“Write X many books and you’ll make five digits!” When? In a year? That’s not that impressive. In a month? In a lifetime? What’s the time frame here? It’s never explained and yet the formulaic approach, the idea that it’s just a matter of numbers and not talent or connections or luck, is a very attractive one to some people. It was to me.
C.M. Stone on indie magic.
This is about oversupply and burn-out in the indie publishing scene, specifically in the romance genre. And also, semi-tangentially, about Cockygate which if you missed it, is mildly amusing in a WTF sort of way (although, it should be noted, was devastating people hit by it).
Mike Shatzkin, who’s always an interesting (if dense) read about publishing’s inside baseball, breaks down the myths of self-publishing. He’s particularly talking about Hugh Howey, but it’s relevant to anyone who’s considering getting into the game, because the Howey-era myths are still so prevalent.
I got asked recently, I’m pretty sure it was at Conflux, about self-publishing, and specifically about the idea that if you get “big” in the self-published world, it’s a jump-start ticket into the tradpub world.
While this might have been (briefly) true several years back, it was mostly other editors and agents attempting to duplicate the success of Howey and, more importantly, his agent, Kristin Nelson.1 For the most part unsuccessfully, I might add.
Nowadays, because of that “un-success”, the selfpub-tradpub jumpship has left the dock and is already halfway across the galaxy; there’s no catching up to it if you’re starting now. There’ll be something different, yes. But not this.
In the meantime, keep writing.
The number of self-published titles keep growing by a million titles a year or more. They sell a paltry average per title, and a very small percentage sell a measurable amount at all, but cumulatively, their sales add up. Most of the revenue from that growing market segment goes to Amazon and a very small share of it goes to print or brick-and-mortar. Amazon’s growth in any way fuels their ability to be tough on terms, reducing publishers’ margins. […] And more ebooks, particularly indie ebooks, and the subscription services for ebooks also tend to force down retail prices, which puts further pressure on publishers’ margins.
–Mike Shatzkin on long-term strategies.
Y’all know when various people or whatever make those “self-publishing is devaluing literature!” posts, and everyone rolls their eyes? Well, here you go. This is what they’re actually saying.
Basically, by leveraging its status as a monopoly presiding over a monstrous, underpaid, unrepresented class of workers, Amazon is able to drive the market. And the direction Amazon wants to drive that market is more profit and power for it, and less profit and power for the people it deals with, be they big publishing houses (who still have some power) or individual indie authors (who have none whatsoever).
To put it more bluntly, indie authors are Amazon’s sweatshop; no pay, no conditions, and indoctrinated into the cult of the “flexible workforce”. The problem is, when one manufacturer in a space starts to work this way–when it churns out masses of product for pennies–then everyone else has to either, a) differentiate their brand as some kind of premium product quick fucking smart, or b) join the race to the bottom.
These strategies, incidentally, apply to the individual indie authors themselves just as much as they do publishers. Successful indie authors are successful because they either:
- have brand recognition on their name (this is where E.L. James started)
- produce large quantities of low-cost product (any long-term tradpub midlister who reclaimed a big backlist and went indie)
- or, most often nowadays, both.
Or, in other words, being an author is hard, being an indie author is harder, film at 11.
Consistent in its denial of human reality, growth capitalism thinks only in the present tense, ignores the past, and limits its future to the current quarter. To the BS [Best Seller] machine, the only value of a book is its current salability. Growth of capital depends on rapid turnover, so the BS machine not only isn’t geared to allow for durability, but actually discourages it. Fading BSs must be replaced constantly by fresh ones in order to keep corporate profits up.
This fits well with a good deal of reader desire and expectation, since to many readers much of the value of a BS is that it’s new: everybody’s reading and talking about it.
Once it’s less read and talked about the BS is no longer a BS. Now it’s just a book. The machine has finished with it, and it can depend now only on its own intrinsic merit. If it has merit, reader loyalty and word of mouth can keep it selling enough to make it worth keeping in print for years, decades, even centuries.
The steady annual income of such books is what publishers relied on, till about twenty years ago, on to support the risk of publishing new books by untried authors, or good books by authors who generally sold pretty well but not very well.
That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.
–Ursula K. Le Guin on boom and bust.
Le Guin’s essay is great for pissing a lot of people off, and I don’t agree with it 100%. But it is interesting to read, particularly as it represents the opinions of someone who made their career in The Olden Days.
The point here is that what Le Guin terms the “BS machine” makes it exponentially harder for challenging, thoughtful, or unusual books to find markets, since they don’t fit in with the “junk food fiction” model. I’m not convinced I agree with this–it’s got a bit of the old Kids These Days Don’t Know What They Should Like about it–but I’m also not convinced it’s entirely wrong, either. There is something to the cycle she describes, and it is, I think, easier for certain types of works to exploit that cycle than it is for others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and nor do I necessarily think it’s a new thing–plenty of things we consider Great Works now were unknown in their time, but just are many were “bestsellers”–but it is… a thing.
I’m also not convinced with the argument that Amazon doesn’t take risks as a publisher. Or, more accurately, I think that Amazon provides a platform for other people to take risks as publishers; there are plenty of books in the Kindle that would never had found a commercial publisher willing to take them on, yet have done reasonably well on Amazon (ref. pretty much every single permutation of non-“mainstream” erotica). Arguing over whether people will remember these works in a hundred years time is, I think, missing the point: they’re popular now, and that’s the thing future anthropologists and sociologists will be studying.
Also, “junk food fiction” both, a) helps a lot of people put food on their tables, and b) can still be written well within the scope of the genre that it is. Down-nose sneering at it for not being “literature” enough is something I don’t have a hell of a lot of time for, to be honest. Especially not from an author of SFF, of all things!
Tl;dr, things are more complex than clickbaity rants on the Internet.