Please note: I have thought long and hard before publishing this article. The old saying that you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar comes readily to mind. And also the one about how people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. But because I am in a glass house I am in a particularly apt position to observe and write on this subject. This article, if coming from a successful writer, would sound as self-serving and insincere as some of the recent e-book sensations who say that everyone else can do it too. I am not yet a successful writer; in fact I occupy the same exact position as many of the people whose enthusiasm my words pour cold water upon. So if I am harsh to the self-published writer, it is only as harsh as I am to myself. And I make no apologies.
Last night I was reading about publishing, self-publishing, and indie publishing as part of a continual effort to crack the code of how to get my books in front of more reader eyes.
Inevitably, I came across a blog written by one of the breakout e-book success heroes, talking about how easy it is to make tons of money from self-publishing, how anyone can do it, and how everyone should. Or at least that is what was implied. It’s the same story everywhere, whether the writer or commentator involved has actually been successful or not. They almost always say that they have been successful, and that you can be too. Oh yeah, they’ve made a ton of money. All of them have! They work and work, churning the foam on the ocean of foolhardery that is the self-publishing gold rush.
The ones at the very top, like the blogger I was reading, who was one of Amazon Kindle’s early independent success stories and has been highly promoted by Amazon and the traditional publishing industry ever since, are positioned to benefit from the churn. Much like a pyramid scheme, everyone else involved want to benefit in the same way but have no genuine prospect of doing so.
We live in hope?
Every post on this particular author’s blog is followed by 50 or so giddy comments from followers praising the author and the self-publishing revolution, promoting their own individual books, and expressing amazement at how much money there is to be made “out there”. Notable is the fact that the majority of comments from this grin gallery of ‘self-successful writers’ are neither particularly well written nor well thought.
The reality is that some of these giddy commenters are buying that author’s books, they’re driving traffic to her website where she can convince others to buy her books, and she’s not buying theirs.
Grass on the self-publishing side of the fence sure is green!!!!
One of the amusing/depressing features of the “self-publishing revolution” is that almost everyone involved in it, in any capacity, has a book (often a large series of books) for sale to teach other people how to make money in self-publishing. Hmmmmm, what? It’s clear from what is being pushed and advertised that most of the real money being made is in selling the self-publishing dream to saps. On many “author” websites, the author’s novels (always represented as “best sellers”) seem to be no more than an afterthought, while prominently featured instead are whatever self-publishing books and services they have available for sale. One would venture to guess that selling these is how they are making most of their money in self-publishing?
So… books telling readers how to publish their own books aside….
Who are the readers? The so-called ‘self-publishing community’ often appears to be nothing more than an endless circle-jerk of people in love with the idea of being a writer, trading self-promotions and pats on the back with each other.
I went to an independent publishing convention recently where at least 50 tables were set up with self-published authors selling their books (and a few small presses/authors), and perhaps 50 friends and family members of the writers also in attendence… and, over the course of the whole day, only about 10 actual non-affiliated readers walked through shopping for books. [This was a well-publicized event.]
The idea that everyone, or even a lot of people, can make a living through self-publishing is arithmetically absurd.
There have NEVER been a lot of people in the world who were able to make their living writing books. There never could be, because professional writers need readers, lots of them; it’s an intrinsically asymmetrical relationship.
The fact is, on average, an adult in the United States reads about 12 books per year. Not a million books a year. Not fifty thousand books a year. Or a thousand. Or a hundred. 12.
That’s not 12 books written by new writers, it’s not 12 books published by self-published writers in the past year — it’s 12 books of any kind. It includes Hemingway, it includes Shakespeare, it includes Stephen King, it includes What Color is Your Parachute?, it includes the books people are made to read for training at work.
So if you pause for a moment to think about it, you ought to understand that when someone chooses to read your book, or my book, that choice also entails the choice NOT to read the many millions of other interesting books out there that they could be spending that time reading instead. More than a million books per year were being published in the United States BEFORE the recent self-publishing revolution.
Which should be humbling! It ought to make self-published ‘writers’ take a careful measure of their work and what else is out there, and question whether or not their work is really worth a reader’s time.
Why is it that the broad majority of great, and merely good, writers in the history of literature have been plagued by self-doubt? If you listen to eminent authors, self-doubt is one of the main demons they talk about contending with in their careers.
Here is one of the main reasons:
Because if you are intelligent enough to be a great, or even good, writer you automatically realize what the equation is and what you are asking of people when you ask them to read your book. You’re asking them to choose, out of the millions of books out there that they could read, out of all the amazing and wonderful books that have been written, of which no one in the whole world ever has time to read more than a tiny fraction — out of Shakespeare, and Michael Crichton, and Dickens, and Blake, not to even mention non-fiction — out of all those millions of books that could enrich their life, you’re asking them to choose your book. You’re telling them that to dedicate several precious hours of their reading time to what you wrote would be a profitable decision in their life.
That’s the equation!
So, if you are intelligent enough to perceive the equation and yet still think, as I do, “You’re damn right, my books are the best things out there and more than worth people’s time!”, then you pretty much have to contend with self-doubt. Because what you think, regardless of how deeply you believe in it, is statistically unlikely and borderline irrational.
The hubris it takes to write a book is insane. And don’t think I’m the first to point that out, it’s been pointed out countless times by other authors in the past. Traditionally published writers, which in the past was mostly the only kind, have a huge advantage in this regard over us independents — they have been CHOSEN. Experts on books, people who make their living from selling books, have already separated those traditionally published authors out from the rest who are deemed not to be worth a reader’s time. And even in the past, the ratio of chosen ones to those left out was always upwards of 1,000 to 1. Traditionally published authors can draw their confidence from that. Yet, even then, most of the great writers in the past were plagued by self-doubt at some time during their careers.
It is offensive that most people trying to self-publish their books are either too stupid, or too thoughtless, to even reach this basic realization about what they are trying to do. They aren’t even conscious of the equation.
12 books a year, but you know what? The broad majority of adults don’t even read that many. The median is 4.
Personally, I read a lot more than 12 books a year, but the list I want to read is a mile long, and the list of books I have time to read is short.
The average reading speed for an adult is about 300 words per minute. That means a 70,000 word novel, which is one about 250 pages in length, will take a reader of average speed about four hours to read. [ It’s worth noting that reading speed (within a normal range) and reading level do not correlate. Reading at average speed does not mean you are a reader of average level or acuity. ]
So when you ask someone to buy your book, you’re asking them to invest several hours of their precious time reading the words you have written. And you’re asking them to pay you for the privilege of doing so.
Well, they should pay. Because good books are very hard to write. And your book should be good. ‘Good’ means good relative to the millions of other books out there that they could be reading instead of yours. Your book should be worth their time.
But let’s get back to that arithmetic thing. Suppose every writer’s book is as equally amazing as every other one; every book is a masterwork (or no book is), each as worthy of a reader’s time as the next. Suppose I’m just some asshole, and there aren’t good books, and great books, and crappy books that aren’t worth anyone’s time, but just a whole lot of, well, books! And some books are good for some readers, and others are good for other readers, and they aren’t better or worse, it is just different strokes for different folks.
THEN everyone can be a writer, right?
Can everyone be a rock star? Can everyone be rich? Can everyone be a movie star? Can everyone become President? Hell no. Not because people are mean, but because those things are intrinsically exclusive and rare.
In fact, I have seen celebrities on TV, on more than one occasion, express how they wished that everyone could be rich. And they actually didn’t seem to understand why that wasn’t possible.
It’s simple math that if you spread all the wealth in the world equally among all the people in the world tomorrow, nobody would have very much. Economists who study this place the global per capita GDP at about $13,000 USD.
[ Woah, think about that for a moment. Per capita GDP includes infants and the elderly. So if wealth was actually evenly distributed throughout the world, pretty much every family in the world would be middle class. We normal humans really are getting screwed big time by the rich. Even in the United States, $65,000/year is a pretty decent income for a family of five, and we only do that well here by exploiting a large portion of the rest of the world’s population which is significantly less well off. ]
But anyway, that’s why everyone can’t be rich, in case it’s not painfully obvious. The reason why one person can be rich is because MANY other people are not rich. The natural resources and total wealth of the world are intrinsically limited, not infinite. Just like the time that people have to read books.
A writer can only be a writer if they have an audience. They can only make a living from their work if they have a BIG audience. If everyone in the audience is trying to sell their own books, then no one makes money, no one really gets their books read much, and the whole foundation of literary culture crumbles under the ground.
And that is the reality of most of the self-publishing world: the businesses making money are the ones selling self-publishing books and services to the frothy crowd chasing the gold rush; almost none of the self-published writers are making any money; almost none of the self-published authors are being read by a significant audience; traditionally published authors are also being read less than they were in the past, because people who used to read them are busy writing their own books and trying to get others to buy their own books and read them; and almost no one with any actual talent, voice, or potential to be a significant writer is able to be heard because of the heretofore unimaginably degraded signal-to-noise ratio.
[ A thought does occur, that perhaps the traditional publishing industry has been shoveling so much crap down reader throats, for so long, that pretty much everyone believes they can do better. Perhaps. Although that doesn’t change anything. ]
It’s an old joke now in the publishing industry that there are “more people writing short stories today than reading them.” An old joke, not a new one. I’m pretty sure the same joke gets told about poetry. It didn’t used to be told about novels. But in the past five years the number of people trying to write and sell books has probably doubled. It might easily have multiplied by five, but I’m making a conservative estimate. At least 99% of these should be the ones fertilizing the literary culture of the world as active, thoughtful, and enthusiastic readers, not trying to sell their own books.
It’s not a bad thing to be ‘merely’ a reader! In fact, it’s a beautiful thing. Whatever literary culture exists in society is completely dependent upon the passion and enthusiasm of readers; their time and energy is the engine of literary culture. It is the readers who allow a writer’s work to be more than a shout into an echo chamber. Readers are the ones who complete the transaction that the writer has begun with his/her pen. No story can exist without an audience; every ambiguity, every space, every detail that the audience fills in, is integral to the artistic transaction that creates literature. And yes, writers are readers too, and yes most professional writers also read a lot; but writing to a high standard, the kind of standard upon which literary cultures thrive, requires an enormous amount of both time and talent. And literary culture requires that most readers are reading a relatively small number of writers’ books, so that they can discuss those books with each other as a community.
It is terribly hypocritical for me to say it, but here is the plain truth:
The world doesn’t need more writers, it needs more readers. There are far too many writers already; there are far more than there ever have been, and there have always been too many.
Your book doesn’t make the world better, it makes it worse. That’s true for at least 75% of the writers in traditional publishing, and at least 99% of the ones trying to self-publish. “You” make it harder for people to find books that are actually worth their precious time to read. “You” make it harder for those rare people who are actually worthy of the arithmetic to rise above the froth and get their work read. “You” are the problem. The world needs more readers, not more writers.
If you find yourself reading this and thinking, “I know all that, I’m tortured by it, but I really believe my work is special, and that it is significant when compared to everything else out there.” If you’re one of these people, like me, then there is hope for you. There is hope for us. Someone out there is special, someone is worthy, someone is writing the literature that will shape the world in this young century and in the one after that. The world does need writers, after all, and nobody starts out knowing that they are good! If you believe in yourself soberly, thoughtfully — if you believe in your work, not in the egotistical idea of being a writer — then god bless you and good luck. You’re probably wrong about yourself and your work, like I probably am. But we who are artists, or even sincere entertainers, do what we have to do. We accept what fate has given us, because we have no choice, whether it is a good fate or a bad one.
What’s that? I’m getting ahead of myself? You don’t want to create art, you don’t want to create the literature that shapes the next century, you just want to write fun books that entertain people! I’m sorry to have to tell you, but the same sort of arithmetic still applies. Do you think your work is better than the best writer in the world who is writing in your genre? Do you think it ever will be? If not, maybe you should step aside. Robert Heinlein wrote more than thirty novels, do you think your books are better than his, and has your reader already read them all? It’s usually true, in the first place, that our own work is not as good as we think it is. So if you don’t believe at the outset that your books are better than Stephen King’s, for example, then they are probably A LOT worse.
What service are you doing for your readers if there are better books out there that are more worth their time to read than yours? Doesn’t that make you a rip-off artist when you sell them a book?
Why am I so harsh and being such an asshole? Partly it’s because most of the human churning froth of the self-publishing foolsgoldrush deserves it. I won’t even call it tough love, it’s just tough.
But mainly it’s because the purpose of this post is to underline one thing:
Here at The Granite Notebook, and at Incandescence Press, we aren’t interested in telling people what they want to hear. You may find your intelligence insulted that way everywhere else on the Internet, it may be what we are ‘supposed’ to do, but we won’t do it. This is no place where you can come to hear a pied piper piping a merry tune to lead you down a colorful rathole that ends with your being separated from your dignity and your wallet. Even if you grin shit faced at the end of the tunnel and say you’re happy with what went on, that doesn’t change it or make it ok.
Lies make me viscerally angry.
What’s really the problem with lying? What is actually wrong with dishonesty?
Did you ever ask yourself that, simply? As more and more human beings renounce traditional religions, the basis for our morality is up for debate. What’s wrong with lying?
This is a philosophical question, and I have a rather good answer for it:
People live their lives, and make the best of their lives, according to the best understanding they have of the world around them. That is why dishonesty is so horrible, because it interferes with other people’s ability to make the best of the life they have been given.
You may never find it stated more clearly than that; I never have.
Most human beings go through life in a fog of delusion. That’s not even a bad thing, but it needs balance. A few of us make an active effort to see the world as it is. Some rats among the population make an active effort to take advantage of the people in the fog. Thanks to unbridled capitalism and the laughable theory of infinite growth (5% a year forever, truly), the lies of the rats increasingly dominate our world. If you listen to western politicians and corporate executives you might start to believe that everyone else in the world can also be rich, if we only want to be rich badly enough.
Everyone actually can’t be rich, and it’s only statistically possible for a very few people to become a rock star, or a popular writer (the ones who make decent+ money).
It is a statistical near certainty that you are, in fact, not at all special.
But so what?
It’s the work of the liars that makes you think you need to be rich, or a rock star, or a writer, or “special”, in order to be a valuable person with a satisfying life who feels good inside and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
I hate rats.
I wrote a sort of addendum to this article called, “Why You Should Be a Writer“. Check it out!