My opinion only, based on three decades making a living as a writer and across the spectrum of traditional, hybrid, indie, Amazon imprint, and hieroglyphic stone cutting. The following are things I hear all the time and I tend to think need to be taken with a small dose of hemlock.
- “Indie publishing is relatively easy—just get an editor, cover, format and upload”
It takes around three years to learn how to be adept at any profession. That includes self-publishing. There’s a reason all those people work at publishing houses. As an indie author, you have to do all their jobs (except editing and cover art). These days, I recommend fiction authors try to get an agent and get traditionally published to start out. Note, I say start out. I believe every traditionally published author needs to become hybrid ASAP. You can spend your time learning how to be a better writer or spend it learning to be a publisher. Spend it learning to be a better writer.
2. “My publisher will promote my book”
I had a series that sold over a million copies in paperback for Random House. Every time a new book in the series was scheduled, I’d get all sorts of promises about promotion and then nothing would happen. I finally asked my assigned publicist: “Where do you put all your marketing money?” The reply: “Into our bestsellers.” At the time it didn’t make sense and seemed unfair. As time has gone by, I get it. They really can’t make a bestseller. But once they have one, they can ride that sucker.
It doesn’t matter if your indie, trad, or Martian published. You must do the same as far as marketing. What that is? When I teach, I say: “You must market your book. But you can’t market your book. But you must. But you can’t. But you must. But you can’t.” Got it? Good. That only took me about a decade so you’re ahead of the power curve.
3. “Authors aren’t competing against each other”
This one will get me in trouble, but I hear it all the time. The great brother/sister/alien hood of authors. We’re all in it together. First, when a big-time bestseller says it, fine, they can say whatever they want. They’re going to sell. Because there are two types of readers: the “I need a book, I’m in Costco” type who gets that big-time bestselling author’s book.
Then there is the prolific reader. That’s the audience for all us other authors. And there are only so many of them. And they can only read so fast. So, yeah, we are competing against each other in a tight market.
Does it matter? No. So why bring it up? Because there are authors out there who integrate competition in their business plan. And if you don’t accept that reality, they can affect your business plan.
Heck, AMS kind of runs off of that, doesn’t it? And if you don’t know what AMS is, back to class.
And because I think authors need to get real and face the fact this is a brutal business and we’re not all standing around the campfire linking arms, although I did do that once with Sue Grafton at Jackson Hole, but that’s a story for another day. RIP—a hell of a writer and person. And a realist after coming out of writing television.
4. “Indie book stores are pre-eminent in the industry and we need to support them”
Hell, yeah, I’ve spent thousands of dollars at indies. As a reader. My experiences as an author are not that great. My motto? Support the indie authors. Yay! How often do you hear that one? How many newspaper articles are written lamenting the career implosion of an indie author? None.
There are lots of great indie bookstores, but there are also a number who are kind of snobbish toward genre authors. Romance authors can tell you about that. On average, over half of the indie stores I’ve gone into where I’ve lived (and I’ve lived a lot of places—they haven’t caught me yet) have pretty much given me a cold shoulder since I write genre fiction, not the great American novel.
A couple of times after having my books that I brought in pushed back to me and told “We’re not interested” that store went under within a year. Lots of wailing and weeping and you know what? I tried to help. Still will.
I had to point out to a friend who was big on the “support your indie, boo to the chains” bandwagon that in the town I lived in then, that his book was racked in the chain, but not in the two indies. Support the place that sells your title.
5. “Getting a Bookbub deal is wonderful”
More controversy. I used to run Bookbub ads constantly. When Bookbub was new. Invested thousands and thousands of dollars. When Bookbub was mainly the province of indie authors. I was in on Bookbub so early I used to be one of the people they suggested you follow when you sign up.
A Bookbub ad would cause a big spike. Then a long tail of nice sales.
Two things happened:
The big spike isn’t as big and the long tail is almost gone. I know there are exceptions, but overall a Bookbub ad or a Kindle Daily Deal doesn’t have the impact it used.
Second, New York caught on. Now, the emails are full of bestseller backlist. And remember, it ain’t backlist if you haven’t read it. So, your prolific reader who you need has a choice between you, the midlist author, and a title from a big-time bestselling author. Tough, eh?
Bookbub is part of the trend of pricing ourselves into oblivion, but we’re all guilty of it and it’s just a reality. Hell, I’ll probably try an ad soon for my new series. There’s not much you can do about it, but be aware of the reality.
Here’s a key lesson I learned the hard way: Don’t joust with windmills. Which leads me to:
6. “Amazon is my enemy”
If you haven’t read The Everything Store, then you haven’t done your homework. Every so often I’ll see an author post something on social media tearing into Amazon. Then I’ll look up that author on Amazon. And there are the author’s books. Now, I know for trad authors, they don’t control where their books are placed, but I assure you, no one is giving back the money coming in from Amazon. Amazon is a reality of the business. They own the eBook market. And 30% at least of the print; probably more now due to the pandemic. Is that correct? Is it fair? That’s a different matter.
Factor Amazon into your business plan. Use it. But also remember that another myth is . . .
7. “Amazon is my friend”
Amazon will screw you if it makes the business decision to change something. It’s not like they picked you specifically. They just made a business decision. You know, like Denzel Washington Man on Fire. It’s just business.
I have so many titles on Amazon I can literally see when the algorithms change based on what happens to my sales.
When they did away with Kindle Worlds with two week’s notice, it devastated some authors who were making a nice living in that niche. If they decide to change royalty rates, they’ll do it and they don’t care whether I, Bob Mayer, like it or not. So, I always keep a wary eye on what Amazon is doing. I also keep an eye on what’s going on in Washington in terms of Amazon.
Not only is Amazon not your friend, I will extend that to
8. “My agent, editor, publisher, etcetera is my friend”
I see writers put out there “I love my agent.”
That’s cool. There are agents I have tremendous respect for and think are great people. Same with editors. But when it’s a business arrangement, it’s a business arrangement. Sort of like marriage. The love can go out the window fast when the numbers don’t add up.
That being said, the biggest mistake I made as a writer is
9. “I can make a living from home and not have to network.”
You and one other person. I think his name is Stephen. For the rest of us, networking is critical. Conferences and cons aren’t for parties. They’re for networking and making friends, even though we’re competing against each other and your agent isn’t your friend, but yeah, she is. Kind of.
Which leads me to the worst myth:
10. “It’s impossible to make a living as a writer”
You’ll hear that one lamented in the halls of MFA programs everywhere. You’ll hear it from authors who ‘failed’. You’ll hear how they got screwed by their agent (who, apparently, didn’t love them back), their editor, their publisher, the bookstores, the readers, yada yada yada.
But you know what? There’s a lot more people making a living writing than you realize. Most of them are flying low, under the radar, because they’re busy WRITING.
I firmly believe now, this moment, is the best time ever to be a writer. Why? Because you control your destiny. The only thing between you and the reader is the internet. The only person who can say no to your career is you. The only person who can make you quit is you.
Trust me. I’m your friend and not competing with you.
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