Okay, I guess I can say a little more. Yesterday, I listened to Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on self-publishing from his English 318 class this year. While I agree with much of what he says, a lot of it is already out of date. Probably the biggest thing is whether it’s still advantageous for indies to go with a traditional publisher after making a name for themselves. In 2011, Amanda Hocking had some good reasons for going traditional. In 2012, Hugh Howey has some very good reasons not to.
The other big thing, though, is this idea of author platform–that to be a successful indie, you have to find some way to drive large numbers of people to your books. Well, not necessarily. Hugh Howey was a nobody for three years, and the title that finally pushed him over the tipping point was the one he promoted the least. To me, that shows:
- current sales are not a predictor of future sales, and
- a great book will grow into its audience independent of its author.
Granted, there may be a threshold that needs to be crossed before word-of-mouth really starts to kick in, but if a nobody with passable cover art and no author platform can cross it, that threshold isn’t very high–and that’s good news for all of us.
The way I see it, there are three big myths that writers struggle with in making the shift from traditional to indie publishing:
1) The flood of crap books will keep you from getting noticed
This grows out of the paradigm of limited shelf space–that the best way to get noticed is to have your book occupy more space relative to all the other books on the shelf. This might be true in the brick and mortar world, but the rules are much different in the digital realm.
Think about it: how many new blogs are launched every single day? Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. And yet people still find the good content amid the sea of crap. On Youtube, an average of one hour of video content is uploaded every single second. And yet there are still entertainers making a lot of money through their Youtube channels.
The rules in the digital realm are completely different from everything in the physical world. Figuring that out requires a huge paradigm shift, one that even indie writers struggle with.
2) Publishing a book is an event that must be promoted
This grows out of the paradigm of velocity, or as Kris Rusch puts it, the “produce model” of publishing:
Every month publishing comes out with brand new product. Shelf space is limited in every single brick-and-mortar bookstore. Big Publishing makes the bulk of its money during the first few months of a book’s existence. So if a book sits on a bookstore’s shelf until the book sells and that sale takes six months to a year, the bookstore and the publisher lose money.
Better to dump the old inventory on a monthly basis—for full credit for unsold items—than it is to have the inventory sit on the shelves and grow “stale.”
Of course, the flaw in this logic is that digital shelf space is unlimited, therefore books do not “spoil.” No matter how much time passes, an ebook can still be found in the same place.
Therefore, does it really make sense to make a big deal over an indie book release? Maybe to jump start some word-of-mouth, but it’s not like your career is going to be harmed if you do nothing. In fact, it might be better to hold off until you have a few more titles up, so that when you give the first one that push, readers will have something else to read once they’ve finished it.
3) To succeed you need to find a way to “break in”
This grows out of the gatekeeper paradigm, where the system is closed and the few entry points are guarded by a select group of taste makers whose job is to bestow legitimacy on those who meet the qualifications to get in. It’s the concept of patronage, where success comes from being chosen by a wealthy benefactor, and it’s connected with the idea that you haven’t truly “arrived” until <fill in the blank>.
The flaw with this paradigm, of course, is that publishing is no longer a closed system. The gates haven’t just been flung open, the walls themselves have been torn down. The job of the taste makers is no longer to protect readers from the dross, but to lead them to the gems–which is honestly much closer to what it should have been in the first place.
So what does this mean for creators? It means that there’s no longer a system to break into. You don’t need to write better than everyone else, you just need to find (and keep) your 1,000 true fans. Success isn’t bestowed upon you by some higher authority, it’s something that you discover on your own as you hone your craft and build your business.
Honestly, this is one that I still have a lot of trouble with. When I left to teach English in Georgia, in the back of my mind I had this vague notion that I was going into a self-imposed exile, and wouldn’t come back or settle down until I’d “broken in.” Of course, this made me quite discouraged, because it felt like things were out of my control–or worse, that I’d somehow failed.
But listening to Brandon’s lecture and reading Howey’s Q&A session helped me to remember that it’s all still in my control. I don’t need a benefactor, I just need a good plan, if that makes any sense. So right now, I’m thinking things through and making the necessary revisions to that plan. There probably won’t be any big ones–I still think I’m more or less on the right track–but it will be good to update my paradigm.
By the way, the title of this post applies to the Q&A with Hugh Howey, not to the post itself. Though if you are thinking of self publishing, I hope it’s helped out in some way.
Also, I just finished part I of Wool, and it deserves every bit of praise that it’s got. Expect to see a review of the omnibus shortly.