Wednesday, March 19, 2014

No One Knows

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2007 I wrote a blog post called Unreproduceable Phenonmenon. For the link lazy, here are the high points:

"Books," I said, "are like a science experiment without a control. If a book is successful, everyone is quick to take credit for it, and when a book fails, everyone scratches their heads, but no one can explain why either happens because publishers can do the exact same things for two different books and get two very different results."

My friend said, "I get it. Publishing a book is an unreproduceable phenomenon."

Every book is released into the world under unique circumstances. Some of the things that factor into a book being published are:

  • Type of book
  • How it's written
  • Who the author is
  • Date of release
  • Amount of advertising
  • Amount of publicity
  • Amount of marketing
  • Publisher enthusiasm
  • Bookseller enthusiasm
  • Fan enthusiasm
  • Library enthusiasm
  • Cover art
  • Print run
  • Catalog placement
  • Size of advance
  • Foreign sales
  • Movie sales
  • Coop budget
  • Distribution
  • Similar releases
  • Market saturation
  • Price
  • Word of mouth
Now common sense would say that many of these factors are within a publisher's control, so the more that they do, the better off the book will be. But there are so many factors that even a big book with huge expectations can, and often does, flop.

So the current publishing model is to do the bare minimum, and see if magic happens on its own. And magic happens often enough to keep everyone in the game, trying to figure out how to reproduce it.
But that's the problem. Publishing is an unreproduceable phenomenon.

I once compared publishers to those Skinner pigeons who pecked a lever that offered a treat at random intervals. The pigeons kept pecking, even though their efforts didn't yield any direct, controllable results.

If it's true that no one really knows what they're doing, and that luck is ultimately responsible for a book's success, then it really shouldn't matter what the author does because fate will decide what happens. Just write the best book possible and cross your fingers, right?

Well, sometimes that works. Sometimes you buy a single lottery ticket and win. Sometimes you buy ten tickets a week for thirty years before you win. But most of the time you never win.

Which begs the question: what should authors be doing if no one really knows what to do?

The answer is easy. You have to do everything you can to become your own unreproduceable phenomenon.

You'll do some things that work, and other things that won't, and when success comes you'll hopefully be smart enough to know that it wasn't any specific thing you did that made you a hit, but more likely a combination of things plus luck.

Luck doesn't mean you can stop trying. Luck means you have to keep trying until luck happens.

Joe sez: Now, more than six years later, a few things on my list of factors no longer apply, and a few others do. For a self-pub ebook author, I'd submit these are the major factors of concern:
  • Type of book
  • How it's written
  • Who the author is
  • Amount of advertising
  • Amount of publicity
  • Amount of marketing
  • Fan enthusiasm
  • Cover art
  • Distribution
  • Price
  • Book description
  • Formatting
  • Proofreading 
  • Word of mouth
As authors, we lost a lot of factors that were beyond our control, and that's a good thing. Release dates no longer matter (the best release date for an ebook is yesterday), we had no power over publisher enthusiasm, print run, catalog placement, and coop . We now can control cover art, distribution (to an extent), and price. 

The downside is we now also control advertising, publicity, and marketing, but considering most legacy pubbed books got very little of that I consider our position now to be much better.

But even though we mutinied and took over as captain, the sea still decides our ultimate fate.

In other words: there is still no way to guarantee success, and most authors will still fail to make a living at this business.

This can be extremely disconcerting. We've all heard about the self-pub shadow industry, we've seen the numbers, we've become part of this revolution, and our sales are still below even modest expectations. Which makes no sense, because we all know self-pubbed authors who are rock stars and are making a fortune.

They aren't you. Stop comparing yourself to other authors.

Now you probably have questions...

Q: What are bestselling self-pub authors doing right that everyone else is doing wrong?

A: Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing. But it comes down to luck. They got lucky. 

Q: There has to be a reason my books aren't selling well.

A: There may be many reasons. Maybe your books aren't good. Maybe your covers suck. Maybe you aren't doing enough promotion.

But there are books that sell well that aren't good, have bad covers, and aren't promoted at all.

It comes down to luck.

Q: I used to do things that helped me sell books, but now they don't work.

A: You got lucky before.

Q: How do I improve my sales?

A: No one knows for sure.

Q: Amazon must know.

A: If Amazon knew, every book it published would be a #1 bestseller. That isn't the case. Even with all the data Amazon has, it can't force a giant hit.

Because even with information, experience, and smart plans, publishing is still an unreproduceable phenomenon.

Q: So how do I make money in this business?

A: You get lucky. No one owes you a living.

Q: I feel helpless.

A: You are helpless. 

That may sound callous, but it's true. If you want job security, find something else to do. If you feel entitled, or that you deserve success, you're probably going to end up very disappointed.

No one knows why some books blow up and others don't. Maybe you can take some solace in the fact that somewhere, in a parallel universe, George RR Martin is wallowing in obscurity and your series is a #1 TV show. But, in this universe, it isn't the case. Learn to live with it.

Q: If only things were different!

A: They aren't. 

You can complain all you want to about how Amazon changed its algorithms, or how BookBub is unfair for not accepting you, or how there is too much competition, or how prices are too low, or how free is ruining everything, or how the tsunami of crap will destroy us all, but your complaints won't change things. It would be wonderful to snap your fingers and rearrange the world as you prefer it to be. That isn't the case.

We live in the here and now. We don't live in the wish and hope. 

You can curse the rain all you want, but you'd be better off getting an umbrella.

Trying to change what people want to do will never work. 

Q: So what do I do?

A: The best you can. Work hard. Experiment. Innovate. Control all you can control, and make sure it is as good as it can be. But that's still no guarantee of anything. The odds are against you succeeding. They might be better than they were under the legacy system, but ultimately both types of publishing work the same, exact way:

In order to succeed a whole lot of people need to buy your books.

That will always be beyond your control, or your publisher's control, or Amazon's control. 

The longer I'm in this business, the more I realize how little power I actually have. So I work on leveraging the power I do have.

I write good books, which I try to make as professional as possible. Good covers (and if a cover doesn't seem to work, I change it), good formatting, error-free, good product descriptions. I experiment with price, platform, and advertising. I try different genres and different pen names. I collaborate. I franchise. I discuss and debate with smart peers. I work with agents. I pay attention. 

Getting a complete stranger to buy your books isn't easy. Getting a million of them to is waaaaaay beyond anyone's means.

Becoming a success is a dream, not a goal. It isn't within your power. 

All you can do is your best, and cross your fingers. 

What I said six years ago still applies: Luck doesn't mean you can stop trying. Luck means you have to keep trying until luck happens.