Pub Rants

Winning The Publishing Lottery?

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STATUS: The great thing about rainy days and Mondays is that you don’t mind working when that is the case!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? TIME & TIDE by Basia

As you folks know, as an agent, I’ve pretty supportive of self-publishing. I’ve discussed JA Konrath and his efforts on my blog and provided links to his blog. I’ve taken on self-published authors–even way back in 2004 when it was not the “cool” thing to do. I’m not remotely threatened by the transformation that electronic books are creating in the publishing realm and the opportunities it creates for some debut authors who don’t go the traditional route.

In short, I’m fairly levelheaded and sanguine about this whole topic but I have noticed a rather worrisome trend as of late. There seems to be a rather skewed perspective that ANY author can make it rich, be successful, if they just eschew traditional publishing and forge ahead in the electronic world.

It’s as if these voices completely forget about the amount of marketing and promotion that successful self-publishing authors such as Konrath, Doctorow, McQuestion, and Hocking have done. It’s like they have the assumption that all these authors did was throw some manuscripts up on the web and the money just started rolling in. On top of that, there’s an attitude that these authors stuck it to the publishing man—a finger to the perceived “gatekeepers” of the industry.

I thought Amanda Hocking did a thoughtful post on this that is definitely worth reading.

And I just want to add one other thing. Regardless of whether an author self-publishes or pursues traditional publishing, some writers just win the publishing lottery and their books become major successes.

We honestly don’t know why that sometimes occurs; and even more telling, why it sometimes doesn’t occur—even for some really good books. It’s basically a mystery. (And of course I know every blog reader can point to one book they think is totally awful and was a big success. Truly a mystery!)

So yes, I totally believe that statistically, some authors will self-pub and become great successes with huge numbers. They have, in essence, been one of the lucky ones to win the publishing lottery.

28 Responses

  1. Melissa (ATX) said:

    Kristin, I’m glad you addressed this topic. I read an article in the “Huffington Post” written by the founder of Smashwords that was a tad bit over-encouraging, to say the least. I have thoughts on this issue. Deep thoughts, in fact. I started writing with a major magazine. Not online; print. I feel like I’ve paid my dues. I believe that every writer should first try the conventional route of publishing. If their m.s. is given a pass, that perhaps signals the need to solicit objective opinions on exactly *why.* It could be all those, you know, dangling participles and noun-verb disagreements! 🙂

    I’ll be blunt: Novels with glaring spelling and grammatical errors make my brain hurt. So do those that lack structure and form. There is a certain bar to which every writer should hold him/herself. I am held to certain standards in my profession, and if I don’t meet them, I either don’t get paid, or I’m fired from a project. But, a lot of self-published are not their own gatekeepers. Good marketing will get you everywhere. The Barnum wannabes who put up all of those acai berry diet pill websites amassed a tidy $30 million before the FTC gave them the banhammer. Quality of marketing and quality of product should never be confused.

    The reason I don’t have an e-Reader is because if a book is in print, I know that it’s at least undergone rigorous editing. I’m sure there are a few writers who self-publish who are truly amazing, but were passed over simply because they didn’t have a good query — or the market for their m.s. was too niche. But sorting through self-published novels to find the few gold nuggets amongst the pyrite is something I don’t have time for.

  2. Eileen said:

    I thought Amanda’s post was great. I’m traditionally pubbed and have found it interesting to hear discussions where other writers imply you must be insane to stay with a publisher when you could go it alone and KEEP IT ALL.

    There aren’t any short cuts to publishing success and no guarantees any way you go. Each writer has to make their own decision and remember at the end of the day the publishing process is only the medium by which the story is delivered, what really matters to readers is the story.

  3. Suzanne Warr said:

    Thanks for a great post, Kristin. This is a fascinating issue. I’ve published a number of short stories at good rates and even some nonfiction in glossy magazines. I’m currently in pursuit of a traditional publishing career. But, of late I’ve considered epublishing a manuscript I know would be hard to shelve, as it slides between categories. While considering this question and researching, I’ve been surprised at the level of emotion many authors bring to the question. It’s my opinion that where and how one will publish should be a business question, with each option considered carefully and weighed in the balance.

  4. Keary Taylor said:

    I’m very glad you brought up this point. It makes me SOO mad when I hear people calling self-publishing the easy way to money or the easy way out. As an Indie author, I sweat blood over every one of my sales! It is damn hard work! Thankfully it’s all starting to pay off and my e-sales have gone NUTS in the UK (now there’s the mystery as I’m in the US).

  5. MCPlanck said:

    From most people’s perspective, writing a best-seller is about as likely as buying the winning lottery ticket.

    So along comes a guy who offers to sell you lottery tickets for free.

    No, wait – for the small fee of a few hundred dollars, he shows you how to print your own lottery tickets.

    How can you lose? 😀 😀 😀

  6. Paul said:

    The idea of self-publishing terrifies me, for exactly the reasons Amanda mentions as being such a large source of stress for her. I don’t think there’s really any specific formula for the level of success she’s enjoying. It was just the right combination of chance, talent, readership, and lots of hard work, just like in traditional publishing.

    That said, I’m immensely happy for her and hope I can be as successful one day.

  7. Darke Conteur said:

    Yes, I read her post too and was over the moon to learn she advocated learning how to write, and that it wasn’t easy to get where she was. People think you can sit down at a computer and bang out a novel worth publishing. I hope this opens their eyes. Writing isn’t easy.

  8. Abby Minard said:

    I work at a library, and my boss, who the Electronic Resource Librarian mentioned how I should just publish my book myself through amazon, as an ebook.

    I couldn’t believe she didn’t understand the amount of marketing and networking I’d have to do if I went that route. She said that I’d have a bunch of librarians behind me to promote me. Well that’s fine that the librarians at my work want to promote me, but it has to be WAY bigger than that.

    Basically, I’d have to quit my job at the library so I can spend all day every day promoting myself. And even then, I probably wouldn’t make the big bucks. Not that I’m focused on that- I just don’t have the time to do as much marketing you have to do if you self publish.

  9. Reece said:

    Hey, I really appreciated this post. I especially appreciated Amanda’s thoughts on the whole situation. Thanks for including that link.

  10. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I read Amanda’s blog post yesterday and loved it. I think she nailed it.

    I think the strike-it-rich perception of self-pubilshing that seems to be becoming more prevalent with the advent of Kindle, etc. is in part a result of writer frustration. Frustration with the current market–whether it’s with what’s trending or whatever (example, I know a LOT of previously published authors, several award-winning or nominated within their genre, who have lost contracts because NYC doesn’t want them anymore, primarily due to changes in the market). It’s easy to play negative with the “gatekeepers” when you feel like you’re knocking your head against a brick wall. In fact, it’s probably cathartic for some writers.

  11. Loree Huebner said:

    Thanks for your post. This has been all over the blogosphere and it’s just insane. I have read a lot of the comments – agreeing and disagreeing, the pros and cons, but then I read Amanda’s painfully honest post. (Thanks for sharing her link) I think everyone should read it. It’s eye-opening. It hasn’t been as easy for her as everyone thinks. She’s quite a lady, and I am thrilled for her.

  12. Geoff said:

    I think the people that think self-publishing is the “easy” route also probably thought that going traditionally would be easy, and when the work got too tough, they bailed. These are people who will not write professionally. It takes time and energy just to write a seriously good book, much less publish it, no matter what route you go. Do you think James Patterson works any less hard than Ms. Hocking, just because he’s a top-tiere author? The guy is a machine. No publishing house is going to WRITE the book for you. They won’t GO OUT on the book tours they send you on. They will want you to know how to market yourself AND write a book; be a person of business AND an author.

    Self-pub, I seems to me, is for those that understand hard work will come with either avenue. For those of us who want to see more of the money from our efforts, self-pub is not a terrible way to go about it.

  13. Giles Hash said:

    I heard a program with Konrath as a guest, and he reiterated time and again that, even when self-publishing, a book MUST be well-written, well-edited, and it must have an inviting cover image. He even listed a couple of successful kindle-exclusive authors who pulled in over $100k in one year to prove his point.

    The fact is, bad writing won’t be as successful as great, polished writing.

  14. Melissa said:

    Re: “We honestly don’t know why that sometimes occurs; and even more telling, why it sometimes doesn’t occur—even for some really good books.”

    I don’t see too much of a mystery — but then again, I sometimes have to write ad copy to make a living, so I have to keep abreast of trends. Hocking used the “Twilight” same plot arc in her vampire series. The titles of the books are one highly evocative word. The way she packaged them is highly reflective of the “Twilight” trade dress. When I saw the Hocking eBooks on Amazon — and this was long before the story broke — at first blush, I truly did think that she was also a published author markedly similar to Stephenie Meyer. But, her books were much cheaper and available for instant download. Now, that’s marketing genius, whether Hocking herself is aware of it or not. Tweens want books *just like “Twilight.”*

  15. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I think people (writers) invest too much in these stories because we’re all dreamers at heart. We know it’s a tough market to get into, and we want to believe that we can do it on our own, easily, and succeed at it without having to face the rejecion inherent in the traditional publishing process. We latch on to any story that will allow us to do that, forgetting that these authors are statistical anomalies and there are slews of authors who have only sold a few copies, if any, by self-publishing. We ignore that authors like Konrath and Doctorow had been traditionally published before and already had a name built up.

    Hocking et al. prove that one can succeed by self-publishing, but it’s an endeavor that still requires a lot of work and probably more luck than we expect. Nobody should give up for that reason, but if an author decides to self-publish, he or she should go in with realistic expectations and the knowledge that there is a lot of work to it.

  16. Melissa said:

    My burning question is how the publishing industry will respond if more and more readers start turning to cheap eBooks. I see this as a wonderful opportunity for agents and publishing houses to carve out a niche of their own in which more new writers can enter the digital marketplace. Why not form a consortium and create a digital platform similar to Amazon where e-authors are showcased?

  17. Hart Johnson said:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I was ready to write Amanda Hocking off as a Stephenie Meyer type fluke (yes, still the lottery, but my Meyer opinions are not particularly charitable) but I think Hocking is AMAZING for seeing it and calling it like it is.

  18. Kathy Holmes said:

    Fabulous post and oh so true. I’m so happy to see you say this – hubby and I have been having this same conversation over glasses of wine – lol!

  19. Jeff Baird said:

    For anyone considering self publishing I would suggest a book called THE TIPPING POINT by Malcolm Gladwell. It explains human nature and how you get a product like the return of Hush Puppies, Cabbage Patch Dolls and others to reach that critical mass like TWILIGHT did. I personally liked the twilight series—I know, I know—I can’t help it. But it explains the frantic frenzy you have to reach to get something over the top. I think that is what Amanda is talking about on her Blog. I want an agent. Just one posting about eBooks, overseas rights, movie-other types of media etc—Yikes—you really need someone to help. Plus, who of us has made it big without the advice of someone? Seems to me the adage two heads are better than one still applies.

  20. Melissa said:

    “The Tipping Point” is indeed an excellent book. But, if you want a realistic perspective on how things go viral on the Internet, there are forums where you can barter whatever services you have to offer (e.g., eBook formatting, website design) to a black hatter in return for scurrilous methods of getting what you have to promote to said tipping point. They call this “marketing;” I call it “gaming the system.” Ugh.

  21. Arjuwan said:

    There is no question that being successful in publishing needs a lot of hard work, and still there are no guarantees. However, a writer should not be discouraged and keep writing.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I really like it when agents and people within the industry take self-publishing seriously without dismissing it out of hand. I also appreciate Amanda Hocking’s honesty. The way the industry is evolving is fascinating, and I like seeing new takes on the situation. That being said, I have major reservations about self-publishing for most titles, although I respect authors willing to take the leap and wish them well, provided they do their end of the bargain and produce a well-edited and interesting book. Especially since they gamble to lose any money they put into the project, as well as potential first-sale rights, etc, they would have been able to sell to publisher.

    I doubt I’d ever self-publish, unless I had a track record and re-released material after the rights reverted back to me. (Although I wouldn’t expect to make much since if the rights had reverted back to me, the book probably wasn’t selling too well.) A very successful author on my local SCBWI listserv has released some of her early titles as ebooks since the contracts didn’t include electronic rights. She said she makes a few hundred a year, so it’s worth the effort to keep the titles available.

    From my experience (which includes working with a number of self-published/author subsidized authors–long story that involves a sketchy press with questionable morals that I’m embarrassed to have been associated with) this is actually a high level of success on the self-published side. It helps her books were professionally edited and she has a recognized name. Most of the “self-published” (really vanity press) published authors I worked with never recouped their investment.

  23. ICQB said:

    At Goodreads I read a comment in a group forum in which the poster off-handedly remarked that self-publishers of ebooks can easily make $200,000 per year by selling 50,000 books. This was said as if this was happening all the time, and with great ease, for self-pubbed ebooks.

    There is the perception about the self-pubbed ebook, and then there is the reality.

    As it’s been said, every single sale is wrung out of the author’s blood. It’s extremely hard work. I know, I have three self-pubbed ebooks out and in over the past year I’ve sold a whopping 213 books for a grand total of less than $100.

    Building a platform is work, work, work. And that’s on top of writing, editing, designing covers, and making sure your files have been converted correctly for all of the different ebook formats – which, yes, sometimes involves working with html code.

    It’s interesting and challenging work, but it is work, people.

  24. Anonymous said:

    I self-published two novels for which two agents could not get a buyer. These novels are now Kindle bestsellers, each one is on three genre bestseller lists. I’m making real money. I spend as much time on building and tweaking my author platform as I do on writing. This focus on self-promotion has been key to my success. But so has my ample time devoted to writing the best I can and rigorously rewriting.

    My third novel has been with my big name agent for 15 months now. No takers. I’m planning on yanking this book if a buyer doesn’t come along soon and self-pub it too. And, as for novel #4, which I am halfway through, I’ll most likely skip my agent and legacy publishing altogether. I have a fan base now, some of whom query me as to when the next book is coming out. I risk losing momentum waiting on the Hamlets of traditional publishing.

  25. Jen Daiker said:

    I’ve wondered about this but it’s good to know that no one really has any idea how a book will make it big. Sometimes it’s the voice and the mass marketing that pushes it through, other times it’s word of mouth. I guess that mouth was very large to have traveled and made some books a huge success that normally wouldn’t be considered so.