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.