Jerry Pournelle once told me that Robert A. Heinlein “ran scared his whole life.” At the time we went on with the conversation, and I don’t know if I asked him if that fear was monetary or of not having his next work bought.
In a certain way, I didn’t have to. All writers lived with those two fears, side by side, until about two years ago. Most still live with them. The difference now is, it’s not necessary to be afraid you won’t sell again. And the money thing is getting better, too.
Let me explain: when you’re a writer, you are depending on money from your writing for a living – but your writing doesn’t depend on you or how good it is alone. It depends on how good a placement it gets; on how much your publisher bets on it; on how good your cover is…
It depends on other things too, things that even your publisher might have absolutely no control over: how stores and distribution have changed and how much they’ve changed recently (if they changed long ago, then people have adjusted how they calculate your sell through. But if in the last ten years, they might not have.); what other books came out recently – for instance if you just wrote a sparkly vampire book right after Twilight did well, you’ll get a lift from that. But your publisher couldn’t have known; what national events happened recently – 9/11 stopped book sales for about a quarter and the resulting economic downturn across the board made this even worse.
But the one unspoken thing about the publishing industry is that your numbers are yours and go with your name – not with the publisher, not with the national events, not with anything like that. While no publisher would be crazy enough to tell me that 9/11 was my fault, the lack of sell through on my first book was held against me for years, when it came to new contracts and new books. This is because your name is on the cover – that other stuff isn’t.
Now, some publishers – okay, Baen – are sane, and capable of looking at disasters like my very first book with Baen (Draw One In The Dark) with a cover that had nothing to do with the book and looked like it was drawn by a first grader, and a sell through hit hard by the fact that – freak occurrence – Baen books were kept out of the Ingrams listing by accident that month, and say “okay, this was a freaky occurrence. Of course we’ll buy you again.” OTOH even Baen couldn’t wave a wand and do away with the bad numbers, so I had to build them up again, book by book. A lot of work and self promo and, yes, expense.
So, if you’re a writer and you absolutely need that check to buy groceries or pay the mortgage, as Heinlein and my friend Dave Freer did/do from their earnings, or even if like me – the second earner in the house – you’re just looking at new shoes for the boys, a new mattress for the younger one, and college tuition… You live with fear. Stomach twisting, mind-wrenching fear.
Because in traditional published books it’s very important to get out of the gate strong (it helps in indie books too, but I refuse to play that game, for the same reason I refused to go through extensive infertility treatment again, even though I wanted more kids, after Robert was born. The whole process and six years of failure had become so traumatic that I couldn’t) we watch the initial month like hawks, and worry about sales like shaved monkeys. We do everything but read entrails to tell how the book did, because we won’t know for a year or more, when we get the first report. (Or for a couple of years, or ever if you’re dealing with one of the houses which is creative with numbers.)
And sometimes you can’t figure out why a book is lagging. I’m for instance fairly sure AFGM is lagging DSR, despite being a deeper/stronger book. Not sure why. I can make myself crazy thinking it over. I would be making myself crazy over it, if I didn’t know I would always have Indie on the side, if it becomes impossible for Baen to keep buying me.
In fact, for ten years I lived in panic fear. I have the health problems to show for it. About two years ago, my hair was falling out by the handful.
Fear. I understand fear. I know from fear.
Which means I COMPLETELY understand the writers who keep jabbering like lunatics about “don’t go indie… it’s doom, doom I tell you” or who assert self-confidently that they will continue being traditionally published because they’ll simply do so much better. (When in fact, the only way they could be sure of that is if they KNOW their statements are doctored upwards, as a few of the darlings’ statements HAVE to be. Otherwise, how can they know without trying?)
These people are scared. Terrified in fact. This applies particularly to the marginal writers, who are barely making the cut at their traditional publisher; to those who are selling to very small presses, to people who feel like they’re hanging on by their fingernails. Part of their fear is the fear that if too many people go indie their publisher won’t be able to keep buying them. Part of the fear is that if THEY go indie and they don’t sell, they’ll “know” they were never any good. (Which is insane, of course. For one, there is no objective measure for “good” after books are detypo-ed and grammatical. It’s “what sells.” How many best sellers do you think are horrible? Show of hands.)
Again, we all lived with this kind of fear for years. I understand them. They’re terrified of losing the toe hold they have on the field, terrified that things will go from bad to worse.
What they don’t get is a) how much the field has changed. Things will get worse whether they jump or other people jump or not. And publishers are not looking at how “good” you are, in terms of paying them lip service, (i.e. how well behaved your are) but how good your sales are. This is why they sign all those “bad” boys and girls who go indie and make it big. b) that being traditionally published, they hold sway with the minds of the raw newbies, and when they say “never do this” they’re doing a disservice to any number of young writers, who will take their word as gospel and never try the very route that could get them published.
How much the field has changed – The story is that printruns have fallen across the board. I say there’s more than that because the publishers are still making all that money in ebooks, but this is what they’re saying. The rule of thumb is this: those who were getting more than 100k, are now getting 10k; those who were getting more than 50k are now getting 5k; and those who were getting less are now not working. (Except at Baen.)
So, if you are marginal, you’ve got a good likelihood of being dropped, regardless of how much you say “what a good boy am I.” It’s tough times for publishers, too. They’re going to go with what sells.
Your choice is whether, once you’re dropped, you go to one of the tiny presses – a lot of which exploit those fears and are in fact terribly grabby with the rights – or you’ll try it on your own. The more you tell yourself no one sane would go indie, the more you are just setting yourself up for a world of hurt.
“But don’t most indie published people fail?”
I don’t know. I have a window into indie publishing both through myself, through friends of mine, and through being involved with Naked Reader Press.
I also have a good view into traditional publishing through my friends. What were your chances of making it in traditional publishing? Not high. That is, not high if you count from the moment when you decided to start writing seriously. Ahead of you were years of sending stuff out and getting it rejected, often without the courtesy of a reason why (and it’s dangerous to assume it’s because it sucks. Sometimes they just don’t know your name.) Most people take about three years to break in. Most people go to cons, make contacts, and work the fan circuit. I didn’t do any of those and it took me THIRTEEN years till I sold something – a short story. By the time I sold I had amassed 80 rejections. And it wasn’t all beer and skittles from then on. For the next three years, I used to reach 100 rejections by March, every year, and sell an average of three short stories a year. (I sold a novel in the third year, and then stopped writing so many shorts, which is why I no longer get as many rejections.)
Was this all craft? Well, part of it was. The other part was name recognition. I know this because since my numbers in novels picked up, I’ve sold almost all my trunk short stories. However, I won’t lie to you. Going over these stories to self publish I can find several inflection points, where I was writing at a level, and then suddenly took a giant step (and sometimes went back again for a few stories, before finding my footing.) Some of those very early short stories will never be published unless heavily edited.
Writing is a craft. Just because you’ve been using words your whole life, you shouldn’t assume that you can tell a story – anymore than you should assume that because you can color with crayons, you can paint like DaVinci. There’s study and work involved in sharpening your craft, and it will take time. You can’t shirk it. It will take time, even if like my husband you can study well in the abstract.
And if you start from that point, traditional publishing loses about 999 writers for each of those who actually ever get ANYTHING published. (The anything could be a short story.) The statistics used to be available. Of those who write novels and short stories with intention to sell and submit SERIOUSLY for a few years, 999 per thousand never see a word traditionally published. Then you publish a story. Some number of people will decide, right after, that they accomplished what they set out to do and drop out. (Few, I think, but a significant number.) A much larger number will get discouraged when they first published story doesn’t win any awards or attract any notice and give up. Another even larger number will quit when they continue getting rejections even after that. The number who persist in submitting are a minority. The number who will go on to sell regularly – instead of getting fed up with how hard it is (and it is very hard) and finding something else to do – is even smaller.
So, when you’re established – which I was told when I broke in was when you were selling fifty percent of all you wrote – it gets easier, right?
In traditional publishing? For those who came in when I did? Not markedly. We came in under the push model and facing the tightening of the market due to both publisher and bookstore merger/concentration in the big boys. I think Dave Freer says what it created was something called Oligopsony – the word might be wrong. I know it drives me to dipsomania. – which means many suppliers, but no way to reach the public except through few distributors.
This gives the distributors immense power, and when I came through what they were looking for that determined whether your book got widely distributed didn’t even have anything to do with quality of the book. It had to do with connections, looks, and with fitting their ideas of “saleable” and “promotable.”
Most writers didn’t fit that, and they entered a treadmill of fear. I have a friend who got dropped by her traditional publisher as far as we can tell because she outsold their expectations SEVERAL times over. Yes, you read that right. At least that’s the only reason we can find. Her book sold five times what they expected (from advance and initial printrun) so she’s never worked in that town again. More common are the people who are told they didn’t sell enough – regardless of the factors – and also will never work in this town again.
And for those who continue, unless they are among the few darlings who are pushed with all the house has, or they happen to get lucky and have a miracle occur (and it used to take a miracle to change your “level” of sales) they will live with fear all their writing lives. On the merciful side, those won’t be long. Some friends and I once tallied most mid list careers (by when the name shows up in books and stories and then disappears) and they are about ten years.
Now, enter indie…
Whenever I talk about this, I get told that I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t write under Joe Blow. Of course I have fans. Of course you have a name…
Poppycock. I have SEVERAL names, some of which have published only indie (and one of which no one, not even my husband knows about.) So do almost all my indie publishing friends.
Why? In my case because of the other fear. The fear that by opening up about politics I’d lose ALL my readers. Keeping a few secret pen names, in utter darkness and not associated with me gives me a feeling of security, even if it’s mostly illusory. I don’t know why my friends do it, but I suspect the reasons are similar.
So, even among my traditionally published, and some bestseller friends, we have any number of names no one knows.
We also have friends who weren’t published, or who were published once many years ago and never again, who are now trying their luck at indie.
I’m here to tell you our results have more to do with what genre we’re writing in and persistence than with name recognition. In fact, for ALMOST everyone I know, their pen names outsell them by more than two to one. (And I have a theory for this – I think the writers feel more free to play under a closed pen name, and when they’re having fun the readers have fun too.)
Now, I’ll grant you that ALMOST every writer I know is not a raw newbie. This is not a decision made on the spur of the moment. They’re writing and have been writing for years, and though degrees of knowledge vary, most KNOW their craft.
That being a given, they do sell more than ten copies per book – uniformly. How much they sell is affected by certain factors and I’m going to give you the factors:
1 – You have to have more than one piece of writing out. This is a given. Yes you can get massively lucky with one piece, but if you have two you doubled your chances of being found. It’s not a coincidence all the people who hit it big had about ten pieces out.
2- Novels sell better than short stories. This is probably because people have been trained out of reading short stories for years.
3- Some genres sell way better than others. Romance and mystery will outsell sf/f EVERY time. There is a larger public looking for those.
4 – And this one is not immediately obvious: you will do better if you’re purveying something that the traditional publishers don’t. Let’s call this the “talk radio” rule. Look, there is a reason conservative talk radio did very well, while leftist talk radio was a dismal failure. This is because if you go into left talk radio, you’re competing with EVERY OTHER LARGE PURVEYOR. If you go it on your own from the right, you have an underserved market (that election after elections proves is 50/50. So there’s a huge market waiting, and indie voices can reach them. It’s the same in writing, and yes, politics can be part of this. What I mean is: hit from a direction the big boys aren’t fulfilling.
Isn’t this at odds with #3? Not really. Look, more people are going to search for Romance, but if you’re doing politically correct, feminine-empowerment, “men should be women with penises” romance, then you’re competing against all the big publishers. OTOH, if you do it as “real people fall in love” (well, not really. It’s still a book, but as close as possible.) enough people will be so relieved, you’ll discover a following. Same with mystery that doesn’t have businessmen as villains.
As proof of this, Mil SF outsells even romance, in indie. Why? How? My guess is because it’s a massively underserved genre. Baen alone can’t do enough for all the fans.
What I mean is your angst-ridden literary fantasy with politically correct characters is not likely to take off madly. Not saying you can’t or shouldn’t write it. I’m saying you should be aware you’ll be competing with all the big six. They’re likely to win.
5- but don’t you have to do a lot of publicity when you go Indie? Go to cons and stuff?
Er… no. Yes, you can if you want to, and in my experience it provides some TEMPORARY lift to your work. HOWEVER long term? Not so much. Long term, you’ll do better our of writing another book, and another, and another.
In traditional publishing publicizing when the book comes out is important, because you’re fighting for shelf space RIGHT THEN. How the book does right out the gate determines whether there will be reprints, and how much attention it gets. And if book one goes out of print, you’ll have trouble selling book three. In indie publishing, though, people don’t care. Your book is on the virtual shelf (and now, if you do it on paper also order-able forever.) If people discover you on book three or five or ten, they’re going to buy all the others.
Now, where publicity works is up front. Word of mouth is powerful, but takes about three years to get going (which is why traditional can’t harness it.) If you’re a publicity maven, then you can get a lift much earlier. If not, keep your head down and keep writing.
So, am I saying for a fact that you shouldn’t go traditional? Forfend. I’m saying you should do ALL of them. I am.
Indie is no bed of roses. No attempt at making a living from writing is. BUT if you persist there can be rewards. If you stay alert, you move fast, and you do it RIGHT (which means as well as you can.)
In a continually shifting terrain, there’s no reason to restrict yourself. Continue trying for traditional, but go indie too – under another name if you’re afraid traditional publishing will hold the venture against you. Why should you give up at a chance of success? Yeah, you might fail. But you might fail in traditional too.
You are only permanently defeated when you stop trying.
UPDATE: My PJM Column is up.