I See it Half-Full

There aren’t many people who have their pulse on the publishing biz quite like Mike Shatzkin does. The author of The Shatzkin Files, Mike has been in the trenches for a long time. He has amassed a pile of experience, and he has a sharp mind for spotting trends. He also happens to be one of my favorite people in the publishing biz. I’ve only met Mike twice in person, but I consider him a friend (he probably considers me a nuissance. I bumped into Mike at the Frankfurt Fair and had to force myself not to wear out my welcome).

Mike recently joined the host of others with his 2014 predictions. He has a few bold ones. It’s worth a read.

I noticed him chatting in the comments with quite possibly my favorite industry blogger, The Passive Guy, who I’ve also accosted in person. With a bear hug. Seeing the two of them going back and forth, what could I do other than butt in where I wasn’t wanted?

The discussion touched on the number of indies doing very well in today’s market. Mike thinks times are getting worse for unknown indies. Mr. PG and myself are more optimistic. I see a new author every month or so break out and climb the Amazon bestseller lists. Having been on those lists, I know what that author is going through, how much they’re selling, what they are making. I’ve spoken with quite a few of these authors on the phone (for some reason, people email me and ask for advice. Like I know what I’m doing. Or what happened. Or why). Beyond these visible bestsellers, I’ve heard from several hundred authors who are making a great living, authors you’ve never heard of. Mr. PG has the same sorts of experiences from his blog (which everyone should be checking daily. I do).

Mike brought up an interesting point in one of his comments. It illuminates a vastly different perspective, one that possibly separates the self-publishing optimists from the pessimists. Here’s what he said, in response to my point about the number of self-pubbed mid-listers who are making a very good living off their fiction sales:

Hugh, it is definitely a remarkable story. But anecdata is still anecdata whether you get it in a trickle or through a firehose. I suspect Amazon publishes far more authors than the Big Five publishers combined. *Most *of them vanish without a trace. Whether the ones that succeed are a statistically significant percentage of not is something you can’t determine by counting just the hits and not being aware of all the at-bats.

And this made me realize that some of us are looking at absolute numbers while others are looking at chances of success. I’ve already blogged about how unfair it is to look at the number of people self-publishing while ignoring the vast numbers of people submitting to the traditional machine and not even landing an agent (it’s the mistake of counting the top 1% of one pile and comparing that to the totality of another pile). This is a new and second difference in outlook that Mike illuminates, and it’s one that I felt needs to be shared.

Is the number of people succeeding at self-publishing a tiny fraction of the number of people publishing overall? Absolutely.  But I don’t think it’s a small number in absolute terms, which is all we should care about. Keep in mind that the number of people reading wasn’t enough to support the number of authors publishing traditionally. This has always been the limiting factor. And again, forget the fact that the number of people who got published before was a tiny fraction of those who tried. We’ve covered that. This is a matter of judging the success of a method of publication by the relative number of those who succeed rather than the raw number.

If the NBA expanded into twice or quadruple the number of teams next year, the chances of making it into the NBA wouldn’t appreciably increase. There are hundreds of thousands of kids playing in middle school, high school, and college. Upping the number of NBA players by several hundred wouldn’t dent the daunting odds of making it to the highest levels. And yet, the number of people making a great living playing basketball would increase several times over.

This is what’s happening in the writing world right now. No one is covering this story. No one even seems to be trying. Because it takes a lot of work. I put out a call on just one writing forum and was overwhelmed by the responses. Hundreds of people got in touch in a single day. Their stories brought tears to my eyes. People you’ve never heard of whose lives have been changed by self-publishing. Is it a tiny fraction? Next time you go into a bookstore, consider the warehouses one would need to store the manuscripts that never got a chance. This is an industry of fractions.

And yet, if there were 1,000 people making a great living off their fiction in the US 5 years ago (and I doubt it was that many), then self-publishing has tripled or quadrupled the number of people making a living with their art. That’s a story. An incredible story. The fact that a huge number of more people are self-publishing and not doing well is beside the point. That’s a different story, one that has been told ad nauseam. This other story will get out one day, I’m confident of that. And it will help inform writers who face a difficult decision.

28 responses to “I See it Half-Full”

  1. I don’t why everyone thinks Mike is so amazing. Most of the “discoveries” he makes are so post-dated, they’re laughable. He also doesn’t blog for the every day man. He uses million dollar words to sound more intelligent but when you read between the lines, you realize, he’s not saying anything that more astute indie authors and bloggers haven’t been saying for months or even years. He’s also snobby online (much nicer in person) and someone needs to give him a good comb to comb his hair.

    1. I love his hair! :D

      And Mike is a great guy, as you say. He is writing for a different audience. And he’s been at this a long time, so he brings a unique perspective. I think, anyway.

    2. Hey Kristi–

      Seconding and enhancing what Hugh said. Enhancement: I think he’s a super-smart dude (but I’m biased…we’re business partners on the DBW conference). From being in the “tell people about stuff” biz for a while, you’d be surprised what some people find obvious and others find novel.


    3. I have only occasionally read Mike Shatzkin, but when I have I’ve found him informative and generous, if a bit old school. In comments, he’s been quite friendly to me.

      I have no opinions on his hair!

      Hugh Howey, on the other hand, is saying continuously insightful and fascinating things, here and elsewhere. His hair, however, is really a wig.

  2. I appreciate your optimism! It’s crazy how whenever you try to do something, people just line up to tell you it can’t be done.

    I also think you’re right. In order to compare the pool of self-published authors to the pool of traditionally published authors, you have to take into account how easy it is for almost anyone to self-publish.

    Good post. I feel much better now!

  3. On the one hand, the number of people traditionally publishing (meaning those who send manuscripts to agents and publishers) has got to be an enormous number, even compared to the number of people self publishing. And those trying to traditionally publish but failing are making no money whereas very, very few self published authors make no money.

    You are now pointing out that because of self publishing the total number of people making a living from writing is going up quite a bit. That’s a huge win. As you point out, the percentages still might not be great either way but the totals are better.

    But with self publishing, there has got to have been an explosion of people who are at least making some money from their art/ their hobby. And that’s enormous.

    When I was in high school, to blow off steam, I would head out to my garage and build furniture and carve ducks and wooden figurines. I loved it. It was a hobby. I expected to make no money from it. It was fun.

    Writing is my adult hobby. Sure, I hope it becomes something more but my wanting to create more stories (my art) is not dependent on whether I make merely pizza money from it or pay the light bill money from it. My wanting to create my stories is internally driven, as it should be for all writers. I can not possibly believe that anybody following this discussion is honestly treating writing as some kind of investment similar to other investments. It’s not; it’s art, and with the rise of ebooks, there is a little more opportunity out there for people to earn money from this art. Pretty awesome.

    Hugh, I always appreciate the clarity and even handedness you bring to these discussions. Keep it up.


    1. “Writing is my adult hobby. Sure, I hope it becomes something more but my wanting to create more stories (my art) is not dependent on whether I make merely pizza money from it or pay the light bill money from it. My wanting to create my stories is internally driven, as it should be for all writers. I can not possibly believe that anybody following this discussion is honestly treating writing as some kind of investment similar to other investments. It’s not; it’s art, and with the rise of ebooks, there is a little more opportunity out there for people to earn money from this art. Pretty awesome.”

      I love this perspective. Loved your entire comment. Thanks, Daniel!

  4. What people don’t understand – and what big publishers don’t get when they whine about competition – is that readers are hungry for content. There are people out there who simply cannot get enough of the kind of books they love, because the traditional world just don’t publish them.

    They see the “pool” as a bucket. Throw in one more rock and it overflows because it cannot take the extra. But the reading world is an Ocean. Throw in as many damn pebbles (writers/books) as you want and it says “Is that all ya got, buddy?”

    1. Exactly! I don’t think publishers could possibly satisfy readers in certain genres. It always baffled me that Random House and Penguin put out so few science fiction and romance novels. If they wanted to make money, they would satisfy readers’ demands, not their own. Alas, that’s not what happens.

  5. There are also many more small press, digital first, and boutique publishers who stick to a specific genre of book and aren’t considered in the numbers of either traditional or self published. Yet I know many that are making money from their craft that does pay nicely. I also have friends who are “hybrid” authors which means they have books published in all three formats.

    What the traditional publishers fail to address in current accounting is that novelists usually didn’t get a “break-out” publicity campaign until they had 5 or 6 books already published. Digital books gives authors a chance to keep publishing and all those books staying “in print” for that day they are “discovered.” These are exciting times!

  6. you should watch presspauseplay. it’s a great documentary about the digital revolution.

  7. Hi Hugh,

    For starters, congrats on retaining your self-effacing humbleness (and refreshing irreverence) in the face of such life-altering success.

    Your argument above makes a great deal of sense. So does the one posited by Mike Shatzkin. Having read his column on this subject, I came here to see your additional comments. As an established author working on my debut novel, which I plan to self-publish, I can see how each of your perspectives applies.

    Mike points out the sobering reality facing unknown novelists. We must compete with an escalating number of self-published titles. Many of those are of dubious quality, since it’s a cinch for almost anyone to churn out dross onto Amazon. Add to this the Big 5 traditional publishers’ new ability to offer e-books with lower pricing. Together they make for daunting odds.

    Which you encouragingly bypass by stating that despite all, more and more people – in particular the unknown self-published who have backlists and some marketing moxy – are raking in big moolah. That’s precisely what people like me need to hear.

    Keep on offering your unvarnished observations, Hugh. Honesty trumps blown smoke any day!

    1. Thanks, Mark. And congrats on making progress with your debut novel. It’s an amazing achievement, however you publish.

      Also: The vast majority of the books being published aren’t books that serious writers need to worry about competing with. I would guess that 0.5% or 0.25% of self-published authors are doing the editing required to stand out, getting professional looking covers made, doing all the right things with their author platforms, or concentrating on getting a dozen works published. That’s why — if you take this seriously — you can ignore 99.5% of what’s out there.

  8. I have an optimistic view of self-publishing. I’m confident that my book will be a success. Nearly everyone that’s read it so far has loved it, the reviews have been excellent, and there are a lot of people waiting for me to finish the second book. The issue is, WHEN will it be a success? That’s the part that independent authors have to be aware. It can take time for the public to notice a new and good book after it hits the market. It is highly unlikely that any one person is going to put out an ebook and sell a thousand copies in the first two weeks.

    I’m just over four months from the launch of my book. While sales numbers aren’t where I hoped they would be at this point, they are still pretty good for a self-published book.

    I think we are entering the second stage of the self-publishing industry. Over the past few years, we’ve had the first run of the big-hit indies that caught the attention of the press and the public. Now we’re entering the second run of people who are seeing the success of the first group and are hoping to capitalize on the current public attention.

    There are a lot of people who are trying to self-publish right now. I’m pretty sure the number is higher now than in was four years ago, but I’m willing to bet it isn’t much more than a 15%–20% increase. It does mean there is a lot of competition for the attention of readers. If for nothing else, good quality books will eventually succeed and begin to climb the ladder on the bestsellers lists.

    One big question for any wannabe writer is: “What are my chances for success?” That’s a hard one to answer. Amazon is painfully tightlipped over any sales information for marketeers to glean any kind of intelligence. Recently, however, they offered a tantalizing little tidbit: 150 self-published authors sold more than 100,000 copies in 2013. That sounds agonizingly small. Frightening even for the hopeful self-publishing writer. But keep in mind that a book is considered a hit if it sells 10,000 or more copies. How many self-publishing authors hit THAT last year on Amazon? That suggests that even just 5,000 copies sold would be a decent showing for an independent author. Maybe the chances are actually better than you would think to succeed as an independent.

    Success will not come easy. You have to promote the book to people, to just remind the world of its existence. Yeah, there are some stories out there of magic success—my favorite was one author who didn’t know her book took off until she hit an ATM machine and happened to glance at her bank balance and was shocked to discover the balance was several thousand dollars too HIGH. She ran home, checked her account history and discovered a number of large royalty deposits she didn’t know about; a few months prior, her book published the year before suddenly caught on and took off and the royalties were only now being paid.

    My advice to anyone wanting to self-publish is: DO it. But don’t quit your day job—if you have one. Wait until your book takes off before you go full time.

    1. They didn’t word that release very well. 150 KDP authors sold more than 100,000 copies of a single title last year! More authors sold 100,000+ over several titles.

      And I agree with everything you’re saying. Keep in mind that traditionally published authors can’t quit their day jobs either. They are lucky if they’re making $5K or $10K a year.

      1. Heck, I could (should) have worded that better! :D

        Funny you mention about what many traditionally published authors make. When I did the math early on, that’s what I estimated I would make on my first three books if I went the traditional route. I realized, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford to go with traditional publishing. I had to take the risk of self-publishing in order to be able to make enough money to do this professionally.

        Even at this moment, I am in the process of getting quotes from printers for doing short runs to print my book(s) in hardcopy form. Too many requests for print versions of my book to ignore.

  9. Hugh, I agree with most of what you said, except “Keep in mind that the number of people reading wasn’t enough to support the number of authors publishing traditionally.” I think it should be “…people BUYING…”

    There’s plenty of people reading, but book prices (from the Big Five especially) are outstripping inflation. My first “adult” MMPB I bought in 1975 was $0.95. Adjusted for inflation, it should cost $4.13. Instead, Simon and Schuster would have a retail price of $7.99 (assuming they deigned to re-release it).

    Then you have voracious readers like my late grandmother. Being on a fixed income, she had to rely on the library and the used bookstores because she couldn’t afford new books. Shoot forward thirty years and my mother-in-law, who’s in the same position financially, can load up her Kindle with reasonably priced books with leaving her house (like right now when we have a foot of snow and the temps have been in the negitive numbers).

    The new world isn’t just great for writers; it’s wonderful for readers as well.

  10. I disagree with the overall assessment that there are hordes of authors trying to make a living writing fiction. Is it a very hard thing to do? Absolutely. Are millions trying? I do not think so. I went through a writing grad program and saw both students and professors who actively wrote. I saw very, very few who every tried to make a living writing and none who ever tried to make a living writing fiction.

    When we say “there are so many authors trying to make a living,” or something similar, who are we counting? In traditional publishing, are we counting the many who wrote one or two books and stopped? Are we including those who never made it over the hurdle of being published in a traditional way? How many books are floating around being queried on at any given time? We’d say there’s a huge amount, but how many against are comparing notes on which books have been counted twice or three times or four?

    What is a “Living?” I know of two well-respected science fiction authors, both traditionally published, who have day jobs that bring in six figures. One disclosed to me that he’d need to be in the upper tier of authors to consider quitting his day job because he and his family are used to making a certain amount of money. Are these two writers trying to make a living writing fiction?

    What about the many, many self-published authors who are doing it for fun? Or who quit when they realize it isn’t a gold rush?

    Hugh has made a point to me before which I will relate here. He’s said that the self-published author is really only competing with about the top 1% of other self-published authors. The rest are not trying to produce top quality books or trying to sell them or trying to make a living.

    I spoke with another science fiction author who has done some surveys in this area. There aren’t that many published science fiction authors working at a given time. About ten percent appear to be making a living. I would not say the other 90% are necessarily trying to make a living. Some are. Absolutely they are. Many no doubt would like to make a living doing so, but it doesn’t look feasible to them. But there are those who decide that’s what they are going to do” make a living writing fiction. They find a way to make it work. Take Chuck Wendig as an example. he busts his ass. He markets his ass off. He works very very hard. He has not, to my knowledge, had a breakout hit. Most of his work is published traditionally., but he makes a living doing it. He markets himself like an indie and produces the amount of output like an indie.

    I know some other science fiction authors who also work hard, but they do not market themselves, they do not produce multiple streams of income. They do not really seem to be putting in the work it takes to make a living.

    If ten percent of science fiction writers are making a living, that’s a pretty good number. It’s a better number is you realize that, as Hugh points out, we are looking at the totality.

    I suspect that if we were allowed to peer into Amazon’s data vaults, we would find interesting things. We are discussing a topic with very dodgy statistics in an industry that historically hides numbers. Big Data is not involved here or, where it is, it is not sharing it’s findings with us. There’s a lot of assumptions and a lot of exaggeration because that’s what makes for headlines. “Writing is hard.” “How many self-publishers are making money? Very few.”

    What isn’t sexy is a headline like this: “If You’re Moderately Talented and Work Really Hard, Making a Living as a Writer of Fiction is Difficult But Feasible.”

    Not sexy, but probably true.

    1. I agree with that headline. If you put in the hard work for a solid 5-10 years, you will support yourself with your writing. That’s a controversial thing to say, but I believe it. Get 20 or so quality novels out there, be an active member of the writing community, go to conferences and conventions, cherish every reader that comes your way, and in 10 years, you will be paying your bills with your fiction. I believe this. I also believe the number of people willing to put in the kind of work that I put into my craft could all cram into my (very tiny) house.

      Look at the recent story about Blake Russell. Or what Elle Casey does. If you work this hard, you’ll succeed.

      I’m still working at 9:25 at night. I work through the weekends. I put 80 – 120 hours a week into this. Can you do that with a smile on your face? Can you respond to every email? Every interview request? Go sit at a table to sign books and tolerate only signing 4 copies? Drive two hours each way to talk to a middle school classroom? Go to a writing group twice a month? Work a day job and still write 6 hours a day?

      The handful of people who can do this will make it. Everyone else will wish they could have the fruits of these labors without the actual labor. That’s not a brutal truth, it’s an uplifting one.

  11. I have found that anything anyone puts their attention to, grows in their experience (and in the world as a whole). If you focus on the successes of self-publishing and the positive aspects of what it’s doing for artists, then you are bound to find loads of evidence. If you flip the coin and look for all the failures and non-successes then you are bound to find loads of evidence as well.

    I am like you, I choose to see the upside to it and I believe because we (You, me and many others) are doing that, the upside is going to keep getting bigger. I think that even though publishing is changing and fewer people are buying books in the brick and mortar stores, a lot of new readers are coming to the market in digital terms. I can attest first hand that I’ve read more books since owning a Kindle than I did in the many years before that, simply because the readily available access to just about any kind of book I want exists, even when I’m laying in bed, tucked under my sheets. I know that my wife’s reading has gone up exponentially since she got her iPad and I believe that as the world begins to accept these digital devices in the education realm, more students are going to grow up to be readers too.

    1. I think the digital explosion is going to create younger readers that wouldn’t otherwise have turned into regular readers. Couple that with the traditional successes in YA, and I think the future will involve more readers rather than less.

  12. […] off, why all the pessimism in the world can’t change the fact that readers, and writers, are seeing the world as half-full instead of half-empty. Writers care about the ability to bypass byzantine submission requirements […]

  13. […] Howey has a great piece discussing the chances of success at indie publishing. The greatest point here, and I’ve posted his comment on this here […]

  14. As interesting as Shatzkin can be, let us not forget that he has been blogging for years, for decades, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the times he has mentioned, you know, writers. Lately he’s been mentioning us some, but not often. it’s like we’re invisible components of a big picture that only he and some CEOs see.

    One thing I would like to see discussed by you, Hugh, and others, is the fact that there are 2 billion English language readers in the world. I am an avid reader of romance, SF and mystery/thrillers and I live in southern Italy (I know, so hard) about 300 miles from the nearest English language bookstore in Rome, that doesn’t carry much romance, SF or thrillers, anyway. The bookstore totally reflects the owner’s tastes which aren’t mine. I now read about 200 ebooks a year, books I would never have been able to find. Before the ebook revolution I ordered from amazon.co.uk which was great but expensive, but much better than buying in an English language bookstore in Europe where a hardback bestseller could cost 50 euros, because it was an import. Hard to read 200 books at 50 euros each. That’s 10,000 euros, about $14,000. People haven’t realized that with the digital revolution (and indie revolution) the door to reading for half the planet has just been flung wide open.

  15. […] rises up through the ranks, often coming through the self-publishing route (as illustrated in a great article from Hugh Howey), many are going to keep at least one foot in the self-published world and push to create better […]

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