Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Sky Gazing

You may have heard the sky is falling. You may have heard that the self-publishing gold rush is over. There have been a number of forum threads, blogs, and articles about this lately. I’ve been mulling over whether there’s truth to the claims that everything is getting worse for indies. And naturally I have few thoughts:

My first thought is that self-publishing is maturing, which means it’s beginning to share some of the cynicism seen among many traditional writers. There’s a big difference in the subject of this cynicism, however. Forums for authors with traditional publishing aspirations have long been peppered with threads about the query grind, the rejection letters and emails that pile up from agents and publishers, and the desire to quit and give up on the hopes of ever making it as a writer.

For self-published authors, the situation is in some ways better and in some ways worse. It’s better in that their works have made it out to market where they had a chance of being purchased by readers. It’s better in that they probably spent more time writing the next work and less time writing query letters, pitching the last work, or doing endless rewrites according to the whims of some half-interested agent.

But it can be worse, because the self-published author feels that much closer to success. Their works are available in the largest bookstore in the world. Why aren’t they selling? Rewriting blurbs, hiring another editor, changing the cover, playing with the price and promotions, all of these things make the lack of success harder to bear in some ways. These decisions fall on a single set of shoulders.

The recent rise in cynicism and pessimism stems from two sources, I believe. The first is a change in expectations. Five years ago, the thrill was in joining a crowd as it overran the gatekeepers. There were suddenly ways around and ways through. Now, anyone could be published. For the aspiring author, the ability to reach a single reader or just make works available felt like a win. A few years later, getting through the gate no longer has that new-car smell. Now people want and expect to be able to earn a living here.

This is a truth that bears repeating: Making it as a writer is difficult, however you go about it. I contend, however, that it’s far more difficult along the traditional route, as a writer getting started in today’s market. The chances of going from query letter to published work is as abysmal as ever. Over 95% of submitted works never gain representation by an agent. And fewer than half of those that do go on to get a book deal. So the failure rate for a traditionally aspiring author is around 98% right out of the gate.

It gets worse from there. Most books that get published don’t do well. There’s a small window of availability in bookstores before that title is returned and goes out of print. Advances are not large enough or steady enough to live on. And few authors get chance after chance after chance. If the first few books (or first book) underperforms, that might be the only opportunity they get. The dream of making it as a writer vanishes just when it seems like all the obstacles have been cleared.

And here is the second source of cynicism and pessimism bubbling forth from the self-publishing community: The natural failure rate, even if it’s lower for self-publishing, is now being seen for the first time. Traditionally published authors have (at least somewhat) understood the odds for years. The natural waves of rejections, failures, successes, outliers, and mid-listers have been rolling through for a long time. Self-published authors are just now seeing it.

Keep in mind that three sources of pent-up works hit the market all at once: long-queried manuscripts, manuscripts sitting in drawers, and rights that reverted to authors back when this was more likely to happen. After this sudden wave, we should expect to see — several years later — the first of those authors getting frustrated and/or quitting. And we are.

The fact that self-publishing provides better chances doesn’t mean great chances. The fact that self-publishing can be less frustrating than the query-go-round and the delays inherent with traditional publishing doesn’t mean that self-publishing is frustration-free. Again, the joys of being able to storm the gate have been replaced by the expectations of what one would find on the other side. As the two paths to publication become more similar to one another, the new arrivals will have to learn that the market is fickle, that the market is not fair, and that the market is ever-changing.

Which brings me to my last observation: Careers in entertainment are rarely steady. Five or so years into the disruption of the publishing industry, we should be seeing the first wave of authors who are working harder while earning less. This is natural. Those who work in TV, film, and the music industry know how this works. A hit TV show or band continues to produce quality work while the audience moves elsewhere. That’s what happens.

It’s tempting to assign blame, but knowing what or whom to blame is impossible. John Q. Public has ADHD. And we are all part of John Q. Public. Note how you flit from one thing to another, how you abandon TV shows you once loved, how you move to another genre of books, how you give up a film or video game habit or cancel a magazine subscription and get a new one. As content producers, you may find yourself on the other side of an equation you’ve long been a part of.

Some successful indie authors are watching earnings go down, which is always what was going to happen. Others are watching earnings go up, which is always what was going to happen. These things just go up and down. The reason for the new perception is that we practically started from zero just a few years ago. Everyone either stayed flat or saw an increase for several years. There were no heights to descend from. So this is the first time our cadre has had anyone able to report declining sales. We finally had someplace for them to descend from.

A few things that have helped me maintain perspective during my writing career:

1) I always assumed the last copy of a book I sold would be the last copy I would ever sell. I never planned my finances around sales going up or even leveling off. I planned as if every moment, my career was perched on the edge of a cliff. This affected how I handled my personal finances, how I controlled my expenditures, and how I was able to celebrate every small milestone and accomplishment as if it were new and wouldn’t last.

2) I made a conscious effort not to become inured to the things that excited me years ago. I geeked out over hitting “publish” with my twelth novel like it was my first. I want to maintain that fascination with having the freedom to make my works available to a worldwide market at the press of a button. I don’t want to get used to the view up here, at even the smallest of peaks.

3) I remind myself every day that I would write even if I had no audience. I never expected to make a living at this. I wrote because I enjoy reading, and I wanted to create worlds and characters that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I love being able to comment on the world as I see it. Everything that follows is a bonus.

And now here is a separate list of the reasons self-publishing is less brutal than the alternatives for those hoping to make a living from writing:

1) You decide when your career is over, not anyone else. This means you can publish ten novels that don’t perform well, and you can publish that eleventh if you want.

2) You can walk away or take a break and come back at any time. No one is going to hold you to book-a-year deadlines, and no one is going to object if you come back in five or ten years with a new story.

3) All your works stay available forever. This is true for your print books, your ebooks, and your audiobooks. You might give up or lose hope, but your odds of something taking off will remain practically the same. I’ve heard from writers who gave up only to see a work gain traction, and then they dove right back in.

4) The next big opportunity is right around the corner. No one knows what outlets will be available in five or ten years. With self-publishing, you own the rights to your work. Everything you write will be ready for the next big shift in the marketplace or in reader demand.

Which leads me to my final conclusion: The sky isn’t falling. The world is turning.

The sun goes down on one person while it comes up on someone else. This is a profession of cycles, of constant change. Hang around long enough, and the sun will come up on you again. People are freaking out largely because we’re seeing the first real revolution, the first time around. It got dark. That’s scary, but it’s normal. The sky falls, but it’s just as prone to rising.

115 replies to “Sky Gazing”

Absolutely. You’re like a shot in the arm, thanks for bringing the happy.

On-topic, I’m working on stuff right now, and am intending to publish later this year. Am I expecting to get rich? Nope. I’d love it if it happened, but all I’m really hoping for is that someone likes my stuff and maybe buys some of it and maybe I can pay a few more bills.

I have a day job, and it pays pretty well. Of course I can always be better off, but that’s not why I’m doing this. I want to get my stuff out and see if it flies. Not that it’ll stop me if it doesn’t! ;-)

This is a fantastic perspective, Hugh. 2014 was my best year by far, but not built on ebook sales alone. Audiobooks, translated works, Kindle Worlds novellas, collaborations and co-authorships. I’m constantly looking outside of the “straight” ebook world to diversify, with the one universal truth perched on my shoulder. “Write the best book I can.”

2014 was my best year as well and I’m already trending quite a bit higher for 2015. Quite a bit of that is audio sales and working with other vendors.

I think a lot of the issue is that people expect the climate to stay the same. Amazon disrupted the publishers and Amazon disrupts itself. Things won’t be static in the industry from here on out.

Adapt. Or don’t, but don’t expect to make a living by always doing the same things. It’s possible, but shouldn’t be expected.

I survived for a quarter century in traditional publishing on a career path no one said should exist. Therefore I shouldn’t existed. Not only did I exist, but I made a living at it. I agree that what we’re seeing is things coming full circle. It feels like traditional publishing again in some ways, but as you note, there are key differences. The fact that it almost all falls on me, rather than other players, is a great benefit.

We’re seeing the end of ‘gimmicks’ and going to a time-honored reality: write good books people want to read.

A key thing I learned in traditional publishing: the second any author thought they ‘had it made’ their career was over. Add to that a new reality: the only person who can tell an indie author no is themselves. The second an indie gives up, their career is over.

It’s the best time ever to be a writer.

So many voices in the indie community tend to skew toward cynicism. I appreciate Hugh’s rational, level-headed approach to publishing. One thing that will perhaps go overlooked in this article is the notion of handling one’s finances in a way that comports with low expectations. If more writers took a minimalist-type approach to life and personal finance, we might learn to appreciate the small victories, and even the lean times. When our expectations are out of alignment with reality, low sales can be a crushing blow. But this needn’t be the case, as Hugh once again reminds us.

Well, given that I’ve only just hit publish for the first time, I choose to believe every ruddy word, here.

Every. Ruddy. Word.

Before I hit publish, I had a little word with myself about what I actually expected to get out of this venture, thinking about my worst-case scenario, my worst-acceptable scenario, my realistic target, and my ‘stretch’ (sorry for the business bullshit, but my day job sometimes rubs off on me) target.

Worst-case scenario = I sell nothing, my car gets written off, I get bitten by a dog, the dog had rabies, people start calling me ‘Foamy McRabies’, my house burns into flames, and I find myself on a long-haul flight seated between David Cameron on my left and another David Cameron on my right.

Worst-acceptable scenario = I looked into what the UK average sales per trade-pubbed title was. The most recent number I could find was 18 (eighteen) ((EIGHTEEN)) (((!!!))). That number may have increased slightly, but I’m going to wager it’s not by ever so much. Even if I double it, that’s still a bloody low number, so let’s go with that. 36. Sod it, let’s round up. 40. Anything less than 40 units sold would be a disappointment to me.

My realistic target = this, I won’t put here, as it’s entirely personal. I’m not there yet, but I have reason to believe I will be. And much sooner than I thought, too.

My stretch target = I whacked 50% on top of my realistic target.

I’ve tried to set myself realistic targets throughout. I do not believe that I will become an overnight sensation based on my one currently-published novel (no matter how spectacular I think it is… and I should point out that it IS spectacular) and I would be mad to think so. I’m playing the long-game. Building up what I hope will be a credible name for myself, a reasonable fan base who come to expect enjoyable stories and a quality product, and also promoting myself.

It’s early days yet, but it looks like I could be a guest at a couple of cons this year. That is bloody huge to me. One month ago I wasn’t published, now I’m talking to organisers about whether I’d be a fit for some panels. To me, that’s more than money. It’s more than sales.
I will get to speak to people — directly to people — about whatever the hell they (and I) wish to talk about. I get to discuss books and writing… two of my favourite things in the world.

Look, I don’t know if the sky is falling (did you ever think that we might be flying? You can have that for free. Stick it on a pillow or a piece of driftwood or something). What I do know is that I’ve eclipsed my worst-case and worst-acceptable targets within three weeks of publishing, so I simply cannot be unhappy with that. No bloody way. That gold rush? Yeah, maybe it’s over. Or maybe it’s just a case of moving to a different mine. To be honest, I didn’t bring a pickaxe with me anyway. I brought a pasty. Because I bloody love pasties.

1) +10 for the ‘Foamy McRabies’ scenario. Hilarious. I’ll check you out now.

Another 1) “I always assumed the last copy of a book I sold would be the last copy I would ever sell.”
I agree. This is why, when The Passive Voice posted its ever-popular “Who Quit Their Day Job” thread and I asked questions like, “So how much do you keep as an emergency fund? You know they say you need $1 million to retire,” most people thought I was bonkers.

Which I may be. Still, I’m happy that Hugh and I think the same way. Instead of worrying about meager sales, I try to marvel at any sales. Building for more, of course, but it’s a Zen thing, to just stop and say, Wow.

I love this perspective. Nobody is benefited by pie-in-the-sky I’m-gonna-win-the-lottery thinking. Nor are they benefited by a focus on doom and gloom. A realistic appraisal of the situation is best.

John – I totally agree. I did just try to write a long post… but it might have been too long, as it’s not going through. In any case, the TL;DR was that expectation setting (or rather REALISTIC expectation setting) plays a huge part in this. It’s great to have big aims but it’s also so important to have an idea of, “Okay, what would I really be happy with here? What would I consider a success?”

It’s great to shoot for the moon, but it’s also handy to keep in mind what a long way down that would be.

The difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing is what convinced me to take the indie route. Traditional publishing is an ongoing conversation with editors/agents/publishers. Self-publishing is a conversation with your reader. While many good things can be learned from editors and agents (and to some extent publishers), the conversations are driven by meeting the expectation of a company, not a reader. At the end of the day a company wants profit. But a reader wants something much more sacred.
A good story.
And they’re more than happy to help us find it.

Excellent post, as always, HH. The realism poured over your enthusiasm is a breath of fresh air. I am newly self pubbed and at this moment enjoying the freedom and control as my second book is in the works. The control is mine. The deadlines set by me. And the freedom that gives me can’t be beat. Thanks for the analysis of the situation. You have a gift for seeing the larger picture and being able to distill it into sharing size.

All good points, Hugh.

I’ve been saying for a while now that we’re in a Boom, much like the internet and housing booms of years past. Every boom must have a bust, though, and I believe we’re just entering that Bust. However, the difference here is that it will be more personal and less nationally economy shattering. Does that mean doom and gloom? No. It just means from here on in the “easy” times are over and those who are going to succeed are going to have to work harder to earn it (or get really lucky).

Hugh, thanks for confirming the big picture that I’ve been seeing. Hot TV shows, movies, and musical groups are all hot for a while, and then the New Hotness comes along and bumps them down the ladder. Books are the same. The process favors quality to some degree, of course, but mostly it speaks to the public’s desire for something new and different.

And too, Hollywood is rife with stories of actors who took 10 or 20 years to become an overnight success. But they wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t stuck it out. Traditional publishing didn’t give that opportunity to authors in many cases — but indie publishing does. We just have to keep writing quality stuff and stick it out.

Hugh – thanks for again writing such a great post, with a nice bit of motivation thrown in for extra measure. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my first novel, and have done my best to try and NOT listen to the “sky is falling” crowd (the fact that my day job is in the oil business is depressing enough at the moment!). I have at least eight more books I hope to write while still walking this planet, and while I’d love to have a massive audience, who are thoroughly enraptured by my every word, that’s not why I want to write them. In my heart, mind and soul, I believe those books NEED to be written, and so I must write them, whether anyone buys/reads them or not. Thank you again for your timely reminder of why we write. It is most appreciated.

As always, your insight is incredibly inspiring. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: regardless of sales — people (besides family and close friends) are reading my books! This is an enormous blessing. Coming from someone who was rejected countless times, the fact that I have published works floating around in the world — and that readers enjoy them — is the greatest joy of my life. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. I started a blog in 2006 and wrote to a tiny audience. And I still do. But that doesn’t matter. Sometimes I get caught up in the world and read too many articles about building my platform, or how to reach a wider audience, or how to be the best friggin’ marketing genius ever in the entire world. And after I spin around in the the cycle for a day or two, I dry off and get back to what really matters: writing. God gave me a desire to write. I’m going to fulfill that every single day of my life. Regardless if anyone is reading, buying or talking about my work. Gold rush? Money comes and goes, but words are eternal.

Hugh, thanks for the proper perspective on things- much needed amidst the Chicken Littles who panic with every sales or ranking dip. Here’s two views-

Damn, I’m only making a few thousand dollars from writing at present…

or-

Holy Cow, I’m making thousands of dollars by writing and publishing things my way! With much more to come as my success grows!

Yeah, I’ll take the second, thank you very much.

Had I stuck to the trad path, my series would probably be dead and buried, rather than getting a whole new lease on life this year, with re-releases, and book #4 to come out. I am grateful every day for this new world of publishing that allows me so much freedom and potential.

Man…I’ve been feeling a lot of these same things in the recent weeks and months. It’s weird — I’ve only been a published author for less than 20 months, and already I’ve seen authors make a splash and then…vanish. They’ve gotten out that long-dormant story they were just itching to tell and then they disappear. Maybe the writing got too hard. Maybe the criticism was a little too close to home. Maybe other priorities took shape.
I’ve had it happen in my own life. I put my next novel on hold because of shifting family priorities, but I managed to keep going with some short stories. I know the novel is waiting, but I don’t have a deadline, other than what I set for myself.
I haven’t quit my job to depend on writing (yet!), but I know there were many that viewed it as some get-rich quick scheme. That it isn’t. You write because you love it. You write because you want to tell your story. You write because the words need to be put in a certain order.
Thanks for your post. Really encouraged me.

I learned early on in self-publishing that sales go up and down, and as much as possible to try to emotionally detach from the down times, knowing up times will come again. Fear will rob you of gratitude and contentment and lead to poor decision making.

I think there are two important points that I’ve been trying to live and preach to others. The first is to make wise financial decisions–pay off debt, save money, and invest–so you can ride the financial rollercoaster of life (not just indie publishing.)

The other is to remember your love of telling stories. We have within us stories only we can give to the world. I agree with Hugh that I’d still be writing even without earning money. After all, I’d already spent 13 years doing so. :) Although if I wasn’t being paid, I probably wouldn’t write as much. :) Regardless of what’s going on in the publishing world, don’t lose your joy of storytelling.

“The fact that self-publishing provides better chances doesn’t mean great chances.”

Absolutely. Making a living as a writer is going to be difficult no matter how digital we get. Distribution is free. But finding your audience is still hard. Easier, yes. But still very, very hard.

Publishing isn’t “more dead” or “more alive” than it ever was … it just “is.”

You always could “self” publish a book, that has been happening since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Only the tools have changed.

Kindle, as one example of many, is another tool … nothing more. Amazon popularized it, and even created a handy platform (another tool) for authors to use and publish their books.

But it always comes back to what you are doing with those tools, whatever they are in the future. Sure, any of the tools can evolve, and sometimes the industry “noise” surrounding the use of those tools can change dramatically.

That doesn’t change the fact that they are still the same tools you (there’s that person again) get to use.

If you see a new tool, try it out. If you’re an early adopter of that tool, and happen to be lucky enough to have the opportunity to maximize the use of that tool … that’s a BONUS, and not your business.

Your business should be built around concepts, principles, and tactics … even whatever tools are available at whatever time (like the printing press).

But that business should NEVER rely solely on the use of any tool.

As one example…

Concept = finding distribution for your books.

Tool = The Amazon Platform.

You should always be aware of “finding distribution” … but also be prepared to become your own distribution channel should tools like Amazon’s platform end up the way of the Dodo.

Thanks for the excellent philosophical analysis, Hugh.

How true! I’ve been a published author now for over 30 years and have seen all the highs and lows…if you never give up you might see the highs again but if you give up, you never will. At least now I own my own books…forever.

You’re so right, Hugh, about this being a cyclical business. I came from traditional publishing and can write from experience that there are more lows in taking that route; God knows I experienced plenty of them!. Now I’m an indie and I love the control I have: no more covers I hate, for instance. No more long periods ‘resting’ between publishers, is another plus.

Yes, it’s a hard and demanding way to earn a living. No one who didn’t love creating stories just for the sake of the writing should ever take it up. Writing, whatever route you take, was never a get-rich-quick scheme. I presume it’s that dawning realisation that is causing the doom and gloom posts. A writing life, like life itself, can be ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but I, for one, intend to carry on regardless.

The best advice I heard for new writers who wanted to make a living in fiction was:

Fix your life first. Then start writing.

That is, get a regular job you can live with that doesn’t take too much time. Find a place to live you can easily afford. Save some money. Cut out distractions and conflicts. Then get to work.

Much easier said than done. But given the odds against making a good living, especially quickly, in writing, it made sense to me. Someone working at a job they hate, struggling to pay the bills, and under pressure to get rich quick in self-publishing is going to make themselves miserable. Someone who is not crazy about their job but can live with it, who has their finances manageable, is in a much better position to jump into the business with the right attitude whether they achieve riches or simply the satisfaction of expressing themselves.

What authors are experiencing right now in the self publishing arena sort of reminds me of the recent housing bubble. Many were riding on an income high and now things are settling out…readjusting…and probably incomes are now at a more realistic number. I also think writers who are really career minded are still here and always will be. Those who just tried this because they had a book or two in them to write, and let’s face it, self publishing was a way for anyone in our neighborhood to get a book out there, those writers are probably not in this for the long haul. The publishing business is not an easy path to take, but for those of us who write, because we can’t see ourselves doing anything else..well we’re here for the long run!

I’ve been saying these things for a long time. I also liked your Glut is Good piece. I do think you can hedge your bets a bit by writing more stuff and writing a greater variety. That way if sales go down one place they may go up in another and help stabilize things.

2014 was great for me. In no small part, due to Kindle Unlimited. I know it may hurt some writers with large established fan bases, but for someone like me just getting known in my small niche, it’s been great. I’m looking forward to an even better 2015.

Yup. For everyone feeling the crunch because of KU, someone else is getting a boost. It’s that cycle that I wish we’d be more cognizant of. We don’t have to like it, but it helps to be aware of it.

Great post.

The truth has always been that most trad published books are damp squibs (speaking from experience), but self-publishing has allowed authors to give readers what they want to read instead of what agents and publishers think they want to read.
Real writers just want someone to read their work, and any payment is a bonus.
Writers gotta write.

I was holding my breath as I read that. The anti/realism self-publishing voice has felt very loud and very insistent for the past couple of months. I was starting to question a lot of things. “The sky isn’t falling. The world is turning,” is something I’ll continue to remind myself whenever I feel overwhelmed.

I agree with so much of what you said here, Hugh, especially about not taking anything for granted. My 37th book came out yesterday with all the same nerves/butterflies that I had releasing the 1st one, even with the best preorder numbers I’ve ever had. I think it’s so critical to stay focused on the only thing we can control in this crazy business: our books and writing more of them. Thanks for your practical thinking!

For us readers, self publishing and traditional publishing taken as a whole is a win / win.
Thanks in particular to the proliferation in self publishing, my Kindle library is growing by leaps and bounds, and I am falling further and further behind in my reading. What a wonderful problem to have ….

“The sky isn’t falling. The world is turning.”
^ This.

I’ve been a freelancer for years. I perform writing, editing, proofreading, and web coding services for folks. More recently, I’ve done more file formatting and layout for others. The variability is good for me. Keeps me from getting bored.

But my variability also means that when one type of work is light, I can readily seek more work of another type. Or I can get work of a different type from a client I already have. Or I can use my multiple skills to increase my appeal to a potential client, if I handle it right.

Even so, I have my lean months. I also have my very good months. It’s par for the course, and I’m far more comfortable with this than I’ve ever been the few times I tried a day job. Freelancing’s more stable, in my experience.

I’ve always viewed self-publishing as another income stream, part of the freelancing thing, so I’ve not been worried about it poking along and not taking off, yet—but the entire self-publishing market is also comparable to the Exchange on a MMORPG. I was sick over the weekend and poked into Star Trek Online. There’s a Christmas event going on, and I’m brand new to the game. But the Christmas event makes some items EXTREMELY valuable in the short term, because they’re needed for some tasks that have to be finished before the event’s over. Taking advantage of the market conditions created by the Christmas event has enabled me to build a nest egg for my brand new character—and while building it, I’ve observed some other items that are more valuable than they seem at first glance. Have I made some gambles that didn’t turn out so well? Yeah. But took the few in-game funds I’d gathered and invested in the market, and I went from 2k to 200k in 2 days, even after reinvesting at least 60k of it. I turned around and reinvested 100k this morning, and I’ve already gotten half of it back.

Now, when I’m doing those investments, I’m doing so with consideration for what will happen with the leftovers I’ll have when the event’s over. Even if something happens immediately after posting this that keeps me from playing the game again until after the event’s over, I’ll still have a bigger nest egg than my goal was.

And when I next play the game, I’ll be watching for the next gap in the market. (I’ve already found one possible market one that’s independent of the Christmas event, and I’ve set up some testing to see the lack of supply is due to lack of market demand.)

How does this apply to self-publishing? It applies to self-publishing because there will ALWAYS be gaps that need filling in the market, just as there will ALWAYS be cases where one book’s (or movie’s) runaway success creates a short-term exaggerated demand for comparable products. Observant self-publishers who can produce fast to market desires can create something in time to snag one of the short-term waves. I believe most of us will be better served by figuring out what gap our work fits in the market and angling for that.

You always have such great perspective, Hugh. Even though I have noticed my sales have declined by half the last few months, they still are so much better than I ever dreamed they would be. Yes, I rely more on Bookbub’s biannual promotions to spike sales and gain readers, but I’m still so happy for each fan that contacts me and tells me how much they love my series. I wouldn’t have that without self-publishing and I can’t let myself forget that. Self-publishing is still rewarding for me in so many ways (sales are just one aspect of that).

You are always the voice of reason. Your books and your blog are what first inspired me to bite the bullet and head into self-publishing. Time and time again, your posts have reaffirmed why I’m love to write and why self-publishing is the right path for me.

Thank you, Hugh Howie.

Hugh, I loved this post, but in particular, I liked your whole “The sky isn’t falling. The world is turning.” bit. It’s one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard from anyone in my whole, which I supposed isn’t saying a whole lot, seeing as I’m quite young, but it’s still wise and definitely a quotable (who knows, maybe I’ll even use it in one of my stories).

There’s something so simple about common sense and logic! What is it about human nature that puts many on constant lookout for the next disaster? Hugh makes excellent points here. I especially like the reminder to enjoy the thrill of hitting publish on the 12th book as much as on the 1st.

Thanks, Hugh. Your posts are always encouraging and educational, but the tone of this one is especially timely for me. I hope I never become so jaded or cycnical (successful or not) that I lose the joy of writing.

Hugh,

You said:
Keep in mind that three sources of pent-up works hit the market all at once: long-queried manuscripts, manuscripts sitting in drawers, and rights that reverted to authors back when this was more likely to happen. After this sudden wave, we should expect to see — several years later — the first of those authors getting frustrated and/or quitting. And we are.

I’d add that during this same period commercial publishing is continuing to relaunch their backlists as ebooks – adding to the the “sudden wave.”

You said:
The sun goes down on one person while it comes up on someone else. This is a profession of cycles, of constant change. Hang around long enough, and the sun will come up on you again.

I’d agree but express the concern that it may not come back around in your lifetime. Elmore Leonard switched from writing westerns where he was so successful that his novels were being turned into movies right and left, in order to gravitate where to another marketplace that was growing and would for the rest of his life.

Just some thought to add to the wealth of ideas and insights you bring us.
Thanks!

Perfectly said, Hugh. I’ve always maintained that one should enter the indie industry with no expectations, eyes wide open and with a facility for change because change happens with the blink of an eye. Since entering the industry in 2008, I have been happy with everything that has come my way and whilst not at all a star in the firmament, my books have ranked unbroken in the UK for the last 18 months. Who’d have thought? That’s what I mean – no expectations! Thank you for such a level-headed post.

Such a great and timely article to help balance all the recent heaviness on forums, blogs, and articles about the supposed death of self-publishing. I’ve begun to pull away from reading most of it because the negativity hampers my creativity, therefore my productivity.

I’ve been at this since 2008 and it’s been a hard road, but one that I’ve found a measure of success at, even though I don’t write in a popular genre and I don’t follow all the hints/tips/tricks that are given by outliers.

I just wish more writers new to the self-publishing scene would understand that for most cases, the I-Want-It-Now mentality just doesn’t jive. Success can be reached. Just stay focused! Be Patient! Keep writing! (and have fun..)

To make an analogy: as a writer, your objective is to spend a lovely day at the beach.

With traditional publishing, you’re at Cape Cod, and all the beaches are privately-owned, and the only way you can get onto one and party is to somehow luck into an invite to one of those swank-ass rich-people galas attended by, like, Al Gore.

With self-publishing: you’re at-sea, an indeterminate number of miles from shore. Also you’re fifty feet underwater.

In my experience over the decades, in good economic times people read less. They are too busy working and related things to that. When recessions hit, reading books seems to become more popular for variety of reasons (cheaper, more free time if you’re temporarily unemployed etc).

We just went through a huge long recession, so long lasting that it seemed like the new-permanent but of course it wasn’t. During that time books were once again a big, popular pass time. Now that unemployment is dropping in the last 18 months and economic growth returned more robustly, of course sales dropped. That’s what always happens.

But good times won’t last forever in the main economy either. Analysts are already saying a recession is coming soon, signified by falling oil prices which means industry has less demand for oil. And when it does, whether it’s a year from now or later, you can bet that book buying will shoot up. It just always seems to.

This is of course just my opinion based on observations over the years, and I can see some viewing it as a crackpot theory if they want to. But it fits with what I’ve noticed.

Hugh:

Thanks for a really great post. You are right and I’m grateful. Without people like you, Konrath, DWS and KKR, many of us would have given up long ago instead of slowly earning a little more from our writing every year while loving our life.

Great post. I was trying to think of something to add. All I can say is that I’ve had much more success self-publishing (7 or 8 books) than traditional publishing (5 books). Probably the primary reason for that is that I had much more control over marketing, pricing, editing, date published, etc.

But probably the other main contributor was that I had simply written for a longer period of time by the time I was self-publishing. The more you write, the better your chances get.

Perspective is everything. In high school math/science, we learned “change is the only constant.” That’s always true. If you can embrace it, you can not only have more peace and joy in your life, but you might be the person who makes a new path that people will love and follow.

My husband and I both work in the entertainment industry so, as I said in a speech once, that makes us a one-income family. Haha! It’s a fallacy to think that ANY job in any industry is “safe.” So in some ways, I like that constant reminder that I live a life of faith, believing in what I do and that it’s worth it to the world for me to continue, despite the ups and downs. Besides, the ups and downs of life give us more to write about! Haha!

Thanks, Hugh, for all your great posts. Sometimes I think you’re writing what I was thinking but didn’t think to say out loud. :-D

Their works are available in the largest bookstore in the world. Why aren’t they selling? Rewriting blurbs, hiring another editor, changing the cover, playing with the price and promotions, all of these things make the lack of success harder to bear in some ways.

Why aren’t they selling? Competition from other books.

Books are selling very well. Zillions of books are selling. The market is the best it has ever been.

But many titles are not selling well because there is so much competition from other books. The supply has increased much faster than demand. New books are entering the market everyday. Backlists are entering everyday. Books no longer leave the market like they used to disappear from bookstore shelves after six weeks. They remain available. They appear in searches. The long tail was hailed as a great advantage. It is. But it also increases competition for new entrants.

“But my book is unique.” Of course it is. But lots of other unique books give the consumer the same utility. That makes them close substitutes and strong competitors.

This is normal stuff. It’s not cynicism. It’s economics, supply and demand, and we have seen it forever. It is a sign of a healthy and vibrant market that is delivering more books to more people at lower prices than at any time in history.

“But my book is unique.” Of course it is. But lots of other unique books give the consumer the same utility. That makes them close substitutes and strong competitors.
Unique means nothing. If I take a pile of wood, screw some together, pour on some paint and glue, add some doctor who figurines; I can make it look nice, it will be unique, it will be the only one on earth…. but that doesn’t mean it is worth more than fifty cents.
And, it depends on the genre. If I am reading zombie stories, I don’t want somethng too different, I actually want something similiar..
lol

“… The sun goes down on one person while it comes up on someone else. This is a profession of cycles, of constant change. Hang around long enough, and the sun will come up on you again….”

Your analogy got me to thinking, Hugh…. I was watching Kevin Burns’s The Dust Bowl documentary a few months ago, and was struck by how many similarities there are in mentality between farmers and writers. The publishing cycles come and go … each writer plants her/his stories, and hopes for rain and sun at the right times. The sun sets and rises, the storms come and go, and if one is lucky, the plants survive and grow into a plentiful harvest, and then one day the writer finds a happy herd of readers milling around outside demanding more.

One of the subjects the documentary goes into in depth about is the boom cycle during the 1920s that led to many inexperienced non-farmers buying up land to plow who had no training or understanding of what they were doing. There was a boom going on, and they wanted the $$$, but were often absentee farmers who had no frigging clue about farming as a business or profession. When the unusually wet years ended and the high crop prices collapsed, they were gone. Wiped out.

Great stuff in your analogy, Hugh. It fits so well. Made me remember that writers have it much, much easier than farmers. The grasshoppers were a major problem here last fall. Ate up a bunch of the fall crops. At least writers don’t have to fight off grasshoppers to keep their ebooks/audiobooks/print books alive!

Great comparison. My father was a farmer. I saw what it took, and what it took from him. That’s a brutal business, subject to fickle winds. We have it so much easier. And in many ways, the arts owe the progress of farming to the leisure time it fostered throughout history.

Thanks, Hugh. My grandfather farmed, and I spent several childhood summers helping him out. Hunh. You just made me wonder if one of the reasons I like writing so much is that I get the same kind of huge adrenline rush I’d get from growing seeds, but without the crazy-making stuff like hail pummeling the seedlings to pulp … or squash bugs killing all the pumpkins … or #@%# deer eating the nearly-ripe cantaloupes.

The self published writing industry has become a more competitive realm now that the stories published are vastly improved in terms of quality. It’s author such as yourself Hugh, who have pioneered and pushed for books of a quality parallel to traditionally published. As I have my first book currently being edited I feel that my work will be better because it has to be to compete and I’m so very glad of it. There are no guarantees in the indie landscape but you have to polish your work before you can even step out into the indie plains.

Great post Hugh. Your insight on things are incredible. I have watched all your videos on youtube; I love listening to you because I feel like I’m learning something very vaulable so I thank you for that.

Wow. It has been an interesting road, hasn’t it? I’m now working on novel, crap, I don’t even know anymore, #37 or 38, and you know what? I still love that feeling when you get the sentence right, the words perfect, the musicality of the cadence something to be proud of.

I wrote a comment in my last blog that being a writer was akin to being a Greek god. We create worlds. Heady stuff, until one has to go to work as a barista or punching holes in steel in a machine shop.

Everyone has a book in ’em, and everyone’s throwing their book up on Amazon. Fine. All good. Most of those either suck, or lack a premise that interests, or a blurb, or a cover, or are in a genre that’s a black hole. Additionally, they’re all competing with each other, and with hundreds of thousands of new trad pub offerings per year, as well as millions of backlist titles.

A quick and even marginal grasp of basic math would tell anyone that the odds of discovery are terrible. Less terrible than a few years ago due to the fact the book’s even available, but more terrible due to the amount of competition.

We’ve talked about this on the radio. It would be awesome if there were a magic bullet or some secret other than working hard and applying yourself to your craft, and then taking your content creator hat off and donning your business guy had on to deal with the vagaries of selling books.

All this is healthy and expected. We need to understand that stasis is impossible in the arts, and success comes in waves. The troughs make the crests all the more impressive, but it’s not flat water by any means. Never has been, never will be.

I believe all we can do as authors is to create compelling work to the best of our abilities, targeted in genres that are large enough to sustain us if they it breaks big, and to love what we’re doing even if we had to pay to do it. As business people/book sellers, we need to realize we’re in a retail business, where just because something worked yesterday, doesn’t mean it’ll ever work again, and our job as promoters/marketers is to find our audience and communicate to it that we have what they want.

It’s a tough gig. Most gigs, especially in the arts, that stand to make you a pot of money, are tough.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Be interesting to see how things have progressed five years from now. I’m optimistic.

“I still love that feeling when you get the sentence right, the words perfect, the musicality of the cadence something to be proud of.”

I’m going to say something people won’t like.

It doesn’t look like KU is really about bringing more musicality to readers.

As the world turns, I’ve been reading how indies are going to pivot with it. There is a lot of talk about strategy. About churning out, volume, million words a year, speed, writing “clean” so you don’t need any editing, getting it out to stay visible. Editing isn’t needed; it slows the process down. One and done.

So I took a few moments to read sample works from some of the proponents of this approach, who are doing pretty well by their own estimation. What I found was a fantasy writer who names magical races by changing the first letters of other people’s magical races. His worlds are populated by the equivalent of smelves and lobbits and swarves. I found a romance writer whose protagonists are the most handsome men in the world, and also rich and own planes, which you know because she says it three times on every page, whenever she isn’t pausing to describe kitchen cabinets and backsplash tile, or inflicting more melodramatic catastrophes than you ever saw on ten years of General Hospital.

These aren’t random people uploading a teen journaling project. These are indie authors who are making a good living following this approach. There’s clearly a market for what they do. They’ve adapted to the turning world. And it didn’t involve getting sentences right.

I came here via Joseph Ratcliffe and I’m glad I did. Great to ‘discover’ new writers this way. I agree that the digital publishing ‘gold rush’ isn’t over. I think it’s a ‘marathon’ not a sprint, anyway. Mind you I wrote this on the matter of digital publishing, which sort of ties in with your article; ‘…the odds of discovery are terrible…’. http://lettersfromnomansland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/things-havent-really-changed-in.html

I first started writing when I was a teenager and have kept at it ever since. I learned about the business side and mostly I’ve had fun. For the past five years I’ve been making some money from my writing, both traditionally published stories and indie. It’s not a living, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to enjoy steady employment since I was a teenager, and it has been my jobs that have helped fund my writing all these years. Plus I’ve benefited from a supportive family. I still get excited about each new project, so yes, it’s a great time to be a writer!

The Amazon model is always evolving. One thing I’m very interested in is Kindle Worlds.

Is it a success? I know you have over 100 fan fiction stories in the Wool Kindle Worlds section. Do you think its been a win for you and the writers?

Amazon doesn’t seem to do much to promote Kindle Worlds. I wouldn’t have found it outside of my writing aspirations, even though I’m a huge Wool fan. To me, it looks like something they experimented with a bit, then abandoned. There was a short time where they promoted it, then they kind of dropped it.

I was yacking on about this on Monday on my blog. Last week it seemed everywhere I turned people were talking about how self publishing was falling apart, and that the tide was turning – with my feet in quicksand.

I think no matter what you do in life, there are always ‘quitters’ and ‘non-quitters’. I say quit in inverted commas because it’s not quitting as such, just moving onto something else. People deciding that this is not for them anymore. A month of no sales is like a month of receiving rejection letters. A day of five, 1 star reviews (been there) and not much else feels like a month’s worth of rejection letters all on the same day. Both things could make somebody say, enough, can’t do it anymore. But the ‘non-quitters’ just say stuff it and keep going, knowing that somewhere above the clouds the sun is still shining.

Self publishing is a chance none of us had six or seven years ago. At least now we have choices

The numbers are rigged.
Who is claiming they are not selling books? The ones who would never be picked up by an agent in the first place? Amazon is filled with pretty books written quickly, by people who do not understand the first rule… Just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean you deserve an income from it. This attitude is common among all small businesses, just because you decided to open a coffee shop doesn’t mean you deserve to succeed. It is the same with a book, you can write 50 books, but if it is not what the public wants you will not make a living. On the other hand someone might write a book people love, and that one book will make them rich.
I look at publishing on the Kindle like buying lottery tickets.
1. The more tickets I buy the better my odds (the more books I write)
2. The more i spend on a ticket the better my odds (the more time I spend working on it)
3. No matter how much you spend on tickets or how many tickets you buy, the odds are low you will win (no matter how many books you write or how hard you try, you still might fail).
The only difference is, you can affect the outcome of the writing lottery by working hard and producing work in many areas. All you need is for people to find one of your books and that might bring them to your other books. Even then, there is a finite number of people who will buy your book, and it will take ten years for a new generation to come along and find your work. Luckily, your book will never leave the shelf, so 20 years from now millions of people not even born yet can find, and buy, your book….if you put the work in.

Last July when everything started spinning with KU and Amazon’s changing algorithm, many self publishers realized they weren’t hanging on to the merry-go-round quite as as tightly as they should have. Falling earnings became a self-fulfilling prophecy when a lot of authors held on to their books rather than soldiering on and putting them out there.

I got scared too, but then said — heck, stuff is written, I might as well publish. And a funny thing happened. I found another foothold, started another pen name, and the journey began again, from the ground up, like none of the rest ever happened. The ride might not be as smooth as it was early last year, but it keeps turning, as long as I hang on and decide I’m not going to get off, no way, no how.

You know, I’m not an indie author myself, but the whole “end of the gold rush”, “indies are hanging up the boots”, etc. that has been going around since the end of 2014 has kind of depressed me a little.
And I think it should. It is true that the period of wonder has kind of ended, and realistic (on the verge of pessimistic) posts like the one from Kristine Kathryn Rush were needed for everyone to realise that.
So I feel this post was incredibly needed (it made me happy to read something that acknowledges the disenchantment while explaining that it is just that). Just because the new car smell is gone (love the metaphor), it doesn’t mean that the new car is now as bad as the old one… It just means you got used to it.
Anyhow, thanks for this. And I think the (near) future holds a lot of surprises and new turns that indie authors will be able to capitalise on (better than trad. pub.) and bring some of the enchantment back. As I like to say, we’re only at the beginning of a decade-long disruption and I don’t see thinks “settling” anytime soon.

Such a fantastic analysis of what is going on, Hugh! I am adopting your “world is turning” quote. Promise to footnote you as I mangle it before live studio audiences. It was mentioned comments above, but this moment in time really reminds me of the dot com era… and the itunes rush… and the YouTube revolution… I heard an NPR story about ten years after the dot com bust and they said one of the most interesting things about the dot com bust was that it actually hadn’t gone bust. The market was growing at a healthy pace and the new technology companies were actually earning more money for investors than they did in the dot com era. What shifted was the perception of the gold rush. Instead, the people going into it were business savvy. Investors stopped throwing money at any 18-year-old kid with a software idea, who then went on to spend the money on ping pong tables and free lunches rather than the product (I say this as someone who worked for one of those companies.) Similarly in the YouTube revolution, you now have to have great production values and more than your mom’s camcorder if you want a deal with X-box. And I think the eBook Revolution has powered up to the boring old “legitimate business” world. The novelty of this economic boom has worn off and it probably is the end of the “free money” era. Traditional publishers aren’t scouring the Top 100 lists as the new slush piles as much, movie moguls aren’t optioning as many indie books as The New Hotness, word has gotten out that you actually have to bring a ladder to reach the boughs of the money tree. But I think what is happening instead is the start of the “sane epoch”. And look! Traditional publishing is still alive and well, the Kindle did not destroy libraries, people did not burn their bookshelves! We have balance and co-existence. That’s cool (or at least to me, that’s cool.)

I love your point that self-publishing started at zero so every day saw growth and perceived success.

It reminded me of a benefits meeting about retirement plans I had at the day job a decade ago. The rep said that stocks are increasing in value at between 10% – 25% a year. I raised my hand and said, “well, that can’t keep going forever, right? there’ll be a downturn at some point. There has to be. Right?” The benefits rep said, “No.”

Then 2008 happened. :)

THANK YOU!!!! You practically read my mind. I especially appreciate the numbered points at the end. I sometimes have to just sit down and remind myself of those and I think that’s okay. You just have to have a hard talk with yourself sometimes. Thank you again for this.

~Olivia

Hugh, there’s another factor at play. We consume media differently now. No one had to be told that they should try binge-watching their favorite shows online. We just do it. We like something, and we can get more of it RIGHT NOW. More importantly, we’re choosing to have more of it now rather than do something else.

Sales are going to become more and more erratic, not less. We as readers have gained the ability to superfocus our consumption, burn through the content we like, and then move on. Readers are able to share their recommendations, and sample those recommendations, like never before. The natural result of this is that success will come like a bolt of lightning.

Some of the same strategies will work today and tomorrow that worked three years ago. Having a broad catalog of stuff that’s proven to sell. Keep putting out new work. Make sure your back matter encourages people to connect in some way to spread the word.

I’m very happy to hear about your #1, Hugh. You’re too nice of a guy to end up broke and wondering where the money all went. Orson Scott Card said something similar years ago. You never know where your next penny is coming from.

Hugh, thanks so much for the deep breath! An inspiring, yet level-headed, way of looking at the indie picture. Sometimes it’s tough to keep the sky-is-falling bad news from sucking one down. I’m book-marking this for those times. ;)

~Kathy

Tell The Story You Want To Tell
There is more to that than meets the eye. People write a book and hope the money comes in, but that is not the way to making a living. The best way is just to write what you want, don’t quit your day job, don’t stop after one (unless you only have one book in you). What Hugh did was keep writing for years before publishing, he had a backlog of work ready to polish and put out there once Wool hit it big.
At least that is the pattern I am following. Just because I have one Wool fan fic ready to put out and one small book of my own, it isn’t enough. So I keep writing, I feel i need two more ready to go, then I will put the four out at once.

Number 3, your first set of numbered points. That, right there is why I write. I wrote what I want to read because it didn’t exist.

Also, re the quitting thing. The way I see it is this. In numbers, yes, I’m a failure. Although I am probably less of a failure in 13/14 than I have been in previous years. But the way I see it, I’m not actually a pukka failure until I give up. And I haven’t. Therefore I’m just losing, that’s all; the world is merely ahead on points. Some idiotic part of me believes I will prevail. So I’ll keep on writing books… that take me two years apiece and maybe one day…. ;-)

Cheers

MTM

As always, excellent. Optimistic, helpful, and observations supported from solid experience. Thank you.

I love this! I think every writer thinking of getting into self-publishing should consider that natter which path they take, it’ll always be an uphill battle. There’s no quick fix for success, and there certainly are no get-rich-quick schemes. It’s all about hard work and dedication, and having the heart to write even when no one is reading. After all, even Seth Godin says that the purpose of art is to be able to give a gift and establish a connection. If that isn’t our goal as writers, maybe we should step back and think about why it’s so important for us to write our books.

[…] If you pay attention to industry news, you’ll know that there are a lot of people panicking, claiming that the “golden age of self-publishing” is over–that the bottom has fallen out.  The bubble has burst.  The sky is falling.  Hugh Howey, as ever able to grasp the self-pub zeitgeist and turn polarizing debates into well-reasoned hope, responds to this theme in a new blog post titled “Sky Gazing”: […]

I never had any illusions about success as a writer being easy. I knew what the odds were going the trade route. And I knew what the work load would be going the independent route. I was probably better educated about the publishing process than most self-publishing writers when I began to work in earnest toward getting published. I spent years dreaming about writing a book, toying with the idea enough to dig in and learn what was needed to go about submitting and getting published. Fear of rejection and other issues kept me from taking that final step. So, I continued to dream and feed myself excuses why I couldn’t move forward with that dream.

When I finally reached the tipping point and decided to write for real, I knew it was going to be a one-way path for me. After all the years of holding back, the stories began to explode out of me. I will not—cannot—stop writing.

I admit, I had hoped I would be doing better by this point than I am. I predicted to friends and family that I probably won’t taste any real success with my writing until the third book of my series comes out. My second book is still an unfinished manuscript—delayed by some unfortunate bumps in Life’s road—but I hope to have it ready for release, soon. I’m confident that I will have some indication of what my future prospects will be with the release of Book 2.

I measure my success not on how many copies I have sold, but by the fact that other people read that story and greatly enjoyed it. By that I know someday my writing will find its audience.

For now, I will continue to write. I will write for myself. I will write to bring to life those images and thoughts that have danced in my mind for so many years. I will write with joy those scenes where I know I really nailed it, and I will write through the frustration those scenes that don’t seem to quite come together correctly.

Then I will put it out there and hope others find it and enjoy it.

Comments are closed.