What’s Next (and why?)

Coin flip results 140I expect that the question I’m about to address is one that every self-published author has spent some tough moments grappling with at some point during their creative journey. If you haven’t already guessed what that question is, here’s a clue: another title for this post could have been “What’s the Point?”

The question, of course, is whether it’s worth writing a book at all these days. Yes, advances in self-publishing make the theoretical possibility of reaching a large audience far easier than ever before. On the other hand, I read yesterday that the number of available English titles has expanded in the last 20 years from 900,000 to 32 million. That’s right, 32 million. And you can add another 300,000 to 400,000 titles to that number every year. So how does anyone’s labor of love succeed in sticking its nose high enough up above that tidal wave of competition to be noticed by anyone at all?

The answer, of course, is that for the vast number of books and authors, it just doesn’t. At the same time, instead of the handful of vanity publishers that worked quietly on the sidelines during the pre-Internet era, there is now an ever-expanding horde of community sites, publicists, social media platforms, and other entrepreneurial ventures created to “serve” self-published authors, few of which will actually move the needle of any author’s sales at all no matter how diligently he or she makes use of them.

In point of fact, what we are seeing is far less a new age of opportunity for the author than a radical expansion of the number and variety of vanity publishing services. At the same time, authors are feeling an enormous pressure to commoditize their own work. Want to write genre fiction? Well, then you better pump out a couple of titles a year, give some away for free periodically, and spend as much time promoting as writing. And if you want to write literary fiction, well, there are more literary agents every day that will be happy to ignore your query letters. Publishers? Forget about it.

Which takes us to the dirty little, secret question of self-publishing: is writing a book really worth it at all? Or, to paraphrase the preacher leading up to the climactic scene of Blazing Saddles, are we all just engaging in literary self-abuse?

That’s the question that I’ve wrestled with for a while now. It’s an especially hard question if you want to write a book that you’re really proud of, because that takes a lot of really hard work. For example, when I finished the first draft of my book, I revised it twice, and then hired a professional to give it a light edit and a careful proofread. They did a terrible job, as it turned, out, and I then spent scores of hours rereading (and re-reading) my own book to catch the dozens of typos they missed, and then more time and money resubmitting the files. I also lots of time poring through stock photos to find a great cover graphic, and then working with a designer to come up with a cover I could be proud of.

I also paid to set up well-designed Twitter and Facebook pages to support my do promotional efforts, and then spent many, many hours on both services building a larger following. I also spent a lot of time on GoodReads, started blogging here, spent lots of time on other author blogs, and doing all of the other things that self-published authors do. And this was after having spent a great deal of time researching the self-publishing process while finishing my book. The result? About 400 books sold over a two year period.

At this point, it may be worth mentioning that I’ve been a serious non-fiction writer for fifteen years, establishing this web site and building a global following there, for many years regularly serving up to a million page views a month (gaining 25,000 monthly visitors from Beijing alone). I built that traffic up by figuring out how to do, and how to promote, serious journalism on real-world issues of importance to a particular audience. It wasn’t easy, and I had to figure out how to do it along the way, but the important point is that it was a possible goal to pursue and achieve.

Fiction writing, though, is another matter. It’s a hyper-saturated market, and differentiating yourself is almost impossible. Are you really good? Well, there are a lot of other really good writers out there as well. Want to advertise? Well, what exactly can you say in your advertisement that will set your genre book apart from all of the others that are coming out – literally – every day?

It’s not like starting a restaurant (which is hard enough), where if you have great food, atmosphere and service you stand a reasonable chance of building up a local following through word of mouth, because the only competition is from the finite number of other eateries within reasonable driving distance. That’s because the flip side of the self-publishing revolution is that nothing is local – you’re in competition with every other writer in the world that writes in the same language. What’s your strategy for dealing with that? Answer: there really isn’t one, beyond good luck.

It’s hard, therefore, for a fiction writer to eventually escape facing up to the question, “what am I doing this for, and does it make any sense?”

The best answer I’ve come up with for continuing to write fiction is that I enjoy the craft of writing. And the best rationale for doing so despite the limited prospects for building more than a token following is that writing can be a good hobby if you don’t take it too seriously.

But if you accept that as your premise, exactly how much time and money does it make sense to put into a hobby? Why, for example, should you pay a few hundred bucks, and spend a lot of time, coming up with a really good book cover you can be proud of, and cover text that meets professional standards? Why spend the extra time and effort to come up with a print version at all, if 95% of the small number of people that read your book are going to spend just $.99 (if anything) to read it as an eBook instead? Why not just set up a blog, and post chapters and leave it at that, never going back to improve it at all?

The answer, I expect, is that for 99.9% of self-published authors, there’s no reason to put in any more effort than that at all, at least to the extent that your motivation relates to pleasing additional readers. As I’ve written over and over again, it’s all too easy to confuse activity with goal achievement. Gaining Twitter and Facebook followers for promotion purposes is a huge time suck if it doesn’t increase sales. Same answer with writing blog entries like this. Or running ads that don’t sell books, or setting up yet another author page at yet another community site. Sure, blogging and tweeting can provide the satisfaction of connecting with other authors, which isn’t to be underappreciated, but let’s be clear about what’s being accomplished (and what isn’t).

So with that austere assessment of the self-publishing landscape, what do I decide to do next? Do I bother to complete my second, half-finished book, which I’m actually pretty happy with so far? Or do I just give up writing fiction at all?

In other words, what’s the point?

If you’re a self-published author as well, and particularly one that’s been at it for awhile, I’d be very interested in hearing how you’ve come out on the same question, and why.

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

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7 Responses to What’s Next (and why?)

  1. At 63+ I’ve spent a lifetime at creative endeavor (singular) via many outlets: music, dance, art, photography, poetry, blogging, fiction and more. Your question kinda came to the fore, again, for me this weekend.

    Efforts to get placed for the beginnings of various new subscription services (blog posts, press release, uploading dozens of books) melted into a void of unanswered requests for why over a dozen titles had disappeared from those sites.

    Just another wind. Life is a mix of still air sitting til the next gust or whirlwind I’ve found.

    I create because I must.

    If no one else sees or hears or reads me, one person darn well better then – me.

    The rest, if there is a follow up, is gravy. Best wishes Andrew :-)

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  2. updegrove says:

    Felipe,

    I completely agree with you on the first part of the equation. The way I phrase it is “A writer is someone who has no choice.”

    I do think that writing, up to a point, is it’s own reward. But at some point, it becomes a bit more complicated, at least for me. To do a really good job on a book takes a lot of heavy lifting. There’s not just writing it, but then re-writing it, paying a proof reader to catch what you can’t, and so on. If no one else is going to read the result, is all that extra effort worth it? On the other hand (and if not), is there a point to writing a first draft and just leaving it at that way, warts and all? For some people, the answer to the second may be “sure,” but I don’t think it is for me. To me, the concept of “book” means something that meets the standards of all of the volumes I’ve devoured over the course of a lifetime.

    At someone else’s bookblog over the weekend I read an interesting exchange among people who for somewhat similar reasons have gone from writing books to writing short stories, and maybe that’s an answer. Investing the time and effort to turn 5 or 10 thousand words into something you can be proud of is a lot less laborious perfecting 100,000 words, and a lot less disappointing to deal with if readers don’t discover it. And writing shorter pieces in blog form is even less demanding, both time-wise and emotionally.

    It will be interesting to see ten years from now what people are writing, at what length, and on what platforms. Will as many people still be writing books? Will the short story come roaring back after a few decades in the wilderness? Or will some other format be found to represent a sweet spot? I wonder. And I hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised with how it’s working out for authors.

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  3. Andy, one of my answers to your question is similar to yours “I write because I must.” I think that’s it for most writers. If it’s not, if the reason is “for fame and fortune”, don’t hold your breath. That would suggest the question “Then why publish at all?”

    I find that there are aspects to publishing and rewards from it that are probably attainable by many writers, those who have written something good enough to be read and enjoyed by strangers. (And I believe that IS a significant number of self-published authors, if they’ve invested in professional editing and production.)

    I believe that self-publishing, together with the global reach of the internet—as you pointed out—has created a situation in the book world much like cable did for television. I never would have thought there is a market for shows like “Man Against Food”, or “Love it or List It.” But what cable revealed and gave innovative producers a way to access is that there are MANY micro markets among TV watchers.
    There MANY micro markets for genre fiction. Those markets aren’t large enough or free-spending enough to make any but a few of us rich and famous. But they are key to one of the pleasures I get from the arduous process of publishing: a reader community from which I can receive the satisfaction of Amazon reviews and conversations at book fairs and other events. Yes, this in the “minor leagues” but it is rewarding. So I would add to what you wrote, Andy, “Publish to enjoy a connection to readers.”

    But it’s not publishing alone that connects authors to readers. It also requires marketing (via free publicity whenever you can create it). So I caveat my statement above: “Publish if you are willing to market your book. When you do, you will have the satisfaction of a connection to readers.”

    I believe there IS a micro market out there for most authors, so long as you write reasonably well and have enlisted the aid of publishing professionals.
    I get tremendous enjoyment from an Amazon “review” that shows the reader got my message. I really enjoy talking to readers or potential readers about my thriller. I get a huge kick out of looking up my book in a library and seeing that there is a waiting list. I’m not at break-even in the book keeping: publishing + marketing does not equal revenue, but if pleasure is added to the revenue side I’m actually showing a profit.

    Aside, I think libraries are a frequently overlooked path to readers. While libraries are generally wary of books without the imprimatur of a traditional publisher that can often be overcome by patron requests or by donating a copy to the library. Once on the shelf, either electronically or physically, your book has another chance to be discovered by readers in its micro market. Librarians track circulation and if a book captures patron interest they order additional copies. Which reminds me of something else about libraries; unlike booksellers, librarians care not a whit that a book is nonreturnable. Once past the vetting process, the book’s terms of sale are immaterial to most acquisition librarians. And yet another spinoff of courting library purchase is that many libraries are happy to host an “author visit” by someone whose book they shelve (and occasionally vice versa). I have found libraries MUCH more open to book signings than are bookstores.

    You’ve asked a good question, Andy. I will follow this thread with interest and recommend it to other writers.
    Doug Norton,
    Author, Code Word: Paternity, a presidential thriller

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  4. updegrove says:

    Doug, thanks as always, for dropping by and commenting (and for those who are following this thread, Doug’s book is a great read – you should give it a try).

    I think that sometimes face-to-face marketing gets neglected by authors because they’re unrealistic in their expectations. If a self-published writer decides that he or she won’t be happy unless they sell at least 1000 books, then they limit themselves to on-line marketing. Once you accept that pitching to a mass market doesn’t necessarily lead to more sales, though, then visiting local book stores and libraries starts to make a lot more sense, and it can lead to more satisfaction of the type you highlight. And it’s certainly more personal than abstract (and usually disappointingly small) numbers on a monthly sales tally.

    Andy

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  5. updegrove says:

    Doug – an interesting headline and story in The Guardian following on from our exchange:

    Star authors take to the road to counter fall in bookshop sales
    In a digital age, publishers find innovative ways to bring readers books they’ll ‘fall in love with’ http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/06/random-house-book-publishing-films-concerts

    Interesting to see that even the big names need to return to the hustings to counter the change of reader habits. The above is courtesy, by the way of The Passive Guy’s site: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/04/2014/star-authors-take-to-the-road-to-counter-fall-in-bookshop-sales/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ThePassiveVoice+%28The+Passive+Voice%29 His daily email includes more items I find worth reading than anything I’ve run into in a long time.

    Andy

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