Work your fingers to the bone…
Over the years I have concluded that most authors believe paranoids really don’t quite get the severity of the problem.
There can be no other reason why your book doesn’t do well. Of course, publishers come at this from the other side. There can only be one reason a book fails: every crash is an author error. They put a cover that looks used toilet paper on your book? They did precisely zero publicity for it? They failed to get it into any major book-stores? The distribution is such that it is easier to get Fort Knox to hand out free gold bars than get your book in your local store? The book wasn’t printed at all? Trust me, despite these (and yes I know authors who have had each of these, and releases in the midst of national disasters) publishers have, according to publishers, nothing at all to do with a book’s failure.
Which, given that level of accountability, may partly explain why every author whose books undersell their hopes, is sure that it’s someone else’s fault. Possibly the patriarchy. Or Alien mind control rays.
Oddly, the success beyond reasonable expectations is also entirely caused by authors. It’s never luck, being in the right place at the right time or having your publisher, marketing, and distribution actually get it right. At least this seems the view of some authors. /s (inserted purely because sarcasm detection is hard for some people.)
Here’s the thing: succeeding as an author is incredibly hard. Making a living is an achievement of note. Hell, finishing a readable book is something not that many people get right. There really are very few easy rides, and outside of celebrites having ghost written books, even the easiest still has more work than most other jobs.
My personal rough formula for working out the probability of how well a book could do go something like this:
(Enjoyable Readability) X (Potential Audience Size (which is also divided by competition)) X (Awareness of the Book’s Existence/Visibility)
(R) x (A) x (V)
So, let’s take two hypothetical cases: Johnny’s book, which is rather badly written but on a subject/genre and with characters likely to appeal to around a million people, and is exceptionally well promoted and he’s lucky and favored and everything goes right in telling that audience it’s worth buying (including building momentum): (0.1) X (1 000 000) X (0.7) = gives him 70 000 sales.
Sarah’s book, which is well written, entertaining, targeted to appeal to twice the audience, but her publisher’s publicist has recently discovered she voted for the wrong person and decides to serve up vengeance…
(0.7) x (2 000 000) x (0.05) = 70 000 sales.
Which would make the two equal, just on sales, but this is plainly not the case.
The hardest thing in this set for an author to do anything about is visibility. You can – Like Larry Correia, John Scalzi or Vox Day — develop an independent-of-your-publisher presence, particularly online. But, realistically, most of us would consider hypothetical Sarah’s 0.05 = 5% of our possible audience even knowing a book exists as a vast achievement. The reality probably runs to one or two orders of magnitude below that in most cases.
This is your biggest mountain as a self-published author.
It leads directly into one of the areas authors frequently believe that someone is out to get them. Their friends, their mother… all tell them their book is wonderful.
And it sells less copies than they have friends.
Lest you think this only is a self-published author problem, the usual crowd of Torlings and Chinese bots and the like, have regular whines about how women/ LGBT / PoC are being erased. The wicked patriarchy takes time off from its busy schedule to silence them.
Hmm. You know, one of the reasons given for this wicked silencing by the publishers is the patriarchy (that evil male conspiracy that meets on alternate Tuesdays at the North Porchester Bowls and Tiddlywinks club to secretly plot how to keep wimminz down) are biased towards their own, which is why there is this constant struggle to make everything more inclusive. Logic states that these inclusions would in turn then be biased towards their own, and thus ensure representation. And indeed if you look at sex ratios in publishing, and the sex of new entries, there does seem some justification in this.
While figures for Traditional publishing are sadly lacking, the BBC – which draws from a not dissimilar pool and shares a great deal with the Publishing world has published its figures. Now given that IF like-for-like bias exists (if you’re red headed Spanish Catholic from Minnesota, you’re going to like and support authors who fill any of those, and increasingly so with each category) we can look at the root of much comfort in Traditional publishing – the John Scalzi theory that white males are playing life on the easiest setting. ‘Life’ is broad category, about which we have even less data, so let’s settle for the publishing like-for-like giving visibility.
Now the BBC runs to 48.2 % women compared to publishing’s 74%, (note that this is voluntary survey with all the problems and bias that includes) with management being 42.1% in leadership roles as to 54% in management in publishing
Curiously in publishing women run 84% in editorial, and 73% in sales and marketing. As these two groups directly affect (R) and (V) it follows that there’s not a lot to whinge about the difficulty setting for those areas from the ‘erasure’ facing the oppressed women of traditional sf/fantasy. Yet, true enough, their sales are tepid. Maybe – like all of us – they need to ask why instead of simply blaming the usual scapegoats.
Of course not all of the Beeb’s data are similar – different countries and different attitudes I assume. One example is race, where the BBC under-represents the white people to include more people of other races. This, if the PW sample is to be believed, is not true in US traditional publishing, where whites are over-represented. I wonder how compares for LGBT etc. where the BBC is around five times over-representative of them. No data, for the US but if the BBC is any indication, it’s unlikely that impacts negatively on the difficulty setting. The BBC would suggest it’s a seriously easier difficulty level to gain that like-for-like visibility and support than in the general public. There is no data to suggest that, compared to others, it’s the hard setting.
Where of course this really gets interesting is education and background, and, I suspect, politics. If you’re looking at like-for-like preference: coming from the upper-middle class parents has a 60% chance in BBC and 20% chance in UK populace… and I’ll give long odds that that is true in the US traditional publishing too. That actually does come with a whole set of expectations and cultural ‘mores’ so yes that is relevant in choosing and supporting books. The same runs on expensive education at ‘status’ schools and colleges – a relatively rare thing in the US I gather, but not so in Traditional Publishing.
This clearly holds true in politics, where sectoral analysis of donations show that Traditional Publishing is close to 100% Democrat. That is, coarsely speaking 3-4 times what it should be to be representative. There is plainly a substantial ‘easier’ setting for (V) for vocal left wing authors.
So to summarize traditional publishing like-for-like ‘game level’ for different participants, taken as a fraction of Traditional Publishing or extrapolation from the BBC numbers over actual. None of this more than wild guesstimates, and the data quality sucks. I run under the assumption that these are additive merely for the purpose of ranking (They aren’t. It is more complicated.)
White 88/70 = 1.25
Black 2/13 = 0.15
Female (taken from publicity) 73/51 = 1.43
Male (as above) 27/49 = 0.55
LGBT (from BBC data) 10/1.7 = 5.88
Heterosexual 90/98.3 = 0.91
Upper-middle-class (or above) origins 60/20 = 3
Working class origins 20/60 = 0.33
Expensive status education (purely on UK figures) 17/7 = 2.42
Ordinary education (7/17) = 0.41
Publicly Left wing supporting (taking a generous 33% – surveys indicate it’s closer 26%) 100/33 = 3
Publically not left wing 1/67 = 0.01
So: if you’re looking the actual hardest setting in like-for-like support in Traditional Publishing – Working class origins, Hetero, male, black, state education, not-left-wing. You can work out the easiest setting for yourself. Clue: it’s not actually white male. (and, interestingly who gets the hardest deal runs parallel in things as disparate as educational opportunity or age-at-mortality – but that’s another subject, far too wide for a writing forum).
But there is something that doesn’t come through with those figures – it’s how the quality and accessible readability of the work (R) can transcend these barriers and how people can (not always do, but can) rise above like-for-like (otherwise Anne of Green Gables would never have been published let alone sell IIRC 50 million copies) Sometimes too there alliances – one group supporting another, so their numbers are actually higher. And of course, the single most important thing (A) the size of the audience to which the book appeals. That, in a nutshell, is one reason that small sectoral-interest books fail to sell a lot of copies – despite huge support and visibility push from Traditional Publishing.
What really counts in the end is writing as good a book as possible, targeting a reasonable size audience (particularly one without too much competition) and getting those eyeballs.
Otherwise all you get is bony fingers.