Know When to Hold It
Indie publishing is not a get-rich-quick plan.
December 21, 2013 - 7:00 am
Selling Your Writing In 13 Weeks, Week 11
I’m not recommending any of you give up on indie publishing because you think you hold a bad hand. This is more a matter of “you’ve got to learn to pace it.”
Look, when I was young, before I got married, I used to run. I was about to say I used to run marathons, but I only ran a few formal ones. Mostly what I did was go for a good run to shake out the stress (as I was going to college, tutoring, writing, and had an active social life, there was a time interning in a newspaper and… well… things got stressful. Oh, yeah, also I was politically involved.) But I ran long distances. I sucked as a sprinter, but I was really good long distance, even in competition, because I knew how to pace myself. I wasn’t that fast over any stretch of road, but I kept going and going and going so that as other people fell (panting) by the wayside, I would be one of the first if not the first across the finish line.
Writing indie is not a sprint – it’s a marathon.
One of my friends who is an indie writer and doing fairly well is accruing her own cluster of “starting out writers looking for advice.” This is normal. This way of publishing is so new that each of us that goes a little way out of the starting gate will become a “guru” in no time. It reminds me a lot of computer programing back in the eighties (my husband was a programmer at the time) or even of aviation in World War I or – further back – of “established settlers” in the West.
What all of these have in common is that they are fast-changing landscapes filled with adventure and peril (of a sort. No. Really. No one is going to shoot you for publishing indie. I hope. But you can make a fool of yourself very easily.)
And in all of these the space between “newbie” and old man is incredibly short. If you’ve been around the scene for even a little while, you become one of the “old, trusted ones.”
My friend Cedar Sanderson – two books out, a lot of mistakes made, a lot learned, and her second book selling shockingly well – found herself the guru of a small, starting out group.
Because I’ve been her mentor for about 11 years (during most of which she wasn’t writing, but dealing with life issues – but wanting to write eventually) she comes to me when she doesn’t know QUITE what to do.
One of the problems she brought me was one of her own fledglings, who is just starting out, and who – with a few short stories out – intends to make a living out of this in a couple of years.
She didn’t know how to explain to him that while this can happen, it’s not the most likely way for things to shake out. (I didn’t either. I mean, I can say things, but if people aren’t going to believe me…)
So, for those of you who are willing to believe me, before you get the idea that indie publishing (or any publishing) is the fast way to fame and fortune: writing is a business. More importantly, writing is a craft and a profession.
We all know rich lawyers, rich doctors, rich artists, for that matter (well, I know a few who are very well off.) However, no one sane has ever made a life plan that consists of the following: week one – graduate law school. Week two – get a million dollar check.
Can it happen? Oh, sure of course it can. It can happen in any profession or none at all. You can stumble out the door, pick up a lottery ticket the wind blows at your feet, and the next day find out it’s a winning ticket. You CAN. Will you? I would not advise you to bank your entire career and future on it.
It’s more likely you’ll graduate from whatever your professional school is, serve an apprenticeship in obscurity, and have a medium-paying career that pays your bills and puts your own kids through college.
In the same way, there are rich – very rich – writers, but you shouldn’t finish your first novel and start shopping for a house on the beach in a tropical island.
Oh, we all do this to an extent – usually with our first novel. Because it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, we’re blinded by our own incredible coolness in writing this. So we expect the world to be as well, and start planning how to spend J. K. Rowling-sized fortunes.
To say this doesn’t materialize for most of us is to say a mouthful. For most of us even “makes a living and puts kids through college” fails to materialize. (I’m working on it, but it’s a year at a time.)
It’s likely this will change somewhat, with the possibility of indie publishing, simply because there is the potential for reaching a much larger and more varied number of readers – a pool of readers so vast that among them there will be readers for almost every kind of writing – but you still have to a) achieve a certain level of competency, and b) achieve a certain visibility.
These are not likely to be immediate or automatic – even if some people win that lottery – any more than they are likely to be such in any profession.
This is, btw, my answer to the “tsunami of cr*p” complaint, i.e. people who say that indie will unleash a storm of unreadable books upon the world. What will stop that storm is the fact that very few first, shoddily written novels will make a million bucks. And most beginning writers will be so disappointed by their failure to achieve millionaire status that most of them will give up on writing, just as most of them give up on writing after the first novel gets rejected in traditional publishing. The ones who stay will start reading, studying what they did wrong, studying the authors that make it and working to make their stuff better. Same as it ever was.
The difference between indie and traditional career paths is merely a matter of eliminating one of the arbitrary sources of rejection: “We’re rejecting you because our small circle who all went to the same schools and all live in NYC don’t like this sort of stuff.” This was often political, but not always. There are certain types of books that were simply considered uncool by NYC and while they might have viewed military science fiction as uncool on ideological grounds, this is unlikely to have applied to – say – cozy mysteries. Except insofar as young editors seeking to make their mark with ‘significant’ books didn’t want to waste their time editing books that people in flyover country liked, but which never got any special mentions or prizes.
The other difference is that you can slowly build your career and keep everything you ever wrote out there and earning money.
Oh, this used to be fairly normal in traditional publishing forty years ago, but by the time I came along, you wrote a book and it was found easily for about three weeks. Maybe a year in the used market. And then it vanished. It certainly stopped making you any money.
This is not true with indie (or indeed with traditional which is starting to show a long tail thanks to e-tailing.)
If you write a short story a week (well, I did. I grant you for two years only, but that’s because after that I started writing more than two novels a year) and keep improving, and putting out more and better stories, after about three years you’ll have a following.
Will you be making enough to live on? I don’t know. My experience is that novels sell exponentially better than short stories. But I can guarantee you’ll be making way more money and have a lot larger following than if you write three short stories over three years, and sit back and wait for the money to roll in.
But your plan should never be: write a few short stories. Retire.
It should be “I’m going to spend the next ten years writing x short stories/novels a year, and ‘banking’ them, so that in 10 or 20 years I can have x income, if I work towards it. Working towards it will involve studying the market, studying writing, and studying the auxiliary arts, such as covers and book interior design. (And even if you’re paying someone to do it, it helps to know it yourself, so you can judge.)
And you must understand that there are no guarantees. Yes, of course you might fail, even if you do everything right. So have a back up plan or three. (I always do, which is why I ended up writing so many genres and under so many pen names. Yes, I do actually understand most people aren’t as terminally neurotic.)
Anyway, it’s important for you to get that indie publishing is a game for the long haul, that writing is for the long haul whether it be traditional or indie.
It’s important that you understand this because – as Dean Wesley Smith is fond of saying – all indie writers are in a hurry.
I confess to suffering from this myself. I got back my rights to my back list in March and I’m chafing at the bit because I’ve put less than half of it out, I’ve written sequels to none of it and… chafe, chafe, chafe.
Has my year been that unproductive? Well, no. I’ve been learning (the hard way, of course) cover design, and interior book design, and what works and doesn’t in promo, and… But when you look at it from the inside it looks like I’ve been standing still, and I get upset at myself.
This is normal. It’s hard to accept that you’re human, and that you can’t learn to do covers while writing your new, brilliant opus. One or the other will suffer. Or you will.
2013 was a very difficult time for me. I got ill a lot. I’d get my head above water, get ill, fall behind, try to catch up, get worse… You get the gist of it.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I actually sat down and tallied what I was doing. Between this site, my blog, other stuff I had to write, including short stories, I was often logging in 10k words before I wrote any on the novel in progress. Then I’d turn to the novel in progress, do that for three days, logging 20k a day, then work on editing and indie-publishing in the evenings, get exhausted, get very ill… rinse, lather, repeat.
At the end of this, I wasn’t getting anything done, but I was feeling guilty all the time. And how I got there was by slow increments, by adding “just one more task” on an already crowded schedule.
Which is easy to do. Particularly because indie writers are always in a hurry. When you work for yourself, your boss has no tolerance for slacking, and that’s all very well, but your boss needs to find tolerance for your very real limits. There are limitations to the number of candles you can burn at both ends before you end up burning yourself.
Dean Wesley Smith has a “test” to apply to learning any of these new skills, doing any of this other work. The test is “Would you be better off writing?”
I.e. at some point, getting that cover JUST a little better is going to get you smaller returns than just writing two more stories. And you’re a writer, right? You got into this because you wanted to write and be read, right?
So, plan for the long haul. Pace yourself. This is not a sprint. If you overtire yourself to the point you can’t find the energy/time to write, you just destroyed your own potential career. It is better to keep banking novels/shorts with less than ideal covers and to keep writing. You can always redo those covers in a year, or three.
And you’re not in a hurry, because this is a career, not a money tree. You can’t give it a shake and get rich. You have to keep working at getting good enough and having enough properties to make a living.
Pace yourself. Some races go to the swift, but long distance races go to those who know how to keep in the race.
Write. Learn. Improve. But don’t try to live from this tomorrow.