Indie publishing: Are you doing it wrong?—Part Two

From Rick:

In Part One (link below for your convenience), I talked about some of the wrong thinking indie authors made in the beginning of the new wave of self-publishing that some have called the “self-publishing revolution.”

INDIE PUBLISHING: ARE YOU DOING IT WRONG?—PART TWO

In a very real sense this was a revolution because it represented a sweeping change in the way authors could put their work out there. Before Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), authors whose work had been rejected by traditional publishers had only two choices.

A number of small publishers began from an author trying to publish his or her books in a legitimate-seeming way. Some of these expanded into publishing the work of other authors. Many of these small publishers did not succeed and lasted for only a short time. A few saw a degree of success and lasted for a number of years before finally folding. Only a small handful survived in the long term. Those few publishers that showed a degree of respectability were able to get their authors’ books into bookstores.

The other option, aside from establishing your own publishing company, which involved some expense, was to use any of a number of existing Vanity Publishers. I’ve talked extensive about these in the past. This route was less risky and less expensive (but still not cheap). Most of these companies were not reputable and usually produced a third-rate product due to poor editing (or lack of editing all together) and easily recognized poor book covers. Bookstores shunned books published this way, as did most readers, and these publishers offered little or no promotion.

The new self-publishing venues offered authors a way to publish their books at little or no cost (if editing and cover design services were not used). Most of all, they removed the oversight of the gatekeepers of publishing companies, who previously were the sole determiners of whether a book was published. Authors were held hostage to the whims and perceptions of the publishers’ perceptions of the market. If no publisher wanted your book, you were left with publishing it yourself, and all but the naivest of writers knew that going that route had virtually no chance of success. Some did it anyway, usually to their later regret.

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program opened doors previously closed. It made self-publishing easy and gave authors independence from the oversight of traditional publishers.

However, this newfound freedom came with little guidance and clear no instruction manual (other than the basics of how to upload your book to Amazon). As authors who had had their books rejected by agents and publishers attempted to navigate this new landscape, they sought advice in what initially was a blind-leading-the-blind world. Mistakes came from a lack of understanding of what traditional publishers did.

Many new authors simply published unedited or poorly edited books with inadequate covers under the assumption that having a book “published” guaranteed its success. Of course, the primary reason Amazon established KDP was the lack of content for their new Kindle. There were a few e-books out there, but not many. Customers who purchased Kindles needed something to read on them, and Amazon assured there would now be. They expected publishers eventually to put out e-books, but that wasn’t going to happen overnight. Meanwhile, Kindle without content weren’t going to sell well. Frustrated writers jump on the new bandwagon. With inexpensive self-published books now available (how wrong can you go with a book for 99 cents?), many readers purchased these books on impulse without realizing that “published” didn’t always equate with “published well.” It didn’t take long for that bubble to burst, but by that time, better-quality books became available.

However, self-publishing for many years still carried the stigma of the old Vanity Publishing days where “self-published equaled crap.” This stigma was based on the assumption that if the book wasn’t crap, a publisher would have picked it up. And this too was wrong thinking.

It was easy for these new authors to make mistakes and stumble in this new self-publishing world, but because they did have complete control, it was easy to correct those mistakes. They could revise poorly edited manuscripts, change the cover, and upload the changes in the hope of doing better in their sales. And some did see initial success.

Going into indie publishing, the only guidance came from traditional publishing models, and this was where some wrong thinking came into play. First, new writers outside traditional publishing lacked true understanding about how traditional publishing actually worked. They went on longstanding assumptions: (1) Having your book published meant you would make good money (after all, didn’t published authors make a lot of money?); (2) Publishers did and bang-up job of launching and promoting your book; (3) Your published book would be in bookstores.

Few writers understood that the publisher was really not on their side. Publishers had two related goals: to make money from the book and, more importantly, to make back their investment as quickly as possible. While they have some interest in long-term sales, their priority is fast money. Therefore, a book’s success, in their eyes, was generally measured not in the long term but in how well the book sold in the first few months it was available. In fact, a first book that did poorly initially would be considered a failure, and depending on how poorly it fared, it was possible that an author’s run with that publisher would end with that first book. Two to three decades ago, publishers would usually give the author a second chance with at least the next book, especially if it was a series. Today, there are almost no second chances. If the first book tanks, that’s the end of that author’s run with that publisher, and because sales results are readily accessible, other publishers base any publishing decisions on the author’s track record.

But this is not new information on this blog. I’ve talked about these things on several prior occasions. Having reviewed those points here, what I want to focus on now is that sales velocity point that’s important to publishers but isn’t to the author. Granted, we all want to see our published books take off and become bestsellers, but while that’s nice, we ultimately want long-term sales, not just an initial sales spike. Publishers consider a book a failure if it doesn’t take off, but is that what we really desire as authors?

Let’s consider an analogy in financial investments. If we wish to make our money grow, we generally want sustained growth of our investments at a good rate of interest. It doesn’t help us much if we buy a stock, see it increase in value in a short time, then see it level off. Smart investors would sell that stock and invest the money elsewhere. And some investors do this. But another approach is to invest in something that continues to grow.

Now, I realize that this is an oversimplification of investing. In practice, smart investors put their money in a variety of markets, some safer and some riskier, to give a balance that will hopefully result in overall long-term growth and that will counter individual fluctuations in various markets.

How does this apply to writers? Well, from a publisher’s position, your book is one of those risky investments, a good stock tip that you buy cheap and that you expect (or hope) will do well. Publishing a book is, for a publisher, like investing in stock for a new company that looks promising. The Harry Potter books were the Amazon or Facebook or Google stocks. No one knew they were destined for greatness. They could just as easily have represented a failed or low-performing company. Likewise, they could have represented a company that grew slowly over time.

Unfortunately, publishers are not interested in slow growth. For authors, on the other hand, slow growth is desirable position to be in. While it’s nice to have instant success, if that success is short-lived, authors are worse off than if their books and careers exhibited a steady growth. There’s something to be said for those enduring novels that sell consistently over the years. As new book releases, those books would disappoint a modern publisher, but for the authors, year-over-year steady sales represent a constant and reliable income in the same way that a good balanced investment portfolio continues to grow over time. It’s reliable long-term money as opposed to a one-time burst of income that we see as a windfall and quickly spend, expecting a repeat performance which never happens.

And, yes, this is all leading up to another Kris Rusch article, but before I give you that link, let me reinforce the errors indie authors have made in the past: (1) assuming that being traditionally published meant success and therefore indie publishing their work means success as well; (2) assuming that because traditionally published books got into bookstores, it was necessary and good that indie-published books be in bookstores as well; (3) assuming that because traditional publishers “launched” a book, indie authors should do the same (and expect results from doing so).

I’ve pointed out the fallacie of points (1) and (2) before. I’ll leave you to dig out those posts or to research them yourself. As for point (3), I’ll let Kris Rusch respond to that one.

BOOK BIRTH-DAYS

–Rick

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