News & Politics

Make Big Money Writing Fiction


Recently my friend Charlie Martin wrote a post about how ebooks are a complete game changer for publishing, a fact that traditional publishers are still bent on denying.

In fact, for the last several years, even as traditional publishers see their business hollowed out and dropping, instead of confronting reality they’ve amused themselves with facile lies, not just about ebooks but also about indie publishing in general.

Recently a well-known publisher insisted that it’s impossible that the fall in publishing income is due to competition from indies since all the reporting services insist all the bestsellers are still traditional. Obviously, this publisher never considered that most indies don’t have ISBNs and that the reporting services don’t track Amazon, two reasons for the supposed discrepancy.

In the same way, I don’t know how many articles I’ve read which — while strongly implying that paper books are making a come back, and sometimes even sporting headlines claiming that the heyday of the ebook is behind us — don’t really say anything but something like “the growth rate of ebooks is leveling off.”  Or even just that ebooks are growing at a slower pace now.  This is objectively inane, because, of course, for any new technology, the insanely fast growth rate will eventually slow down and even level off.  Say you’re selling widgets which are very popular, and everyone buys one until every household in the land has a widget.  At that point, the growth rate is going to level off to only enough to accommodate new households or new immigrants.

All of these articles and tendentious reporting, all the soothing syrup poured by the magazines that pertain to publishing, can’t disguise the fact that Charlie mentions in his article:

The truth is, the mass-market, printed on paper publishing business is dead. Rather like the people who play vinyl records through tube amplifiers, it’s going to become a slightly snobby hobbyist occupation

Because the publishing industry — always very conservative (in the sense of not liking change, not the political sense) – is locked on the floor, in fetal position, persisting in ignoring the realities of modern publishing, including indie and ebook options, because, as Charlie details, they insist on pricing their ebooks higher than the paper books, despite the significant savings the ebook format entails, they are failing to cope with the market or even to acknowledge it.

The problem with the market is like the problem with reality. You can ignore it, but it won’t go away.

Years ago, I thought the way – possibly the only way – for traditional publishers to stay in business and profitable was to trade in shared worlds and anthologies.  These are things that aren’t easy for entrepreneur-writer-publishers to do simply because they entail nightmarish accounting to make sure none of the writers are being unintentionally defrauded of their due.

In fact, small indie publishers routinely implode through not being able to figure out royalties.  (Yes, you might think it’s easy, but my husband, who developed a computer program to keep track of royalties for a friend’s publisher cannot release it, because it requires minute adjustments every month, as each of the retailers reports differently.)

However traditional publishers are – at least in theory – already set up to keep track of author royalties. They also have access to experienced writers.  Starting a few series with bestsellers doing the initial book, and then subcontracting subsequent books to cheaper authors would allow them to bring out a book in a shared world approximately once a month.

Which, incidentally, seems to be the speed of publishing that current readers like, or at least the readers who buy the majority of the books.

Traditional publishing’s preferred schedule is a book a year, which seems to be aimed at a very casual reader.

Super readers — variously defined as those who read a book a week and those who read a book a month (and then there’s me, who consumes a book a day, more or less) — in the bad old days had to content themselves with the crumbs from publishing, while omnivorously consuming everything else, from internet fanfic (Jane Austen fanfic, represent!) to piles and piles of used books. (I once dated someone for his library. I regret nothing.)

Amazon gave us endless choice at our fingertips.

I can tell you why a book a month — or more – is the favored publication schedule.  Because people like me highly prefer series (saves us selecting something completely new to read) and highly prefer long series.  We also have near-endless choice.

So, when I’ve fallen into, say, a cozy mystery series and read all fifteen, I have a choice of several other series.  I will remember that series, author and character name for a little while, maybe two or three months, and check back for more offerings.  But I’d say three months is on the outside of my attention span when it comes to reading. After that, I’ll have forgotten that series, and it will be only by chance that I will buy book sixteen.

Traditional publishing could easily contract with writers to write in the same world – with or without an overarching pen name – and bring out 2 books a month per series, thereby assuring themselves of very high income (the people I know using that strategy are making mid-six figures per month.  Yes, you read that right, mid six figures.) without any of the books needing to be a breakthrough novel or a mega-bestseller.

In the same way, indie writers all benefit from being in anthologies.  Not only do indie anthologies seem to be selling better than the traditional ones (I easily make more per word in royalties from indie than I ever made in upfront payment by traditional publishing, for short stories) but they are a great vehicle of publicity. If I’m in an anthology with a mega-bestseller and produce a story that hits it out of the ballpark, there’s a good chance my overall sales will increase.

And again, traditional publishers were in the perfect position to pivot their business model to these niches that are hard for any indie or small press to fill.

They didn’t do it.  But others are.

One small press publisher recently got accused of running a “novel factory.”  As far as I can tell he doesn’t.  He does have a couple of shared-worlds series that do very well for him.

But both as a reader and a writer, I’ve come across small press publishers hiring writers to write under a house name  and bring out series/name books at an astonishing speed.

One of the cozy authors I recently discovered has three series of 10+ books out in less than a year.

While this is not prima-facie evidence of running a multi-author factory, it is definitely suggestive of such.  The little incongruences in writing style and description of things/events are even more so.

And in fact, I know people who are becoming very rich, very fast doing just that.  Just like I know several outfits making a living wage from assembling and publishing muli-author themed anthologies at several per month.

Right now, the way to make it big in publishing is to write fast (or hire others to write fast) and keep hold of the ADHD, short attention span super-reader as they barrel endlessly through your series.

The books don’t have to be brilliant. They only need to be “comfortable” or “entertaining” and minimally competent.

I’ve found a lot of the biggest sellers are outright pulpish, in being fun without requiring any great reasoning or thought.

Of course, traditional publishers could still be doing this.  Arguably, if they had two brain cells to rub together they would be doing this and as hard and fast as they can.

But they prefer to stay locked in puzzled denial — looking for maximum profit out of casual buyers of paper-bricks — like dinosaurs looking at the blazing meteor crossing the sky.

And they, therefore, leave the field wide open for hundreds of fast, smart little mammals to make a lot of money indeed.