Business Musings: Confidential Business Information
By the time you read this, I hope the tempest has stopped rollicking the teapot. Because I only want to use the incident as a spark to discuss something most writers don’t understand.
Confidential Business Information.
When the big indie publishing movement started almost a decade ago, we were all startled by it. From the ease of publishing ebooks directly to readers to the way that fortunes could be made, seemingly overnight, it all felt too good to be true.
And that created a culture of Prove It To Me. Part art of that culture was absolutely necessary. Most people did not believe that self-publishing could make them money. Those who did had either done it before, or had such wild success that they were as startled as the rest of us.
Joe Konrath and others started posting their indie sales numbers pretty early on. I’m linking randomly to Joe’s blog posts from 2010, just because I remember him being so open about the numbers.
I also liked the tone of his blogs—surprise that the numbers were working out the way that they were; pleased that the numbers were working out the way that they were; and a small bit of worry that the numbers might not continue working out that way.
I’m assuming that they have for Joe, although I don’t know. He stopped reporting his sales numbers a long time ago. But he’s still going at it, still publishing his books, still analyzing what’s going on (mostly in his own career), and occasionally—very occasionally—blogging for writers.
In those days, most self-published writers posted their numbers, sometimes from all the sources (all two or three of them), and usually did so monthly. It was part of what became the indie community—this openness about how well you were doing, mixed with isn’t this great? and a lot of cheerleading (If I can do it, you can too.)
The cheerleading is mostly gone. Now it’s more business focused, and many of the people who are posting their numbers are trying to sell their method for garnering those sales.
But back in the day, Dean and I were unusual. We did not post our numbers anywhere, and got rafts of shit for it. When we wrote our business blogs, new indie writers were looking at our Amazon sales ranks on one or two of our books (out of the hundreds we published through our company WMG), and decided that we weren’t making money on our writing. At all. That made it easier for those writers to dismiss our advice, even when—on that level, at least—our advice remained consistent. Go wide, sell subsidiary rights, have multiple income streams, and so on. (On other things, our advice did not remain consistent; it changed as the marketplace changed.)
Dean and I have owned businesses for decades, and not just writing and publishing businesses. We’ve had retail businesses (still do), online businesses, and a tree farm. (Yeah, don’t ask.) We know our way around business, and if we don’t understand it, we can figure it out.
One thing we learned early was to keep as much information we can about the business completely private. It’s not that we’re privacy freaks, mind you, but the internal workings of the business—of any business—are tools of the business. The more you control the tools of your business, the more you control the business.
As I prepped for this article, I found a series of lawsuits that differentiated (or tried to differentiate) between confidential information, proprietary information, and secure information in regard to any business. Quickly, those suits devolved into the weeds—was this particular method of doing x confidential, proprietary, or open to anyone? And who got to decide?
Some of the issues are even more complex. When one business mines data or uses secret shoppers or sends a mole into another company, is the information taking from company two confidential or protected in anyway. Was the information “in plain sight,” as the criminal law would say? Was it readily available to anyone who looked? Or was it something that the first company stole?
These questions aren’t always easy to answer, and often go to court. Once these things end up in court, then the “winner” isn’t always the company with the law on their side; it’s the company with the deepest pockets or the most determination to prevail. (A lot of these cases get settled out of court…to prevent the confidential/protected/proprietary information from getting into public as part of a lawsuit.)
Usually the entity that got to decide whether the information is confidential was the business itself. The lawsuits were often about someone revealing information they shouldn’t have or using some sort of method to share that information—often with a competitor—in a way that either state or federal law prohibited. Sometimes the prohibitions were in employment law, but sometimes they were simply about what another entity can reveal about your business to the public.
Again, this sounds like the stuff of control freaks.
But once you understand how to business works, you learn that the more you keep to yourself, the better off your business is.
Time for examples.
Let’s move outside of the realm of publishing for a moment and into just general business negotiation.
A dear friend of mine with many years of experience in a particular industry retired from a rare senior position in that industry to start his own business. His new business is to advise other companies in that industry on how to work best within the industry. Believe me when I tell you that this man is someone whose knowledge is gold. There aren’t many people like him in that industry, particularly on the consulting side of that industry.
When he decided to become a consultant, he did almost everything right. He set up his business really well, but he’s never negotiated before. He hasn’t run a business this way—he was always employed by someone—so he had no idea how to attract clients. He was thinking of setting up a website, listing his rates, and let people’s fingers do the walking.
I talked him out of listing his rates. (So did another friend of ours, with 40 years of experience running businesses.) In fact, I told him to hold off on offering his services to just anyone walking through the door. He had already set up pitch sessions with his most likely clients. I told him to wait until he had talked to them before going wide. (Note this is the opposite advice than I give to writers.)
He went into those pitch sessions, armed with negotiation tools that included not listing his fees, letting the potential clients know that he was offering them a one-time chance to get his services before anyone else, and so on and so forth.
If they asked how much he charged, he told them he preferred to discuss fees after they settled on what he would do for their companies. If they needed to have an idea of the cost of his service, then they could tell him what they normally paid for the service, and he would determine if they were in the ballpark.
You see, I learned the hard way that you should let the other guy set the opening bid. Often the other guy sees your skill set as waaaaay more valuable than you do.
Sure enough, one of the possible clients mentioned price to my friend and the price was double what he would have charged from the get-go. And this is an industry in which negotiation on fees (in business) is common, so “high” price (to my friend) that was the client’s lowball offer. It only went up from there.
If my friend had posted his fees from the start, he would have gotten the money he asked for and maybe not the clients he wanted. They might have seen him as too cheap.
If other clients know how much their competitors are paying for his services, they can ask to pay the same price or the competitor might ask him to lower the fee. For example, one of the clients he talked to represented a multinational conglomerate. Ideally, my friend should charge more for that client than he would for the mom-and-pop business that he also talked to a day or so later. Everyone knows that’s how business is done, but if my friend had advertised his fees or let them leak into the public, he couldn’t maximize his profits.
Although I’m talking about financial and negotiation matters here, control of business information isn’t just about finances. It’s also about procedures and methods, ways of doing things, ways of handling a certain crisis (or not handling it), decisions that are not logical to outsiders but which make sense to the business itself. It’s also about certain business practices, which could be patented, and could then become IP.
I can’t list everything a business might want to keep private, because it varies from industry to industry, and business to business. Many businesses judiciously release certain bits of information, so that they control the perception of their business. Others keep everything private. And some businesses make it look like all of their material is in the public.
If that business has been around for a while, and has a real business structure, I can guarantee that what you see with the business is only the tip of the iceberg.
I started as a business reporter. I’m very good at taking disparate bits of information and piecing together an entire fabric about the business, based on what that business has made public. I had those skills even in the analog era.
There were ways back then to discover, for example, how much ready cash a business had in its bank accounts or how much real property it had. You couldn’t do it at home on your computer, but with a telephone and a bank account number, you could get a lot more information than you’d want to know.
Plus there are records that each municipality makes public, from property records to legal disputes. Many corporations hide a lot of information by creating smaller corporations within the corporate umbrella. Maybe you thought that XYZ corporation owned the empty lot across the street from you, but when you look into the title records, you see that the title is held by 123 corporation. If you still think that XYZ and 123 are related, then you have to look up the incorporation papers for 123—and in some states those papers are readily available, and in other states, they aren’t.
There’s nothing sinister about keeping information private. (Although there can be, at times.) Most businesses just prefer to work that way. They want to control the reveal of information.
I’ve often been in conflict with that reveal, because I’ve been a reporter off and on throughout my life. There are rules and ethics behind how reputable reporters get information, many of those adjudicated in courts of law.
In doing this blog, I often know much more information than I can comfortably (or legally) reveal to you folks. It’s part of the business.
So let’s come back to publishing. Those of you who are on Patreon will see this post in the week it was written, so you probably already know the precipitating event for the post.
The latest Author Earnings report came out on January 22, after nearly a year of silence. Data Guy has been capturing information what he says are the million top selling titles every single day, and then using his algorithm to turn that information into actual sales numbers. He’s tweaking Amazon’s algorithms so that they work for him.
Data Guy has done this, keeping his name and identity private, for four years now. He has done a lot of work to gather this information. He says he only uses information that’s publically available…to someone with his skills. Then he uses his own secret sauce to scrape and interpret the data.
I’ve always had a slightly queasy reaction to Data Guy’s methodology, because I can’t verify it. At worst, I figured, he was a white hat hacker. At best, he was right about how he got the information. Early on, I was usually one of the last people to report his findings, expecting Amazon to shut him down.
After years, and his appearance at various conferences, I figured Amazon knew about him. If they didn’t like what he was doing, or saw it as a threat to their private algorithms, they would shut him down. Apparently, in this early stage, anyway, they saw him as another data capture service.
They might also have had no qualms about what he was doing because he was not making money from it.
Anyway, this report’s findings are a nice confirmation of what we’ve all been saying—that the market has matured, and ebooks continue to grow. That would have made a nice two-day story, something that would have helped the publishing community along.
But hand-in-glove with the new report was the announcement that Data Guy has started a new company. It was only a matter of time before Data Guy did this. Either he would quit offering the information for free and go on to doing other things, or he would monetize his work. (I had thought, early on, that Hugh Howey paid him. I’m not sure what their arrangement is.)
In response to a question I asked on the site, Data Guy said the cost of providing this information has become so extreme he either had to monetize it or quit. That makes sense to me.
The method he chose to monetize this product, however, angered a ton of indie writers. The anger is only growing as I write this on January 26.
Bookstat’s lightning-fast, responsive dashboard lets you search by publisher, genre, author, title, BISAC, ISBN, or ASIN. Discover the top-earning publishers, authors, and titles in each genre right now. See their total ebook, audiobook, and online print sales for last quarter, last week, or even yesterday. Drill down into thousands of subgenres. Analyze sales by price point. By publisher type. By online discount offered. Slice the data any way you want.
From the largest Big Five trade publishers down to the scrappiest garage micropresses, to sales from Amazon’s in-house publishing imprints and format-dominating Audible Studios to J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore — data that you’ll find nowhere else — even the sales of individual self-published authors: it’s all right there, live at your fingertips, ready for you to ask it the questions that drive your business.
And Bookstat’s dashboard works just as well on your mobile device:
That hot new title, up-and-coming author, or exploding genre that someone just mentioned?
Have a phone in your pocket?
You can check their online sales right now.
This is not what Data Guy promised indie writers when he started setting up this company. First, he spoke at the annual conferences for Romance Writers of America and Novelists, Inc, promising writers that if they shared their personal data with him, he would then create an algorithm that would allow them (for a fee) to see their own numbers as scraped by his algorithm.
A lot of writers—many big names—shared their data with him, so he could tweak his product. When he announced the new business, however, it was clear that his business model revealed all of this information…to companies that have revenues of ten million or more. I did a piece just a few weeks ago on traditional publishers. Ten million is the minimum threshold for what I was calling “small traditional publishers” —if you look at publically available financial data on those companies.
How Data Guy will be able to verify this information is beyond me. I now consider him untrustworthy when it comes to handling information. He gathered information from writers under false pretenses, and is now giving it to their competitors. (I write this on January 26, so this may have changed.)
The writers themselves cannot access their own personal information, to even see if it’s accurate. (I can guarantee that it does not check a writer’s complete sales or income. Writers earn from many, many more sources than Amazon, even online.)
When the free report came out, there was a list of the top-selling indie writers—by name—with the promise that some big corporation could get their sales numbers if the big corporation paid for it. Just the list of the top 50 indie writers had some big reveals that the writers themselves did not want public.
To make matters worse, none of those writers gave him permission to use their names. I suspect (although I do not know) that some of those writers gave him information to help him tweak his algorithm, thinking they would be getting personal data from him, not data on other companies. He betrayed them.
Writer after writer wrote to him, demanding their names be removed from that list. Finally, he took the list down, posting this in its place:
ETA: We had initially shared a ranked Top 50 Indie Ebook Sellers list here (with units and dollars blurred out, of course). [Kris’s note…but available to anyone who could pay for it] But then some of the authors on it started emailing us and asking for their names to be blurred out, too. As a courtesy to those authors, upon request we did so, but after the first few it became too much of a hassle. And besides, with a quarter of the list greyed out, it no longer effectively illustrated the point we were making, anyway. So we yanked the whole list, and will just simply state what we observed on it.
Data Guy pissed off the very people who helped him build the business he was trying to market.
All of that—I’m sorry to say—is neither here nor there. By the time those of you who read this on my website see this post, the Author Earnings report might be gone (crushed by Amazon or Disney, also on these lists without permission) or everything might have settled down or there might be a new teapot tempest brewing about other things.
If Amazon does let him continue, it will be because they believe that he’s not doing anything wrong, or that his numbers are stunningly incorrect and irrelevant to Amazon’s business.
But not to the writers whose information is being scraped.
I said above that I would be using this latest crisis to examine something else entirely. Because this tempest revealed something to me about new-to-business indie writers. (Not new indie writers. Writers who are new to being business owners.)
They do not understand why the long-term business professionals are upset by Data Guy’s actions. His breach of implied ethics probably shouldn’t surprise any of us, especially if he was a white-hat hacker. We enabled his information scraping (which might or might not have been legal, let alone ethical) from the beginning.
But it was—and is—the loss of control of our own personal business information, being represented, information about our businesses that we cannot access that has savvy business writers angry.
Many new-to-business writers came on various sites which were discussing this tempest, and comparing what Data Guy was doing to the Forbes List or to BookScan or to movie box office.
Some writers stunningly said that everyone else had the right to other writers’ information because those writers were “famous.” (I think these writers need to learn about the definition of famous under the law, but that’s another point.)
The writers who were upset were upset because they did not know and could not receive what kind of information about their businesses that Data Guy was providing to their competition. These writers—these businesses—had lost control of the information about their businesses. This is the kind of thing that businesses sue over—and win.
Passive Guy did an interesting analysis of Amazon’s interest in this, finally concluding that the data Data Guy had scraped belonged to Amazon. The fascinating thing about Amazon is that they are known worldwide for keeping their business information private. Sometimes they sue, as they did in March of 2016 when one of their logistics experts took a job at Target.
Sometimes Amazon changes its algorithms the moment it learns that people have been gaming them or using them for profit (which is what Data Guy is doing). (See the entire history of Kindle Select for that.)
Amazon also pointedly refuses to divulge information that most business divulge as a matter of course. Article after article about retail or online businesses or major corporations complain about Amazon’s reticence in sharing its data with outside companies.
Big companies like Amazon work hard to keep their information private.
But the new-to-business writers cited other things. The Forbes List, movie box office, things like that which “reveal” information about individuals or the entertainment industry.
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s not even an apples-to-oranges comparison. It just shows a lack of understanding of the various numbers floating around our entertainment news sites. (Those numbers are explained on this sites, if you just look at the actual articles and not the headlines.)
For example, the movie box office numbers you hear have nothing to do with individual movie companies or even with the real earnings of an actual movie.
Box office numbers are based on ticket sales at reporting theaters in the United States (I’m not sure about worldwide). Not all theaters report. Most of the reporting theaters are the large chains. Then the ticket sales are multiplied by an average of ticket prices, to get the weekend box office revenues.
After that, it’s a guess as to whether or not a film has actually made money from its release. There are the actual costs of the film, the projected costs of the film, the carried-over costs of the film, the hidden costs of the film, and the expected future earnings of the film. Those are counted against that weekend number so that “industry experts” can tell you if the film flopped or not.
But flopped for whom? The company that made the film? The distributors of the film? The theaters that showed the film? We don’t know what popcorn sales were for The Last Jedi the week of its release, particularly compared to popcorn sales for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I can tell you that Three Billboards probably made more popcorn profit for its theaters than The Last Jedi did, because it cost less for the theater to run Three Billboards than it cost to run The Last Jedi.
And why am I discussing popcorn sales? Because theaters make most of their money on films on concessions dollars, not on the actual ticket sales.
Box office information looks straightforward, until you begin to understand that once again, the public information isn’t the kind of information that matters to the businesses involved in the industry.
This is why Winston Groom thought he had an ironclad case when he sued Paramount Pictures for failing to pay him his share of the profits of Forrest Gump, the movie made from his book of the same name. After all, the movie had been one of the biggest films of the 1990s, with, at the time of the suit, box office revenue of $300 million.
Groom had signed a contract entitling him to a percentage net profits, not gross revenue (and not even a percentage of the movie’s final budget). Paramount claimed a loss on that picture of $60 million. Forensic accountants searched for the truth, lawyers made a lot of money, and eventually Groom got paid some more money than the $350,000 he initially took for licensing the film rights as a “token” against future earnings.
Box office numbers do not mean what entertainment junkies believe they mean.
Any more than the Forbes List of top earners in various entertainment categories means those people are actually the top earners. Forbes itself admits that.
All earnings are for June 1, 2016 through May 31, 2017 before taxes and other fees. All book-sales data are sourced from NPD BookScan, which tracks 85% of the domestic print market. Estimates are compiled by examining print, e-book and audiobook sales, considering TV and movie earnings, and talking to authors, agents, publishers, lawyers and other experts.
In other words, Forbes uses BookScan, which retailers report to directly (like box office numbers), but that doesn’t give a real examination of revenue. Because what price did those print books sell at? (I saw some Grisham books in the week of release in Book Warehouse, a book discounter. That means Grisham received no money or pennies only for that book in that store. Were those books counted on Bookscan? I don’t know. I doubt it, but if they were, you can’t count that as a full price earning.)
So what Forbes is saying above is that it uses publically available information, and it “talks” to authors, publishers, lawyers, and other experts. Then it “estimates.” (Says so, right in the methodology copy.) No verification of these numbers exists.
In fact, the 2017 list I took that methodology quote from puts J.K. Rowling at the top, but most of her income is hidden. Pottermore is notoriously quiet about its revenues. And there’s no way to know what she’s actually earning from all the subsidiary rights and licenses (some of which she had licensed to Scholastic and still might not get the proper percentage on).
I have known authors who made the Forbes list, and know that their income was incorrectly reported. (Over-reported in one instance, significantly under-reported in another.) I know several authors who are excellent business people and who keep all of their publishing information quiet. They’ve never been on the list, although one of them should be on the list regularly. He’s not one, not two, but several New York Times bestsellers. He writes under a lot of pen names, licenses subsidiary rights on all of them, and no one outside a close circle of writer-friends knows that he is all of those people. (Notably, he does not have an agent. He and his lawyer handle all of the deals.)
These lists are interesting to the consumer. They’re sometimes great publicity for entertainers and writers, but the lists are rarely accurate. The businesses behind the list don’t want the information to be accurate. They see these lists as some kind of weird advertising and nothing more.
So…in this world of celebrity and the internet and data at our fingertips, should we even try to keep our business information confidential? The big companies do so. Smaller companies do as well.
Smart business-oriented writers do.
Will someone find out everything about your business? I suppose they can try. They probably won’t.
Losing control of aspects of your information, though, can harm your business in significant ways. Ironically, even Data Guy seems to know that. In an exchange in his comment section when he was asked what software he used to crunch all the data, he said this:
Some of the calibration & formulae were initially developed in R, as you surmise.
But at the scale it runs at now, the core engine is all custom code, leveraging both columnar SQL RDBMS & clustered NoSQL in the architecture.
Unfortunately I’m going to have to stop there, because some parts of the software architecture as implemented are non-obvious/innovative enough that it might be protectable IP.
Data Guy understands that parts of a business should remain protected or the business will be harmed. But he hasn’t bothered (at least at this writing) to take that concept out of the realm of software into the realm of business numbers for individual writers and companies.
Again, I am aware that sharing information was how indie publishing got off the ground. I think with the publication of the January Author Earnings Report, those days have officially come to an end.
That’s probably a good thing. Maybe the expectation that writers should share every bit of data about their businesses will go by the wayside now.
It helped a lot of writers enter the indie publishing realm, but those days are past. We are indeed a mature market, where writers no longer bootstrap each other and are slowly learning that not everyone is deserving of their trust.
Keep the information on your business proprietary, folks. And learn how to control it to benefit your business.
Remember, the person who cares about your business the most is you. Some others might want to help you, but they might also want to use what you do to their advantage.
You can’t always tell the difference up front. But the moment someone reveals their true colors, respect that. Because as Maya Angelou says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
It’ll save you a lot of grief.
I have long had a rule about my writing: It makes me money or I don’t do it. That’s because I make a living at my writing. I’m not a hobbyist.
Not even when it comes to the blog. Yes, I’m always learning as I write these blogs, but they wouldn’t continue if I didn’t receive some money for writing them.
I set up two ways that you can support the blog financially if you’re so inclined. If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
I have a Patreon page, so if you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head there. It has taken a little more than a year for me to come close to the $500 per month that I said I would need to keep the blog going week to week…on Patreon. But the donations I receive from PayPal made up for the shortfall early on.
If someone were tracking my nonfiction earnings only from Patreon, they would wonder why I was continuing. That’s because the revenue from the non-fiction is no more straightforward than any of the other revenue in my writing business.
Okay, time to get off the soapbox on this topic, and to say thank you to everyone who comes to the blog. I greatly appreciate the discussions, the insights, the information, and yes, the donations. You folks are wonderful.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Confidential Business Information,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / AndreyPopov.