The Self-Publishing Sky is Not Falling

James Scott Bell

Toward the end of last year a meme started to develop, asserting that the salad days of self-publishing are over. Only spotty hors d’oeuvres remain. One blogger put it this way:
I’ve been luckier than many Indie writers. I heard the complaints about falling sales, but for a time I hung in there, made more money every month than I had the previous month. But then the other shoe dropped and my royalties, rankings and readership tanked. New readers are not discovering me as they’ve done for years. I can’t  ignore reality. Things might pick up, but I doubt it. And I’m not taking any chances.
Much of this despair was drummed up because of what many authors experienced in the Kindle Unlimited program. Indie superstar H. M. Ward had this to say:
Ok, some of you already know, but I had my serials in [KU] for 60 days and lost approx 75% of my income. That’s counting borrows and bonuses. My sales dropped like a stone. The number of borrows was higher than sales. They didn’t compliment each other, as expected.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of the more astute observers of the writing biz, wrotethat the “gold rush” is over, and that 2014 became “The Year of the Quitter.”
Those of us who have been in the publishing business for a long time have seen writers go away from the start of our careers. It’s predictable. We also knew that the rate of writers disappearing would accelerate from 2014-2015, when indie writers realized just how hard writing is. A lot of indie writers disagreed with us every time we made that prediction. They believed that if a writer didn’t have to deal with traditional publishing, the writer wouldn’t quit.
And now, there are blogs and comments and anecdotal evidence everywhere that indie writers are quitting in droves. This point’s hardest of all to quantify, because most indie writers who have given up just fade away. It’s not even a what-happened-to, because most of these folks never had a following. But for those who did have a small following, a few people noticed when these writers faded.
Add to this the fact that the big publishers have not died like dinosaurs, as some predicted back in 2010 and 2011. They have smart people working for them. These folks don’t just eat donuts in Manhattan conference rooms.
In a #FutureChat conversation with Porter Anderson, I said that one of the developing stories in 2015 would be the “staying power of the Bigs.” They would, through new strategies and alliances, truly begin to adapt to the changing marketplace.
It’s happening. In December Hachette began partnering with the e-commerce platform Gumroad.
HarperCollins created a program to incentivize their authors to sell direct to readers by giving them a bigger slice of those sales.
And what do you know? Sales of print books actually rebounded in 2014, after sliding the previous four or five years.
On the digital side, the Bigs are strategically bringing prices down on their backlists. Which, of course, makes it harder for new writers to compete. If there’s a John Grisham title available for $4.99, many readers will click Buy and not bother to root around for a $2.99 thriller by someone they’ve never heard of.
So what does all this mean for the indie writer, new and used experienced? Is the “gold rush” over? Is the sky falling?
First of all, just like in the Old West, the gold rush made scant millionaires. There were never going to be abundant strikes except for the few. If the gold rush in digital publishing ever was, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of authors. 
Second, the key to making a living as a writer (subtle plug for my book of the same name), has not changed and will never change, because it’s always been the same!
To wit:
You have to write books that are good enough to get the people who read them to want to read more from you, and to recommend you to their friends and social circles.
It doesn’t matter how glitzy your marketing or how cleverly you try to game algorithms. You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!
And that also goes for discoverability, a word that has overstayed its welcome and is too often used as a Cassandra cloak for expostulations of impending doom.
The indie writers I know who were making a living writing in 2013 were still making a living—and in most cases, a better one—in 2014.
I’ve noticed a few things they have in common:
1. They know their craft. All the successful indie writers I know personally paid their dues back in the “trad old days.” They studied and wrote and sacrificed and wrote and submitted and got rejected and kept writing. They spent years getting good at what they do. When the trad publishing contracts started looking grim compared to what self-publishing offered, they jumped in with one or both feet. And they were ready.
So what does this mean for the newbie writer? It means that you must set your standards high and create what I call a grinder. You must set up a system that holds your writing feet to the fire, and makes you get better at your craft.
Early in my career I was fortunate to work with one of the best fiction editors in the business. He would send me long, single-spaced letters, ripping into my books at the plot, character, and style levels.
I feared those letters. I would place them unopened on the corner of my desk and just look at them for a few days. I had to work myself up into readiness. Finally, I would read them several times, highlight things with a felt-tip pen, and then take a few hours to recover. Then I’d start revising.
I also had to get rid of any chip on my shoulder. I had to be willing to make changes. Yes, on occasion there were things I fought for. But I came to realize that this editor knew his stuff, saw things I could not, and thus made me a better writer.
As a new author, you have to figure out a way to get this kind of grinding feedback, and be willing to dig in and work hard. Some time ago I listed a way to do that with beta readers and a professional editor. Look for it within this post.
2. They upped their production. As indies, these authors write more, not less, than they did when they were traditionally published. And they love that. The ability to write a book or novella or short story and have it available, boom, is nothing short of intoxicating. In the trad old days it would take a year or 18 months for a book to become available. Now it takes 18 hours.
For those just starting out, I always counsel that you look at your schedule and estimate how many words you can comfortably write in a week. Then up that by 10%.That’s your Goldilocks goal. Not too hard, not too soft.
3. They operate like a business. Indie successes are strategic about choosing their projects, and marketing smart, not wild. They spend less time trying to force-feed sales via social media and more time rotating among the deal-alert services like BookGorrilla and EbookSoda. (BookBub remains the top producer, and is therefore highly selective). They assess what’s working and what isn’t. They adjust and take action. Most of all, though, they keep the main thing the main thing—writing books.
The writers doing the three things listed above will be the ones who survive and thrive, come what may.
For them the sky is not falling. It’s the limit.
Finally, dear writer, let me engage in a lawyer hypothetical by way of the old Even if argument.
Even ifthe sky does fall, even if income streams become little whispering trickles, ask yourself this: would you quit writing?
If the answer is yes, then you know you are not a real writer. That’s okay, not everyone is.
As for me, I always liked what one of my favorite authors, William Saroyan, once said: The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.
I will never stop writing.
Will you?

47 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Sky is Not Falling

  1. Nice perspective and I agree with it wholeheartedly. The few indie writers who made it big did so because they were very good. Like anything in life, when the pool is bigger and deeper you have to be better to stand out. Still, readers outnumber writers, so we all have a chance to find our audience.

  2. This post is a keeper, for sure. Thanks. I have lived a long time. If someone says something is over or it can’t be done, I usually say, “We’ll see.” Of course I’m the one, when someone says the sky is falling, I look up first–then take cover.

    Even if I never make a cent at writing, I will never stop writing. Thanks for the realty check but also inspiration.


  3. Some writers can turn out a worthwhile book in a few months, some take a year, and so far as I’m concerned the judging is on the finished product, not the length of time it takes to produce it. Given the time a traditionally published book takes to hit the street, indie publishing seems perfect for talented writers able to exceed the schedule of the traditional publisher. Good assessment of the state of publishing. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I’m always annoyed and confused at the doomsayers. I mean, yes, getting readers to find your books is an issue, one that might have been easier to do in the early days (I think that’s something that’s hard to really prove) but there’s ways to do it.

    It always sounds like they’re saying, “The way to make easy money is gone!” If you were making a ton of money with Amazon, that’s awesome, but hopefully you were also doing things to retain those readers. Like writing an awesome book, having an email list, etc. If not, you’re doing the same thing many traditional writers are doing and just throwing things out there and praying. Which isn’t a very effective business model. 😀

    • Yeah, there may have been a small window of “easy money,” but it closed pretty quickly because the consumer caught on. The market worked its inexorable magic.

  5. Jim, thanks for the great advice.

    Teresa called it a reality check. I think it’s also a glimpse into the future. Maybe the explosive change of traditional publishing vs. indie publishing, new technology vs. old technology, is slowing. Maybe the dust is settling. “The sky is not falling. It’s is the limit.” And in that picture at the top of your post the clouds are beginning to clear.

    After reading your quote from William Saroyan and your statement, “…would you quit writing? If the answer is yes, then you are not a real writer,” I had to look back at your question from Friday’s Books and Soap question. I think maybe you were setting us up for this post?

    It’s great to have your Sunday posts to read again. I had some withdrawal over the Christmas TKZ break.

  6. Jim,

    Excellent perspective for 2015. I’ve followed the same chicken little hew and cry around the web–I’ve seen advice which urges indies to really ramp up their production, as in a dozen or more “books” a year, sometimes a lot more. Then there’s the renewed mention of “the glut”. Hugh Howey had a great post on that topic a couple of days ago.

    Your advice really resonates with me–set up and submit your work to a “grinder” of your own making, up your production by a reasonable 10% stretch, and operate like a business. The grinder part is key–thoughtful feedback is crucial.

    It will hugely help each of us improve–because, with all the talk about publishing a dozen, two dozen, even more books a year, what each of us really has to offer is our own unique value proposition–our take, our spin, our voice on whatever genre, cross genre, or what-have-you story or novel. Fulfilling, subverting, surprising reader expectations in our own individual ways, rather than just increasing production volume. Connect and engage with readers with that unique value that each of us can offer.

    Constantly working at making mine better is my goal. I’ll never quit–this keeps me going. Thanks again, and Happy 2015!

  7. I probably won’t stop writing, but I may change course in how I choose to promote myself. The novel thing isn’t working for me, but that may be because I never really wanted to write a novel. I more or less wanted to learn how to publish and get out there. Once that mystery was gone, so was my desire to finish my 3 manuscripts.

    There’s still the blogging as a fan of reading and discussing what I like and what I don’t like. 🙂

    • Sounds like you’re more about short fiction and perhaps non-fiction, Diane. There are opportunities for all that.

      But it’s ultimately about your own desires and goals. See my last post of 2014 and maybe take a vision day. Thanks for being part of the TKZ community.

  8. *hangs up coat* *looks around*

    A girl takes a few weeks off and you redecorate! Tis a bit bright, but it’s good to be back.

    Yes on all of this. I have an otherwise good FB friend who cackles with glee at every “Amazon sucks” article and rants about KU.

    As an utter unknown noobish, I am finding that my sales and borrows are almost equal and every penny counts. My launch was short-circuited by my family tragedy. I just vanished for about 5 weeks when I had a brand new fragile book out there by itself in the read-o-sphere.

    The inattention shows. Sales are slow but steady. Oh well, it is what it is. I do hover at a level well above many a trad-pubbed book.

    Since then, I’ve run two freebie giveaways on KDP and had great response when I used nothing but free promo sources. Other than my Kickstarter perks, my advertising outlay so far has been about $50.

    Reviews are universally good (and many folks I don’t know, that is just a rush) and when book 2 is ready, I will make a run at BookBub.

    Book 2 isn’t where it should be, but shit happened. I’m back on track with the release delayed about 60 days. With good lessons learned from book 1.

    I am also now proficient at layout and formatting for paperback. The PB version of “Devil’s Deal” turned out fantastic. I used a Lee Child hardback as a template and replicated as many of the small design flourishes that I could.

    Rereading what I just wrote. Um, no, I’m not quitting.

    BTW, Professor Gilstrap instigated a conversation about self-pub on FB after an article gave bleak, but brutal truth. I don’t agree with all of it, but I posited, “what are my alternatives?” I could either chase an ever clogged list of agents, going down the reputation list until I was picked up and maybe something happened in 2 years, I could quit, or I could do it myself. Check it out, it is a good conversation.

    Thanks for holding onto my parking space for me. Glad to be back.


    • Good to see you, Terri, and it sounds like you are right on track. The first one is out of the gate. The next ones will build.

      Maybe we can induce Brother Gilstrap to bring his sandwich board over here. I’ll set him straight.

  9. Great post. One reason why when asked where the industry was heading, I kept saying no one knows for sure. We don’t have crystal balls we look into. If we all had the answers, we’d be investing in the stock market. Best advice ever, James. Keep learning and keep writing.

  10. Thank you, James, for these encouraging words. I’ve pinned this post.

    Writing is a personal part of my life and has been for decades. Knowing that there’s more than one way to get published helps me keep working on my manuscripts.

    Blessings for 2015 ~ Wendy ❀

  11. Great post Jim. I think some people thought going the indie route would somehow be easy. Nothing about writing is easy and nor should it be. It’s all about the bum glue:)

  12. I agree. I just published in July. Sales faltered a bit in December, which I’m hearing from other indies in normal. Now I have a bunch of readers buying paperbacks for all their friends and book clubs. Word of mouth rules and will keep your book selling if it’s good.

  13. If I may…

    You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!”

    I get the impression the whiners and naysayers are the same ones who, as kids, got “participation trophies and medals” and thought they were the same thing as having won the Super Bowl or World Series or Olympic Decathlon ~
    As to quitting? I can’t remember when I haven’t been writing SOMETHING, so that word’s not in my vocabulary…

    • Indeed, there is an expectation of reward “right off the bat” sometimes. We should well remember how long it took so many of the best writers of the past to make it.

  14. I see opportunity, commensurate with my willingness to work at my craft and the business of writing. I feel empowered by the options writers have today. I can’t envision my life without my passion for writing. Thanks for the inspiring post, Jim. Wishing you the best in 2015.

  15. Wonderful post—it makes good sense.
    I got a late start in writing, and I mourn that I wasn’t brave enough to jump in sooner. But, I love everything about it. Fortunately, I like learning. Honing the skills required to write well is fun and challenging. I’ll never quit—I even like editing. 🙂
    I appreciate you guys who share information so generously.

  16. Thanks for another inspirational and informative post, Jim. We can always count on you to be on the cutting edge of the writing and publishing biz!

    Luckily, my book sales haven’t taken a nose-dive, maybe because I’m active on social media and blogging? Not sure, and knock on wood I’m not jinxing my sales by saying that! LOL

  17. Love this post, Jim! I’d heard that 2014 was the year of the quitter, but hadn’t known anyone who’d quit! I like how Joanna Penn reminds us that international digital markets have only just begun. There is still so much growth and movement out there. And if we’re having fun writing stories, and improving our craft, why quit?

  18. The same old adage is true: Persistence pays. If you quit, you’ll never be successful. But these concerns touch a lot of writers today. I’m struggling to learn pricing manipulations in the world of indie publishing. It’s an evolving industry out there.

  19. You made many excellent points. Two stand out to me as most import to indies: the big guys are smart and aren’t going away (they’ll evolve like everyone else); many newbie indie authors are skipping valuable steps by not spending years honing their craft and finding their voices. I’m glad for the change in the industry. It’s truly liberating. But I’m sorry for the fools who rush in.

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