After the Gold Rush

ProspectorI was talking with another author, DV Berkom, yesterday about indie publishing. Both of us wrote as staff of Indies Unlimited and both of us agreed on a major reality of self/indie publishing.

Namely, that there was a “Golden Age” when everything came together at once and it was a virgin New World ripe for the taking… but that’s changed.

A lot of the people whose advice we take on publishing–largely because we see their big successes as meaning they know what we should do–were very encouraging because of those successes, but it’s important to realize that the environment in which they achieved them is no longer the same. Some might even say, no longer exists.

The SP superstars like Konrath and Locke jumped in when eReaders were as hot on the market as smart phones. Or, I would say, as hot as were–in other times–SLR cameras, dirt bikes, component stereos, flyfishing rigs, and mountain bikes. These things would come out and rapidly improve–sales and R&D feeding each other. Little stores would spring up, everybody seemed to be flaunting their new gadget, and bragging how it was hotter than yours. Then what happened was, everybody had one. And the diminishing returns on how fast a dirtbike can be, or how cheap a Japanese camera can get were approached. And the Camera Shack would turn into a Stereo Shack overnight and the parade would move on in different uniforms.

Worse, cheap and even free ebooks were pouring out of amazon and people were delightedly packing their hard drives full of books they would read someday–a day rapidly moving off into the next century. Hard drives hit their limits, enthusiasm over some new book FOR FREE! waned a bit. And amazon changed the parameters of internal promo.

So they were like The First Covered Wagon In The Land Rush… blasting headlong into the new territory with every inch of it available for steading a new home.

But what do we see now? Acres of little flags marking off private farms…and no open prairies ripe for raiding. It’s a different world than it was just a couple of years ago.

And you have to question whether or not all of the advice still applies. Or if the same opportunities still exist. Going West, young man might still be good advice, but you have to figure you’re not going to be able to become a demi-God with railroad land or have another King Ranch. And if there’s still gold in them thar hills, you’re going to have to find it and dig it out yourself.

I don’t mean this to be discouraging. The important thing is we live in a miracle age for writers, where technology and market have flowed together to create opportunities unique in history. But it’s not the same as it was for those we might emulate: you can’t just wade in with a flag and claim the beach any more.

We’ll get by. Markets mature. And those who think that you will starve in the absence of infinite expansion are naive. But it’s important to keep the new situation in mind. And plan accordingly.

Maybe some who read this have some suggestions?

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “After the Gold Rush”

  1. The game HAS changed. The nature of writing as a profession us undergoing tremendous change. Right now, we’re seeing two groups of people able to write for a living:

    1) Those who are already famous, whose books will be bought by tens of thousands of readers right away, and who will sell even more as word of mouth blooms. These writers can pretty much continue as before: write a book or two a year, and sell on their own or through a publisher. They’ll make mid five to six figures per book, and do well by it.

    2) Everybody else? There is a content race going on, The writers who can produce the most good content win. It’s not 100% like that, of course – we still see some writers breaking out with just one book. And someone wins the lottery every week, too – with about the same odds of success.

    The more books you have out, the better your odds of success. But it’s not quite that simple, because old books don’t generate visibility: new ones do. So it’s actually more about velocity than it is about volume. The writer producing a book a month will tend to do better than the writer producing six per year. On the average.

    So we’ve reached a point, I think, where FULL TIME writers – those able to pour out thousands of words per day, every day, all year long, year after year – are in the ascendant.

    Writers who can only produce a book a year are highly unlikely to make many sales for that book. And sadly, that is increasingly true for traditionally published writers as well as indies.

  2. My advice would be similar to what I read long ago from traditionally published authors. OK, so you’ve published one book or even several. Be very cautious about giving up your day job.

    I think focusing on the inner, personal rewards of writing is key to determining one’s success. That may sound hokey, but if I determined my success in writing just by sales, I’d have given up by now and would be wearing a blue Wal-Mart vest. I was a school teacher for many years, and even though I was praised every now and then, my main satisfaction was my own recognition that I had done a good job on a particular day at a particular time.

    I hope for great financial success with my writing, but I’m not going to ruin my day or stop writing if it doesn’t happen. If my glass is empty, as far as I’m concerned, it’s completely full of empty.

  3. I agree with all of the above. The day for all the stars to align in perfect order for indie writers may have come and gone, but if that’s why we’re writing, we’re in the wrong profession. I’ve never written to get rich; don’t care if I ever do. (Yes, it would be nice, I wouldn’t turn it down, but it’s not my #1 goal.) I’m in it for the long haul, and I will continue in that vein. You never know when a different set of stars might line up. And if they don’t, well, they’re still pretty to look at.

  4. I think you’re right, Lin, that the time to make a killing with a single Kindle novel has come and gone — and I’m still kicking myself for dithering and missing that window of opportunity.

    I made peace some time ago with the fact that I will likely never support myself with my fiction writing. But that’s okay. As others have already said, I’m not in this just for the money. And if this truly *is* a marathon, there’s still a chance that I’ll make a respectable showing eventually.

  5. I agree Lin but the point should be that when a device (ereader) becomes ubiquitous the shine may be off but the product persists and evolves with the user and the data/book provider. It’s just a tool. The real issue is readers no matter what form they use to satisfy their needs and desires, and that’s what scaring me more than anything. The great decline in readers, adventurous readers. Sadly for many Americans the last book they read was in college or high school. They are entertained by television and game consoles. How we find new readers no matter what your genre is more important than how they get it. Our teachers need to be showing that books are wonderous things full of surprises, treachery, love, comedy and a little bit of eroticism once in a while. That’s also the reason I don’t offer free books or discounts – my prices are reasonable to those who want to read my books, I bled a lot to make them real, free is just that, free.

  6. Great article, Lin. Yep–the gold rush days are over. Now’s the time to make our fortunes by opening a saloon and getting all the authors drunk.

    😀

  7. Lin – (& DV) spot on. Things are a changing – again! and they will keep evolving so we have to reinvent our path from time to time too. Thanks for the post.

  8. As usual, I’m late to the party–and I disagree with most of you. and I ain’t listening to you. Great and good opportunities lift their heads every day. Some take advantage of them and some don’t. What the heck is that lament about the decline in readers? More children read books and at a younger age. Children’s books and Y/A fly off the shelves. Here’s is what has not changed: The big trad published writers have always sold books–and earned enough to quit their day jobs. The other 4-50 thousand books printed every year were by the little guys who never considered quitting their day jobs! Here is a fact: When I promote my books–they sell. When I don’t–they don’t. I came into the indie universe last year. Never heard of it before– or Twitter or Facebook or Hootsuite or Kindles–I didn’t even know what blog was. I said, “Is that like memo?” I’d heard of Yahoo and email, but I was living in a jungle–no electricity and no internet. I luv all this stuff–new innovations. I don’t look with envy at the hand fate dealt the other guy who got there before me. I look at what is in my hand and go with it. I know how to pan for gold! Somedays I’m stumped. Sure. But that’s what Chocolate Martinis are for. Y’all have a good one.

    JackieWeger

      1. Martin: Say When! I’ve still got my tiny little cottage in the jungle. And! Electricity came to the village last year. It isn’t steady on–but enough to write four or five hours a day and the cantina has ice cold beer–the real stuff 50 cents.
        Jackie Weger

  9. The race may go to the swift – but not if they trip over their own two feet. And that’s what writers who rush out a book a month without editing or content re-writes tend to do. They trip on their story line or their grammar or formatting, and people may buy one book from them, but they won’t say, gotta remember this author and read everything he/she writes.
    There are the Heinleins, who write fast AND well, but most writers have to choose between quantity or quality, to some degree.
    It’s not up to me to say which an author should choose – I guess it all depends on his or her end goal.

  10. Well said Jane, I find it hard to believe anyone can both write a book a month and write something that is worth reading. As well as bad grammar, flabby dialogue and narrative calling out for a read through and a rewrite, the actual story line is likely to be either inconsequential or the same as they trotted out in their last book. Part of the reason it’s got harder for good indie authors to make it is that the market is swamped with bad ones. It’s hard to tell the wheat from the chaff, and people eventually give up looking and revert to books that have come from traditional publishers and are less of a risk to buy. I wish people would remember that books written by the biggest selling major authors of the day will normally have been read and edited by others in the publishing house as well as re-written and re-edited by the author themselves. I like to think I’m a good writer (one book and several plays) but I would not kid myself that I am better than my heroes or the biggest writers now, so consequently would not release a book or put on a play without re-editing, re-drafting and getting others to read it over before doing the same again. It’s the way the best writers work, and nothing to be ashamed about.

    1. Producing more good books quickly is simple arithmatic. If you write at 1000 words per hour, and want to write a 100,000 word book, you will need to write 100 hours. If your edits take as long as your writing, you will need to edit another 100 hours. That’s 200 hours total (just for illustration, mind – everyone has their own speed).

      If you write and/or edit for two hours a week, you will get about 100 hours in per year, or half a book.

      If you work just one hour per day, you will get in 365 hours per year – most if two books.

      If you work 20 hours per week – light part time – you will get in 1040 hours per year, or a little over five books.

      If you work full time, that’s ten books.

      If you work 60-80 hours per week (normal hours for any entrepreneur), you will be able to get out 15-20 books. (Realistically, most pro writers working that many hours are spending some of it promoting, some of it on new words, which is why a book a month is pretty typical for full time pro writers today).

      Now, it’s not that simple, or more people would write twenty books. My point is simple: if you want to produce more, increase the hours you work.

      NOBODY should expect to be earning a living wage from working just a few hours a day. It’s silly. But most people I see trying to become pro writers struggle to get even 1000 words a day on a page.

      They want pro income without putting in professional effort. The world does not work that way.

  11. I agree with the point about the market having changed. I’ve read plenty of advice over the years and it’s quite clear that things that used to work before (or that still work for people who have already made a name for themselves) doesn’t work for somebody new to the game. And it’s true that new books have a pull that old ones don’t…Let’s keep writing!

  12. I have a small press publisher who published my first and only book. Now I’m going to attempt to self-publish my second one and I dread it. As a professional book reviewer for two sites and freelance reviewer, I see more badly written e-books than ever before, becaue, I imagine, it can be done on Kindle for free. These books, badly edited and formatted, often child-like, add to the increasing competion of the talented writers. Worse, many of these writers with poor skills in writing are excellent at working the e-book marketing game, while the more talented writer is not. This seems to be a case where technical skills initially out weigh and overcome the true talent out there that gets tossed bythe wayside.

  13. As always Lin, your posts provoke… thought and excellent comments.
    Since my brain is on story override at the moment I will simply forge ahead and see what happens. I’ve read a good deal of the “old” advice, and use what seems works. I’m always open to suggestions.

  14. Jon Fine calls it the content ‘tsunami’ but that’s a misnomer. It’s a flood that won’t be receding. Still, I believe settling in for the long term is the key. Too many people want to strike it rich too quickly. I did over 20 years in trad publishing while many came and went. I’m in digital for the long haul.

    1. There you go. I agree with the idea that it’s not a tsunami, but more like a “global warming” with permanent high water. Hardly unique to publishing in that regard: same thing happened in music in the sixties-seventies. And continued to add new titles without losing the old ones. Same thing happened with automobiles in the thirties… and a continual subsequent increase.

  15. Now this is a great article for new authors to read!

    There is so much advice for marketing books that should be retired because it revolves around the golden age of social media back when everyone in the family didn’t have a FB page or a blog. A lot of the advice about posting online and meeting people in forums can still work, but it requires so much more time becuase there are 20 other authors hawking thier own books with similar genres and themes. It’s not time well spent. I haven’t sold 10,000 copies of my books yet because I was following that worn out advice.

    I’ve noticed how important it is to stay on top of users trends and to find my own hidden gold mine. I’m slowly figuring out what works and what to spend my time on. Critical and creative thinking comes in handy.

  16. I was one of the fortunate ones to have self-published before the Gold Rush. As a result, my then two novels took off into the stratosphere during 2011-12. Then things changed as the market became swamped with mostly dreck. I’ve come out with three more books since, but they’ve gotten no real traction in this very difficult market — despite my books and I having received national and international media exposure. The disconnect between news coverage and sales is puzzling. I recently turned down my ex-agent’s plea to return to the traditional publishing fold. But I must admit, I’m sometimes tempted to go back.

    1. Thanks for a very interesting comment. Let me ask you, do you think going back to trad publishing would help? I would think everything said about indie books here would acutally apply to all books not in the canon of “hits”

    2. I always find no one ever considers what they themselves have written to be ‘dreck’ but always what others have. I’ve also found that those who think that way, tend to fade from sight relatively quickly. Being concerned about what others write, how well the write, etc. etc. is a waste of energy and a loss of focus.

      1. I like that point of view. Why waste energy worrying about what other people are doing?

      2. Amen, Bob. I say this over and over. There is NO point in thinking about the quality of others’ work–just your own. And continual yelling about all that awful SP junk out there hurts everybody and helps nobody.

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