Transcript: Author Survey Weighs Risks, Rewards of Writing

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Interview with Dana Beth Weinberg

For podcast release Monday, January 12, 2015

KENNEALLY: In almost every war, the factions imagine that God sides with each one of them. Last summer, as a war of words raged over e-book pricing, Hachette and Amazon each cited reasons why authors should stand with their business model and against the others. What’s an author to do?

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for “Beyond the Book.” This week sees the annual release of the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest author survey, marking the opening of the Digital Book World Conference in New York City. The media debate raised when Hachette and Amazon locked horns in 2014 led the survey creators to take up the related questions of risks and rewards to uncover what authors earn and how different publishing models benefit them. Sociologist and self-published author Dana Beth Weinberg is author of the survey, and she’s analyzed the results. She joins me now from New York. Welcome to “Beyond the Book,” Dana Beth Weinberg.

WEINBERG: Chris, thanks for having me on the show.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re delighted to welcome you. Dana Beth Weinberg received her doctorate from Harvard University and is professor of sociology at Queens University CUNY, where she directs the master’s program in data analytics and applied social research. Her research focuses on organizational behavior, work, and occupations. She also writes crime thrillers as D.B. Shuster. Find Dana at, and her fiction-writing alter ego is online at We will link to both of those on our own website.

Dana Beth Weinberg, the author survey at Digital Book World is always a highlight of the program. You’ve been involved with it now for – this is your second year working with the survey sponsors and analyzing the results. You really do, I think, bring a tremendous amount of professional acumen to all of this. We see a lot of author surveys out there, but very few of them have the kind of rich data and analysis that you bring to this particular Digital Book World survey.

This year, it was something of a challenge. We are looking at a survey that typologizes, to use your sociologists’ word, authors in terms of risk and reward. Talk about that, please.

WEINBERG: First of all, the survey itself is not a scientific survey. It’s really like the kinds of things that you see in magazines where they poll readers. It’s comprised of whoever decided to take the survey, however we reached them. So in that sense, even though, in my professional world, I do all kinds of survey work and things like that, this particular survey is what we consider a voluntary sample, and so it’s not all that scientific.

But on the other side of it, this year we had almost 2,000 published authors responding to the survey. If you think about that in terms of doing interviews with 2,000 people about what they do and how they do things and how they think about the world, there’s a very rich source of information.

KENNEALLY: Indeed there is. How do they think about the world? Authors are thinking about the publishing world in very different ways than they did maybe only five years ago.

WEINBERG: Yeah. I would say that this is an industry that is really built on people’s hopes and dreams. Authors write books for all different kinds of reasons. In the past, we were seeing that more of the authors – and it might not even be a trend kind of thing, it might just be who we had in the sample – but more of the authors were talking about building their careers and telling their stories. Those were the key things that they were interested in, and fulfilling a lifelong ambition by publishing a book.

This year, what we saw was that more of the authors who wrote in to us were very interested in making money, and this was also one of the top priorities. So people have become much more – or maybe they haven’t become more, because we can’t really compare year by year – but people this year expressed a more career-focused kind of perspective. So they were interested in publishing books and building a reputation, and of course in making money.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. I suppose they perhaps were attracted to self-publishing and to looking at publishing in new ways because the media have certainly ran a number of stories in the last year or so that really highlight the successes of self-published authors. I’m thinking of E.L. James and Hugh Howey as the most prominent examples.

But what does the survey show us about the reality? That’s the highlight. That’s a bit like the professional world of football or baseball, where the million-dollar pitchers and the multi-million-dollar quarterbacks play. But the rest of us are out there in the backyard or on the football field in the neighborhood. How are the authors doing in that way?

WEINBERG: I think you’d see a very similar pattern. This year, because of how people answered the survey, I think – although it could be a trend. Again, we just don’t know with this kind of data. There were once again a very small proportion of people – or I should say there was a very large proportion of authors who were not making very much money at all. Certainly not enough to live on in a year, when we looked at their annual income. But there was a large minority, almost 20%, that said that they were supporting themselves as authors. That’s the sort of dichotomy that we’re seeing. I would say that when you look really closely, for the most part, at who’s really making it, it’s probably the top 5% or 10% of authors overall, looking across all the years of the survey.

KENNEALLY: Right. One of the things the survey has done in the past is to try to probe satisfaction levels and to look at how well self-published authors are doing and contrast that with the experience of so-called traditional authors, authors who have placed their book with a traditionally built publishing house. What did you show in this year’s results as far as the satisfaction level and the career potential of those two types of authors?

WEINBERG: So we asked authors about a whole number of aspects of their publishing experiences with their last books. One of the interesting things both this year and last year was that there weren’t really huge differences in satisfaction on each of these aspects between the different kinds of publishing. We asked about things like how happy you were with the services you had, and how happy you were with your cover art, and the overall quality of your project.

There were some places where self-publishing did a little bit better in both of the years. But overall, they seem pretty even. If we added everything up together, then self-publishing had a slight, slight edge over traditional publishing, but it wasn’t a marked difference.

KENNEALLY: What’s interesting about that, Dana Beth Weinberg, is it, I think, puts a little bit of a damper on all the excitement of self-publishing and the real sense that at last – this was the story, at least in the media – that at last authors had grabbed the power from publishers, never to release it. And it sounds to me more like they’re in a much closer relationship than that picture gives us.

WEINBERG: I think the places where people were less than satisfied with their experiences really came down to how many books they were selling, to how much money they were earning, and to the kinds of distribution that they had available to them. That was true for both kinds of publishing, which was the surprising part.

On the one hand, we know that authors have more control when they’re self-publishing. And on the other hand, it doesn’t look like, for the majority of the authors, that the sales are coming at the levels that people would have hoped. But the really interesting part of the story is that the grass isn’t so much greener on the other side.

KENNEALLY: What does this tell us, then, about the changing relationship of authors and publishers? Is there any kind of settlement in that ongoing war between authors and publishers?

WEINBERG: This year, we broke down the different kinds of publishers to look at what’s happening in that market. One of the things that’s been striking about the survey over last year and this year is just the sheer amount of variation in terms of what people are doing and how they’re doing. Whichever category they’re in, when you look within the category, there’s a big range.

So we wanted to really kind of dig in and see what’s going on here. How can we explain this range of results? Why are some people doing so well and some people not? What we saw immediately was that when you broke things down into the different kinds of publishers, the authors who were published with publishers that pay advances were by and large doing better than everyone else, whether it was the traditional publishing houses that only paid royalties or whether it was self-publishing in its various flavors.

That really made me start thinking about how the industry is structured. In my background as a sociologist, I study organizations. And I think a lot about the structure of organizations, the kind of arrangements that are there, and the incentives to get people to act the way we would hope that they act. Often, those things aren’t lined up the way we would expect them to be, and so a lot of organizational dysfunction can be explained that way.

So I took the same tools that I’ve been using in my career to study health care, and I started looking very closely at the publishers – both the publishers and the indie authors who are publishing their own work. So we started to think about what do these different groups look like in terms of the risk that they take on? What do they look like in terms of what they’re expecting for rewards? So who’s taking on the burden of the risk, the costs of the project? And then how are they expecting that things will be split up at the end, when there’s hopefully some profit to show for it?

So we thought that there’s really a continuum of risk, if you think about it. If you think about it from the authors’ perspective, on the one hand you have indie publishing, where the author is taking on all of the risk. Then you have the royalty-paying publishers that don’t pay advances, and you could think about that as a risk-sharing agreement between the authors and publishers.

And on the other side of that, you have arrangements where the publishers are taking on the bulk of the risk. For example, when an author receives an advance, they’re getting paid for their work, and so their risk is much more minimal. I think at the end of the spectrum, you would see something like a work-for-hire model, where the author gets entirely paid for their work up front.

On the other side of those things, you think about the reward continuum. This gets to who has the other rights, beyond how the book has been produced, for future monetization? For example, if you have a book that’s come out in print and digital, who has the rights to the audio book? Or if the book is e-book only, who has the print rights to it if something kind of takes off and you want to do more? What about the royalties that are coming out? When there’s a sale of a book, how are those profits split, once everything’s paid to the retailers?

KENNEALLY: What explains the difference, do you think, between risks and rewards?

WEINBERG: I actually think they’re sort of two sides of the same coin, that when publishers take on more risk or when authors take on more risk, they expect bigger shares of the rewards. Our data really shows that.

But on the other side of it, when we’re looking – even with these differences in risk and rewards, which explain a certain amount of the differences that we see in sales and earnings, there’s another difference that comes in when you’re looking within what’s happening with each type of publisher. That has to do with the level of investment, that when publishers are invested – whether these are the traditional publishers or the authors themselves – in different kinds of distribution, in making sure that books get out there, and advertising and marketing or other kinds of things that go into the production of the book, those books have an opportunity to do much better than others.

KENNEALLY: Dana Beth Weinberg, for a survey that opens up the Digital Book World conference, what was interesting about one of the results is that for authors, print distribution still matters.

WEINBERG: Yeah, we tend to think – a lot of the authors who responded to us were fiction authors. The fiction genres do have very strong sales, by and large, in digital. But I think, for many years, people were expecting that digital was going to completely overtake print, and that just hasn’t been the case.

Recent studies have come out talking about the experience of holding books, what it’s like when you read them. There’s sort of something tactile to that whole experience. We might even remember plots better or when things happened in the book better when we’re holding it for some reason, as opposed to reading it on our e-readers.

We’ve seen also the way that children respond to different kinds of books. There’s still a different kind of experience when it’s print. And we’re also seeing that teenagers, despite their love of their devices, still are buying the books that they want to read in print. If you think about some of the more popular trilogies that have come out, you can see that those sales have actually been very strongly in print rather than in digital.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. The other thing about print is that prints – printed books, I should say – are in bookstores, and bookstores still drive a lot of the reading habits in this country.

WEINBERG: Yes. I actually have been fortunate enough to have a set of surveys from the Nielsen company on how consumers buy their books. When you look at the way that people discover books, one of the top reasons – aside from word of mouth, which is way up there – is that they saw it in a bookstore. So all of these authors who have come out digitally, whether through their publishers or on their own, don’t actually have those opportunities yet.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Dana Beth Weinberg, sociologist and self-published author herself, we appreciate chatting with you about the just-published author-publisher survey for Digital Book World, Relationship in a Changing Market: Risks, Rewards, and Commitment. Dana Beth Weinberg, thanks so much for joining us on “Beyond the Book.”

WEINBERG: Thank you.

KENNEALLY: “Beyond the Book” is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow “Beyond the Book” on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to “Beyond the Book.”

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