To Draw Out Leviathan

“You should have seen the one that got away.”
I suppose there is an element of this in every writer that is trying to sell his books. The dream of that big one, so big that it will all be worth while. So big you’ll never have to struggle again. And the truth is the way things have been, and the way they probably will be, (at the moment there is a bit of a break-down in the hierarchy, all good IMO) there’s a very asymmetrical distribution of sales. At the bottom, there tens, if not hundreds of thousands sell a few hundred copies (and there are traditionally published authors and proud SFWA members who are as much part of this group as the brave folk venturing onto KDP) and there on up the higher you get the fewer people there are. It’s worse than fishing where 10% of the skippers catch 90% of the fish. 0.1% of the writers catch Leviathan. the rest get by on an anchovy or maybe three. And of course it bears little relationship to the tastes of readers but it did make a lot of sense to to traditional publishing industry, whose costs were both per unit AND fixed per project/book (so if book A sold 1000 copies, and the cost per unit was 1 dollar, and the fixed cost per project -editing, cover, office cost etc 10 000, book A cost 11000 dollars or 11 dollars a copy, And book B sold 100 000 copies, cost per unit $1, fixed cost per project still $10 000 – the cost per copy was a $1.10. So book B was more profitable. And to make it worse, fixed costs such as the interest on the advances paid to book B and the office/staff/promo costs – all of which benefited book B disproportionately – you can see why they would focus on B – were shared equally). So the whole system was geared to produce a few leviathans and very little in the middle.

Of course, because this was not really geared at pleasing readers, and they got increasing to think readers didn’t matter much, marketing was all important, and those stupid proles could read what their publishing lords said was good for them, leviathan, as a proportion of the public who should be able to read and enjoy it kept shrinking. Even the out-and-out leviathans are pretty tiny compared to the population out there.

Now that has, at the moment, been severely disrupted by e-books and Indy. The very very top 0.01% haven’t really been much affected, but the upper echelon of publishing have had their share sliced – even if the new minnows are only taking 10 copies each off them, there are a lot of minnows. It means more books for more tastes, which grows the reader numbers. Of course, a lot of it is pretty badly edited and badly written – but that is not really easy to tell by source. Traditional publishing was all about marketing and the ideological network of right-think, so editing had become hind teat, and entertainment hinder teat, if there at all.

I am of the belief that it’ll shake down somewhat in the next 10 years or so, with many authors giving it a go and finding that the rewards are miniscule, and the work hard, and, really, it’s not quite as easy as it looks. Yes they write as well as traditionally published former bestseller Polly T Korrek, but she’s also unemployed now, her publisher bust, and she’s also writing Indy which she sneered at, and not selling much. More ways of finding authors will come up – there has to be something better than Goodreads for grouping reader tastes and matching them to writers (which is the big flaw right now. For instance an Urban cubicle IT person is quite common, and will probably like an author/type. There a lot of these folk so they give a weight to that type of book. It has little appeal to me, but while people of my background and taste are still common enough – plenty to support a writer, we do not aggregate in large numbers, communicate with each other, and we have no idea what the others are reading.). And authors with strong online presence and loud personalities (not me) will flourish too.

So – interesting times ahead. What do you see as the trends going forward, and how best to make yourself able to hook the big one?


  1. There needs to be a really well-networked recommendation system, where you rate the books you like or don’t like and it suggests “If you liked A, you might like B”. Amazon sort of has that system. But I’m afraid that like any other system that is open to input from just anyone, the major publishers WILL try to subvert it through massive fake-account spam, or buying results and promotion (think promoted links on Google).

    NOTHING can remain pure in the face of marketing.

    (You can tell I take a dim view of marketers. They WILL lie to you to move product, and then lie to their employers about how much influence they had on the sales.).

    1. The networked system of if you liked A you will like B works to some extent. But it’s not really grouping the ‘if you like A’ type of reader, and the flaw of course is that there are probably for any one book hundreds of possible ‘if you liked X you will like Y, with hundreds of possible X and possible Y ( and of course neither X nor Y are particularly narrow categories. So for example reader1 liked RBV for the Military, reader2 liked humor, reader3 liked the references Gilbert and Sullivan, and reader4 liked the socio-politics aspect. Reader 5 looking for also read mil sf may get Mother of Demons, Reader 6 looking for humor may get David Weber.) So it becomes very plausible that readers who would all like book J, link A-B, Z-U, etc, and will only end up with J if they read a lot or are lucky. So either a book needs a lot of links to it first. That only works when you have some kind of other tie – let’s say you have a large following for your website, or get a splash on big aggregator.

      I don’t like marketers any more than you do ;-/

      1. This problem gets considerably easier if you have a database of many books that the reader liked (which Amazon does, of course). A reader who liked RBV and also likes Terry Pratchett is more likely to be in the “humor” category. RBV+Jerry Pournelle ups the “military” weight. You don’t even really need to have predefined categories to make that work — just a set of vectors of liked books among many different readers. These 50 readers all like RBV, Pratchett, and Douglas Adams. The new guy likes Pratchett and Douglas Adams. RBV now looks like a good bet for him.

        1. Ja. I am hoping it develops like that. I use my own ‘recommended for’ as a metric – and I’d say they’re running at about 20-30% accurate now. Part of this may be that I read quite widely.

        2. I must be confusing the heck out of Amazon’s algorithms – I’ve been buying and reading mostly indie picked up in all genres from random reviews and people I follow because they have writing blogs or interesting blogs or…

          As a kid I read everything I could get my hands on, and I have written in several genres already.

          This is going to be fun – finding the people who will like something you’ve written.

          You only hate marketing when it doesn’t seem to work for you. And other people’s marketing when it makes them known – and you think they write crap. Not genre, but anything badly.

          For a long time the world lived with ‘you don’t return books.’ It’s biasing our results.

      2. What you are BOTH referring to is INCOMPETENT MARKETERS (AKA spammers). This type heavily infests any new way of making money. It was particularly evident in Internet marketing for a long time, and now infests indie publishing. They can’t actually “market,” but they can follow trends, and occasionally get in on them early. It’s like the very old joke. “Yesterday, I couldn’t spell enginear, today I are one.” They know how to pretend to be “marketing experts,” but can’t really do the job. OTOH, I’ve been studying advertising/marketing/selling since 1994. (If you look me up on LinkedIn, you’ll see what knowledgeable people think I’m good at.)
        In publishing (and TV/Movies),it’s people who “got lucky and made a name for themselves.” So, they got a reputation, and taught others to do as they did, and no one help them accountable for the failure rate. In movies, 99% (even with DVD sales), fail to make money for investors. AFAICT, it’s nearly the same with books. The “people” in “charge” don’t care if any particular one makes money, as long as ONE does. The “Geniuses” that bought “What Color Is Your Parachute,” and Harry Potter, looked like great, by getting very lucky. There MAY have been actual talent, but history argues against it.
        These kinds of people always move up quickly, and then keep”moving on to ‘other opportunities,'” as their incompetence become evident. What they’ve actually done, is learn how to play the bureaucracy game. Take credit, and pass the blame.

  2. I’m not sure I’m fishing for leviathan, personally. I’d rather have a nice string of pan-fryers, and have them regularly for dinner, as time goes on. Something about the idea of hooking a creature that large, with the gear I have now… I’d lose it, for sure! LOL of course, that would leave me with tales about the one that got away.

    1. The problem was that there were no pan-fryers. Minnows or whales only. Pan-fryers would be a better option all round – for writers and readers because we all have varied tastes. It would make more readers, and support more writers across a range of terrible to very good, instead of starvation for most and feast for a few (no this is not a socialist view. a broad spread is the opposite, socialist sells equal for everyone which in reality equates to the traditional crumbs for most and a whole bread truck for the system’s chosen favorites and leaders.

      1. That’s a very nice summary of that system, and why it doesn’t work.

        I think we may be coming into an era of pan-fryers. I hope so. I’m not quitting the day job, and I’m going back to school, but I see the book I just released doing *interesting* things. And I think readers are starting to learn they have a whole lot more choices than just another slab of the leviathan, thanks. Whale blubber is become habit, not because it’s good, but because muktuk is all they’ve known…

        1. I would bet money that any competent author has at least 50,000 potential fans in the world. At one Kindle book a year, that’s a living, if not a life of extreme luxury.

          The problem is finding them.

            1. I guess it depends on the cutoff value for a true fan. Is that someone who’ll give you two bucks a year or a hundred bucks a year? Adjust the number needed accordingly. 🙂

              1. Indeed! Also, if you are able to put out multiple books a year, a fan that will not only buy them, but talk them up to others is a good thing to cultivate. Currently my goal is two books a year (I am doing other things, after all!).

                1. That brings another point on the spectrum – if you have one book/album out, you need a lot of true fans who’ll buy everything you put out to make the bills. However, if you have ten books/albums out, (and in Howard Tayler’s case, coins, mugs, magnets, and totes to go with it as well), then you need far fewer “true fans” to buy everything you produce to make the bills this year.

                  So persistence breeds its own success. Here’s to persisting!

                  1. Actually it’s a bit more complex – I figure I have somewhere around (a) 50 true fans who, if they can afford it, would buy anything I wrote, and will actively seek it out and find it, and re-read my books and nag me. Then I probably have (b) 250 – scattered across the various types and series who would buy any RBV series, or any Dog & Dragon, or any Karres… not something else, not as price insensitive, or as eager to find books as (a). That probably adds up to about 75-100 sure sales of any book, especially if it is part of a loved series. Then there is the third tier (c), who will buy if they stumble across it, but do not actively seek – they read and enjoyed my books without being fanatical about it. That’s a group more or less 10 times the size of the first two, and price is a factor, but they would pay $5. Then there is the next tier (d), who quite enjoyed one or more of my books, would recognize the name if they saw it, and have a look – and if the price was right ?$2, and it appealed would buy. They are (based on my bestselling book) a 100 times larger than (c) as a group (assuming 1 in 4 felt positive about a book- based on customer reviews we should exceed that). The key to success here — and Peter is much better at it than I will ever be — is managing to put your book in the view of (c) at least, and (d) for the win + some new readers every time. Eric and I grew sales steadily at 10% for some time, so I put that as achievable up to 50 000, dropping linearly above that. It’s this my traditional publishers have not succeeded with, and I doubt if I will be very good at. There is no doubt that putting a number of books up, and linking them to each other has some effect, as does having a large forum to announce (rather than push) your books.

                    1. I must be one of that exclusive fifty 🙂 Oh, and if you ever collect the whole story of Flinders: emigration, settling in, etc. I will buy that. So will my Dad, who enjoys that blog but hasn’t, that I know, read your fiction.

                  2. Faith that persistence will pay off is the only thing keeping me going. Oh, not keeping me writing, that seems to happen whether I’m paying attention or not, but keeping me publishing.

          1. I don’t know about a precise figure, but I do believe with adequate linking writer-reader there’s comfortably enough to make a good living. If I could make 50K X$2 a year I would be thinking I was doing pretty well, 😉 especially as 2.5 books is more like my output – and that is wrestling with other jobs, depression about money, and having to do a lot myself I would pay others to do.

  3. Can’t go wrong writing at an ever-lower grade level. For adults.

    Why, yes, I *am* a bit depressed after wading my way through the latest dystopian hit.

    1. Two years ago I heard a former NY acquisitions editor telling a writers’ workshop that we need to aim for a 4th grade reading level, because (according to her contacts still in NY) that’s the reading level of the average reader. I was insulted, but kept my mouth shut. The editor meant well, and was explaining what we needed to sell successfully to the NY houses. I think that’s what pushed me indie, that and not finding a way to force my stuff into a NY genre box.

        1. I remember fondly, decades ago, when my company was producing consumer software (stock analysis) for IBM. The “suits” came in one day to help us write the manual. Mind you, we were mostly Yale grads at the time, but the suits had some (mainframe) software that was going to help, because it judged the grade level of the writing.

          The cutoff point was “8th grade reading level”. We said, “sure, fine, whatever” and rolled our eyes. Problem was, this stock analysis software was a four-dimensional database (you know, price by trading vehicle by time by etc.), and the word “dimension” was considered to be a college-level vocabulary element.

          The suits were inflexible. And humorless. We were long on snark. We won.

    2. I had a very unusual lecturer back when I was doing Ichthy. He said – and I paraphrase ‘A fool can write drivel in simple language. A midwit can write complex ideas in complicated language. But it takes a genius to write complex ideas in simple language.’ Let’s be blunt, most authors are not geniuses.

      1. I can agree with that. Back in the 1980’s, I was a “computer Consultant” in a student lab, at a University. At the time, we used Xywrite, because Newspapers used a similar system. At the time, I “spoke” about 6-8 word processing packages. The “learning manual was so bad, _I_ couldn’t even use it. So, I rewrote it, for use by students. Students (and the staff that knew about it) loved it. The problem is that few are willing to put in the time/effort to learn to BE that good.

      1. Pam, Dave, Alicia, I have a “work in progress, (in progress since 1998)” if you’re willing to give feedback on it. The working title is. “How to cut your advertising costs in half.” My time/ability to work on it is limited by a back injury that has me in a wheelchair, in a Nursing Home, so very limited. I already know that I need to add more examples of good, as opposed to bad advertising. You can email me at an alternate address. G-R-A-F-X-M-A-N-U-S at Yahoo dot Com (take out the dashes). It will come as a PDF that hasn’t been updated for while. I can get “experts to look at it, but not the small business/non-experts, who really need it that it’s aimed at.

  4. One trend will be genre blending and slicing. Meaning we’ll see more things like steampunk (is it alt history? fantasy? sci-fi? romance? lit-fic? [not yet and probably not but one never knows]) that cross the official defined lines of genre. And at the same time there’ll be more specialized subsets of fiction, like the enormous variety of erotica that’s floating in the indie sea. You like alt-history sea stories about cats? Someone will write it. Murder mysteries about a agoraphobic knitter who solves crimes via the internet with the help of his Mormon accountant friend? It will be out there. I can almost see people setting up web-malls with different “shops” for the different kinds of writing, like they do for craft stuff and antiques (on-line and IRL).

    1. That’s kind of what the lists of “best of xxx” or “My favorite YYY” are on Amazon, already. Tricky part is that most of those listmakers don’t really keep up, nor do they make it easy to figure out what the common thread of the list is. If people considered it as a “shop” with a “shopkeeper” who perhaps got a slice of the pie — might help. The shopkeeper would have a vested interest in making it clear that this shop is for XXX, both to get the right customers in and help other people steer clear. And they would certainly have a vested interest in getting the latest XXX in to their shop. Good idea!

      1. A couple things come to mind. (And I’m sorry I’m late to the convo – Walter, if I can get a look at that PDF, I’d be much obliged, e-mail will follow).

        First and foremost, writing books / stories / whatever that doesn’t insult your readers sounds like a good idea. 4th grade reading level? That’s not insulting to the reader, that’s stupid on an industrial-grade level, and IMHO a window into the worldview of that particular editor. Given the current US pop-culture hot-button issue (Duck Dynasty? Which I’ve seen maybe two episodes of?), maybe something that specifically might be welcoming to people of faith might not be a bad idea.

        Second, the advertising thing. I had heard Sarah was going to make a go of Project Wonderful, and I’m curious how that turned out. I saw some decent movement during the Garage Sale, and that was basically an ad and a discount.

        Third, moving into new areas / markets. By which I mean audio. (Yes, yes, I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before.) Having an audio book out there open you up to potential new audiences, and you don’t have to go through Audible to do it – sell your own on your site, use something like a podiobooks as an intro / loss leader.

        But always, always (speaking mostly to myself here, complete with chastising wagging finger and an ominous glance at the broom in the corner) writing and publishing more stuff. To paraphrase that great speech from Glengary Glenn Ross, “A – Always, B – Be, P-Publishing”.

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