Home » Big Publishing, Hugh Howey, Self-Publishing » It Has Never Been Easier

It Has Never Been Easier

7 May 2016

From Hugh Howey:

There’s a dangerous meme in the publishing world that says self-publishing was easier in 2009 and is much harder today. But nothing could be further from the truth. The exact opposite is the case. Self-publishing was nearly impossible then, and it’s incredibly simple now. In fact, it’s never been easier.

The hardest part of self-publishing, you see, is the decision to do it. You have a manuscript in your metaphorical hands, and you can go one of two ways: You can send that work off to agents, or you can send it off to readers. Either path is open to you. Whether or not the book sells in vast quantities will have very little to do with how you choose to publish the book. There are challenges both ways. But back in 2009, if you wrote a story you believed in, and that friends and family delighted in, and you took very seriously your dream of making it as a writer, it was pretty damn impossible to self-publish that book. Because everyone was telling you not to.

I remember getting on a forum for aspiring authors back when I was wrestling with my decision to self-publish or go traditional. The advice I received was that dangerous mix of dead wrong and overly confident. I was told that I was an idiot for considering self-publishing. I was told that I was an idiot to think agents would ever look at online bestseller lists and offer representation to an author for an already-published book. These were what passed for experts in the day, and it was hard to fault them for being wrong, because all of their advice made sense in the decades prior. The fact that it no longer made sense to query agents was hard to see. And even harder to believe.

I heard from everyone that the best way to get my work in front of readers was through querying and traditional presses, and so that’s the route I took. But I harbored doubts. I blogged about those doubts. I posted on forums to express those doubts. And what seemed logical to me was shouted down over and over with: “You’ll never make it. You’ll destroy your career. Readers will never give you a chance.”

Who was I to doubt these experts with many more years of experience?

. . . .

JK Rowling and Stephen King were held up to me as the likely outcomes of querying my manuscript. Books on store shelves were pointed to, not the piles of rejected manuscripts or the vast delays in getting the work to market. Writers for generations have been given the gloss, have been shown the lottery winners, not the reality in the trenches.

Working in a bookstore and being in charge of setting up author events, I met NYT bestseller after NYT bestseller who had a day job. Writers were largely broke and toiling in their passion as a side hobby or a second career, not as something they did to earn a living.

. . . .

My job in a bookstore gave me more perspective beyond the gloss: I watched new books sit on our shelves, only to be returned to the publisher. And I met readers wandering the aisles, clamoring for more great stories than were being published. I knew I had these stories in me. And I finally summoned the courage to do the nearly impossible: I put that second contract in a drawer, decided to go on my own, and even bought back the rights to my first novel. I did everything all the experts told me not to do. Anyone who thinks that’s easy is out of their minds. It was so hard that almost no one at the time was doing it.

Times have changed. Back in 2009, we were told our books would be horribly edited, rather than sharing among us the names of our favorite freelance editors. We were told the cover art would suck, rather than knowing about the Jason Gurleys, Ben Adams, and MS Corleys of the world. And we were told success along this route only happened once in a lifetime, like with Amanda Hocking, rather than seeing it happen at least once a month like we do today. We didn’t have Author Earnings and Data Guy. We had forums full of outdated advice and bullies shouting down anyone who disagreed. We didn’t have an open sharing of information and experiences like you get on KBoards. We had the rise of the new form of vanity publishing, where all that mattered was what imprint you were assigned to.

Self-publishing was not easier back then. Competition may have been less, but that’s because the decision to self-publish was nearly impossible to make. And the more positive the feedback on your manuscript, the less likely you were to make that decision. Which means the best works were likely the ones sitting in drawers and slush piles. And the decision to self-publish was only made as a last resort.

In 2016, self-publishing is often the first and most preferred route.

Link to the rest at The Wayfinder

Here’s a link to Hugh’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

PG says do the math.

In traditional publishing, unless you figure out a way to work with more than one publisher (virtually all current Big Publishing contracts will prohibit this if you don’t strike or substantially rewrite a couple of paragraphs), you’re lucky if your publisher releases one of your books each year.

A twenty-year career means twenty books, at most. In year five, you’ll be earning money from five books.

A great many indie authors have discovered they can write far more than one book per year and their readers are overjoyed to have more books. Four books per year is not at all unusual for an indie author.

A twenty-year indie career means 80 books, maybe more. In year five, you’ll be earning money from twenty books.

A thirty-year career: tradpub – 30 books, indie – 120 books. Forty years: tradpub – 40 books, indie – 160 books.

Can a writer of a given quality – great, good, workmanlike – earn four times as much from each book sold to a publisher as he/she earns from self-publishing?

PG knows a lot about how much a great many writers – indie and traditional – earn from their writing. He can’t, of course, divulge any names or numbers from his clients. He can say, speaking generally, that the indie authors he hears from are making much more money than the trad-pubbed authors he hears from.

He can also say that an increasing number of trad-pubbed authors are trying to figure out a way to get out of their contracts with traditional publishers and, hopefully, regain rights to their books.

The main reason is always the same – these authors have learned they can make more money as indies. They can take the books they traditionally publish and make more money from those same books on their own than they receive from their publisher. The publisher is not making them money, the publisher is costing them money.

How much more money varies from author to author, but by their own calculations, experienced authors will add at least one zero to their annual book income when they stop tradpubbing and go indie. YMMV.

This is certainly not a scientific sample, but it is a good-sized sample.

UPDATE: Don sent PG an email, pointing out that PG was more likely to hear from successful indies in his professional capacity or as a bloglord looking for interesting stories.

Don is, of course, correct. Financially successful indies are more likely to share their income stories than indies who don’t sell many books.

PG apologizes if he gave the impression that all or the majority of indies make a lot of money from their writing.

Big Publishing, Hugh Howey, Self-Publishing

67 Comments to “It Has Never Been Easier”

  1. *Selling* your self-pubbed books was easier in 2009. It’s harder to *sell* books now. Publishing them is easy. I think he might be getting out of touch with the self-pub community, because most of the established folks I know agree it’s harder to sell these days, despite having longer backlists.

    • When I published “Dream Horse” as a test in 2009, I was the only horse book in that category on Amazon. It was really easy to sell! Charlie did very well for me for several years.
      Now it barely sells at all because it’s been buried under the deluge.

    • This is exactly the meme I think we need to squash. It is much easier to *sell* your ebook in 2016 than it was in 2009. Selling is a product of publishing. The ease of publishing is a far greater multiplier than the reduced sales from the increased supply.

      The reason there weren’t more books on the market in 2009 is because it was much more difficult to make the decision to self-publish. And that decision was harder the higher the quality of our works. So the books with the most potential were the ones least likely to have been made available.

      Also: Fewer readers were in the market for inexpensive ebooks. Their supply has grown as well. As has the quality of the published material. If it were easier to sell ebooks in 2009, more people would’ve been doing it. It simply wasn’t. And they weren’t.

      • With respect, sir, it is much easier to TRY to sell a book in 2016 than it was in 2009. What a difference one little three-letter word makes. Fine, established, enormously successful authors like yourself who have a solid following may certainly find it much easier to sell now than you did then. The rest of us, not so much.

        • Sometimes I fantasize about going back to 2010 with no books, but knowing what I know now. I would ruuuuuule! The problem with my education during the early years was I listened to the “write what you looooooove and the rest will sort itself out” crowd on kboards.

      • I’m sorry, I don’t understand, Hugh.
        This is my experience of it, it’s not a meme to me.
        And Impossible Charlie is a very high quality book, one originally published by Atheneum and that Disney was interested in, published in France by Castor Poche, as well.

        I did nothing in 2009, 2010 (I was #440 overall with Summer Horse at BN for Christmas that year. A middle grade horse book.)

        Now I have to regularly invest hundreds of dollars on advertising to be seen at all. I don’t call that an easy sell. That’s a great deal of extra work for me–creating ads, the graphics, the blurbs.
        It’s actually quite stressful.
        For me, the landscape has changed.

      • Bringing a book to market is easier now. However, the characteristics of that market determine how easy it is to sell. I’m using “easy to sell” to mean generate revenue.

        So, market entry is easier, but available supply in the market has increased far more than demand. That makes it harder to generate revenue.

        One example of how this plays out is KDP. KDP is essentially a big price cut. Normally when supply increases outpace demand increases, prices fall. Amazon didn’t change their $2.99 floor for 70%. But they did introduce a whole new system that resulted in lower consumer prices.

        If I’m wrong about Data Guy, I apologize. But I believe he recently said about half of KDP downloads were trough KDP. That’s a big price drop.

        • Looks like I wrote KDP in a few places where I should have written KU. KU is the new system that represents a price cut. And I think Data Guy said half of KDP downloads came through KU.

          • About 35% of paid indie sales are KU full-length reads (or partial reads in total amounting to the same), and another 35% are additional full-priced retail sales of KU-enrolled titles. The remaining 30% are sales of indie titles not enrolled in KU.

            KU doesn’t math out to a “price drop” however — at least not as far as average author earnings are concerned.

            When you crunch the numbers, it turns out that Amazon has balanced the per-page payout rate so carefully that they end up paying KU authors as a whole within 1% of what they would have been paying those authors, had every single KU full-read been a retail sale instead.

            Being that close (within 1%) is not an accident — it’s by design.

            • Thanks for the clarification.

              The price drop is at the consumer retail level. It relieves the normal downward price pressure coming from the increasing supply. That could happen with a variety of deals for suppliers.

              In this case, the top of a sliding scale for suppliers is the same as a normal KDP sale. The bottom is a bit off that mark.

              • KU is the devil.

                • Could be. But it is an expected response to the supply. Prices will fall by one means or another. As DG pointed out, Amazon has structured this price cut so the most popular authors (measured by pages read) are insulated.

            • It might be within 1%, but the ‘fully read’ KU book is held to a much higher standard than a sale.

              I would wager there are many many unread books on kindles which the author was paid for, but may never be opened let alone finished. On my kindle alone there are just over four thousand.

              By replacing sold with read, most if not all authors will see a pay cut. Nobody manages 100% open, 100% read rates 100% of the time.

              Do you have any data on how far that loss is mitigated by income from the extra readers who would not have bought the book?

              • Hi, Sean,

                As a whole, under KU 2.0, the data shows Amazon collectively paying indie authors more than ever. So, yeah – any loss in income is, on average, more than mitigated. Any potential loss in overall author income from incomplete reads has been more than offset by the greater numbers of KU downloads by readers who wouldn’t have otherwise discovered, or bought, those books. On average, by participating in KU, an author will see more paid downloads — including full-priced retail sales — as a result of the enhanced bestseller-list visibility KU provides.

                What the data shows that indie authors as a whole are collectively getting paid more under KU 2.0, getting read more, and getting more visibility.

                But that’s “on average”, and averages are slippery things when applied to the individual. Naturally, any change will work to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others.

                For any given author, mileage under KU will vary.

                For every author of shorter books who is making less per sale under KU, there’s another writer of 150,000- to 200,000-word page-turners who is now making more. For now. All of this could change tomorrow — remember that Amazon tailors their shifting bookselling programs to the needs of their customers, not their suppliers, and they base those judgements on what the data tells them those customers want.

                It’s also worth remembering that it’s impossible for any of us to say what any particular author would be in earning today in a KU-free 2016. That would take a crystal ball. To assume the bookselling landscape would now look exactly the same as it had in 2013/2014, and each author would be doing exactly the same sales they had back then, doesn’t make too much sense.

                It’s a crazy business, ain’t it? 🙂

                The best thing all of us can do is keep on writing what we love and what our readers love — and keep on learning about how our industry really works, so that we can use that knowledge to make the best day-to-day publishing decisions we can.

                • All of this could change tomorrow — remember that Amazon tailors their shifting bookselling programs to the needs of their customers, not their suppliers, and they base those judgements on what the data tells them those customers want.

                  That’s am important point. When KU changed from 1.0 to 2.0, I doubt consumers knew or cared. Their world didn’t change. They kept on paying by the month, and they kept on downloading.

                  Meanwhile, it was a huge change for authors. Money shifted from one faction to another. Some were delighed, and some were enraged. But consumers just kept on like before.

                  So retail price drops don’t have a direct effect on authors. The deal Amazon gives them does.

                  My own unfounded speculation is that KU is Amazon’s medium term attempt to create its own best seller stable of authors. It’s how they intend to compete with the publisher’s blockbuster authors like Grisham or King.

                  KU rewards products that consumers like. Producers of those products like the rewards, and have increasing incentive to stay with Amazon’s program. Over time, those authors get more and more page reads, and their books are more and more popular.

                  KU does two important things. It relieves downward price pressure at the retail level, and it shifts the benefits to the authors producing the most popular books. Those authors feel no pain from the price cut.

                  KU is a big author filter. It identifies authors consumers like, and that information is known to Amazon only. That’spower.

            • When I crunch my own numbers, at a $3.99 price point, I’m making about $1.02 less per per book on a KU read– significantly more than a 1% difference. At a $6.99 price point, the difference falls to about 5 cents difference per book. Still quite a bit more than 1%.

              • Hi, Kathlena,

                Per my comment to Sean above, for every author individual mileage will vary. Some will do better under KU, some do worse. That’s why I think it makes sense for us all to be experimenting with our own books, to learn what works best financially for each individual book and its own particular audience.

                • Thanks, DG. I’m speculating that the difference I’m seeing might be related to Amazon’s recommended price point for my books, which is $2.99. At $2.99, the $1.02 difference would pretty much disappear.

      • Reality Observer

        To the ones that are having trouble now – yep. Guess what, you will be doing all of that “stressful” work with any of the “Big However Many This Week.” They do nothing to market you, unless you are very lucky and had a surprise big seller last year. (And if you don’t have one this year – um, who are you again?)

        I will be going entirely self-pubbed. Am I going to be the next Hugh Howey? Extremely unlikely, down somewhere in the fractional percent of probability. Am I going to be a quite the day job guy? Slightly more chance of that, but still in the single digits.

        But – going trad pub? 100% chance of making absolutely NOTHING. Losing some money, in fact. I would spend at least five years just trying to get in the door anywhere – and failing. There is exactly one house, and not a Big one, that could make me significant money on my kind of stories – and they are backlogged with authors that are just as good, and most of them better than I.

        Sorry, but I’ll do the work and accept enough to take the spouse out to dinner every other month, rather than do the work and pile up rejection slips from the mail room monkeys.

      • Individual books are harder to sell in 2016, but collectively, books are easier to sell in 2016. 🙂 Why am I now thinking back to those crazy word problems in math?

    • I don’t think so. It’s always been hard to sell books. The books that have sold well have always been the exception. Wasn’t the stat that 99% of all books published sell fewer than 100 copies?

      • I made $12,000 off a YA book in 2011. Dumb luck perhaps, but it was a different time. I could release that same book today, and, even knowing what I know, could never hope for that level of success.

        It’s much harder today to get traction. Your safest bet is to write a multi-book, within-the-lines genre series and pray that BookBub likes you.

        • I was on Lulu with an ebook and paperback in 2007. In 2010, I published Meets Girl, and in 2011, The Prodigal Hour — I think the latter just a few weeks before Hugh published Wool first installment. I had a couple of Bookbub promos with free promotions, and for a day The Prodigal Hour was the most popular book on Amazon (number one overall in free).

          I started working with Nick Earls and several other authors that December.

          Since then, we’ve published myriad titles across myriad genres. Trilogies and series. Literary and fantasy and science fiction and action and erotica.

          It’s never been easy to get traction.

  2. the Other Diana

    I agree, it’s much harder now than back in 2009. Heck, it’s harder now than it was 2 years ago.

    There is more competition from genuine authors and from scammers who are in it to reap the benefits of KU.

    It would seem that competitors don’t want to compete against Amazon, so that makes things doubly hard for Indies.

    Would I go trad pub? Never. But to say it’s easier now is simply not true.

    To make decent money takes hard work and sometimes a little luck. Since I can’t control luck, I focus on putting out the best product I can.

    • True. Still beats tradpub. 🙂

      Oh, and discoverability is tougher now because we have 5 years of cheap Indie backlist. If I can get a BookBub on a series I wrote 4.5 years ago, so can others.

  3. While I agree it has never been easier to get a professional book to market, it is far…*far*…harder to sell. While finding cover artists, editors, proofer, formatters and all the rest is now super easy, getting eyes on the book is like finding a winning lottery ticket in a pile…while blindfolded.

    I sell the same now as I did when I had 2 books on the market, except now I have almost 20 books. They’re good, get great reviews, and when I promo, I do exceptionally well. Without promotions (effective ones!) they being to sink.

    It’s gotten harder precisely because it’s gotten easier.

  4. Reading this, I kept thinking about a certain forum that was once the best resource for writing and publishing online, but devolved into a mammoth collection of dismissive bullying and arrogance.
    Is my certainty Absolute? Am I completely Write? No idea. It’s the first thing that popped into my head.

    To be fair, a number of forums had writers who had suffered the horrors and the heartache of the established system and had managed to get something accepted. It was the same system that all other authors had suffered, so I think it had the veneer of a rite of passage, a gristmill of real quality. It produced the influential fiction of their lives, so why shouldn’t it be respected and obeyed?
    I suppose letting go of that was hard.

  5. Self publishing is easier/quicker than trad-pub.

    Discovery is just as bad as trad-pub — unless you’re a 1%er.

    Since self-pub is easier, ‘everybody and their brother/sister’ is doing it too. There’s quite a bit of really good stuff out there — and some really bad (and of course the scammers/gamers). Your e/book can be a needle in a haystack of other needles, some shinier/duller, but the buyer can’t tell one from another without picking it up and looking at it, so make that cover count!

    But for all it’s warts, self-pub will keep on growing because the other choice is trad-pub.

    Where you may need an ‘agent’ to even get noticed — at a mere 15% of whatever you might make.

    Where your odds of getting your story picked up is about the same as flipping nine coins into the air and them all coming up heads. (1 in 512 odds with nine coins by the way.)

    Where the contract removes your rights to your work — and sometimes for any future works as well.

    Where you will have little to no control of the editing or cover.

    Where ‘they’ can (and have been) price your ebook high enough to reduce your possible sales.

    Where unless you’re a 1%er, the only marketing done will be done by you.

    Say what you will about the pitfalls of Amazon and their KU, it still beats the odds of trad-pub. If it’s still too bad for one’s taste ignore KU and go wide (some people are reporting good sales with other venders) though I’ll admit to being leary of some of the ‘pay for our marketing help’ offerings out there …

    • I misread this the first time through (low on caffeine) but my misreading was interesting.

      An agent who takes 15% of what you make for getting you noticed by readers/customers? Sounds like a good deal to me. They would be motivated to have effective promotions as their pay also depends on the sales of the book.

      • Sadly ‘get your story noticed by a trad-pub’ is all they do for their 15%, a one time deal and a payoff ever after. Oh, and some will beg you to sign even the crappiest of contracts — because ‘they’ don’t get anything if you don’t sign …

        Now if you could find a full time promotional agent that would get your e/books out there and sold? Yeah, 15% while they’re working for it might be worth it.

  6. This, Allen. My small press books are every bit as lost in the ocean as my self-pub books. That said, I make more from my small press books, per title, than on the self-pubbed titles. I have a couple of books on contract that I’m still working on; I have three or four books that won’t fit my small press’s publishing needs. Will I take them indie? Probably, but I don’t know at this point if I’m willing to toss them into the sea and watch them sink.

    And upthread, “effective promotion”? Tell me what is effective and I’ll go do it. I’ve been asking this question since 2002 and I still haven’t found what works for my books.

    • Deb, I took the liberty of peeking at your website. Just a very .02. And I dig what you are doing, very original. And, for me, you are burying your lead with not putting all your titles and COVERS on first page, say in moving banner along the top. Readers are looking for reading, not nec for the author bio first.

      We want to highlight YOUR WORK, not you exactly. [dont take that wrong, there certainly can be a bio page, but I’d want to know on bio page, first and foremost how a Christian author dared to walk into the genre of Romance… there’s a huge story there I sense.]

      If you were my client, I would urge you to take a look at how you’re boldly facing out on amz and on your home page of your site as well as anywhere else you have presence. You arent Deb Kinnard who lives and breathes. You are THE Deb Kinnard fabulous edgy writer of Christian …. They said it couldnt be done, but Deb does it and to rave reviews [reviews from Joel Olsteen etc to follow.]

      Just tell me to shut up if this does not fit. You dont have to be louder than others to be seen, but modesty may not highlight your good works as well, and highly so, as being bold.

      Also, just .02 of an old pro, your picture of you with your great shiny hair and smile belongs BIG on the home page. I think there are any number of people here who would give you feedback privately and for free, if you like.

      Be bold, woman!

  7. I self-published my first ebook in late 2007 (Dec 7th).

    Self-publishing itself (preparing the book, getting it uploaded) wasn’t hard back then, and it’s not hard now. There were less retail options then, more now so in regards to that, yeah, it’s easier now.

    Based on personal experience, it was harder to sell books back then. It wasn’t until late 2013 that it became “easier” for me to sell books.

    It’s interesting (to me) because many others sold gobs of books back then, and began seeing a drop-off in sales when Amazon started Select. Another session of sales dropping for them when Unlimited was added, and the change made from paying per borrow to paying per page read. Just about every change had people saying their sales dropped in response.

    My sales didn’t change much from 2008 through 2012. They were certainly pitiful, but grew yearly until summer of 2013, when a “major” (for me) drop-off occurred before my sales turned upwards beginning that September, with the result that I began earning a living as a writer at the start of 2014.

    The *only* thing that seems to affect my sales is how often I release a new title. The longer between new releases, the more my sales drop. A new release results in a fantastic month and two good months before sales begin to really fall.

    No promotion I’ve done has had any affect on sales. I stopped doing all the recommended free stuff in um, early 2011 (free being regular blogging, a lot of social media accounts upkeep, etc such things).

    I’ve tried a few paid promotional things since beginning to earn a living, and they’ve been wasted money. Heck, I still have $42.50 of the $50 for my Goodreads ad I began running Dec. 3, 2014.

    All I do is occasionally post a snippet of the current WIP to my Facebook page, and announce new releases there, on Twitter (usually just once), and post them to my site. No blog tours, no hitting up book blog reviewers, no giving out ARCs, or whatever else.

    Basically, I do just about everything wrong marketing-wise because none of that stuff worked for my books. Yet, I sell enough copies to earn a good living (for my particular area and purposes), and have for over 2 years.

    And that’s during the years others have been complaining about how hard it is to get noticed, how their sales have dropped because more books being published, or Amazon changed up things, or this retailer shut down.

    I don’t even have my 10k “true fans” yet (if y’all remember that bit).

  8. A few years ago people talked of a “tsunami of crap” and Konrath did the best job in fisking this myth (not really a myth, because the tsunami is here, and the crap is here, but the good books tended to float to the top nevertheless).

    Maybe the right metaphor in fact is a “lava flow”, not a tsunami (which after all is a non-recurring event), of good books (or good enough), not of crap. Year after year this non-ending flow adds layer after layer of books, and none of them disappears or goes out of print, as they mostly did in the old system pre-ebook. Even with a good book you risk being buried. But the metaphor is still incorrect, because with a lava flow it would be the newest authors on top, burying the old ones (those who published in 2009, say), while in the current system it is mostly the new authors who struggle more and more to get noticed, if I understand correctly all I’m reading on various forums.

  9. Publishing them is much easier because the tools have improved and many support professionals are out there now for all your cover, editing, formatting and other needs if you so choose to get some help.

    Selling them is harder.

    It’s like the guy who put the “Flashlight” app in the Apple App Store the first day the original iPhone was released. People paid money for an app that would turn on the camera flash so it could be used as a flashlight. It sold like hotcakes and he made a killing because there weren’t that many apps to purchase that first week.

    If you were an early entrant in the Kindle store, you didn’t have near the competition that new writers do now, so discoverability was easier.

    Somebody’s going to say “but there were fewer readers”, and that’s true, too. But it was still easier to grab those eyeballs then, than it is now. For a variety of reasons, including but not limited to Amazon’s ranking system wackiness and the sheer volume of books being published monthly, it’s not as easy as it once was to sell.

  10. So it’s harder to “sell” eBooks in 2016.

    That means more and more of the dilettantes will move on to the next easy thing.

    All the better for TPVers.


    • I like the way you think.

      I know we all grumble every time Amazon changes a policy or cracks down in ways that seem heavy-handed, but if that’s what we’re working toward, I’m all for it.

      I wonder if, at some point, Amazon will begin to remove titles that haven’t sold in a certain number of years.

      • They will never remove low-selling books. How will they know when those books will meet some future demand and when to put them back up?

        Low-selling books are not in anyone’s way. They don’t bog down the system. They are always the right search query away. And Amazon gets to brag about the number of books they have available for sale.

        It will never make sense to remove them.

        • You’re probably right. I was just trying to imagine this shopping experience in 10, 20, 30 years. That’s a lot of books. Tens of millions of books sitting on their servers, probably hundreds of thousands that haven’t been downloaded in years. That will be an expense, and bragging rights will not be an issue at that point. Same as free books (like my perma-free titles) that technically cost Amazon to store and distribute.

  11. I keep thinking “discovery” is the wrong word to describe the real issue. The problem isn’t discovery, it’s competition.

    I have a novel that normally has a rank below one million. I’ve made almost no effort to promote it. (I’m focused on creating new work.) But if I keep it exclusive to Amazon and make it free for a week, I’ll get about a dozen downloads (most on the first day) without doing anything (even mentioning it on my social media). I find that pretty interesting, that I can move a (small) bunch of units by doing almost nothing but clicking “free day” every few months.

    Now, maybe most of the people who download it don’t read it, or don’t like it enough to give it word of mouth or whatever, but that’s really not a problem with “discovery” it’s more likely a problem that my novel isn’t generating enough excitement with the reader to build virally. Likewise, if I had a “better” cover and blurb, I might get a bunch more free downloads.

    For a promise of $100, I can use Amazon’s AMS marketing system and get tens of thousands of “impressions” on my book and dozens of clicks. (And I can suspend the campaign after spending a few dollars.) That’s pretty cheap discovery. Those thousands of impressions don’t lead to much in actual sales, but again, maybe that’s a problem with my book, cover or blurb. People are seeing it. They just aren’t buying it.

    Similarly, when I put up a new book, it jumped the top of sales rankings for it’s category for a few days, until eventually disappearing like the novel. But Amazon actually made it quite easy to discover for a little while. Amazon clearly puts an effort into making it easy to discover new work.

    And who knows how many people search for something on Amazon and stumble over my book (and don’t buy it). I don’t think the real issue is that no one can find my book or that Amazon (at least) isn’t doing a pretty good job giving me methods of getting it in front of people. The issue is that customers aren’t making the choice to buy it.

    Why? Well, they have a lot of other choices. There are plenty of other books they can spend their money on. I don’t think it’s hard to “discover” my book. I think readers are simply making a choice to buy other books. That might be because they are looking in romance, or thriller, and don’t wander around the sci-fi section. Or because during a search for sci-fi, they skip over my book.

    That is why a lot of the advertising choices don’t work. It’s not that (good) advertising doesn’t get your book seen by potential readers. It’s that they have too many other choices to spend their money on. It may be hard to accept, but they don’t want your book. They want to read other books.

    Maybe I can change all that one day when enough readers become fans of my blog or if I write a book that is more viral. Or maybe if I just have enough books that people keep stumbling over them and I develop a fan base. Or maybe not.

    What people seem to forget about capitalism is that it works, not because every business succeeds, but because lots and lots of businesses fail and get out of the way. Money is shifted from failing enterprises to successful ones.

    Writers jumping into self-publishing have to be aware that there is a ton of competition and only the hardest working, most talented and most hip to what readers want to read are going to succeed. The rest of us can either keep improving our game or get out and let others compete in a tough game.

    So it’s probably true that some writers had a much easier time selling their books back when there was less competition. But clearly the market for ebooks is much bigger, so there’s more money for those who can succeed against all the competition.

    I suspect there is going to be an ebb and flow to this. So “if” selling was a lot easier five years ago and “if” selling is harder now, a lot of writers might get discouraged and drop out of the game. That might make it “easier” to sell in a few years. But we’ll see.

    I got into this mostly for the fun of seeing my work get out into the world. So I’m having a blast just publishing silly stuff that doesn’t sell. I’m thrilled when I can easily give away a few copies without much effort and over the moon when I sell a copy here and there.

    Yet, as a business person (I do media consulting) I can see that in order to really make a business out of this, a writer is going to have to work their ass off, and even then, there is no promise of success.

    For all the reasons Hugh says, self-publishing is clearly a better path than traditional publishing for any new writer looking to succeed. But it is important for people to be realistic. The vast majority are not going to become famous and rich, and most won’t even be able to make a steady living at it.

    If you want to be writer, self-publishing is easy and easier than ever. If you want to make a living as a writer, that’s hard. It always was and it probably always will be.

    • *standing ovation*

      The only thing I’d add to Mackay’s statement: Take a good, hard look at who’s promoting the meme. A majority of sources I see it from are (1) trad publishing companies, their fellow subsidiaries, and those who make a living from services they offer to trad publishing; (2) writers who are desperate to get a trad publishing contract and try to ingratiate themselves by putting down self-publishing; and (3) self-publishers who are upset that they didn’t win the lottery.

      • Reality Observer

        Clapping right next to Suzan…

        Writing it does not mean it will be bought. Whatever route you take.

        Do you know how many non-book products appear and disappear every day on the shelves? Even with a full press marketing campaign by very big companies behind them? Because they just plain do not sell?

        (I’m expecting “organic” meats to disappear from my supermarket chain any day now. Full page ads, sales promotion, prominent display in the stores, the whole thing. And the “Manager’s Special” section in the butcher shop is always overflowing with it. Because they can’t sell it at anything but a loss – or, as my contact in the nearby department tells me, have to throw it away when it completely expires.)

        • LOL The “organic food” fad is no different than the erotica rush when FSoG hit the top of the sales charts.

          Speaking as a mother trying to feed a teenage son, I can’t afford to buy organic hamburger. Twice the price and there’s no way I can be sure it is organic?

          • Reality Observer

            Happy Mother’s Day, Suzan! From a father trying to do the same thing, absolutely.

            That said, there is a market for “organic” – but not a mass market. Or not a market among our particular demographic, anyway. That is what my local supermarket is apparently having a hard time coming to grips with, much like the author that does not have a book which will ever be a big hit.

            Or get hit with market oversaturation, which is undoubtedly part of the problem for new authors. I’m going in knowing full well that my stories are going to be competing with a lot of others.

            The biggest thing for me about Amazon, though, is that what I write won’t end up in the “Manager’s Specials” – or the “Bargain Bin” at the bookstore – and then disappear forever. It will sell the most that it can sell, so long as it gets to the eyes of the people that will buy it – even if it is ten years from now.

            • Thanks, Reality Observer!

              Yep, the “produce” model of sales doesn’t apply to books. And I really wish writers would let go of that meme. It doesn’t help us in the slightest.

    • Ah, Mr. Bell (making gender assumption), I like the way you think.

      I self-published because ultimately I wanted to control my life. I’ve always had someone else telling me how, when and what to do, and I decided that if I was going to give this writing thing a go, it was going to be done the way I want to do it.

      Now, I read and learn everything I can. I’ve tried a few things that others said work for them, but a couple of months ago I stood back and rethought my goals and switched gears. What I was trying wasn’t working for me. It’s fine for others, but I want to tell the stories that need to be told, not what one segment of readers clamor for.

      Might be a totally wrong thing to do, but there you go. I’m not getting any younger, nor apparently any less hard-headed. If I fail, I fail. But I suspect I’m not going to fail.

    • Mackay Bell: Pay attention to your reviews. Bits like these…

      “Despite being marred by mistakes that a careful editor could and should have avoided…”

      “A final note: Please get a good copy editor to fix the misspellings and insert the missing words. These kinds of mistakes jolt a reader right out of the flow of a story.”

      …are losing you sales. When I see such remarks in a review, I move along. You need to fix those problems and say you’ve fixed them (new edition with fewer misspellings!!) or you’ll only ever be able to give the book away for free.

      • Davemich, you didn’t reference the positive parts of the reviews for “Eve’s Hungry,” so pardon me if I highlight:

        “The climax of the book is geeky goodness, and a worthy tribute to Steve Jobs.”

        “Hilarious! … you are unlikely to come up with anything like this extravaganza.”

        “… Then, the payoff. And, oh my, what a delight! I’m sure my laughing woke the neighbors. It is a hell of a clever spin and it took me where great SF makes me happiest: a future in which I can not only envision myself, but one in which I’d like to live.”

        And yes, heck, you’re right and the typo comments probably do hurt some sales.

        But this brings up a good point which totally relates to this whole issue of self-publishing being easy vs. hard. It’s easy to self-publish (including typos). Getting your book perfect, particularly a longer novel, is hard (or costs money with professional proofreading).

        My novel does need better proofreading. And I didn’t put enough time (and money) into that. The thing is I was excited to get it out and (possibly) jumped the gun with a book filled with typos and a simple cover.

        But, I don’t know for sure if it would be selling better if it didn’t have typos. (It’s 80,000 words and the prices I got ranged from $800-$1,200 to have it professionally proofed.) Maybe, maybe not. Would it be doing better with a slick (professional) cover? Probably. But the point is, even with a lousy cover and typos, it is selling (very occasionally) and I can get a bunch of free downloads doing very little work other than hitting a “free day” button. So self-publishing, for me, is easy. And fun.

        If you’re a rich investment banker, and you have the money to spend on your novel, by all means, get it professionally proofed! And spend money on a good cover, it very likely will help sell it. And why not try some advertising?! Go for it. If you’re living in your mom’s basement and you have a vague dream of being a writer, but aren’t sure, don’t let the lack of money stop you from getting your stories out into the world.

        Yes, self-publishing is going to be hard if you don’t have a lot of money and believe that if you publish anything but a super-professional looking manuscript you are doomed.

        I went into self-publishing with a firm rule not to throw money at trying to “succeed.” I see it as an experiment. I certainly had read lots of advice that you have to have your novel professionally proofed. (And spend money on a professional cover.) But I also read a lot about how, because of “discovery,” I probably couldn’t even give it away, let alone sell it and that I would have to go begging for reviews. So why spend money to polish a novel that no one can “discover?” (Or, imagine I had it perfectly polished and proofed and the only reviews I got said, “This story sucks!”)

        However, even with a lousy cover and typos, IT STILL SELLS (very occasionally) and it got three positive reviews without me doing anything. I had heard that it was really hard to get reviews, and yes, I only have three so far, but as I said, I’ve done nothing to get them. (Didn’t even beg friends to review it.) And I’ve done nothing to get about a dozens sales and a couple dozen free downloads other than spend $20 bucks testing Amazon’s AMS advertising.

        So, Experiment #1. What if an unknown writer publishes a book on Amazon, spending no money, and does almost nothing to get it noticed? (Perhaps because he suspects it could use some more proofreading.) Result: three positive reviews (two with complaints about typos), a few sales, downloads every time there is a free day. That to me is a successful experiment in self-publishing (if not proofreading). And pretty easy.

        As I mentioned, I’m not seeing this as a business… yet. I’m seeing this as a learning experience. That means I expect to make mistakes (like the proofreading). As Steve Jobs famously said when he returned to Apple: “Mistakes will be made, but that’s a good thing because it means we’re making decisions. And we’ll fix the mistakes.” As a media consultant, I was involved with a bunch of early internet startups. And the biggest mistake new businesses make is throwing a lot of money at new projects and then getting discouraged when they don’t get the results they want. And almost always the first thing they learn is that they spent the money in the wrong places. So I’m being careful both with my money and my time.

        As much as I wish my book didn’t have any typos, in retrospect, I think the much bigger problem is that my first published effort should have been a heck of a lot shorter. A much shorter book would have been easier for me to proofread and cheaper to have had professionally proofed (if I was so inclined). I made the mistake of trying to write a “novel” length book because I wanted to be a “real” novelist. I listened to bad advice about how “real” sci-fi novels should be close to 100,000 words. My advice for writers trying self-publishing would be to really make your first book short so it’s easier to have proofed and polished. And also so you get it out quicker. (“Eve’s Hungry” took me three years to write and yes, I really did put a lot of effort into proofing it, but it’s almost impossible for authors to see all their own mistakes. Since I didn’t have a fan base, I couldn’t rely on beta readers, and I felt it was obnoxious to ask my friends to proof such a long manuscript for free.)

        Now that I know that discovery isn’t the main issue (selling is still a big question mark), does it make sense to spend some money and get it proofread properly? And to spend money on a better cover? Maybe. I can do that anytime I want to open a checkbook. But based on my experience so far, do I think I will earn back that money in sales? I doubt it. And if I spend a $1,000 and only earn back a few hundred dollars in sales, I’ll feel like I’m throwing money away.

        So instead of going back over Eve’s Hungry, I did was what I wished I had done in the first place, which is publish a second much shorter little book. Again, mostly to really test this “discovery” issue. I dashed off the new book in less than a month (it’s a collection of old cartoons I drew). It’s sales and downloads have been beating Eve’s Hungry and it briefly hit the #3 spot in it’s category.

        So, Experiment #2. Write a book really, really fast, publish it quickly with a goofy (free) cover and see what happens if you do almost nothing to promote it. Result: more sales for book #2. One good review (no complaints about typos). So, lesson learned, short stuff (probably) works better for sales. At least in terms of time/effort/profit.

        Eventually, I’ll probably bite the bullet on Eve’s Hungry (my epic “novel”), and pay a proofreader and experiment with a professional cover, but even more importantly, based on Experiment #2, I’m going to try breaking it up into shorter pieces and make it a serial. (And I have some other goofy ideas to mess with it too.) But I’m very torn as to whether I should put that time into it now, or move on and write another shorter piece. Given my greater success with my very short second book, that might be a better use of my time and money right now.

        Sure, I’ve made mistakes, but they’ve cost me zilch and I’ve learned a lot. And had fun. I’ve avoided what I think is the bigger mistake that a lot of people jumping into self-publishing encounter. That is, they pour their heart and soul into their novel, they spend a ton of money proofing and buying a “professional” cover, they spend a ton of money advertising, and then they get really upset because they aren’t selling enough to quit their day job, and then they blame “discovery” and other writers for writing too many books so that no one can find theirs. Some join the ranks of people complaining that self-publishing isn’t “easy” anymore and that the only solution to spending money and not getting an audience is to chase after a traditional publishing deal.

        My advice to writers starting out (based on my very limited experience so far) is drop expectations that you will be able to quit your day job. Start with by publishing some much shorter stuff like short stories (and yes, try to get them proofed better than I did). But don’t spend any money until you’ve started to build up a library of work that you can give away on free days or make perma-free. Only then should you tackle publishing longer novels. But try not to spend money you don’t have and go into it with the goal to have fun, not get rich.

        As I said before, if you want to be a writer, self-publishing is a blast. There really shouldn’t be any arguments or fights about it. If you like writing, great! You can easily publish your work to a world wide audience (typos and all). Goofy stuff about a ninja Steve Jobs. Fun! Fun! Fun!

        So why is there so much bickering and lecturing and complaining about self-publishing? What the heck is it will all the anger (from some quarters)? Much of it is that, yes, the gatekeepers are really pissed off that writers don’t need them anymore. Well, tough. Why should we listen to you? Then a lot of it is writers who expect self-publishing to quickly change their lives and make all their dreams come true. Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Then there are writers who expect that if they throw enough money into self-publishing, with proofing and covers and adversing, they will guarantee success. Nope. That doesn’t always help.

        If you want to make self-publishing a business, be prepared to work your ass off with no guarantee of results. So I think that first, rather than put everything into one or two books, find out if you really enjoy writing three or four books a year and publishing them. That seems to be the clearest, perhaps only, path to making a living. The solution to “discovery” is to put out books regularly. If you can’t do that, then it’s going to be a hobby (and maybe you shouldn’t invest money in it). And yes, once you really make self-publishing into a business you’ll need to spend money on professional covers and professional proofreading. But if you can’t generate new stories on a regular basis (and stories people like) then you’re probably throwing away your money hiring a bunch of professionals.

        Right now, for me, it’s a hobby. Typos and all.

    • I am happy that I was able to contribute to your happiness, Mackay, by buying EVE’S HUNGRY. It sat on my Kindle for a while but once I dug into it, I really enjoyed it. Fun story. I finished it just last night! So you also contributed to *my* happiness!

  12. I agree with you Mackay. Writing has always been a touch go as probably with any art. I’m sure painters and creators of other types of art say the same thing.
    To get noticed you have to first have an eye catching cover and good writing inside to make them want to keep going past the sample they read. You also have to keep publishing and get a good body of work out there and like Dean says, remember to have fun!

  13. I think ‘bloglord’ is an awesome new word, and that PG should have a cape and theme music.

  14. you might if it applies look at the number of downloads of your books on pirate sites, including those who upload the books and give them slightly differnt titles but same content.

    Some have huge leaks there in their ship of state.

    Also, that email list, for us, is of prime importance. We find being interviewed for online, radio, tv, print, is most effective when we have a new release.

    We also engage heavily with our readers, know many by name [all three, no just kidding, there are a few more than that].

    I keep encouraging people to diversify in marketing/sales– as direct as possible to reader, and I dont mean sitting in an empty mall with books on table. We’ve been various places that were dead as dead, and others lively and filled with buyers. We’ve learned a lot over the years about what works for us, rather than what we were told to do.

    In indie publishing, we too followed at first the town crier indie enthusiasts who posted daily and /or weekly about how great it all was [for them], how easy [for them], how we should all join in. But, many were trad pub’d and had a huge head start in readership from that. We have rarely seen solid, effective, advice in marketing for new indies who have no trad pub exp. And those who used to say anyone could make a turn to $$$$$ at indie pub are not often heard from. Some few, did diversify by going hybrid, by teaming with other authors to write. Those appear to be the solid direction because they are new income streams that do not depend on one and only one supplier: amz

    I think we know a good part of the way through [for ourselves and yet, would not have the incomes we have without diversification]. But what we’ve done in the last five years, doesnt match the advices I keep seeing about ‘just write more books.’ We cant grok the ‘ take your chances in various programs’ that seem to us to be not sales programs for writers, but rather discount programs for readers. We want to partner with those who want to be on the side of the writer. God knows that writers have had few who walk with them to help them solely, while also bringing their beautiful, compelling books to readers.

    We think and often fnd both are possible. Luck is a small part. Most of it is [for us] carefully studying the landscape and aimed into the best lands

  15. ANd Passive Guy, your comments on numbers of books that one can potentially pub within a certain time period are right on.

    What finally made us go indie some years back, in addition to Trad Pub medusa-like editor who wanted to control the books’ content/ length, etc [with some hybrids along the way] was that we had 21 mss ready to go [written over a period of several years]

    and no matter WHAT we said, begged, asked, pleaded. Nope. Only one book a year [or else santa claus’s reindeer wouldnt fly, or something.]

    Understand we are in our seventies. We may not have 21 more years, though I hope we do, in good health and clear mind.

    So we self pub’d. And have never looked back

  16. Coming here, reading this article and the comments, makes me feel like I’m not alone. The last year has been so difficult! Publishing has been easier, but selling has been SO HARD. Almost arduous. And sometimes, no matter how I promote or how hard I try, I can’t sell anything. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one. I think, at some point, the supply will abate because the hobbyists will stop publishing due to not earning anything, and the career-minded authors will rise to the top. But it’ll be a while. We have to stay strong.

    • I think you will just get competition from new hobbyists.
      The names may change but I think the numbers of us will only grow.

      I believe the key is to write the next book. You never know what’s going to hit with readers. My most popular one so far is not as good as the one that barely sells at all.
      Good in my opinion that is.
      And the novella I just published that is so cute and lovely and I just love it- 22 page reads… NO sales.
      Write the next one.

      It may hit.
      You can do a few things to better position the book to sell/hit the market. (even in how you plan the plot of the book). But it’s a mystery whether it will actually take off.

      I just try to remind myself: This novella that is so unloved, it’s my backlist. A fan of my writing may someday check it out. But for now let it go and get the next one published.

      • I wouldn’t hope for hobbyists to go away. I buy a lot more books by other indie writers than I make myself from sales. Books on self-publishing and stories by authors I see on blogs like this. Since I got interested, I’ve spend more buying and reading books by other writers than ever before.

        Professional basketball makes a ton of money because there are millions of kids dreaming about being players and millions of arm chair players who once dreamed of being professional. If you want to make money writing, you want the market to be as big as possible. But that does mean the competition will be hard.

        Not a lot of people try to be professional poets anymore, so there isn’t as much competition in that art as there is in narrative fiction. But that also means the market has shrunk so much there isn’t any money in it.

        I don’t think the answer is hoping for less books and less writers. You really need more readers, and more writers and books attracts them. Limiting choice only helps big companies that can dominate a market, both with their product and flooding it with advertising. That’s why the big publishers have always tried to push out the little guys.

        Amazon has been pretty amazing supporting little guys, but that does mean there is going to be huge competition because individuals have access. If less people start writing books, and writers start making more money, then more writers will come into the market. Unless… the market starts shrinking. And long term that’s good for no one.

        The answer for individual writers hoping to “succeed” is complicated. But obviously you can’t succeed if you give up.

  17. I think how easy it is depends a lot of genre, too. Amazon has done a lot in the last year or so to make my genres– glbt fantasy and glbt sci fi–much more discoverable, by creating new categories for those books.

    Granted, I’m writing cross-genre, niche-within-a-niche stuff, but given such granular categories, I can hit the top 100 in those categories with a new release and stay there for quite a while. And it doesn’t take that many sales of backlist books to boost them back up into the top 100, which means more eyes on the older stuff, too.

    I’ve only been in the game for a couple of years now, but I’m seeing better sales almost monthly.

  18. Suzan Harden mentioned the produce model above and I agree with her. I’d much rather have the challenge of writing a book and indie publishing it and having it available forever, but have to regularly pulse ads and new covers and fresh blurbs etc than to have it be tradpubbed, released into stores, and then stripped and returned within 2-3 months, never to see light of day again except as a sad, dog-eared copy in some used bookstore somewhere.

    As indies, we have the power to change anything we want with our backlist and make it fresh for a new audience. Some writers will do better with that than others.

    Ultimately, I agree with the Bezos–complaining isn’t a strategy. Every indie has the exact same access to cover artists, editors, proofreaders, and ad sites. The smart ones or the ones willing to learn will take advantage of those options; the ones that don’t will complain and then burn out in a few months/years.

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