Friday, September 23, 2011

Indie Publishing and the Bog of Eternal Stench

Conventional wisdom is not wise at all, especially in writing.

Think of every success you know, and think of how many of them are conventional. Any? If they are conventional, I can assure you that any success they have is fleeting, because the success came in a crowd (how many superstar horror writers emerged from the 1980s horror boom? Not many. Most of the stars were the ones who started it, and who were widely imitated, and they survived into the 1990s. The crowd of imitators didn't).

I see the same thing happening in indie publishing. A lot of writers saw "indie publishing" as one thing, a fixed process, a system that a couple of people made look easy. Well, maybe it was easy for them. That doesn't mean it would be easy for others.

There's a lot of indie panic right now because Amazon changed algorithms, or Amazon opened to the libraries, or the Kindle store now has one million titles, or...or whatever. If you expected everything to stay the same, and if you believed there was a "convention," and if you followed what seemed like conventional wisdom in a series of rapidly changing eras that were never fixed long enough to develop a convention, you lose. Simple as that.

In any mass extinction, the ones following the herd are the last to the dwindling resources. I don't say that because I see writing as a competitive blood sport. I am just saddened to see disillusionment built on unrealistic expectations. Writers are getting distressed and angry because they felt entitled to the pie, when three years ago they didn't even know a pie could be baked, much less what ingredients were required.

While some gurus preach ever-expanding markets and untold wealth in indie publishing, the reality is those days are probably already over. The easy money has been made. And the historic lesson of gurus is that they tend to go off with their Cadillacs and groupies to their luxury deserted island while the followers end up broke and feeling stupid.

I started moving away from the indie thing when I realized that indie is not a tribe. I thought it was, in the early days. While running Indie Books Blog, I featured hundreds of new books and new authors because of the energetic and exciting groundswell, as if we all were suddenly changing the world with our fresh voices. But there was no tribe at all, just tens of thousands of writers doing the best they could, often shouting over one another instead of combining into one voice. The outside world didn't really notice that much--readers were reading, traditional publishers went about their business, and the indie era keep slipping away beneath our feet.

Even a year ago, I realized that there was no way 300,000 writers could all earn a living, much less a fortune. I saw people projecting income over five years based on last month's sales. Yeah, okay... And I say that fully believing writers are not in competition--I believe we each must build our own ladders out of dreamstuff, and no one can knock us off our ladder but ourselves. And more good books create more prolific readers. Big wins.

But I quickly realized indie publishing was not one set thing, that it was going to spiral rapidly into unrecognizable shapes and detours and pitfalls. Indie publishing is like the Bog of Eternal Stench in the 80s fantasy movie The Labyrinth. Bluto has to call up the rocks to walk across the bog. Every step requires a new rock. With luck, you pass into the mysterious wilds on the other side, where other challenges will await. But some are going to step in it.

Because I saw my "advice" was unconventional, I quit giving advice. Nobody wanted to hear that we wouldn't all be rich and that the Golden Era of Indie Publishing could already be over. And, heck, I wouldn't have listened to my own advice, anyway. It's actually easier to do it than explain it. Far easier, and far more fun. I peddle dreams, and you should celebrate and pursue your own dreams.

I do believe, and have always said, that just as many writers would make a living as before the Indie Boom. And I believe half of those writers will be "new." In other words, traditional publishing stars would lose half their slots as readers select new favorites. There's a lot of luck involved in success, and we each have different measures of it. For me, it's to earn enough to sit here and type, with the occasional visit to the garden. For others, it's a yacht, or a traditional deal, or a position as a guru.

If indie publishing has truly peaked, I'd still say "Wow, I am so grateful I got to be there. That was one hell of a wild ride!" And you know what? We have just as many blank pages before us as we had before, waiting for us to fill them. Just don't step in the stench on the way.



Charlie Pulsipher said...

I love that part in the movie. "Smell BAD!"

I've just published my little indie projects, but I had no unrealistic expectations. I don't think I'll be a millionaire tomorrow. I just hope to be where you are. Earn enough to continue writing and not go back to the jobs that made me feel small and useless. That's my dream. I'll try not to step in anything, but I'll risk it if I have to.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Hey Charlie, congratulations! But I'd challenge you to be where YOU are! Heck, I might be as much of a blip as anybody. Stick the dream!

SBJones said...

I think what a lot of the argument comes down to is where do you draw the line of success at. If you think Amanda Hocking, Bob Mayer, Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler is where you want to be at, then like winning the lottery, regardless of what you do, it's doubtful that you will.

Konrath said it in his latest blog, you don't have to sell millions of books or have millions of fans to be successful. 10,000 fans who buy two $2.99 novels and three 99c short stories a year can earn you a nice $50,000 a year.

Depending on who you talk to. 10,000 copies is low end midlist. Personally, I will be grinning ear to ear with half those numbers.

Jon Olson said...

I don't hear anybody saying we'll all be rich. But neither is it a zero-sum game, where for every new "name" author, someone, somewhere, loses their stripes. It's a big thing, amorphous and illogical, and you just do your best work every day, and that is your reward. Anything beyond that is dessert.

author Scott Nicholson said...

SB, a lot of writers right now would be successful at $20,000 a year, given the state of the economy. Heck, I wasn't making much more than that in a day job after 14 years.

Jon, I've heard a lot of people express the expectation of riches. Not as much lately. But a lot have also just been, like me, happy to have a chance. I never expected it to last so it all feels like gravy to me!

Caroline Gerardo said...

Scott there is new technology down the road to change some of the game in the next 20 months. You made an intelligent move.
Just keep writing great narratives and swim with the tide. What are you cooking up for Halloween?

author Scott Nicholson said...

Hi Caroline, not only new technology but entirely new delivery systems--ad-supported books in cloud readers, explosion of tablets, and escalating competition for eyeballs. Yes, I am swimming ahead of the tide if I can!

I am focusing mostly on writing from now until Christmas. I will pop my head up to promote a few specific books but mostly I am working on the Dec. 20 release of my two Fear books from Amazon.

Andrew Van Wey said...

Hi Scott,

Quality obviously plays into it and lets be honest, one of the things that traditional publishing did was act as gate for talent. Lots of talented writers got squeezed out but it wasn't as often that untalented writers got through. Now the gate's down and the herd's stampeding and, as a reader, I often struggle to find the writing that speaks to me. It forces me to be much more proactive, which is fine for *me* but for the average reader who just wants a good story on their kindle over their bagel in the morning and their lunch in the afternoon, it's can be intimidating. There's only so much information before it all becomes noise.

Now as a writer I can't help but feel excited about the future. The rush to 99 cent books may be over (I feel it was a terrible trend to begin with) but eReaders and tablets are still a luxury device for the vast majority of the world. Prices are only going to come down and audiences are only going to grow. I worked for Apple in 2003 when they announced they'd shipped their 1 millionth iPod. It was a pretty big deal. A year later they were selling that many per quarter, and a year after that it was a million every other week. My feeling is we're still at the 1 million per quarter celebration.

Jon Olson said...


Like you, yeah, I'm happy to get my books out there. The idea that STRANGERS would buy them! Wow.

The Petoskey Stone

author Scott Nicholson said...

Andrew, thanks for those numbers--I think the vetting systems are already being created, by readers. Amazon in particular is effective at crowdsourcing its best content--unfortunately it's still weighted toward sales instead of quality but I guess it will always be that way.

Jon, yeah, even ONE stranger...