The Book Market’s Glutted. Why Bother?

Ahhh… After a long day of chasing the kids and ignoring the growing piles of laundry, I sit down to do a little writing. Not, of course, without stopping to browse online for a while. The trouble with doing this before I write is that if I follow the wrong link down a rabbit-hole, not only can I end up lost in the vagaries of cyberspace, but I can make myself downright depressed. Everywhere I look, there are reasons not to write.

Doom and gloom about the e-publishing bubble, discouraging news about authors behaving badly, and so many books and authors vying for attention and readers it’s almost mind-boggling. Every time I go to twitter these days, I find myself saying, Sheesh, is everyone writing a book?

I’m not far off, actually, if you believe the statistic that over 80% of Americans think they have a book in them. Maybe this speaks to the egocentricity of Americans, our love for the written word, or something else altogether. Could be a flawed statistic. But if you’ve been on Twitter lately, it certainly feels true.

If it is true, and you’re hoping to make it as an author, you could have four out of five of your fellow countrymen competing with you for airspace and readers. The population of the US is 311 million, so that’s just under 250 million people.

I remember in high school one of my favorite teachers pointed out that only about 300 people in the U.S. actually made a living as novelists (meaning they didn’t also have to do something else to support themselves). That’s sort of like the NBA of the literary world. I don’t know what the numbers are today. But let’s just say that with the appearance of amazon.com and the accessibility of publishing (also allowing for some error in his original numbers), maybe it’s four times that number today. So my chances of doing this full time are… let’s see… 250 million divided by 1200…. could I borrow your calculator?… Oh, crap.

If these numbers are anywhere close to correct, and you want to be a professional fiction writer, that’s over 200,000 people competing for one market ‘slot.’ What’s more, the word on the street is that half of self-published authors will make less than $500 and that 75% of the self-publishing revenue ‘pie’ is going to the Top 10% earners.

So what’s a writer to do? Give up and take that job with Uncle Howard? Run around your local Starbucks and ‘accidentally’ spill lattes on other writers’ laptops? (Not recommended. It’s messy. And rude. And illegal. Plus, Sue Grafton already told us that real writers aren’t at Starbucks anyway.)  Hmmm…. Need new strategy.

I have one, actually. It’s a mantra that I’ve begun using every time I follow back yet another writer on Twitter. Every time I come across a book remarkably similar to that idea I had last week that I was sure was totally original. Every time my thoughts are invaded by negativity and doubt and all the reasons I can’t do it. Here it is: Write anyway.

It’s simple. Almost annoyingly simple, actually.

The hard truth is that most of us who are aspiring authors (indie or traditional), well… we’re not going to make the cut, at least in terms of major financial success. Just like every waitress in LA is really an actress, just about every stay-at-home-mom with a laptop is really a writer. And many of us will work our tails off, only to be called back once for an orange juice commercial or, if we’re lucky, becoming this chick, (who I see in every commercial there is). But most of us are not going to be Julia Roberts — or Emily Giffin. And the statistics say most of us will never earn a living at the keyboard.

But just like farm girls from Iowa will always get on that bus to New York or LA, dreaming of stage and screen, we have to try, right?

Unless you have an, ahem, distant relationship with reality, you didn’t become a writer because you thought it was an easy path to riches. If money is your only motivation for writing, I have to say you’re terrible at choosing careers. I am, too, but still…. There are several thousand easier and more efficient ways to make money than being a novelist, including that job with Uncle Howard and the fourteen other suggestions made by your guidance counselor when you told her you were going to be the next Nora Roberts or Stephen King.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because you love to write, and you hope – as we all do – that you have something original to say or a new way of saying it. You want to connect with people, touch hearts, entertain your readers, share your passions or your life experience. You have a story to tell. Now, if you can make a living doing all that, so much the better. And if you’re original enough, talented enough, lucky enough, and hard-working enough, it could happen. You could be one of the 10% the rest of us are grumbling about as we hunker down over our laptops and try to tune out our families’ complaints that we should’ve stayed in law school. Readers are going to buy books. Someone has to fill those top slots. Why not you? Why not me?

But even if that doesn’t happen, I’m here to argue that there is a lot to be said for staying in the game.

Having the dedication and passion just to complete a 90,000 word novel demonstrates a fortitude and self-discipline many people lack. That’s to say nothing of all you will learn through the editing, revising, publishing and marketing process. Grammar, yes. Writing skills and marketing, too. But you also learn to create an identity for yourself and your characters, to accept and incorporate feedback, adapt to changing and uncertain situations. Not to mention demonstrating a level of drive and self-direction over an extended period of time that’s comparable to running a marathon.

Oh yeah, and tons of humility. Truckloads. What business venture, career, volunteer organization or family could not benefit from those qualities?

If you’re a self-published author, you’re also an entrepreneur. When you make the decision to put that book out and hope that someone, somewhere, will like it enough to purchase it, you become the owner of a small business. In some cases a very small business! In their first two years the overwhelming majority of new ventures fail – from restaurants to technology companies. You might fail, too — at least in the sense that you might decide to abandon your efforts for something more lucrative or less time consuming. But once you’ve written a book, no one can ever take that away from you. Your grandchildren will know there’s a writer in the family, and maybe that will inspire them to write, too. No one needs to tell them that you only sold 30 copies, if that’s the case!

Writing is about personal expression, storytelling, and creating something cohesive and interesting where once there was just a blank page. If you’ve chosen this path, it’s because all of that means something to you; and it will continue to do so whether you sell 30 copies or 30,000. So I say, go for it. Read the statistics, weigh the risks, and then throw it all out the window. People don’t look back on their lives and wish they hadn’t bothered playing in that rock band or auditioning for a play — even if they never got further than their high school auditorium. There’s no shame in doing something many people only dream of doing, hoping it will pay off, only to decide later that it didn’t. And if it does pay off, well, you can mention me in your Pulitzer Prize speech.

But you might want to hang on to Uncle Howard’s number. Just in case.

Self-Promotion: Getting Past the Ooginess

For many of us, the idea of self-promotion is about as appealing as eating dinner in a train station bathroom stall.

But if you are a burgeoning writer – self-published, small press or even big press – one of your tasks in this book-flooded age is to market yourself. This is true whether you’re the manager (and only employee) of your own multi-media, multi-outlet social marketing machine; or you have a large staff doing the marketing for you, and your job is limited to blogging and book signings. If you’re a writer, you are the brand, at least to some extent. That means self-promotion is a part of your job from day-to-day.

For those of us who aren’t, well, raving narcissists, self-promotion can be counter-intuitive to say the least. Most of us have been socialized to believe that tooting our own horn is unseemly and conceited (especially women, I’m sorry to say). The idea of trying to foist our latest novel or blog onto total strangers can be nightmare fuel. Is it possible to self-promote without losing your integrity and humility? If so, how do you get past all those doubting voices in your head, and open yourself up to the world?

In my experience, those people who are most modest and self-conscious about promoting themselves often have the most thoughtful, insightful and interesting contributions once they are discovered. Not always, but often. The trick is to find a happy medium between hiding your light under a bushel and becoming that annoying person who just won’t shut up about their damn book.

As you might guess, I have some suggestions:

  1. Be worth promoting. Before you launch yourself on the unsuspecting masses of twitter, the blogosphere and Aunt Cynthia’s Christmas party, make sure you feel confident in your own product. In the case of written works, make sure they represent your true best efforts and that you’ve taken the time to edit, proofread, and solicit honest feedback from people who are able to be unbiased. Notice I didn’t say make sure your product is perfect. That would paralyze you for sure. If some of your timidity about promotion, however, stems from genuine embarrassment about your writing, you may want to investigate and correct that before proceeding.
  2. Address your fears. If talking to people about your book makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Are you afraid of rejection? Striving for perfection? Uncomfortable with criticism? Unsure how to handle attention from others? Whatever it might be, the only way to get beyond fear is to confront it head-on. Write down what scares you, say it out loud (to yourself or someone else) and ask yourself what the worst realization of your fear would look like. Could you survive the worst-case scenario? If the answer is yes, then once more unto the breach, dear friend!
  3. Remind yourself of #1. You wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t think you had something to offer, right? If you’re too humble to spread the word about something you spent months or years crafting, revising, and… basically birthing, you might be robbing the world of something truly valuable. You also might be robbing yourself of an opportunity to gain feedback, improve your skills, make money, win acclaim, share your story, and maybe even make a career out of this.
  4. Get the ‘lay of the land’. You wouldn’t start off a new job by storming into the conference room and pitching your own pet project on the first day. The same goes for promoting yourself. When you enter a new online community, give a speech, join a writer’s group or address a new twitter contact, stop to look around first. Learn the rules and ‘listen’ to the tone of a chat stream before putting in your two cents, do your research on any group or person you’re propositioning directly, and make a soft, respectful start. For heaven’s sake, don’t let your first interaction be a request that someone buy or read your book, like your Facebook page, or follow your blog. How about a little foreplay?
  5. Be genuine. Nearly all successful ventures are built on relationships. Real relationships. And believe me, even on twitter, people can tell the difference between someone who is entering the conversation to build connections in good faith, and someone who is only promoting themselves. Promotion is a two way street: it takes listening, absorbing and responding to others as well as trying to get your own point across. It’s also a long-term proposition, requiring cultivation and care.
  6. Share, don’t sell. We all have negative, slimy associations with the archetypal idea of door-to-door insurance salesmen and cold-call telemarketers. Why? Because their one and only goal is to close a sale and move on to the next target. In reality, the most successful salespeople are those who listen, learn, and fill a genuine need, without pushing potential customers to an uncomfortable place. Self-promotion’s main goal should be keeping your name and your brand ‘out there’ in front of writers and readers, so that when they go looking for their next book, they might think of you. The goal is NOT to push everyone you meet to buy your book (more on target markets later).
  7. Give first. This means something different in every context. Promoting someone else’s blog posts instead of, or alongside, your own. Tweeting another author’s book promotion. Connecting two people you know who might help one another with no thought to how it benefits you. Volunteering. Listening and empathizing with someone else’s story without launching into your own. Emotionally investing in and asking about the lives and projects of others. And, maybe this should be obvious, but in my experience it’s not: you should talk about other stuff besides your project in whatever forum you’re in. Be multi-dimensional. You know, like a person.
  8. Take the hint. If people unfollow you frequently on twitter and no one ever seems to re-tweet your posts, if no one shares or comments on your Facebook page, or if people drift away from you at parties as soon as the topic of your writing comes up, it’s possible that either (a) you’re not putting out quality content and information or (b) you’re making it too much about you. Don’t let this ruin your dreams. Just ask for feedback when appropriate, re-evaluate, and re-engage by listening more.

Self-promotion doesn’t have to be slimy or annoying. It’s about developing genuine, mutual relationships and having the courage to share about yourself and your work along the way. The people you meet will give you feedback (sometimes via silence, which is useful, too) and as long as you incorporate that feedback with an open spirit, you’ll be well on your way to promoting like a pro.

‘A’ is for ‘Arrogance’: Legacy Authors and Ivory Towers

Author’s Note: This blog was originally published at my personal blog here. Since the post was part of the impetus for spinning this blog out on its own, I thought it was an appropriate first post for Front Matter.

So I was doing my nightly Twittering and I came across this article in which traditional/legacy author Sue Grafton refers to those of us who self-publish as “lazy” and “wannabes,” among other uncharitable characterizations. Remarkably ungracious for such an esteemed author, though I guess since she added “I’m sorry,” to one of the lines and framed it as a hard truth, it was supposed to sound like tough love and wisdom. What’s funny is, I’ve written maybe five blog entries about other authors, and one of them was this one about Sue herself, and what I was learning from her wisdom about a writer’s work ethic and how time-consuming being an author can (and should) be.
Um, yeah.

This isn’t the first time in the last several months we’ve heard legacy authors defending the old publishing system by pointing out how many bad self-published books are out there (because clearly all published works are well-written and worthwhile), and advising young authors to avoid the “career suicide” of self-publishing. But this is the first time I’ve heard the conversation get so pointed and ugly against self-published authors themselves.

In reality, the world of publishing is changing, has changed, in the last few years. Ready or not, like it or not. The accessibility of eBooks for kindle, nook, PC, iPad, etc. is forcing traditional publishers and authors to compete for your reader eyeballs (and dollars) with independent authors, editors and illustrators who have much lower overhead and nothing to lose. We’re hungry, we’re motivated, and we don’t have a six-figure advance in the bank, a series of overpaid English majors weeding through manuscripts on the readers’ dime, or a big shiny building that has to be paid for before we start making money on our work. In this brave new publishing world, we have an advantage.

I can sell you my books for 99 cents and $2.99 respectively because I believe that’s a fair price to pay for a few hours’ entertainment, and because the openness of the amazon platform and generous royalty structure allows me to recoup my costs quickly. I pay my fabulous designer for her artistry with the cover and my amazing proofreader for catching my mistakes. I pay to have a few early copies distributed to my beta readers and I pay some nominal fees for web hosting, marketing, etc. I don’t have to pay an agent (don’t need one), a marketing expert (what little I do, I do myself), a manuscript screener (you do that yourself when you decide whether or not you want to take a chance on my book), an assistant (I wish!), a president, an HR person, a custodian, an office manager, a courier, a blue-line reader, book tour coordinator, or an intern to get me coffee. Those are all me, me, me (usually), me, me, me, me and ME. Hubs doesn’t even know how to work the coffee maker.

All those costs I just mentioned are built in to the legacy publishing system. Those, plus the costs of all the really bad books they choose to publish that no one buys. [Did you know that sometimes books make it through the many filters of traditional publishing and still totally suck? GASP!] That’s why you can’t buy Sue Grafton or Jodi Picoult (even the kindle versions, which would appear to have very few hard costs) for less than $7.99 or $9.99. Recent releases and bestsellers are generally $12.99 and up. It’s why so many people are choosing to take a chance on unknown authors from the $4 and under lists, based on a few reviews or a recommendation from a friend.

No wonder those old guard authors are coming out swinging at their indie competitors, under the guise of giving ‘helpful advice,’ as bullying so often is.

But it turns out that while traditionally successful authors might be more polished from years of rejection and more layers of editing, many readers are discovering that they’re willing to put up with a few comma splices or regretted purchases for the opportunity to get great reads at a great price, or to be the first person in their book club to discover a new gem. And as much as traditional publishers and authors complain about how the market is glutted with self-published crap, the reality is that truly, universally bad books will always be weeded out by negative reviews and bad press. In this market, readers have power and they’re using it to create a credible and reliable system of reviewing. If a book gains any momentum number-wise at all, readers will speak the truth about it; and if it doesn’t gain momentum, it won’t show up in rankings or be recommended anyway.

To some extent I understand why legacy authors might be bitter and confused, and why they will defend a system on which they are dependent (and locked in by both contract and habit). I think we can debate, if we’re bored, whether the reading public are good enough judges of what ‘good’ is; or if we really need publishers and critics and academics to tell us what’s worth reading. Maybe both views are valid. I’ll concede there’s at least some room for discussion about that. On the other hand, calling self-publishing ‘lazy’ and indie authors ‘wannabes’ shows complete ignorance of the self-pubbing process and, frankly, a professional arrogance that is beyond the pale.

The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research.

I’m a self-published author. I had a goal to write a novel by the time I was thirty, and events in my life delayed that until I was thirty-five. I have an English degree, two Master’s degrees and a specialist degree (two of those in human behavior), and more than twenty years of work experience, much of which included writing. Not the fun kind of writing I dreamed of doing, but the kind that most of us end up doing when we have a mortgage to pay and people to feed. I’ve taken creative writing classes, I’ve done writing groups and blogs and written magazine articles. All in my spare time — I guess because I didn’t ‘bother’ to do the right kind of work.

Over the years I’ve experienced rejection and criticism and growth, and I am aware those are a lifelong reality if I want to be any good. I wrote my first novel in snatches of time between graduate school classes, morning sickness, breastfeeding, working, and — once in a while — sleeping. I researched, wrote, and rewrote instead of watching TV or talking on the phone or taking a desperately needed nap. I wrote on the bus and in traffic and jotted things down when I got out of the shower. I made notes on a pad while I strolled my newborn around the park. I wrote on my laptop in bed while my husband snored next to me.

I may be a lot of things, Sue Grafton, but lazy isn’t one of them.

When I completed my first novel, it was like giving birth. Just finishing it fulfilled what was, for me, a lifelong dream. I was sheepish when I handed it over to my friends to read and tell me what they thought. I was so proud of what I’d accomplished, and a little nervous that people would conclude I’d completely wasted my time doing it. And then there was this seed of hope, this presumptuous little suggestion in the back of my mind, confirmed by the feedback I got from friends and early readers: You know, this isn’t half-bad. It’s not Shakespeare or anything, but for a first effort, it’s not bad.

Holding my finished manuscript and knowing what I do about publishing, I had a choice to make: send off query letters to agents and publishers and wait for months to hear back rejections, or try a grand experiment. Go ahead. Put it out there. See what happens. Maybe nothing will come of it, maybe everyone will hate it. Maybe they’ll laugh at me for trying. Maybe Sue Grafton will call me a wannabe. But at least my friends and family will get to see the fruits of my labor in print, instead of just hearing me complain at parties about how misunderstood I am and whining about my latest string of rejections.

I was six months pregnant, chasing a toddler, and working in my other job as a therapist. I knew that for me, this was a now-or-maybe-never proposition. I chose now. Like hundreds of other indie authors, I stood at that fork in the road and decided to take a chance on myself, right then and there, rather than pursuing the elusive approval of the publishing industry. I decided to let readers decide what they thought of my book themselves. (And they did. And they told me about it — for better or worse!) I didn’t expect fame and fortune. I didn’t demand attention or start wearing a beret and introducing myself as an ‘author’ at parties. I didn’t ask to play Carnegie Hall with my Five Easy Pieces, as Grafton so condescendingly puts it. I just put it out there and went on my way, hoping only that someone would read it and not regret the experience. What happened a few months later was, as Hubs says, like catching lightning in a bottle. I’m still in awe of it.

My work is not perfect. I am still honing my craft. But instead of hearing the suggestions of someone sitting behind a desk in a publishing house, I get to hear the suggestions and criticisms of readers themselves through reviews and other direct feedback. They are not always as sophisticated, nor are they always as polite, as an agent’s form letter might be. But I hear from them. Immediately.

Is it always pleasant? No. Do I learn what I need to learn? You better believe it. My second book is FAR better than my first, thanks in part to reader reviews and feedback, and I believe I will continue to improve. In the meantime, I’ve had the encouragement of all the positive feedback and the fact that thousands of people have downloaded and read my work, not just a few people to whom I’ve FedExed manuscripts. Over 100,000 have downloaded The Marriage Pact alone, actually, which is nothing to sneeze at — considering the average ‘published’ book sells around 7,000.

And instead of paying my dues by checking the mailbox every day hoping to see publishing house stationery, I’ve actually made a little bit of money at this so I can re-invest it into my own career and give myself more opportunities to be a better writer. If I were trying to break into traditional publishing, I might not have made a dime yet. And, to be honest, I probably would have given up my dream of writing until we could afford to live on one income (which I would venture to guess is how many traditionally successful authors make it through the lean years before they are ‘discovered’).

I don’t feel ‘entitled’ to anything, nor do I believe that being willing to stand up in front of the world and present my work for people to judge as they will is ‘disrespectful’ to anyone. My self-publishing has nothing to do with anyone but me and the people who choose to read my work. In fact, I would say that putting yourself out there to sink or swim in an ocean of unbiased readers takes a hell of a lot more courage than sending a query letter to an agent or publishing house.

When some legacy authors talk about what they’ve ‘earned’ by making it through the old system, I’m sure they have no idea how arrogant and entitled they sound themselves, and how little credit for their success they give to the real people who buy and read their books (some of whom are current or future indie authors). Nor do they pay much attention to how much of every international bestseller’s success is owed to one big factor: LUCK.

Are many of those authors talented? Yes, of course. Do they work hard? Certainly. Is it grueling to make it through the process of winning publishers’ approval, and do they persist when others give up? Of course.

Are they also damn lucky that they got introduced to the right person at the right time, or landed a manuscript on the right desk of the right agent on the right day? Absolutely. Do many of them have connections through friends and family that have helped them along the way? Or spouses or parents who supported them while they were busy getting rejected and trying again? The benefit of socio-economic status and education and time to write rather than working two jobs to make ends meet? Often, yes.

Does any of that matter when you pick up a book? Of course not. No more than it matters whether a person is self-published or traditionally published. I don’t begrudge traditional authors their success, nor do I judge them for how they’ve chosen and/or fallen into their career path. I will continue to read, enjoy and learn from both traditionally-published books (when I can afford them) and self-published/indie authors. But if traditional authors want to continue their success in today’s new reading market, they are going to have to do more to adapt than simply look down their noses and make elitist, insulting comments about self-published authors.

Because we are honing our craft. We’re banding together and learning from our mistakes and each other. We’re publishing and learning and starting over. Unlike traditional authors, we have the necessity of close relationships with our readers. We appreciate emails, listen to feedback, and we take time to tweet back whenever we can. We fight for every sale and we read every review. We’re invested with our blood sweat and tears and stand on the precipice of public opinion with no kindly agent or editor to protect our egos. Our readers, bloggers and amateur critics are smart, too, and they know what good reading is — with or without the blessing of a Big Six publishing imprint.

So traditional publishers and authors, you’d better watch your back (and your sales figures), because we indies are getting stronger and we’re not going away. We don’t need to put you down or belittle you. We are not afraid of failure or a little friendly competition — even if your approach to us is sometimes less than friendly. We don’t have time to squabble about whether we deserve our successes or whether you approve of our decisions.

We’re too busy working our tails off and bringing our A-game.

And “A” is for Author.