off the bat, we can see a much more interesting and informative story: authors who actually have experience with self-publishing are far more likely to prefer it.The DBW post notes this in passing as if it’s a curious oddity, but why is this not the headline when this distinction dwarfs the relatively tiny overall preference for traditional publishing?

Moreover, DBW says “…few authors reported that they only wanted to self-publish their next book.” However, when you look at their beautifully colored chart (which I’ve reposted below for your convenience), what you see is that the “only self” and “only traditional” responses among those who had tried self-publishing (both clustered near 12%) are far more comparable than the “only self” responses of self-published/hybrid (near 9%) and traditional/aspiring authors (near 1%). Again, a near 1000% difference.

The gap between the “only traditional” responses of self-published/hybrid authors (looks like roughly 11% and 16%) and the traditionally published (in the mid-40s) is also pretty dramatic. In fact, the stubborn insistence on traditional publishing among the traditionally published is double the nearest other group, aspiring authors. Do the folks at DBW not understand ratios? Look at this chart, for the love of Mike!

DBW-AuthorPrefPubNextBookTaking a bird’s eye view of the numbers, we can see that the merely “prefer to traditionally publish” responses (with “only” responses removed) are fairly similar across all author groups (40-50%), making the DBW headline misleading if not technically inaccurate, considering the wording of the survey. The “no preference” responses are also pretty close. The truly dramatic differences are in the “only self,” “only traditionally,” and “prefer to self-publish” responses, revealing that the real story here is the continuing stigma against self-publishing among those who have not self-published.

Why is this not the story we’re leading with?

Now, let me clarify… I have self-published and my response to the survey would have been “Prefer to traditionally publish.” This isn’t about which avenue is better. I have my gripes with both avenues, but I have far greater gripes about bad thinking and bad reporting.

A lot of conclusions can be made from the data DBW collected, but the fact that authors (including me!) like traditional publishing over self-publishing is not among the most striking or important.

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