I ran a little experiment a few days ago, although you can consider other of my publishing attempts in the previous years a long experiment, and I’m a strong believer in the principle of publishing negative results, not just your successes.
I knew the results wouldn’t be great, and as I began reading up on the subject my gnawing feeling got worse, but really, never for I moment I thought it would be that bad.
First, the definitions to understand what I’m talking about:
Self-publishing: If you sell your piece to someone, and that someone pays you, whether with a casket of stale beer or with an awesome check, you are not self-publishing. Self-evident, but sometimes people confuse how small or big the publisher may be (i.e. if the publisher is “indie”) with the way it’s published, whether traditional channels or any platform that lets you upload your
trash art and sell it.
Now, here’s the first caveat. I don’t believe self-publishing is really self-publishing as it’s usually presented. And to be clear, when people say self-publishing books, they basically mean Amazon. Amazon is not a vacuum, a formless and primeval free market where the free individual strives forward and only his inner genius will determine success or failure. It’s a platform, with rules, and if those rules change, from how products are shown, or how invisible algorithms operate, to overt content policing (if that ever happens,) then the rules of the game will change. Amazon, however free it may be, is your publisher, and if you want to try your luck in there you should start thinking about it that way.
And the second caveat: Naturally, if you are a writer who is doing pretty well thanks to Amazon or similar markets, by all means, continue doing whatever is you are doing. Still, what I’m going to say here applies whether you succeed or fail.
So this is my experiment. I uploaded two short stories to Amazon, with nice covers from 17 and 19th-century art, and all that stuff. Price: around 1$. Two short stories? You may ask, yes, two. If you look at my Amazon page you’ll only see one (plus my Cirsova story) and that’s because I took down one of them. Why? Well, here’s why, which is also the results of the experiment:
My dark fantasy short story, although it got three reviews (and one from a fellow I don’t know,) The Butcher of Greystone, sold… *Drum rolls* 8 units. Yes, eight, which gave me the astounding royalties of $3.something. And no, it’s not going to sell many more. There’s naturally the long tail after the first week but, especially for people who are starting and self-publishing on Amazon, where your stuff is dumped into a huge warehouse never to be seen by anybody again after the initial hype, that tail amounts to nothing.
And the second story, Life of the Party, sold… *old beaten-up drum rolls* 0. Yes, zero. Not two or three. Zero. Here’s the proof:
Which is why I took it down. Zero is not just Zero money, it’s negative money and an opportunity loss. As long as that story is there, it can’t be sent to, let’s say, a fiction magazine or whatever. And since nobody has read it, I can pretty much state that this story has never been published. Or just change its name.
There are magazines out there, the kind that writers sniff at because they pay shit like $25 that would have, nonetheless, earned me more money than Amazon. I could literally find more money on my couch or just begging on the street.
And I believe that my personal example, even if extreme, is not that uncommon. The difference is that I’m the (only? one of the few?) who openly states his results. I’m sure there are thousands of writers out there struggling in Amazon with pretty much similar results. Writers are known to have thin skins or overblown egos so few will admit failure.
Naturally, once an experience like this is admitted, you can expect all manner of rationalizations to explain away the glaring, Bezos-shaped elephants in the room. So I might as well deal with them as I write the rest of the post. But first of all:
- Know Thy Enemy – Amazon
If you are one of those weirdos who still set up business in meatspace instead of earning their paycheck like any normal human being does nowadays, like monetizing your Youtube videos of clips of Jordan Peterson, the first thing you need to know is your battlefield, so to speak. If you want to set up a pizza shop you will scout the area where you want to set it up, see the competition, try to guess if there’s a need for another pizzeria, etc. If you notice that there are 10 pizza restaurants per city block, you might say, “Oh, my, perhaps I should NOT open another one!” Self-publishing books is one of the few businesses where, on the other hand, if there are 10 (or 100) of the literary equivalent of pizza restaurants, everybody will tell you that means business is vibrant! In fact, the only other businesses that follow this model are gambling, financial bubbles, and pyramid schemes.
In this otherwise interesting post about trying to guess how many Kindle books Amazon is selling (first guess was 3 and a half million, later it was found it was 5 million, it may be 8 now for all we know,) the author says:
With the growth in tablets, larger smartphones and of course dedicated e-readers, the demand for e-books is increasing, as is the motivation for people to write new books in the hope of gaining sales in a new and vibrant market.
Semantics, really. What the author describes as a new and vibrant market, I’d describe it as an oversaturated swamp with odds of breaking out as similar as being struck by a lightning or not catching VIH if you dive into a syringe disposal bin in San Francisco and then start breakdancing.
This is the market you are dealing with here. Imagine a YUGE store, like one of those Amazon warehouses with Boston Dynamic robots hunting workers that slack off a bit. Imagine that store is a bookshop, with something like 5-10 million books (more if you include non-Kindle stuff!) It’s hard to imagine so many books, but imagine a bookcase with 100 books, now imagine 100 bookcase like those, now 100 sets of 100 bookcases, now multiply that by 5 or 10.
But unlike the image above, this storeroom is, first of all, lit and organized worse, and second, products are arranged by popularity. So, you come in, and you first see the bestsellers, with gleaming stars and reviews scrawled on their covers. Everything else is stashed farther and farther away until the last books are impossible to see because of the Earth’s curvature.
Now, you want to publish one book in that bookstore because they have told you it’s easy money and a boon for the little guy. Sounds kinda silly when you keep that image in mind, doesn’t it?
That’s what self-publishing in Amazon is a bit like.
- “Hur-Dur, you just fail at marketing.”
Well, obviously, but you fail at math, which is a worse sin.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at marketing when the pool of products is in the millions because that dooms 99% (or more) of it to fail by design. With thousands of ebooks added each day, the great majority of them are simply doomed to fail. Even if everybody devoted all their attention and resources to marketing, that just means you’ll have a million assholes clamoring for your attention instead of “just” a few hundred or thousands. In fact, the only ones who would profit from that arrangement would be, obviously, marketing agencies.
- “But you don’t even have a social media account to whore yourself!”
A subset of the previous point, so it’s pretty much the same. If your argument is that people will fail as long as they don’t have a social media following in the upper 100 000 then it should be self-evident that this is not a sustainable model when there are, let’s say, up to a million aspiring self-publishing writers. And, by the way, social media is not that useful. First, and most importantly, because you waste a ridiculous amount of time there and you’ll probably end up making an ass of yourself anyway.
Also, I have seen a few examples of people with thousands of followers scratch their heads in confusion when their baby (book, video game, comic book, whatever) sold basically nothing, or when their previous hype and fame suddenly disappeared. They expect their “followers” to be mindless consumers and ever-loyal but, the truth is, these followers are fickle and they probably follow you just so you follow them back or, in some cases, for the online drama you provide. I’d expect, at the very best, a ratio of 1:100 when dealing with followers who will buy your stuff, back your Kickstarter or whatever (an exception would be those accounts who are exclusively devoted to selling a product.)
And keep in mind that nowadays entertainment (and reading) is Social™, which means people buy something only if they know others are buying it too. Just read any review of a popular book in Goodreads and you will find that many of them start by claiming how much buzz/hype surrounded the book, and then the reviewer either says the book lived up to its hype or it didn’t and he doesn’t understand how it got so popular (spoiler: nobody does.)
When I self-published a non-fiction book on Amazon, it’s true that I sold thanks to Twitter, but almost all of it was when I discounted it to basically nothing. Perhaps one or two bought a paperback copy. In hindsight, I’d told my past self not to write the book.
Also, social media is cancer straight out of Satan’s ass and I can’t wait for Butlerian Jihad-style purging, but that’s another issue.
Speaking of discounts and similar stratagems. After I saw The Buchter had bombed, I uploaded another book AND started a free promotion week for my published work — except the latest novelette, Life of the Party. The goal was to see if there was some spillover effect (not the correct expression but you know what I mean) and people who grabbed the free stuff would buy the non-free stuff. Nothing, and I guess the ratio is probably similar to the previous one, 1% or even less.
I “sold” 90 free books, and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for all the people who (on Twitter, I presume) spread the word, and if I’m not going to make a cent out of writing, I might as well be read, and I have many times considered putting up my stuff for free (but Amazon doesn’t let you or it’s really complicated,) but there was no positive effect in terms of an increase in attention for my other stuff or any extra review. I just basically gave away 90 copies, which is fine, but that’s it. I might as well just put my stories here on my blog really.
- “But indie is eating traditional publishers!”
You probably have seen the pie charts. Indies are outselling traditional publishers and so forth. Yes, true. But I’m surprised these images are bandied around since they are mostly useless to aspiring writers. Who cares about the total of units sold? There may be 2 billion ebooks being sold, but if there are a million indie writers… And I’m not going to try to find the average number of books sold per author because ebooks clearly follow a very brutal power-law distribution, which means that what the “average” author does is irrelevant, like what the “average” worker earns is a useless statistic. Still, from what I have read from people trying to guess it… I’d say the number is really, really low.
- “Maybe your books are not good!”
Perhaps, but have you seen the current top sellers in Kindle short reads? Half of them are erotic novel for menopausic cat ladies, the other half is… whatever this is:
The category I’m interested in, which is fantasy/scifi, is dominated by something I don’t even have words to describe, including stuff like litRPG-harem books (I have no idea what the hell is that but I’ll just be prejudiced and assume it’s some Reddit-spawn trash, another bubble that will burst in a year or two; you can yell at me in the comments if my literary elitism offends you.)
Besides, there’s an interesting detail. Those two short stories I uploaded? The Butcher of Greystone got to what I believe is the final round of an anthology of horror stories (I may be misremembering, but they were paying pro-rates I believe,) and that was the pre-edited version. Life of the Party got a Writers of the Future honorary nomination, those they give to the top 10% or whatever, not for winners, but still, a good one. And it has sold 0 copies.
I may be presumptuous, but I’ll just state I believe the stories are OK. They are fine for what they are. And they both accrued $3 in royalties. Blame it on whatever you want, like lack of marketing skills, not “gaming” Amazon’s algorithms, or Google+ not publishing my announcement (that actually happened,) but the point is that Amazon’s marketplace doesn’t reward my effort.
My expected rate of return if I self-publish is so low, so absurdly demeaning, that the only way I could earn less in more traditional (whether small, big, indie or not) publishing channels is if my rejection rate were, I don’t know, 99,5%? In fact, I could earn more money today if I printed this stuff myself and went out seeking drunk American tourists to sell them my stuff face-to-face. And if I started writing like a maniac and sent out hundreds of short stories and only 1 in every hundred got accepted, I still would make more money.
Well, this post had like 2000+ more words and more number-crunching stuff explaining my reasoning but, eh, this is already long enough as it is and I don’t want to sperg too much. But there is A LOT more I could say. If someone is interested I may write a post or two with my more detailed thoughts about what I believe is pretty much an unsustainable market where there is more money to be made by selling hope and ancillary services to writers than writing itself.
For those that lasted this long, my main point is that I’m not going to self-publish anything else, whether it’s short stories or entire books. For me, it’s not worth the time or the effort. I’ll send the stuff to magazines and fiction journals, and if I ever wrote a longer text again, like a novel or a book, it’s going to some publishing house. Otherwise, if I feel like it, I’ll just post it here for free to read because honestly, it’s simpler, easier, and it wasn’t going to make any money anyway.