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How do indie writers ignore readers?

28 January 2012

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

When I started, it wasn’t possible to make a living as a self-published writer. It is now. In fact, weirdly, you can make more money as a self-published writer than you ever could as a midlist writer—and in some cases, more than you could make as a bestselling writer.

Honestly, I find that astounding. This change has happened in just the past few years. A number of readers of this blog have commented on how fun it’s been to watch my attitudes change toward self- and indie-publishing. I’m still educating myself on all of this, and I’m still astonished by some things that I learn.

Of course, I’m still astounded by things I’ve seen in traditional publishing too. But I have come to expect illogic there. I’ve steeped myself in that side of the profession since I got my first issue of Writers Digest at the age of 12. Traditional publishing makes no sense on a number of levels.

And now, writers seemed determined to bring the same illogic to indie publishing.

I’ve focused on a lot of this illogic before from the use of agents in this modern world (makes no sense) to the use of a service to upload your book to ebookstores for a percentage of that book for the lifetime of the book (again, makes no sense).

. . . .

Traditional publishing gave up on readers long ago. When traditional publishers take books in a series out of print before the next book comes out, those publishers aren’t thinking about readers. Those publishers are looking at books as widgets.

Look, they say to themselves, here’s a bunch of widgets in different colors. We released the yellow one first, and it’s doing all right. The green one, which we released second, isn’t doing as well. And the purple one, which we released third, is doing just a bit better. We’ll release the blue one—we think people will like blue widgets—but as we do, let’s remove the green one from the shelf. Green is a similar color to blue, right? And no one will know the difference.

. . . .

If readers like an author’s work, they want to read everything that writer has done. If readers like a series, they want to read the entire series. And if it’s a series that has a continuing storyline (like a fantasy series), readers don’t want to skip an episode in that storyline.

It seems simple, it seems logical, and yet time after time after time, traditional publishing screws this one up.

I could list a million other things traditional publishing screws up, but that would take this entire post plus every post for the rest of the year. Honestly, most traditional publishers succeed in spite of their business practices.

What that tells me, a person who has written about business for more than thirty years, is that there is so much money to be made in publishing that even the most inept people on the planet can blunder their way into enough successes to keep the lights on in the office year after year.

We all know how traditional publishing ignores readers. But how do indie writers ignore readers?

By focusing on sales and “promotion” and “discoverability” and downloads and free to the exclusion of everything else.

Many indie writers have one book and they promote the hell of out that thing. They give it away for free, they join Kindle Select to “maximize discoverability” (ignoring Nook & IBook readers), and they sell it for 99 cents, thinking that will increase their sales.

So…let’s imagine that these writers are successful. Let’s imagine that they do get millions of people downloading their books. Out of those millions, at least half a million will read that book, and out of that half million, 250,000 will like it.

Then what?

Then nothing. That’s the problem. Nothing happens. Even if those successful indie writers eventually write another book, they have to start all over from scratch, because the readers who like what they did—those 250,000 readers—they will have forgotten the indie writer in six months.

. . . .

You indie writers treat your readers as badly as traditional publishers do. And you do it in the exact same way. You deny your readers the next book.

. . . .

My frustration with traditional publishers ignoring readers is unbelievably high.

So when I see indie writers do the same thing, I get furious. I really do. Folks, when you heavily promote your first book and then don’t write anything else for a year or two or five, you’re insulting your readers. The people who have invested their hard-earned dollars and, more importantly, their time in your book.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Kristine Kathryn Rusch

51 Comments to “How do indie writers ignore readers?”

  1. Let’s ask the reverse. How do readers ignore writers?

    • The question “how do readers ignore writers?” disturbs me. Perhaps you should clarify?

      IMHO: Readers should ignore all writers who don’t write what they’re interested in. And, frankly, writers should ignore the readers who aren’t interested in their work.

      Maybe a rephrase of the questions:

      “How do indie writers ignore _their_ readers?” is maybe closer to what Kris is saying.

      Put that same change into the question “How to readers ignore _their_ writers?” and the answer is they don’t. If they ignore you, you aren’t one of their writers.

      Actually, looking at that, I realize the concept of “reader” Kris is talking about is “Fan.” Your fans give you a lot, so take care of them.

      • I get ‘Reader’ as ‘Fan’ out of that post as well.

        I read some of Kris’s books and liked them. But that doesn’t make me an invested ‘fan’ of hers. I’m not going to hunt down her books and short stories. But as she releases a book here and there I will take a look.

        I’m just not a squeeing fan-girl type.

        I don’t think a writer has to put out 3 or 4 books a year to be a ‘real’ writer. I’d LOVE to do that – but Real Life is a horrendous mess – I can’t even hold a ‘real job’ because of the chaos.

        But I have purchased a number of Indie books and have more on my Wish-list. I also have a number of ‘trade published’ authors on my Wish-list. And I occasionally look for certain backlist titles.

        • Yes, theoretically I could write four books a year without breaking a sweat, but it hasn’t happened yet.

          I think the lesson is if you write slow, expect slow results. Wait longer before you start marketing and worrying about sales.

          And yes, it’s hard to even be much of a reader when your life is an Horrendous Mess, let alone write much. I spent a couple of years taming a Horrendous Mess to give me that time to write. (Every now and then the Mess rises again, but I beat it back…)

          • FWIW – I took the ‘Dark Harbor’ series designation off my 2nd book. If people don’t read the first book of a series, until there are several book – I don’t need to write a series.

            The next book would stand alone without the first and vis versa. No need to kill my sales with two words.

      • Disturb you how?

        What I mean this week is that readers may not be supporting writers by purchasing their work. This is an act of love but it’s also a business. We’re in this together. Readers need writers, writers need readers.

        As for the whole series issue. I did intend for the Bad Apple series to be 6 books but after 3 and no real reader support, I moved on. I do get email and questions “When is Bad Apple 4 going to be released?” Well, never. I can’t do this for free.

        At the heart of my concern is the whole freebie/gold rushy thing going on. I saw a post by someone who gave away 43,000 books through Kindle Select and there was no appreciable sales bump following that.

        Actually with all the free books, readers don’t need to pay for books at all. There’s nearly an endless supply of giveaways.

        That disturbs me.

        • It sounds like you’re talking about what Seth Godin calls “the Dip.”

          Basically any endeavor will have a point where it gets very difficult, and you have to choose whether to push through, or give up. Because most people give up (and perhaps for good reason, because it depends on individual situations) those who press through reap the rewards.

          (That is an oversimplification.)

          When you only have a few books, you have a certain kind of readership. They are the people who are willing to try new things, but they aren’t particularly loyal. It’s a trade off. Unless you hit best seller status quickly, that audience is not going to sustain you.

          (That’s also the group which are reading freebies, btw.)

          For midlist writers, the more lucrative audience is the loyal one. They not only buy lots of books, but they talk about them. However, they are hard to capture before you have six or seven books.

          So the “dip” is between book three and book six or so.

          The audience is ignoring you because you haven’t given them what they want. Why should they pay attention? (And no, that group isn’t reading freebies. They’re paying 9.99 or more for backlist books by authors who actually made it to 40 or 50 or 60 titles.)

          The problem is…. do your books appeal to that audience? Do you write fast enough to ever reach the point of pleasing that audience? Do you like a particular book series or genre to sustain you through writing lots of books?

          It may not be worth powering through the dip if the answer to those questions are all “no.”

          IMHO, though, if your books have a consistent style, your whole body of work is a kind of series, and you will eventually get to that second group of readers even writing stand-alones.

          But it is not the reader’s job to support you through that process. They aren’t your friends. They don’t owe you anything. They give you money for the license to read your book, and that’s all they owe you.

  2. Have to ignore readers to get the writing done 😉

  3. I think KKR i absolutly right. So much so that I would encourage a new writer to hold off releasing their first book until they have a rough draft of their second nearly done.

    B. S.

  4. Yeah. That Harper Lee, she really ignored her readers big time. Maybe nobody told her she was supposed to turn out two books a year?

    Margaret Mitchell, she’s another one.


    • Margaret Mitchell got run over and killed by a truck. Kinda hard to write another book while dead.

      Otherwise, I agree with the premise of your comment.

      • Margaret Mitchell got run over and killed by a truck in 1949, thirteen years after ‘Gone With the Wind’ was published.

        According to KKR, she should have written another twenty-six novels.

  5. I could write 4 books a month if I’d stop faffing about online reading blogs about knuckling down and writing for readers!

  6. Good points. Like most readers, I get disappointed when I reach the end an author’s available work. A writer could have their first three novels ready, publish each six months apart, and at the end readers will demand the next installment as soon as possible. Good stories and writing stick with readers. True fans take time to investigate the writer. I don’t necessary think indie authors need to have their next work instantly available, but do need to communicate with their fans/readers. A simple website and most importantly– an updated timeline/status report will do the trick. Also, extras like sporadic previews and writing samples are always appreciated.

  7. A lot of writers are struggling to get a handle on this Alien New Writing World. They’re experimenting with aggregators, new deals with agents, Kindle Select, buy buttons, giveaways, the wilds of social media, and sandwich boards–all in an effort to find readers. I’ve considered all of them, messed with some of them, and that time spent has definitely been at the expense of fresh writing. It’s a conundrum. And it makes me crazy. (Add to that I am *not* a fast writer.)

    My writing factory’s lights have been out for months now while I try to morph my backlist to frontlist and learn how this ANWW will work for me. No doubt, I’m doing more wrong than I’m doing right. I am, though, listening to the advice from pros like Kris telling me not to give away a percentage of my factory during the learning curve. Logic tells me the changes in this alien universe are coming too fast to take that risk.

  8. There’s a dip between the 3rd and 6th book? Oh man! I *just* finished the manuscript on my third book last night. Talk about a wet blanket. Maybe I’ll just skip right to the seventh book. The readers won’t notice. ;-P They’ll be used to the publishers doing it.

    Jean Auel must have hated her millions of readers. We had to wait an average of 5 years between books. 5 YEARS! Actually, that was just the average, but at least one time, it was about 8 years.

    • That’s actually funny. It just prompted me to think of writing a time travel series that was all out of order.

    • 🙂

      The dip I was referring to was just the desire to give up. You don’t get fewer sales at that point. I picked it only because that was the number Barbara gave — if she didn’t have support by three books, she didn’t consider it worth going on. (And only she knows the factors which go into that decision — so I’m not criticizing that decision, just using it to define the dip.)

      The dip is going to happen in a different place for every author and every type of book.

  9. “Folks, when you heavily promote your first book and then don’t write anything else for a year or two or five, you’re insulting your readers.” – i don’t agree with this. writing too quickly could compromise the quality of the work produced. there’s no point churning out a novel a month if they’re all going to be trash – it will only damage your reputation. if fans could wait a yr or two for the nxt harry potter, then why wouldn’t they do the same for an indie author? have we become so used to high-speed technology and instant gratification that we’re no longer willing to wait for quality? don’t readers know that it takes time to write a good novel?

    • Rese, some people write slowly and produce wonderful novels. Other writers produce wonderful novels with, what to me, is the speed of light. 🙂 I have always been a slow writer so this write-faster-get-more-books-out philosphy has never worked for me. Actually makes me feel like a sluggard.

      I’ve always envied writers who are blessed with prolificacy.

    • Agree completely. That’s my whole problem with Rusch and D.W. Smith’s “10 novels” plan. Good things take time.

      • EC: agree – that’s why I’m going the short story and novella route. Easier on my demented mind.

    • I think people are mistaking the point. She didn’t say you should rush your books.

      What she said was that you shouldn’t be wasting time with promotion when you could be writing.

  10. Kris, Kris, Kris – get real!

    You’re a trad-published author turned self-publisher and we respect your opinions.

    But you’re not a new indie writer and clearly, from your constant comments about how we’re doing it all wrong, know very little about this side of the business. If you did you’d know that free books, cheap books and using Select and similar initiatives as tools has paved the way to success for countless indie authors who would still be complete unknowns if they took your advice.

    True, they’re not earning or producing on your scale, but that’s because they’re new to the game. They don’t come with backlist, brand and the benefit of being a full-time writer.

    Heavily promoting that first book, which you find so dreadful to contemplate, shows the author is on the right track and has a market for their work, gives then the confidence and incentive to go that extra mile with the next book, and might just give them the financial security to cut back on the day job and bring forward the completion of said next book. Ignoring the first book and writing the second and third, only to find no-one is interested, would be crazy.

    • “Ignoring the first book and writing the second and third, only to find no-one is interested, would be crazy.”

      Absolutely. “A terrible thing happens when you don’t advertise. Nothing.” –– P.T. Barnum

      • That’s true in modern traditional publishing, but it was not true until about twenty or thirty years ago.

        Throughout the history of publishing (before Thor Power Tools and B&N screwed up the distribution model) the model was that the publisher would carry a writer through ten books or so before expecting anything. It was well known that it takes lots of books to not only gain an audience, but to develop skills. (And I should point out here that those ten books were published books, not slush pile dreck.)

        The hope was that the author would do one of two things within that ten book cycle: either they’d get a slow but loyal audience which could be counted on (midlist), or their skills would develop such that they could be nurtured into writing a “breakout” book.

        And yes, now and then, someone would hit the lottery and create a break out book early. (Although, surprise surprise, usually they were folks who had written many many unpublished books, or other works, outside of publishing. You don’t get to that level of skill without writing a lot.)

        That’s the natural way publishing works: people AREN’T interested in your first book, or second or third. They get interested later on. And yeah, that’s something that current studies show that the current audience wants too. (I think the study I saw said that most readers don’t like to start reading an author until they see six books.)

        The only reason it hasn’t worked that way in the past 20-30 years is because booksellers make more money on blockbusters, so they don’t want to see anything else, and they intentionally shut down careers at three, or even two books. Ironically, an indie writer can make a very good living on a tiny fraction of the number of sales required to stay in print.

        • “people AREN’T interested in your first book, or second or third. They get interested later on.” … “that most readers don’t like to start reading an author until they see six books.”

          Where do you get this rubbish from? Be serious!

          Do you pick up a book in a store or see one on-line, decide you might buy it, then change your mind because it’s only that author’s third, or fifth? What utter BS.

          • I got it from research studies.

            And yes, absolutely, I tend to avoid first books — not because I expect them to be bad but because if I like them, I want to read them in a string with other books.

            Here’s the thing, what gets me to pick up a book is being familiar with the author. I get familiar with the author by hearing about them over a period of time. This is well established in bookselling research. There have been several links to such studies on this blog, I believe.

            When I decide to add an author to my “stable” of reads, I will generally start with a fifth book. If I like that, I’ll go back to the beginning.

            Why do I do that? Two reasons: one is because first books tend to be different from later books. By around the fifth or sixth published book, the author has established his or her more mature style, and so I know if the time investment is worth it. If I like it, I won’t mind if the first book isn’t as good. But if I start with the first book and find it awkward, I won’t know if I should bother with others.

            The other reason is purely in the author’s interest — most writers don’t write that fast, and I read too many books to remember one out of a bunch. So if an author only has one book, I will have forgotten it by the time the next one comes out. If there are four or five, I will have at least character names fixed in my head so I will remember next time a book shows up.

            The biggest reason, though, is not conscious: I’m simply less likely to notice one book by itself. I see a shelf of books, I’ll be much more likely to notice it. I will then browse those books to find one that sounds interesting. I’ve never once come across an author where all of the books sound interesting. Usually there is only one or two out of several which really hook me. Once hooked, I find out whether there is a payoff — and the payoff will sell me on the other books.

            And regardless of psychology: historically, that has been how it works in the publishing business. First book has small sales, second book has better sales, and third book better yet. Earl Stanley Gardner’s first ten Perry Mason books were very different than his later books, and most people don’t know that because not many people had read them — at least not compared to later books. This is the same with all the big names. Most of their readers discovered them with later books.

            • I never pay any attention to whether an author has one book or a hundred when I’m looking for something to read. If I like the book, *then* I go looking for more. I have never in my life excluding reading a book because it was the author’s only one. Maybe it’s because most of the time while browsing a bookstore, it wasn’t always apparent.

              I guess I’m an exception?

            • Maybe — however, I wonder if it’s generational, or related to where you buy books. (Also, even a majority is not necessarily larger than 51 percent of the bookbuying population. So if one third of book buyers are like you, that’s too big to be called an exception.)

              But back to my cultural thoughts: When I was young, booksellers did stock back lists. And, of course used book stores always had lots of back list books, even out of print ones. Libraries, of course, also are back list heavy.

              When modern booksellers stopped carrying back lists and midlist writers (favoring new writers and bestsellers instead) I stopped shopping there. Completely. I would browse at used bookstores and libraries, and otherwise I’d shop online. Online, of course is a different experience. You either search for name you know, or you browse the way you browse websites — clicking around. So if I do come across an author I haven’t read, I’ll click on the name to see more about them. And if they don’t have more books, I don’t learn much more, so I move on.

              Now… here’s something that does help those writers capture readers like me (and this is a biggie):

              If I come across a new book or writer that interests me enough to look closer, but I decide against buying them because they don’t have more books available yet, I’ll SAMPLE. This will keep them on my radar so I will remember them better. And I don’t sample everything, just things I want to remember. It’s a way of bookmarking the book.

            • I think we need to distinguish between walking into the local bookstore and people who are searching for ebooks. The people searching for ebooks, from what I understand, have a bias for authors with multiple works — the more works the better.

            • “And yes, absolutely, I tend to avoid first books — not because I expect them to be bad but because if I like them, I want to read them in a string with other books.”

              So this!! Personally I stick with the over 3 or more crowd of writers. I don’t think I am alone.. You can see this behavior even with big, big, NYT Bestsellers, sure the first book was big-ish, but it was book 3+ that kicked them into the stratosphere. I also think avid readers tend to be this way.

            • Hm…I have to weigh in on the side of not being biased against an author with only one book out. I would think it’s a sizable minority who feel that wa.

              I will add a caveat to that, though: I’ll buy a first book as long as it’s not marked as the first in a series or a trilogy. If I know going in it’s a series of any kind, I wait until they are all out to try the first one. But if it’s a standalone that looks interesting, I go for it. If I really like it, I’ll remember the author’s name. If I sort of liked it, I will remember if I see their name again in conjunction with a new book.

        • Agent/author Donald Maass has stated (both in workshops and in his books) that it takes 5-7 published books for an author to begin to establish a reader base.

          Too bad most publishers are now cutting authors loose after 2 books if ‘the numbers’ aren’t stellar. Either that, or suggesting they change pen names and start over as a fresh new debut author…

  11. I can see Kristine’s point about not wasting time promoting a first book and writing instead, however, that is from her perspective of having a ton of books under her belt. For the rest of us, we’re between a rock and a hard place. I can try to keep writing while working a demanding day job full-time, and not market my work. I may never get ten books written with that plan. Or, I can market my books, get enough sales to enable me to go part-time, spend the extra time writing, and get more sales, and who knows, maybe I can quit the day job entirely. Then I can write even more!

    • There’s a dip with that plan too: getting the sales up to the level where you can go part-time is far from a given with only one or two books. Marketing doesn’t pay off _that_ well most of the time. It’s kind of like planning to win the lottery.

      I’m a slow writer. So I spent my effort at creating a life situation where I could live on part-time wages regardless of whether I sold a word I wrote or not.

      You could say mine is a variation on a third alternative: don’t count on making a living at all. Write and market as it pleases you and let the chips fall where they may. You might get lucky and strike a vein early, or you might build up your career slowly, but you don’t have to angst over whether you did the right thing or not.

      The thing that makes old-timers impatient with newbies is that the newbies whine about not getting the results that they wanted. And the reason you’re not getting the results is not because you didn’t market enough or aren’t doing it right, but because you’re a newbie. Time’s the only cure.

      • Luckily for me, I can go part-time technically, in that I will only be scheduled part-time hours, but I can pick up extra hours when needed. I work at a hospital that is part of a system, so I can even get hours at two other hospitals nearby that are in the system. I’ll probably still be working full-time for the most part. I can just pick and choose more when I work.

  12. I spent the last week and a half reading an existing mystery series, that I stumbled upon on Amazon. 7 novels, two novelettes and a novella later and I’ve reached the end of what the author already had up. Waaaaaaaaaaaa! Tracked the author’s site down and found out the next ebook is due out in March. So long to wait. So, so long >..<

  13. There’s a plenty of good sense to be extrapolated from the post.

    – Don’t let promoting your first book stop you from writing your second.

    – Be aware that if you put out part 1 of a trilogy, readers will be disappointed if part 2 and 3 are not immediately available. They will be far far more disappointed if part 2 and 3 never eventuate.

    – You’re more noticeable when you have more books out.

    If you’re a one-book person then throw all your effort into promotion, but otherwise remember that more books increase your chances of people finding you.

    I don’t think many of us can produce books at the rate of KKR and DWS, but it’s definitely sensible to keep producing.

    I published eight books last year (and two compilations). But it took me over ten years to write those books. I have readers keen to read more of my work and so I do a little promotion and a lot of writing.

  14. I’m actually in a good position right now. I’ve spent the past few years writing and I’ve got several finished novels sitting on the my computer. Some of them need a little more TLC before anyone can read them, but that’s a few weeks or few months or work that I’ll need to put into them.

    Of course, I don’t want to rush out 3-4 novels just for the sake of having them out there, I want to give each one it’s time in the light before I start building up the next one.

    I can definitely understand what you’re saying, though, with this article. It’s just not a smart move to go through all the effort to sell your work and then disappear for months and years, you’ve got to work on a steady output.

    A good course of action here might be to work on a few short stories before your next novel. It gives your readers something of yours to read and you write them a lot faster than a full novel. Something to consider, at least.

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