How to Eat the Publishing Elephant

James Scott Bell

The elephant is our most versatile bestial metaphor. 
We sometimes refer to the big issue everyone knows is there (but no one is talking about) as “the elephant in the room.” Back in November of 2008, in conference rooms at publishing houses throughout New York, the elephant in the room was the Amazon Kindle. Was this device going to change publishing as we know it? Maybe no one wanted to talk about it back then, until the elephant broke out of the room and started stampeding all over midtown Manhattan.
Then there’s the story of the three blind men coming up to an elephant. One touches the tail, another the leg, the other the trunk. Each man assumes the elephant is something other than it is, because he has only one bit of data. This we can liken to those who think they know everything there is about publishing (or anything else, for that matter) when they only have experience with one part of it.
But the metaphor I want to work with today is the question, How do you eat an elephant? The answer, of course, is “one bite at a time.”
This applies to the world of successful self-publishing. Note the key word successful.It’s easy to self-publish (too easy, some would say). But to be successful at it is an entirely different matter.
A lot of people are expecting to eat the whole elephant in one bite. That’s because some of the early adopters did that. Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Blake Crouch – these are some of the names that jumped in early and did some heavy munching. Barry Eisler famously walked away from a traditional print deal and went E to feast on elephant. Bob Mayer, king of the backlist, consumed several elephants earlier this year when releasing all those titles close to one another. 
But these are the notable exceptions to what is now the undeniable rule: the vast majority of writers will not get anywhere near rapid success. And if they expect to, they will be sorely disappointed and may even chuck the whole publishing thing.
Which is fine. We need less content, not more, because most of the two million self-published offerings out there are, well. . . let’s just say the bulk of it pretty much affirms Sturgeon’s Law.
But if you want to be successful as an indie author, you can be – if you eat the elephant one bite at a time and chew thoroughly.
By “success” I mean making a profit. You can make a profit from your self-publishing if you do certain things and do them right (like knowing how to write. That really helps). How large a profit it is impossible to say up front. It may just be Starbuck’s money. Everyone’s mileage is going to vary. But here’s the rub: If you keep taking more and more bites, and do so carefully and with purpose, you have a chance to make more profit. That’s called “business.” If you want to be a professional writer, you are essentially running a small enterprise. Your job: provide value.
My business includes a traditional arm where I partner with publishers like Kensington and Writer’s Digest Books. It also now includes an indie division. I have taken a few bites at the indie elephant, wanting to learn as I go and see what works. I’ve studied the field, too. And while there are many things one needs to do well, the unalterable foundation is quality + volume. Thus, the elephant wisdom that has become evident over this last crazy year of indie publishing is: if you want to be successful at ityou need to be in it for the long haul, and by that I mean the rest of your life.
Let me repeat: the rest of your life.
If you are truly a writer, that won’t be difficult for you. But if you are just in this to try to make some easy lettuce, it will be. And should be.
A real writer writes, wants to write, would do it even if the prospect of making killer money was nil. Storytellers tell stories, which is why I plan to be found dead at my computer, my stone cold fingers over the keyboard. I only hope I have just typed “The End.” Or better yet, clicked “Upload.”

I will keep on biting the elephant. And when I’m old and toothless, I’ll gum the elephant. Because a real writer never stops.
Happy eating, friends. 

19 thoughts on “How to Eat the Publishing Elephant

  1. It’s the knowing that I’m in this writing gig for life that keeps me from throwing in the towel.

    Between the day job that quite literally sucks the life out of me, other responsibilities, and taking classes on web design that are kicking my tail but hopefully will benefit me both as a writer and potentially in the form of a new/better day job, I have plenty of reasons to be stressed to the point of throwing up my hands and quitting.

    But I can’t. I’ve just got too many stories rolling around in my head that keep intriguing me and pulling me back. And I can’t stop asking myself, “What might I be able to accomplish if only I don’t give up?”

    You just can’t be in this business without dogged persistence.

  2. I’ve been considering self-publishing as an option. It hasn’t been an easy choice, but one of the realities is that I’m a little too different as a writer. With publishers looking for the same but different, I’m a problem because I’m just different.

    But the one thing I notice that escapes a lot of writers who are self-publishing is that there is one most important marketing piece — something that ranks out above getting the word out online. The book has to be really good and something people want to read.

    Yet, the last two books I looked at were not ready for any kind of publication. With one, the author published short stories that had been rejected by magazines. He noted this in the comments at the back of the book — would it have been that hard to try to understand why the stories were being rejected? Maybe revise them a bit more?

    The other thing I see a lot of is that the writers don’t know how to promote. I’m on Twitter, and all the writers gravitate to other writers. Then they send out message after message saying, “Buy my book!” in various forms. One writer had the expectation that because she’d self-published some twenty books people should be interviewing her. Yet, she also lamented not making any sales, as if this would help encourage people to buy her books! Everyone seems to think all they need to do is promote to sell the book and forget the part about having a good book that will make people want to buy it.

    Linda Adams

  3. Chewing the elephant, what a great metaphor. Let me see, I’ve been chewing it for more than 30 years and it’s a tough chew, believe me.

    The self-publishing/indies need to learn how to find their platform, gain audience and make friends with other established authors. If you just go out there trying to entice people to “buy my book”, with nothing to back you, no reviews etc., it will be even tougher to chew than you expect.

    I have self-published and now have a publisher, either way, the work comes after publication to get the word out about your book.

    Don’t give up just because of set backs. I never did–because I AM A WRITER!

  4. Thanks Jim,
    One bite at a time (deep breath, Paula).
    I love this analogy, and the link to Sturgeon’s Law.
    Learning to become anything worthwhile takes time, and practice. Craft is Key and open collaboration with others helps.
    Any recipe’s out there for marinating the Big Guy?

  5. Jim, most of my writing centers around travel and food. I have published two books on being a yacht chef with Norlightspress. And although I have chapters set in South Africa, I have never written a recipe for eating an elephant.
    Can I adapt your recipe for for taste testing? Is it dry? Does it taste like chicken? I think you should add marinating the meat overnight…
    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  6. That’s one tough elephant. I’m currently writing book three in my series, Jim and don’t know yet if there will be another contract anytime soon after that, I hope so. I’ve learned a lot but it is a lifetime of learning we must embrace if we really love this gig.

    So I’m considering going the self-publishing route for my non-fiction which hasn’t been written yet. No matter what happens I think it’s important to have fun while munching away. If we lose the joy it’s not worth it. Bon Appétit.

  7. Great post! I’m another one who’s going to be doing this as long as I can still keep my wits (or what’s left of them) about me. This isn’t a quick path, and it isn’t a guaranteed path, but it definitely can work. It’s especially well-suited, IMHO, for those of us who write more quickly than the “one book a year” pace or traditional publishing. As long as we take the time to produce quality books, we can publish four or six in the time traditional publishing might take to produce two. Multiply that by however many years, add in shorter works… Over time, there’s an exponential growth effect.

  8. This is the nut graf, from Jennie:

    As long as we take the time to produce quality books, we can publish four or six in the time traditional publishing might take to produce two. Multiply that by however many years, add in shorter works… Over time, there’s an exponential growth effect.

    I had coffee the other day with a well reviewed, trad pubbed author who is now doing this very thing, primarily because of that time element. He has produced four quality books this year (plus some stories) and it is absolutely working.

  9. Jillian, the nice thing is you don’t have to wait for that next contract to begin gaining a foothold. As long as your publisher and agent know what you’re doing, and why–it is to build more readers. This thinking has to begin permeating the trad pub establishment.

  10. Many great points to consume here as well, Jim! Thanks! I particularly enjoyed your take on what constitutes the long haul…it makes sense. The longer you live, the more stories you have to tell. You just have to make sure you tell them before you forget them!

  11. Hey Joe, that brings to mind another elephant line, “An elephant never forgets.” How did pachyderms get so influential?

    But I do love the prospect of putting out more stories, as they just keep coming to me. In the old pulp days, you’d go out to a magazine for a penny word, and that was that. Now, your stories can live on forever, giving future readers an intro do your work. Man, what Cornell Woolrich could’ve done with E pubbing.

  12. I always find your posts relevant and inspiring. One bite at a time. Yes. And I’m definitely with you on gumming that elephant–I’m in this for the long haul. I have too many stories in my head to stop now.

  13. Jennie and others in that boat, I admire those who can write more than one book a year. My hat’s off to you! 😎 I hope I will be that disciplined one day.

  14. BK, hang in there. With your schedule and job, getting any words down will be a victory. Can you do, say, 200 in a sitting? Before work?

    I have a friend who takes BART 30 minutes each way to work, and writes on the train. Published author.

  15. When someone as well-respected as James Scott Bell points out there’s a pachyderm on the premises, people finally wake up and say, “Oh, yeah. You’re right.”

    But when some unknown says, “Hey, folks, looky there! Something different is a-comin’,” folks yawn and go back to what they were doing…even if what they were doing isn’t working.

    So, thanks for giving voice to what some of us have seen creeping over the horizon (“What! Is that an elephant over yonder?”).

  16. Elephant Recipes:

    -Slow Cooker Elephant: w/ bbq sauce
    -Grilled Elephant w/ Bleu Cheese crumbles
    -Elephant sauté a la vin
    -Orange Crusted Elephant

    In other words there are many ways to eat the elephant, but they all involve the first step of getting the beast, properly dressing the meat, cutting the steaks, and cooking it at the right temperatures.

    Do the job right, and there is no end to how you can enjoy the produce.

    And with today’s advances in freezer technology we can store plenty of ready to reheat elephant meals in convenient frost-proof zipper bags for future dining pleasure.

  17. I make a profit at self-publishing. It isn’t making me rich, but a profit nonetheless. And that is with me doing everything wrong. I don’t do much to promote my books. Most of the people who are aware of my books are people who have no interest in buying them. And I don’t have anywhere that allows me to sell them at the back of the room. There was a time I did push them harder and they sold better. Other demands pull me away from that task, but even with me doing very little promotion, I’m still selling books. The elephant isn’t disappearing very quickly right now, but it is disappearing.

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