Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Overnight success, thousands of nights in the making

I was talking with one of the grad students in my department last week, and she asked me about what I was going to do when the semester - and my fellowship - ended. I talked about moving, and jumping into freelancing, and how I was both excited and nervous about it.

"Well, why don't you just throw something you've written up on Amazon? You've published stuff before, and it's so easy now. My partner and I are thinking about writing and publishing a novel that way this summer, to help with grad school costs, you know? You sell enough copies, you don't have to worry."

It was true, I supposed, that if they sold enough copies they wouldn't have to worry. I wished her luck, and excused myself to go teach my seminar.

Well, and why don't I just throw something up on Amazon? First, let me be clear: I have no problem with self-publishing. Obviously, some people have had tremendous success at it. For many others, it's a useful and satisfying part of their writerly portfolio.

But for me, right now, it's not the right choice. I don't want to learn how to convert my manuscript files into ebook files, or to learn how to make those files readable across a variety of platforms. (And no, I am not asking for advice on how to do this or reassurances that it is easy.) I don't want to have to find and pay for content editing, or copy editing. I don't want to have to find and get permission to use cover art, or commission cover art. I don't want to have to research pricing, or worry that my book is suddenly going to be discounted or given away free without my knowledge or permission. I don't want to immerse myself in any of the business parts of being a publisher. I want to put my time and energy into writing.

And here's the other thing: selling enough copies "not to have to worry" is at least as difficult in self-publishing as it is in traditional publishing. An Amanda Hocking (who is now traditionally publishing, for what that's worth) is just as rare as a JK Rowling. And sure, those are extreme examples of success, and yes, I could keep a roof over my head and Sam I Am in pug treats with fewer sales than millions and millions, but my point is that most writers' careers look vastly different to those two.

I've been watching Amanda Palmer's kickstarter for her next album. It's been amazing to see the enthusiasm of her fans. The speed with which the album has been funded looks like overnight success (Or faster, even, as I think it only took six hours for the project to be funded.) But as she mentioned on twitter last night, this fan community, and her relationship with them has been years in the making. She has worked incredibly hard - and not just on the immediate album and its associated art - to make this happen.

Which leads me to the other reason that, right now, I'm not looking into self-publishing as an option: audience. The problem with the fact that it's so easy to self-publish means that a lot of people do so, and it's very hard to find the signal in the noise. Books get lost. And again, I understand that this doesn't always happen, and that traditionally published books can get lost in the crowd, too. 

But I've only been publishing for two years. And while I am grateful beyond words to everyone who has ever read anything of mine, who has taken the time to write and tell me they liked something I wrote, I don't have the audience yet to fling a book out into the world and hope for it to become - or even find - a safety net. So no. I am not going to just throw something up on Amazon and hope for the best. I am going to keep writing, and writing the best stories I can. And I am going to keep being grateful to and overwhelmed by the people who have said they liked things I've written, or who have asked me to write more. And maybe one day, when I've worked really hard, I'll get to look like an overnight success.


  1. This -- YES. Eloquently, expertly, and clearly explained. It made me want to cheer.

    Last year, I self-pubbed a book of poetry on Amazon -- with the knowledge that it would not sell a billion copies. I wanted to do it, so I did. The math involved in the formatting nearly made me apoplectic. But I went into it with my own expectations, knowing I had a very tiny audience. It does work so well for people, and I admire them for that. But there's also something to be said for knowing the field (which you do) and knowing the benefits of all the different avenues.

    It's not about there being one right choice. It's about finding the right choice for YOU.

    So, in short -- thank you for this.

  2. Nice post. I'm in the same camp that you are in terms of publishing choices.

    I think there's a difference between funding an album and funding a book. The relationships between indie music and music press, and indie music and audiences, and indie music and venues are all better defined than their publishing equivalents.

    1. Thank you. And I agree that there is a difference between funding an album, and funding a book. But I also think that, since indie music has been doing self-funding longer, or at least more visibly, that it's the model a lot of people look to. For example, I know at this point, if I were to try and crowdfund a publishing project, I would definitely go the Kickstarter route, rather than the sell it on Amazon route.

  3. I was browsing writing projects on Kickstarter yesterday and looked at one that was closing later this week. The person wanted to publish a novel and wanted $5k of funding. He was nowhere near his goal, and at first, I found that very sad. But you're right that you have to build relationships before you can expect people to hand you money. This fellow had never published anything, so why would anyone have faith in him or his goal? You've got to put in the work before you get the rewards.

  4. I'm making a living self-publishing (not an Amanda-Hocking-style living :P), and it's definitely a lot of work. Also, it's been more like pushing a boulder up a hill rather than simply reaching some tipping point and having overnight success. Maybe that's still to come, laugh.

    Most of the people I see who are doing very well (XX,XXX a month) are terribly prolific, to the tune of putting out 4-6 novels a year. I don't write that quickly, though I can do 2 a year and mix in some shorter works. It's a hard pace to manage for those with families and full-time jobs, but it's tough to gain traction and stay on people's radars without a large body of work out there.

    1. First, congratulations to you for making a living from your writing. I am so happy for you.

      And thanks for sharing your experience on what it takes to do that.