Thursday, January 1, 2015

Indie Publishing - We Live in Exciting Times

We live in exciting times.

And that's both a curse and a blessing.

I just spent three hours writing a blog post -- trying to capture what I see in the state of publishing right now -- which I then decided to pitch, because my perception had changed in the space of writing it.  This is the fourth or fifth post I've written on this subject in the past week.  Things seem to be changing really fast again in the industry.

And every single pundit I read -- every prediction for the coming year or analysis of the past year -- has a different take on it.  And, I hate to say it, but I think they are all missing something.

This really isn't a transitional year.  It's just that the last year or so was a burp.

Last Year the Indies Got Less Indie (but now they're free again)

One of the things that changed is that for the past 6-18 months, the indie publishing world had become almost synchronized.

And now suddenly it isn't.

That's not a bad thing. 

Unfortunately it has, as a side effect, done some bad things.  In particular, the crash of a number of successful careers.

There are some in traditional publishing (who should know better, as they have the longer term experience to know that success tends to rise and fall on a 5-7 year cycle -- which is about how long many of these indies have been around) who are crowing about it.  They are declaring the end of indie publishing -- or at least the end of that snotty, successful side of indie publishing.

And many indies agree with them.  They fear that now traditional publishers will retake the market, and that indie publishing will be pushed back to the margins.

Which is a mistake on both their parts.

Oh, sure, I expect traditional publishing will see some recovery from the nervous days of this past year or so.  They have got used to the new world, and have had time to adjust their own strategies.  And yes, the gold rush is over, and some people will quit self-publishing, but most who decide to ride out the negative wave will build an even stronger career.

The thing that all the pundits on both sides seem to be missing is that there's another group of indies out there.  Oh, sure, you hear lots of oblique mentions of the vast, unwashed mass of writers who will supposedly drown those indie success stories in a mass of illiterate poorly formatted manuscripts and no indie shall be heard from again.

And in some sense, they are kind of right about that.  But what they miss is that this has already happened.

That vast number of unwashed writers out there is already here.

They've actually always been here,  and they always will be here. 
And yeah, in this disintermediated age, where anybody has equal footing with everybody, and everybody really is a special snowflake, it's hard for anyone to become a star and stay one.  It is kinda scary, that these masses of people out there are our competition. There's bazillions of them.

They are the Amateurs, and they are the Next Wave

But they were also the last wave.

And, actually, the wave before that.

And they are as persistent as heck -- because they don't care about your bottom line OR their own.  Sure, they think it would be cool to make a million dollars and have best sellers and their name in lights and win an Oscar.  But it doesn't ruin their day when they don't.

And the thing about amateurs is they they just keep rolling.  They just keep on doing their thing, and nothing can stop them.  Nothing.

Now.... before you start running in fear, I have one more thing to tell you about who they are:


And... they are also us. We are them.

(We are they. Whatever.)

The internet did not just remove gatekeepers, it removed gates. It removed walls. It removed all kinds of barriers.  Including the barrier between amateur and pro, reader and writer.

And Amazon seems like the only one in publishing to realize that.  The KDP is just a more extreme from of self-service, where the customers supply the content to each other.

Which is what the internet is.  It's what the new paradigm is all about. Open source.  Creative commons.  Information wants to be free, and all that.  (Also, Information wants to have a small fee taken by the enabler of its freedom.)

This world is no longer about pushing a product from producer to consumer.  It's about connections.  It's about engagement.

And three or four years ago the whole indie community knew this.

We knew that this was a great new world, empty of boundaries, and full of popcorn kittens. ("Popcorn kittens" is a concept spawned by this video -- which is a metaphor for the fact that we had so many opportunities, our minds were like these kittens, bouncing and tumbling with ideas.  Heck, WE were like those kittens. Bouncing, slipping, tumbling and trying out new things all the time.)

At that time, while few of us were getting rich, most of us were actually making money.  Not a lot, but we all could see it.  We all made more money than we had made in traditional publishing: If you had made no money at all, you now made pocket change.  If you had made pocket change, you now made folding money, etc.

And that was great.

But then something changed. 

There was so much opportunity, that people started chasing success.  Speculative fever chased away the popcorn kittens.  And thus began what some people call a "gold rush."  (It was never a "bubble" btw, because it was never a scheme driven by false or inflated value.  The value was always real.)

And since excitement always draws in those looking for a short cut or a quick buck, some of the gold rush was accelerated by an influx of the get-rich-quick crowd. But it also happened naturally, because entrepreneurship is HARD, and the glitter of success, just out of reach, can be very distracting.  In any case, success begat glitter, and glitter begat more chasing of success, and the kittens ran for cover.

We stopped being creative, and started following formulas.  We started playing the odds, and applied the Pareto Principle, not realizing that, even though all of your success comes from 20 percent of your effort, you actually need to go through that other 80 percent of effort before the 20 percent can pay off.

We narrowed our focus.  And narrowed it more.

And suddenly too many people were doing exactly the same thing at the same time.  Which is exactly what causes the end of every gold rush.

It's called the Tragedy of the Commons, and what it basically means is that we stressed the system.  It's something that happens constantly in small ways.   But when it happens in big ways -- when a very large number of people are all doing the same (apparently harmless) thing -- it can be an utter disaster that destroys the whole system.  Dancers cause the collapse of a building.  The gold is panned out of the river, the field is irretrievably over-grazed. The fish population collapses.  The tree of life dies because of everyone pulling down branches.

Luckily for us, that is not at all what happened here.  We did not come anywhere near bringing and end to the system.

In our case, the system just adjusted itself -- partly in reaction to what everybody was doing, but also in reaction to things completely outside our little world.  Customers changed their habits.  Amazon changed algorithms.  Tried new things to please the customers.

Nothing actually broke.  Except the synchronicity. That broke.

But the system is going as strong as ever.  Readership is growing, and they are finding the material they want to read.

But it's not always in books.

The Return of the Popcorn Kittens

The indie community is already diversifying again.  As a group, we are more flexible than any other player in the system.  People are recalling their previous creativity, finding new lines to color outside of.  We still have the "success-driven" folks -- we always did -- but they are jumping out of lock-step and off to find the next gold strike. Because, just like the amateurs do,  they will always keep doing their thing. Bless them.

And the amateurs themselves are still chugging along, just as they always have.

They are on the rise, as they have been since the internet went wide.  And they are nothing to be afraid of, because they are the ones who enabled this.  They are the ones who drive the social media, which spreads the word on our books.  They're not afraid of unlucrative markets. They break new ground.  They develop new audiences.  They bring the joy of reading and story to those who were never interested in books before. 

They are fan-writers, and poets, and volunteers at Project Gutenberg and Librivox.  They are web comix artists.  They are bookbloggers and podcasters, and collectors of rare books.

And they are also the pros, when they're not at work: they are indies, and traditional writers, the editors and librarians.

They are lovers of story.

And for the first time in publishing, they actually do rule the universe.

Don't be afraid of the rising tide.  The tide is us.

See you in the funny papers.


Lee McAulay said...

Excellent post, Camille!
I'm one of the pocket-change writers you mention, steadily plodding on with my novels, working on storylines and characters in the gaps between day job and chores, producing a couple of novels a year that I'm proud of, trying to learn to write better stories while I build a body of work.
Without indie publishing I wouldn't have made the progress I have. And your analysis helps.
Have a great 2015. Happy writing!

The Daring Novelist said...


And one of the things I meant to say, and discarded, is that I was a professional, but that was just out of necessity.

Now, I just am.

Victoria said...

Great post! A breath of fresh air from the "if you aren't making millions of dollars you're lazy" crowd in certain other places.

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh yeah.

But, you know, those people disappear pretty quickly. A new generation is ever with us, but never for long.

They are the "summer soldiers."

Lynn said...

I always find something to take away from your comments across the internet! I really liked this post.

I've been making a living with indie publishing for several years now. A modest living, but 2015 will be my 3rd full year where writing is my only job. I've felt a lot of the pressure to join the "professional" writers and start studying markets and pricing and promotion and, you know, just be a professional. I don't want to, though (I've never wanted to) and it's taken me a while to get to the place where I'm comfortable ignoring these people and accept that what I'm already doing is working for me, that I don't have to be the kind of professional so many other writers think I should be if I publish my work. Thanks for this post. :)

The Daring Novelist said...

Lynn, you know, you remind me of a book that was published a decade or so ago, called "The Millionaire Next Door."

It was a study of millionaires, and how most of them are nothing like what we expect. They tend to be exactly the sort of people wannabe millionaires disdain.

Patricia Preston said...

So glad I found this blog!!!

Melissa Yi/Yuan-Innes said...

Camille, I love the way you think. Thanks for your analysis. If I understand you right, you're saying the gold rush is over, but the story-lovers remain, and that's a good thing.

The Daring Novelist said...

Paticia: glad to have you as a reader. I don't post as much as I used to, but I hope to get back to more useful posting this year.

Melissa: yes, basically. But I think what's happening is a little more than that. I think that the internet unleashed the story lovers, and we are on the rise. But it's a tide and it is long term. The gold rush was a blip on the continuum.

Autumn Macarthur said...

Wonderful post! I love being a popcorn kitten!

Sarah Wynde said...

Loved this! I'm one of the amateurs, although I suppose technically I turned professional last January when I decided to take the whole thing more seriously and filed for a business name. And bought a domain name and a website and then went back to puttering along, in my low-key sort of way, often thinking that I ought to be doing stuff.

And I intended, too, really, sometime next week, whenever I finished the story I was writing or the recipe I was experimenting with or found time between walking the dogs and going to yoga. So now it's a year later and apparently it was a terrible year for a lot of people? But in my low-key, puttering way, I earned 5x as much money in 2014 as I did in 2013 and that feels pretty good for a brand-new business.

All the doomsayers have given me pause, but I want to imagine that while they were mining for gold, I was planting an orange grove. My way takes longer, it's slower, and it can be just as risky -- one bad frost can ruin a year. But it's long-term & renewable and aiming at a future, not a quick win.

Traveling Ed said...

Really well said. I take away from this that those of us who are writers, and not striving to be entrepreneurs, even though we do strive to be businesslike in our muddleheaded ways, will go on as we have, finding readers slowly (or not) but always writing. And, thanks to disruptive technology, finding it easier to publishe.

The Daring Novelist said...

Autumn; yes! We are the kittens! And we have fun no matter what!

Wyndes and Ed: funny, but after I write this, I found I had "Old Man River" playing in my head -- we just keep rollin'.

And yeah, I do think that a lot of this is about taking the Johnny Appleseed approach rather than the gold rush approach.

Jean Reinhardt said...

Great post, says it like it really is. I'm one of the new wave. Started writing two years ago and I'm actually making a living now. I pinch myself most days for fear I'm dreaming. I self-published, did well on Amazon and attracted the attention of an agent in the UK and an editor with a major publishing house in the States. Both asked if I would write something current ie. war story. I'm working on one but it won't be ready for a couple of years because I'm carrying on with what has satisfied the people who have supported me so far. To me, the important thing is connecting with readers, not agents or publishers, but if they offered to take care of the printed versions' distribution I'd be happy enough, that can be a pain. The digital rights I would hold onto.

Anonymous said...

Just shared this on Twitter. I've maintained for a long time now that books (and, by extension, all story-telling) will never go away; the only thing that changes is the medium. Indie publishers get that more than anyone else, I think. Yes, exciting times indeed!

Anonymous said...

This is a well thought out post. I particularly liked your analysis of the boom and bust cycles and how everyone finds a trend and follows it, thus breaking it.

I am one of those previously traditional publishers (1998-2007) who moved to indie publishing in 2011 (fairly early). However, I did not engage in many of the this-is-the-way-to-get-rich schemes because I never believed they were sustainable and I wanted to know what kind of income I could count on every year. I may have missed out on some boom opportunities. However, because I didn't spend time on chasing that, I did get more books written and took time to learn the business.

I am not a bestselling author, nor do I make a six figure income. However, given this is my fifth year in business and I now have 15 titles, soon to become 20 in 2015, I am making enough to cover my bills and building my inventory. I write because I love to write. I may get rich one day, but it is not a necessity for me to keep writing.

Demand for my titles is not something I can control. The titles I love the most often have the lowest readership and the ones I think won't gain a readership do. But I believe in the long-tail and it is proving to be a consistent income for me. What I can control is writing the books and stories I love to write--the kinds of stories I love to read. When someone else also loves them, it is always a joy to me and eventually that love is shared with others and it finds an audience. It is slow, but it is enough to keep me writing the next book.

The Daring Novelist said...

Jean: Yes, I think hybrid (i.e. writers who are open to both indie and traditional publishing) is going to be the norm, but it is going to take some adjustments in terms on the contracts.

Wrtitersedge: thanks.

Maggie: Yep, I learned long ago that real security is about lots of small income streams. Sometimes cashing in on a boom can give you money to invest in something else, but the boom itself is just (to mix a metaphor) money under the bridge.

Victoria Scribens said...

I really enjoyed this post. I've been trying to put together a proper business plan this year, and deciding how ambitious I want to be in it. At heart I'm an amateur, and I keep looking at what seems necessary and sighing, because I am just not obsessive enough.

I walked down the length of England in 2013. When I was in Northumberland, with bad blisters and a long way to go, and people asked me where I was going, I felt utterly foolish--almost mortified--in saying "The English Channel." Yet ... one foot in front of another, and a number of major digressions, and though I never was one of the serious walkers with their 30-mile days striding across the Pennines, I did get all the way to Bournemouth.

I'm there at the beginning with my writing. I'm not in the planning stage--I've embarked, with my bag on my back and a route roughly mapped, and a few places I want to see and expect to stay. Limping, unfit, unsure, and with probably the wrong map (as I was the first few days) ... but it's a grand journey ahead. And I know I can get there if I just don't stop.

Though it would certainly be nice to be making enough money from my writing to live off of ... by this summer would be even nicer ...

The Daring Novelist said...

Sometimes the wrong map is the right map -- it gets you to places you never realized were there.

And marathon walking is a great metaphor for this business.

As far as making a living, there are so many paths to that. Taking care of your financial life -- outside of writing -- is an important one. Having savings and no debt offers you great flexibility. (But sometimes those savings come FROM the writing!)

Victoria Scribens said...

It's true. I don't have any debt, which does offer a huge amount of freedom, and I do have a job outside of writing -- it just doesn't pay very well! I'll get there, however long it takes me. ("There" being some sort of house with a large garden and enough time to write and to read and to walk the dogs on the beach -- and to have the dog.)

Susan Schreyer said...

Bless you, Camille, the clarity of your vision and the horse you rode in on!

The Daring Novelist said...

Susan: I suspect horse people understand the concept of the professional who isn't in the for the money (and the amateur who is a dedicated champion) better than anyone else.