This is where I confess I’m a wussy. I’ve spent most of the last year (not all of it because there were significant medical issues, including a near-fatal drug side effect to deal with) hesitating on the edge of the sea of indie publishing, unable to motivate myself to write.
Given that traditional is done with me, this was the equivalent of considering giving up on my career of twenty years, and the only skill I’ve worked on seriously in my adult life.
There were reasons. The reasons just might have been completely wrong. And one of those reasons is important for the rest of you to know.
Some of the reasons are intensely personal. The aforementioned drug side effect, for instance. People with my odd form of auto-immune are often helped by singulair. I was too. Until I fell into a depressive spiral from which I could not pull up. Turns out I’m one of the 0.1% people who have a bad reaction to singulair.
Once that was fixed, there were other personal hurdles, including family matters — by and large good, but time consuming — which ate the first half of the year.
Once that was done–
The problem is that all through this, and in fact till this morning, I was struggling with some facts I couldn’t understand. It goes something like this:
- Traditional and Indie careers seem to have no point of contact. What I mean is, traditional mid list (or even high mid list, or even some bestsellers — though not all — ) authors who go indie seem to do dismally. At the same time, indie authors are bringing down serious cash and even getting serious name recognition.
- Most traditional authors who are dumped or leave the field seem to make a significant amount of their living from teaching. While I like teaching, I got into this to tell stories, and honestly it’s all I want to do.
- Except for Witchfinder, and that was 8 years ago and it’s a strange book, my indie publications the last two years have been oh, hum. In trad, I can count on selling 3 to 4k in the first month, usually, in indie, I was seeing first-month sales of 500 copies, with some additional KUL reading. Now sure, the things I have published, recently were mostly collections and recently a short novel, Deep Pink,which is also profoundly weird. And I get those aren’t things that sell normally. Still watching the counter go up to 500 had me scratching my head and going “I thought I had at least 1k hardcore fans.” Again there’s a long tail, and my publications have been one-off, and I won’t know what splash a full length space opera novel makes till I release it (end of January), or the next Dyce novel (end of February) but all the same, you know, it’s disquieting.
If it weren’t for the fact that I know several other traditional authors experiencing the same thing — leftists, centrists, and people who think politics is a strange dish we eat with onions — I’d think my problem is that I am profoundly politically tainted. I mean, if someone admitting they voted for Trump is enough for a twitter mob to try to drive them out of romance publishing, what does being an avowed anti-Marxist do to one’s numbers. (And yeah, sure, I could keep my mouth shut. Except I can’t. I have kids and will have grandkids (and have “adopted”, practice grandkids now) I’ve seen this movie before, and therefore I can’t allow it to continue playing and for the consequences to fall on those I love after I’m gone. My voice might do very little but it’s a voice, opposing the madness. At any rate, I was never very good at pretending or fitting in, and mean girls think they’re psychic and can “find” whatever they want in your books, as we’ve had proof lately.)
But what else could it mean?
It is at this point most traditional writers I know, particularly if they were always mid list (Represent!) sigh and say something like “I guess I never really had that much of an audience. There’s something in my writing that just doesn’t sell. Well, I’ll know the craft and people will pay for lessons/coaching. I guess I’ll do that.” Or you know, decided to start sewing stuffed dragons or stuffed Mr. Trashbags for a living. (Shhhh. It’s a hobby.)
Which, okay, fine, maybe it’s a thing.
Except that I’m sorry, I’ve met young, (thirty something) indie authors making a living after 1 year. I’ve looked at and read their (usually fairly short) books, and there is no magic sauce. They read like very young-in-writing authors, who will get better in time. Some of them are eminently readable but I have to turn off the part of my back brain that groans and goes “oh, hey, I used to do that.”
…. So, what gives?
Well, this morning I woke up with the solution. No, I don’t know HOW. My brain doesn’t work like a normal human being’s brain, which turns over things rationally and comes up with a solution. No. I think most of my IQ is in either my subconscious or my toenails or perhaps, given my peculiar form of getting drunk (I become annoying and exhaustively rational. Think Mr. Spock.) my waking mind got tired of blurting out truths others find unpalatable and therefore shuts itself down hard.
Which means my most productive insights come about something like this: worry at a problem for days, weeks or months or even years, (depending), and get nothing. Then suddenly while I’m doing something completely unrelated, or just woke up (or on the case of plot problems, often in my dreams) get the solution with startling clarity.
This morning I realized why your traditional career might give you a little boost (or a significant boost) in indie, but it won’t be at the same level starting out. And why even those who have dual careers need to start out again in indie, even while they’re still doing fine (and are sometimes megasellers) in traditional. And also why traditional publishers think the indie market doesn’t really matter and fail to understand the significance of ebooks.
Are you ready for this? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: it is because traditional and indie play to fundamentally different sets of readers.
What? Do I mean paper and ebook? Do I mean non-KULL and KULL?
Yes, but no.
One of the things that has always frustrated hell out of midlisters caught in the funny house of traditional publishing is that traditional publishing ignores a VAST number of readers, and they’re the readers midlisters are most equipped to do well with.
They’ll tell you it’s not a vast number. It’s something like 5% of the reading public. And they’re right. Except that it’s 5% of the reading public that accounts for 80% of sales.
This is a known demographic. They go by many names from super readers to compulsive readers. To call us — yes, I’m confessing — by our real name, we’re story addicts. The threshold to be one is RIDICULOUSLY low: 3 books a month. I have no clue what they call people who in slow times average three books a week, and when on vacation or otherwise not busy can do that a day, but I know we exist, and I know I’m not alone. (Right, I’m not alone? Right?) We’re the people who sneak a book into the pocket of our formal clothes and panic because you can’t figure out how to sneak a book into your wedding dress. We exist, and we won’t live in the shadows anymore. I mean… ahem… whatever.
The point is that traditional publishing always ignore these people. There are reasons for it, having to do with production times and laydown. Traditional books follow a weird and convoluted trail to publication, a trail that takes scheduling with many people, and independent entities like stores. This makes doing even four books a year very difficult. Which means that most authors, be they big names or midlisters are locked into a book a year.
Then there’s the produce model of publishing: your book supposedly spoils or ages after being on the shelves for 1 week and gets returned after that. And then there is ordering to the net and a bunch of other things that seem completely insane to the rest of us, and which have essentially killed midlist but which cater to ONE audience: the people who read one or two books a year.
These are fundamentally and intrinsically different groups of readers: they read mostly on paper, for one. They usually buy their book in a bookstore (though with the scarcity of those, a lot have moved online). They often — though not necessarily — read as a positional good. I.e. they read because they think of themselves as smart people, and smart people read. I suspect as a whole they trend left-ier (because left politics are also a positional good in our society,) more display oriented, and tend to think of themselves more as “intellectuals” than your average book addict. They overlap with people who read less than us story addicts because they’re busy, have kids, are in a phase of their life when they simply don’t have much time to devote to reading, or reading is not their primary form of entertainment. These people don’t trend leftier, snobbier, etc, but they tend to only be aware of books when they’re pushed, or only pay attention when they have a marketing campaign telling them “read this”. For the very busy (I went through phases when I was rebuilding houses, and the kids were tiny. Keep in mind I’m an addict though, so to go without a fix I need to be insanely busy. But yeah, it happens.) this makes sense, as you want to be assured that book you just started is no going to come apart in the middle. A lot of us midlisters tap into that fandom as do odd-ball authors, mostly in the Baen stable, (for sf/f) or cozy authors for mystery who get enough push to hit that audience. (Or in midlister’s case, who are lucky enough to be found sometimes.)
It wasn’t always like that. In the pulp days, authors were known to put five, six, seven books a year, and have fans fall on them like starving puppies.
In fact, the pulp model is much like the indie model.
Those careers died/were killed slowly, and there’s a number of factors, but what put the final nail in that coffin (in my awareness-time as a writer who wasn’t published yet, but who was analyzing what she saw happening) were two governmental interventions (and no, I’m NOT just being a crazy libertarian, this was obvious and clear.) One of them was Bill Clinton’s (executive order? signing a directive? I don’t remember the specific model yet, and I want to register that a representative republic shouldn’t give anyone wholly ignorant of an industry the ability to interfere with it by such injurious means, period, and that we the people SHOULD have means of actual redress to stop these ridiculous regulations, beyond voting the bastards out) dictating that there should be some percentage of recycled paper in every book.
This completely silly — since trees grown for paper are trees grown for paper. No one is cutting down virgin forests to print books. (So this is the equivalent of “save the brussel sprouts.”) — but it has been proven extensively and conclusively that paper recycling and re-processing is more injurious to the environment than MAKING paper.
Also, since recycling paper is more expensive, within a month it took the cost of printing your common, run of the mill mass market paperback from $5 to $8. I was a new-mother at the time, and those $3 put most newly-printed mmpbs out of my reach. I went from buying a couple a month to buying maybe one very three months, and I had to have heard of the author before. The distortions caused by this killed the careers of a lot of mostly mmpb writers — those who write for the story addicts — and also caused distortions that included the rise of the goat gagger (books of more than 250k words) and making hard cover the most profitable format for the houses. Which in turn caused a whole lot of other distortions. I won’t go into those, which at any rate were amplified by Borders clever stupidity of ordering to the net, which all the idiots then copied. I’m not going into these because, a) I’m over 2k words and most of you are hungover and b) I start shooting green light from my eyes and foaming at the mouth.
Anyway, suffice to say as I said above it makes sense for the trad pub market as currently constituted to cater to the one or two books a year market. Which explains a lot of their choices, from the books they choose to promote, to their covers, to the fact that they tend to shed any writer to the right of Lenin, and shed us faster and harder if we’re minorities or women, or both (represent!) because as pointed out that market trends left-ier than the general population.
Which brings us to the story addicts. These poor souls can’t GO without books. I know. I am one. So, how did we survive?
The dark years of the late nineties and the oughts tried our hearts full sore. There were actually groups of us online, in email lists and some sharing the same “I’m being driven from pillar to post” sad tales. We started buying used A LOT. Which involved reading books by authors who had since been shut down from no initial sales. Which meant that we would read two three books and break our hearts because there were no more. Or read books printed before we were born. And we expanded our genres because everyone outside a massive city eventually runs out of used books in their favored genre. (We almost all started reading romance, for instance, at that time, which given my groups is not a normal read for us. And some of us “ate” history books like m & ms, because they tended to be LONG, which meant more reading for the money. Also they’re usually priced cheap as used books.) And read marginal books to the end (and sometimes three or four times) because well, it was a book.
Which is why, not just as a writer, but as a reader, I say Thank G-d for indie.
You see, Indie by its nature, the fact that books are cheap (and a lot of us lunatics are subscribed to Kindle lending library, too) and that they are varied, but mostly THAT THEY’RE IN SERIES and series that are published two to three months apart for new installments, caters to the 5% who buy 80% of the books.
COMPLETELY different market from traditional. And one about which I can speak authoritatively because, again, I AM THAT market, or a typical member of it.
If you write anything remotely readable and non offensive in one of our genres or subgenres, (we can now be picky) we will find you and we will read you.
EXCEPT that it comes with a caveat: indie has a high cost in finding an author initially. Oh, not as high as trad is getting, by publishing a lot of utter crap, but still high. You will find that about 50% (and for some genres higher) of books you sample make you scramble backwards away from them going “dear Lord, no.” In science fiction I’ve found this often includes people who think they’re inventing the genre from scratch, or are adamant they’re not science fiction, while writing all the tropes… as if they were brand new and earth shattering (but enough about traditional publishing!), in romance and mystery they often include recent college graduates (I was one once) who think serious must equal “there are no good guys” or “no one is clean.”
Anyway, covers often warn you away from those, by being of startling inappropriate horribleness. BUT not always.
What this means is that you WANT series. Judging by ancient mythologies’ tendency to become convoluted soap operas, I suspect humans crave series, period, but indie reinforces that. I’ve been known to fall into a series and read it to the end even when it’s just “so so.”
If a series is actually good, and it has a lot of books? BLISS. I know what I’m reading that week.
This explains why a lot of the high-money makers in indie are releasing books every other or every month, in a series. (Though that might drive me insane, and I have a starting public, and I’m willing to give it a little extra time, too, so I’m going to run a few series to start with.)
Trad pub and indie are marketing to fundamentally different people. Trad pub is not utterly blind, it just doesn’t cater to us, and never has.
In indie, you benefit from long series (even if sometimes what you put out any given month is a short story) and from publishing frequently.
And while some of your readers from trad pub will find you right away, it might take time for them to figure out you’re publishing in the new model, particularly if you’re still publishing traditional or if you’ve been silent for some years (as I sort of have, due to illness.)
So, your initial sales for your first indie books will be disappointing. This is almost inevitable.
But you still have the skills and the know how. If you’re writing for your fans and not the editors (and sometimes this takes a bit of mental adjustment, but you can do it. If you’re a long time writer, you’ve survived about a million changing trends, anyway.) you can be successful at this game. (Yes there are other things you can/should learn to ease your journey, like keywords. I SUCK at keywords. I suck like a hoover. But I know people who also suck and are making REAL money. By which I mean more money than most trad pub midlisters ever saw.)
You just need a serious publishing schedule (and to take it seriously) beta readers and editors you can count on and a decentish cover designer (I’m one of those. I’m getting better. I aspire to good, as I do in everything I do, but that takes time and practice, and it’s a career I never wanted, but which makes my life easier than dealing with finding artists.)
THIS IS POSSIBLE. You can do it. I can do it.
Or at least I’m going to try really, really hard, which is why I sat down with my husband and wrote a schedule for 2020 which would probably give most people nightmares, and which involves my learning to keep regular hours, not get distracted by things like house cleaning and learning (again) to produce reliably.
But you know, if my insight is correct (and I made the schedule before I had that insight, just based on what I see working) it should work.
Which makes 2020 the year of go big or go home.
Wish me luck. Or join me in the insanity. Whichever your inclination!