A Shortcut or an Alternate Route?
by Jeffrey Savage
(I just want to say that this is not a response or a rebuttal to Sariah's excellent post yesterday. This is a post I wrote shortly after LTUE and the big discussions everyone was having there about the USA Today story featuring Amanda Hocking. It is purely coincidence that Sariah wrote her post yesterday about e-book publishing and I had mine today. I loved Sariah's post and I think this is something nearly every author LDS or not is considering.)
When I was about four, my family went camping. Shortly after setting up our tent, stove, obligatory giant thermos of Kool-Aid, etc, my Dad took my older sister and me down the road to the bathrooms. Camp ground bathrooms, shudder, but that’s another story. After we were done, he said, “You two take the road back to the campground and see if you can beat me.”
We ran like bats out of . . . a campground bathroom, only to discover our Dad waiting by the tent. He’d taken a shortcut. My sister, being the older and smarter of the two of us, quickly discovered the path that led directly from the facilities to our tent. I, being younger and dumber, watched enviously and when no one was looking, attempted to discover the great toilet trail myself.
Can you see this coming? If you close your eyes, can you see this kid wondering into the deep woods in search a shortcut to the potty?
Then can you imagine this mom going, “Wait, you told my baby there was a shortcut through the woods and then didn’t keep an eye on him?” Yeah, us dads are not always the sharpest tacks in the drawer.
Obviously I didn’t get eaten by a bear, washed away by a river, or stolen by a stranger of dubious intent. In fact when I was found a couple of hours later, my entire narrative of the harrowing events was, “I cried three time and I prayed four times.” Whew good thing it hadn’t gone the other way or I might have been blogging to the Heavenly Hosts.
Over the years, my storytelling has hopefully improved a little, but my love of shortcuts has only grown. I LOVE, I mean LOVE a good shortcut. It is so cool to know that you know a better way than most people. I’m always looking for an angle. I have learned to master the art of buying hotel rooms on Priceline, And you know what? William Shatner is right. It does feel great to check into the Atlanta Airport Westin knowing you only paid $40, when everyone else is paying $100 or more. A long time ago,I played World of Warcraft for about a year, until I realized how much time I was wasting on it. My favorite things were learning a trick that would let me earn a lot of gold more quickly than everyone else or an easy way to level up fast.
When I got into writing and publishing, I felt exactly the same. I figured there had to be a way to jump to the top of the list. Let me clarify. I wasn’t looking to avoid hard work. Quite the opposite. Often shortcuts require as much or more work than the normal path, they are just faster. I tried contests and blogs. I was one of the first people I’d ever heard of doing a blog tour and I did it with over 200 blogs. I soon became recognized as a guy to come to if you had marketing questions.
Along the way, I learned things. Again this is pretty normal in my opinion. In order to find a shortcut, you often have to try a number of paths that either dead end or turn out to be longer than the path most people take. The nice thing about the world of writing is that there are many, many people who have tried different paths and are willing to share their stories of success and failure. The bad thing is that what works perfectly for one person doesn’t necessarily work the same way for another. She met an agent at a conference, struck up a friendship and sold her her vampire trilogy. He self-published a Christmas book and parlayed into a multimillion dollar career. Just because you sold a gazillion books by e-publishing, doesn’t mean that will work for me. And just because I got an agent through the slush pile doesn’t mean that will work for you.
Which leads us (in a very non shortcutty fashion) to my topic today. Are e-books a shortcut to success? Have we reached an age where hundreds of queries, hundreds of rejections, negative editors, and over-budget publishers are no longer necessary?
Wait, what? Not what you were expecting me to say? I know. Over the years I’ve kind of build up a reputation as being dubious about the whole “radical publishing paradigm shift” thing. I’m a huge proponent of e-books. Anything that lets people carry and read more books and buy them whenever they want and wherever they are is a great thing in my opinion. I’m just not sure that changing the medium automatically changes the process as much as most people think.
But Amanda Hocking and many other authors have clearly proved that you can be a successful author without an agent, editor, the marketing of big publishers, or even a tangible book. The words can pour directly from your brain, through a keyboard, to the internet, and into a readers e-book device without needing the approval of a single person other than you and your readers. So, yes, agents, editors, and publishers are no longer necessary. There is a path you can take that has led others to success which is much quicker and possibly less painful than the traditional one most authors have followed for over a hundred years.
The question in my mind is not so much can this process work as whether we are seeing a shortcut to success or an alternate route. Is that ambiguous enough for you? Let me try and clarify my question with part of an e-mail I recently received from my good friend Dave Cebrowski.
“Can a writer - one that is unpublished make a living selling e-books - think about it - if you could sell 100,000 books a year, couldn't you live on that? Sure you have other marketing costs to promote the book - so figure 20% so maybe you sell 200k books a year as ebooks and make the rest of your living from speaking engagements and consulting work to other up-and-coming authors.”
Obviously, as we just discussed, the answer is yes. It can and does happen. But does it happen enough that we could call it a shortcut? Imagine that you and your neighbor drive to work at the same time each day. You live next door to each other. You work in the same office building. You leave at exactly the same time. The only difference is that he takes the freeway and you take the side roads. If one of you always gets there faster that would be a shortcut. Even if the faster path was occasionally longer due to traffic, weather, or other conditions, it would still be a shortcut. But if one day route A was faster, and the next day route B was faster, and you couldn’t count on either way constantly saving you time, what you would have is not a shortcut, but an alternate route.
So let’s examine e-book publishing in that light. Is e-book publishing a faster route to publications? Yes, hands down no brainer. If you know your stuff, you can turn an unpublished manuscript into a work for sale in less than 24 hours. You could potentially sell your first book before you could get your first rejection going the traditional route. Is it easier? Once you learn the basics of layout, find someone to do your cover, etc, it is generally much easier to publish your own book than to convince someone to publish your book for you.
Is it more profitable? Here’s where things start to get a little less clear. First of all, profit may not mean anything to you. Very few of us started writing with the goal of making a living at it. And even fewer of us kept that dream once we realized how incredibly difficult it is to make a living. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that you do still have the dream, as I do, to make a living writing fulltime, and move on to how an author makes money.
In its most simple terms profit equals number of books sold x royalty earned. The great thing about self-publishing an e-book is that the royalty you earn is awesome. If you sell a book for even $2.99 on Amazon, you can earn $2 per book. Double the price and you get double the royalty and so on and so on. Theoretically, you could get to the point of the kid who has a lemonade stand selling one glass for a million dollars and thinking, “All I have to do is sell one glass.” But obviously price point has an impact.
Let’s stick with our lemonade stand analogy for a minute. Traditionally the problem with self publishing was the same problem you had with owning a lemonade stand. You make all the profit, but you also have all the overhead. E-books took away the overhead. You can now publish a book without paying a cent. The other problem you had was that you had limited distribution. Unless your lemonade stand was in a shopping mall or along the side of a busy road, you couldn’t get a lot of potential customers. Same with self-publishing. It was next to impossible to get into book stores. With e-books you can immediately get yourself into the largest bookstores.
You have now addressed two of the biggest problems with self-publishing: start-up costs and distribution. But there is still another big hurdle that even e-books can’t get you over. You have distribution, but how do you generate demand? Let’s imagine that now every kid who opens a lemonade stand can instantly sell virtual lemonade to anyone in the world. The good news is that anyone can buy a glass from you. And since you have no overhead at all, you can sell your lemonade pretty darn cheaply. But how do you separate your lemonade from everyone else’s? If you get there early you won’t have as much competition. And if your lemonade is already well known from selling lemonade traditionally, so much the better. And hopefully your lemonade is so good people will give it great on-line reviews.
Still there are more lemonade makers coming on-line every day. And some of them are owned by big companies who can do lots of marketing. Or people who are already well known from their other ventures. You start to despair until you read about another person just like you who opened a virtual lemonade stand last year and is now making money hand over fist. If she can do it anyone can. Perfect! Nothing can stand in your way.
But let’s leave our lemonade analogy and go back to our drive to work analogy. Amanda Hocking and others got to work much quicker. In fact they not only got there quicker, but their experience was better than the vast majority of even the authors who succeeded in the traditional route. The e-book route worked for them. Are they representative of most e-books authors though? Do more authors who publish e-books succeed more than authors who take the traditional route?
Defining success as selling enough books to make a living (which is what has gotten Hocking and others this sudden national exposure) the answer is definitely not. Most authors who are making a living writing fiction are doing it through traditional publishers. And the numbers aren’t even close. That’s what makes authors like Hocking and JA Konrath such big news. They are the huge exceptions. They are the lottery winners, and they know it. Using them as examples of why you should go straight to self-published e-book is like using JK Rowling and other hugely successful authors as examples of why you should quit your job and write books. they are what R&D departments call outliers.If you want to make a living as an author, your chances are much, much better if you are published with a traditional publisher than if you self-publish.
There’s one last thing we need to consider in this scenario though. How many people try to get published with traditional publishers but don’t make it? That definitely affects the odds. If a million people all go the traditional route and only a few thousand are accepted, the vast majority of people who write books never even have a chance at success. Whereas if those million people all publish e-books, most of them won’t make much money, but all of them will at least have a chance to. Is that a good thing? It is if you are one of those authors. So while your odds of success are much better if you get a national agent and a big publisher, your odds of at least being in the game are better if you self-publish.
This post is not to say you should or shouldn’t self-publish e-books. Just like the gold rush, this is an exciting time for authors. You write the best book you can, stick it out in the big world and hope to hit the mother load. And if your book is good enough, and you work hard enough, and the dice roll your way, you may be the next Amanda Hocking.
But knowing that most people selling enough books to make a living are doing with the backing of traditional publishers (either currently or before they started self-publishing) doesn’t it make sense to at least try the traditional route with your book before going straight to e-book?
Marion Jensen and I were having a discussion recently at the LTUE conference. He said something to the effect of if your options were going with a publisher that could only sell a thousand books or so, or self-publishing an e-book, which route would you choose? For me, that question is a no brainer. If I sell a thousand books with a small publisher, I make at most $1,000. And they keep the e-book rights to my title forever. If I self-publish, I may only sell a hundred books, but I have the potential to sell many, many more, and I keep getting the royalties forever. Therefore if my goal is to make more money, I go the e-book route. If my goal is to sell more books, I probably still go the e-book route.
That being said, for me personally, I could never convince myself to self-publish a book without at least trying to get it published nationally first. Even Amanda Hocking tried to get an agent and a national publisher publisher before going her own route. I think Brandon Mull said it best when we were at a conference together and he was asked if he preferred working with big publishers or small publishers.
He said, “Big publishers can ignore you and small publishers can ignore you. Big publisher can promote you and small publishers can promote you. The difference is that when a big publisher decides to promote you they can have a much bigger impact.”
I think self-pubbed e-books are a great way to go. They offer many benefits that the traditional route does not. But if your goal is to make make enough money to earn a living writing, self-publishing is simply another route. Not a shortcut.