False precision

When I was working as an encyclopedia editor (back when there were encyclopedias and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), one of the things the editors always got into a lather about was something called false precision. You know, stuff like "There are 1.24 billion stars in the sky"--where people would assign seemingly precise values to things when they could not possibly know what those values actually were.

They were ardently opposed to it, because the feeling was that simply by having a number (even if you noted that it was just an estimate), you distorted people's perception of what was possible. It's like anchoring--simply by my saying there are 1.24 billion stars in the sky, I have influenced what you consider to be the likely number of stars in the sky, even though we all know that I just made that number up.

Their opposition actually got kind of annoying--when the Hubble Space Telescope went up, for example, it drastically altered the estimated number of stars in the sky, but I wasn't allowed to write about THAT. But Dean Wesley Smith had a recent post that reminded me of why false precision is often a good thing to avoid.

Smith had posted earlier that e-books made up only 25% of the book market. People questioned that, so he cited other studies with similar results.

The problem is, a bunch of bad studies are not any more accurate than a single bad studies. And these studies are all bad, because the data is bad.

How is it bad? you ask. In two seemingly opposite ways!

Way 1: The data is too narrow. Smith is impressed by the fact that the Association of American Publishers responded to criticism of its methodology by reaching out to 1,200 publishers!

But that's a bit like being impressed by my survey, which I just conducted now in my imagination. I conducted a survey about who is going to be elected president next week.

Most people think it's going to be a close one between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. But my survey found a landslide win for Romney!

Of course, I only surveyed Republicans.

Oh, look at you complaining about my methodology. Fine. I'm doing my survey again--this time I'm going to survey many more Republicans. And I'm still finding Romney winning in a landslide! So there!

The problem is not the number of publishers the AAP surveyed. The problem is, they are publishers. I'll quote myself again, because I love doing that: "If Random House and Simon & Schuster lose e-book sales because all their writers have gone indie, the data will indicate that e-book sales have fallen, even if those newly-indie writers are selling e-books like gangbusters on their own."

But the AAP is including small publishers this time! (And moderate Republicans!) It doesn't matter. Why use a publisher in the first place? Because they are better set up to sell paper books to brick and mortar bookstores. That is an advantage most publishers continue to have over most indie writers. Surveying publishers is going to skew your results toward paper just as surveying indie writers (or Democrats) exclusively would skew your results in the other direction.

Way 2: The data is too broad. (I told you these would seem contradictory!)

There are certain kinds of books that, I think, will always sell in paper. Children's books, how-to books (I'm not getting The Complete Guide to Home Plumbing as an e-book, nor Auto Repair for Dummies), cookbooks (at least for the minority of us who actually cook with them), and art books will never move completely, or even just mostly, to e-books.

I'll go further and say that I wouldn't be surprised if an increasing number of publishers specialize in these paper-friendly genres, because paper is what publishers do well. 

Do I, as a writer of adult fiction, care? No. I'm not writing for people who aren't old enough to hold Mommy's iPad. I'm not writing for people who want a book that will stand up to hot grease and marinara sauce. I'm not writing for people looking for elaborate pop-up art.

Is there good data out there for me? No. But there are hints that suggest that the percentage of e-books in the market that actually interests me is much higher than 25%. For example, an unnamed publishing executive just said that e-books account for 30%-50% of adult fiction sales. And a recent story about HarperCollins said that, in the U.S. at least, e-books count for about half of that company's revenues.

So, now I've gone and given you another bit of false precision to glom on to--50%!--when what I really want you to do is to embrace the notion that we don't know what the real number is. We don't know. We also don't know what the future holds--although things are looking worse all the time for the national book chains.

And it wouldn't matter if we did know. No matter what percentage of the market is still paper, a paper book is harder and more expensive for an indie writer to create and distribute than an e-book. For most writers, that's what matters--what is what percentage of the book market is really an academic concern.