Author Survey: The Data

This post contains all the data gathered from our Do You Love Your Publisher? Survey. That survey was launched on our blog here. It benefitted greatly from the help and support offered by The Society of Authors, The Crime Writers Association, the Romantic Novelists Association, and many others. We are grateful for their help.

This summary data does not show filtered answers. (Eg: If you want to see how authors-published-by-major-publishers-only responded, you can’t do so from what follows.) But we are happy to share access to our complete dataset. Please just ask if you want to know more. If you are a senior decision-maker at a major publishing house and would like to discuss these findings, then great. Get in touch. And if you’re a journalist wanting a comment, then what are you waiting for?

Questions 1-6: Profile of Respondents

Comment: Note well-published nature of typical respondent.

Comment: Note recency of interaction with the industry.

Comment: It’s been known for some time that authors are very poorly paid. Data gathered by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society in 2007 revealed a median income for authors of just £4,000. Since people can’t actually live on £4,000, most authors don’t: they find other sources of income besides. The median income for ‘professional authors’ – that is, those earning at least 70% of their income from writing – was £13,000 (for novelists), £10,000 (for academic/educational writers) or £8,000 (if you are unfortunate enough to write non-fiction.) Our survey wasn’t exploring incomes, but is highly consistent with that ALCS data – which is now somewhat out of date, though no one in the industry thinks that the trend has been anything but downwards. The link you need to the ALCS data is here, but it appears to be broken: please contact the ALCS, not us, for help. Alternatively, you can find a discussion of these things in this very fine book.

Comment: Again, note that the bulk of our respondents are published by the industry’s commanding heights. Note too that our survey is essentially a survey of ‘trade publishing’ – that is, consumer-oriented publishing, not educational, academic or business related.

Comment: not all authors have or need agents. This breakdown is not untypical.

Comment: Shows high-quality nature of respondents.

Questions 7-18: Experience with most recently published book

Comment: very impressive. Publishers clearly do very well on this front, despite the fact that editors today face a far wider range of pressures than in the past. Data like this raises the question of whether there is any substance to ‘Decline of The Editor’ type stories, such as this one.

Comment: same again – very impressive. Challenges the idea that most copy editors should go home and shoot themselves with a gnu. (see Antony Horowitz’s recent complaint.)

Comment: open to question how these results are interpreted. My own (author-centric) view is that all authors should always be meaningfully consulted on cover design, so that these results hint at insufficient depth of consultation. It should be said however that most publishing contracts require consultation but not necessarily meaningful consultation – that is, the exchange ‘Do you like this cover?’ ‘No.’ ‘Thank you for your input.’ would satisfy almost any current contract.

Comment: again, somewhat unclear how to interpret these results. They are certainly broadly positive – but would author satisfaction increase if consultation were made more meaningful? And, crucially from an industry perspective, would covers improve as a result? No one knows.

Comment: as for question 9.

Comment: as for question 10.

Comment: in our view, this set of responses suggests a real lack of concern by publishers in the views of their authors. Since authors will always know far more about the subject they are writing about than any publisher can, and since the author is ‘the brand’, and since the author may well have contacts and digital presence that reach places not easily accessed by or even known to publishers, this lack of communication is almost certainly regrettable – and in the commercial interest of neither party.

Comment: see above. It’s not surprising that if publishers don’t make the best use of their authors, the resultant marketing campaign is underwhelming. Do note that this question carefully steers respondents away from simply thinking, ‘I wish publishers had spent more money.’ Both the emphasis on the author’s own assets in the question title and the comment about ‘without huge cost outlays’ in one of the responses were intended to focus authors on steps that could have been taken without significant financial investment.

Comment: respondents divide about 50/50. It is not clear why publishers should ever fail to communicate properly with their authors.

Comment: we’ve taken a look at the filtered data and the pattern of responses looks broadly similar for inexperienced writers (those with just 1-2 books published.) Clearly, authors will find it hard to play an engaged and useful part in the publishing process if they have not been given any instruction in how that process works and where they can best add value. Debutant authors reading this post probably want to arm themselves.

Comment: another dispiriting set of responses. How is it justifiable not to give authors a channel by which they can meaningfully communicate their views to their publisher? And how can it be commercial good sense to avoid doing so?

Comment: good. Very few issues arising here. (Although I must be dumb: I often find royalty statements hard to read.)

Questions 19-28: Broader reflections and the changing industry

Comment: It is striking how many professional authors either have self-published or have flirted with the idea of doing so. In evaluating this answer, it is important to bear in mind that:

  • In the past, self-publishing was a costly venture (because you needed to print copies) and one likely to benefit from very few retail outlets (because few national retailers would stock self-pub material on any but the most local of scales).
  • The advent of electronic platforms means that e-pub is essentially costless to the author (though wise authors will invest something in editorial, copy-editing and cover-design).
  • Furthermore, those books can be made internationally available via multiple platforms (Kindle, iTunes, Smashwords, etc). That is: self-published authors can, without substantial upfront cost, sell alongside commercially published authors and with (in the eyes of consumers) few ways to easily differentiate the two.
  • In the US, where the use of e-readers is around 1-2 years ahead of the UK, much genre fiction sells 70% or more on these platforms. (When I was in New York recently talking with my editor at Random House about their upcoming release of Talking to the Dead, she anticipated that more than 70% of sales would be of e-books.)

Many UK authors will not fully have appreciated the extent of the changes underway, because e-books in the UK, though very fast growing, remain a minority element in most authorial incomes.

Comment: somewhat endorses the comments made just above. It is notable that only a quarter of authors would stick with publishers come what may. Much recent discussion in the industry has focused on the corporate power struggles between Amazon / Apple / other e-platforms / publishers. We suggest that perhaps the crucial battlefield will be whether publishers do enough to retain their authors. These responses are far from offering any conclusive answer to that question – but they do suggest the question is a real one.

Comment: responses to this question show the strong – if too often frustrated – attachment that authors have to their publishers. It is notable, however, that the first three elements on the list above are quite easily outsourced. The ‘links with bookshops’ has been absolutely crucial in the past, but the landscape is likely to look very different in 2-5 years. It is notable how little authors care about ‘marketing savvy’ and ‘advance and royalty structure’ – two of the areas most likely to be cited by publishers as being of importance to their authors.

Comment: no very strong negative responses here. It is worth noting however, (i) the repeated implicit endorsement of publishers’ editorial standards and (ii) lead times in publishing – typically 12-18 months – are capable of being abruptly shortened by author-led e-publishing.

Comment: In our view, this is the most striking answer in the entire survey. In essence, it tells us that more authors would jump ship to an unknown new publisher than remain with the one they have. If you include ‘not sures’, then almost two-thirds of authors are unimpressed by their current publishers. We consider that to be a remarkable, and disturbing, finding. (Note: this question was inserted into the survey after the first few dozen responses had been received. So overall data collection was a little lower than on other questions. If you were one of those early responders – as I was – then apologies.)

Questions 24-25, Question 28: text-based answers

We asked:

  • Q24. Now please tell us anything we’ve missed. First, positive things you have to say about your experience in publishing …
  • Q25. And now anything negative you’d like to share.
  • Q28. And finally – if you had to send a message to the publishing industry in one single sentence, what would that sentence be?

Answers took the form of short textual statements. We will be publishing a selection of those statements in due course. If you are a journalist or publishing exec and wish to see a full set of responses, please feel free to ask.

Comment: Although ‘Yes, most likely’ is the most commonly chosen response, that’s still a somewhat muted response from a generally experienced bunch of professional authors. We suggest that the large number of don’t knows is probably the more telling verdict.

Comment: broadly in line with previous question.

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  • Fascinating stuff – as a small-press published author, I have probably been a lot more involved with the cover design, copy and marketing than with a big mainstream publisher. One thing that this survey highlights is that a publisher is not a publisher: the two main factions (editorial and sales/marketing) have different agendas and evidently different relationships with their authors.

    The question is: who calls the tune?

    A reciprocal survey on what publishers think of their authors would be interesting.

  • My response as an indie author is Join me, come to the Dark Side!

    Nothing in this fascinating survey has made me regret not getting the agent and publishing contract I used to wish for. The alternative is better in so many ways. I do hope publishers read your results and make changes; after all, without authors there would be no publishing industry.

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  • As a young writer struggling with the decision to try to break into a traditional career or jump straight into tumultuous waters of self-publishing, this data is immensely helpful. In sum, the big houses are good for editing and production, but do little for marketing and sales. This is a real shame, because the marketing is precisely the half I can’t do myself. Production is easy with common software and POD technologies, and freelance editors are in abundance, but the real time and money sink is in promotion: the ads, the giveaways, the journal reviews and contest submissions etc.

    The disparity in the quality of services is odd to me, because the authors should be the content creators and the houses should have the business savvy; it seems that they expect it to work the other way around. They can help to produce a great book, but we have to figure out how to sell it. If I’m going to have to do the legwork anyway, I’d rather keep my rights and the majority of profits for myself.

  • No, the big publishers have EVERYTHING to do with marketing and sales, and the vast majority of self-published writers are going to sink without it, regardless of the quality of their work.

    I’m a trad-published author who’s dabbled in publishing ebooks by other trad-published authors, and without the enormous mechanisms available to the Big Six and similar, it’s nearly impossible to get people to pay attention to work without such enormous effort it would require giving up the writing in order to take up a career in PR.

    It is, essentially, extremely hard to get the signal heard over the noise, and I would strongly advise any would-be authors to hone their work until they have salable material rather than making the mistake of putting potentially substandard work on sale through Amazon or elsewhere.

  • Harry

    Hi Gary, I agree that self-pub is not (for 99 point something percent of writers) a solution to the conundrum of how to market your book. The facts still are (A) newspapers matter, (B) retailers matter, (C) retail promotions matter a lot and (D) you still only get access to those things via major publishers. I think the survey raises legitimate doubts, however, as to how effectively publishers marshall their resources and involve authors in so doing. And of course the world is changing very fast. Items A to C above will all be much less important in three years’ time than they are now … and is there sufficient evidence yet of publishers evolving a new digital-era marketing model? My verdict: not so far.

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  • Interesting how quickly perception is changing about self-publishing. Not long ago it seemed a great majority of writers would never consider it, but as data like this suggests more and more authors who have published traditionally are now considering a change to self-pub… makes the initial decisions that much easier to give it a go without an agent or house.

  • Carol Frome

    You make good points. However, the fact that a work isn’t picked up by an agent and publisher often has little to nothing to do with quality or whether readers would like to read it (salable material). Unless what you mean by salable is whether the work is trendy. What should good writers with good works do? How many years should they run the wheel inside the traditional hamster cage?

  • Jo

    Are publishers trying to go extinct? They need to seriously revamp their approach if they don’t want to disappear with the digital age. Why would they not want to market their own product? Treat authors well to attract more business? There is a smug clueless-ness that astounds me. What exactly is their goal? Even fast food is marketed like crazy.
    I predict that if they do not change their tune they will go the way of silent film and the movie rental store. (Which nobody believed would happen at the time.)
    My agent has placed my manuscript with five editors–waiting to hear back. When I see things like this it makes me wonder if I’m being pimped out.
    Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. And no call the next morning.

  • Amazing. Really amazing how slowly writers are making the change.

    I mean, I write, I publish, I sell copies (Amazon sells copies for me, more accurately), I can see my sales updated on a hourly basis, I make 70% per copy and I control price (35% for cheaper works).

    Now ask me what I would change. “What would you change, Chris?” Nothing. I don’t need any more help than Amazon (and smashwords for B&N and others) are giving me and their price for doing so is fair and reasonable. I don’t have print books, not because I can’t but because I don’t want to yet. I’m not looking for a publisher because I don’t want one. A publisher would serve no purpose for me. They are not needed.

    Writers. Really. get with the program.

  • Wow, very interesting data. A lot to digest–so much so, I only really have comments to share on one question, number 21. The first thing I noticed was that one of the most important things a publisher provides is prestige. I thinking being published by a commercial publishers gives one a sense of approval and assurance that self-publishing doesn’t give. It says, “We believe in this product.” Outside affirmation is very important, according to this survey (and my own observations of others), and so I think that’s still going to be important in the future, since self-publishing doesn’t really give one that–rather it’s taking a risk on oneself.

    Also, I think that question shows, unconsciously, what these published authors feel like sells the work–good editing (both “editorial expertise” and “copyediting, etc.”) is number one, followed by jacket/cover, and then marketing. It seems like the less the author has input over, the less it feels important to them and overall sales.

    Just some food for thought.


  • The fact that more than 20% of the respondents had a negative experience with payments strikes me as more serious than “few issues arising”. It also doesn’t address the very long delays in reporting sales. I don’t know how things work in the UK, but in the US we’re looking at from 6 months to 12 months delay in even knowing what your sales are with publishers.

    For those of you who may not know, Amazon reports and pays monthly.

    To respond to Gary Gibson, the same can be said of most traditionally published authors who get little marketing effort beyond inclusion in the bookstore catalogue, whose books stay in the bookstore for three months (if they’re lucky) and are probably told they didn’t sell enough to sell their second novel.

    Writing is not a profession for the weak or faint of heart.

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