Sunday, September 27, 2015

Maybe You Suck

Some people don't like me preaching on and on about how luck is possibly the single most important factor of success.

Some of these folks insist that good writing will always find an audience.

Some say those with success deserve it.

Some say my insistence that luck is important is a form of humble bragging, since I've sold a few million books.

Some don't like the fact that luck is beyond their control, and they believe talent and hard work always win out.

Some think they make their own luck.

I'll bite. Let's say I'm wrong. Let's say luck isn't as big of a factor as I think.

Have you reached the level of success you want? If so, and you don't believe luck was involved, good for you. I suppose you can make a case for yourself, the same way every self-made millionaire makes a case when they write their inevitable "How I Did It" books. I don't know how many people have read the Essays of Warren Buffet and then became billionaires, but perhaps a lot have. Maybe good, solid advice, a strong work ethic, and loads of talent, coupled with a how-to template, can make anyone a raging success.

But what if you aren't a raging success, and you still don't believe in luck?

Well, maybe you suck.

Maybe your writing isn't as good as you think it is.

Maybe those covers you bought on Fiverr look like they cost $5 and are scaring people away.

Maybe you were wrong to think that Loch Ness Monster LGBT BDSM Amish Space Opera was the next big thing.

Maybe you need a better editor. Or an editor, period.

Maybe you signed your rights over to someone else who sucks.

Maybe you published before you learned how to write well.

Maybe you'll never learn how to write well.

Maybe you spend too much time whining online about how everyone is against you, and not enough time putting out good books.

Maybe you're incapable of putting out good books, no matter how much time you spend at it.

Maybe you dwell too much on defending your publishing decisions, when you should be questioning your publishing decisions.

Maybe you've bought into what the media says about ebooks waning in popularity, because you're stupid.

Maybe your spouse and Mom telling you they like your book doesn't qualify as constructive criticism.

Maybe you're reading too much about publishing and not experimenting enough with publishing.

Maybe your drop in sales isn't about the marketplace; it's about readers not liking your work.

Even if you do account for luck in your definition of success, you might still suck. Maybe it isn't bad timing and crummy breaks that have stalled your career. Maybe your writing is the problem.

Yes, you can self-publish.

That doesn't mean you should.

And it certainly doesn't mean the world owes you a read.

If your sales suck, it might be because you suck.

Maybe you deserve that 1 star review.

Maybe you deserve that #2,543,677 ranking.

Maybe you should go bury your nose in the Elements of Style.

Maybe you need to workshop your next story with a writing group before trying to publish it.

Maybe proof reading isn't an option; it's a necessity.

Maybe all of your excuses are bullshit.

Maybe you're 100% to blame for your depressing career.

Maybe you should quit.

Or...

Maybe you can do everything right, and still not reach your measure of success, because you haven't gotten lucky yet.

But I'm willing to admit I might be wrong.

75 comments:

Walter Knight said...

No matter the level of success, it's never enough.

Jonas Saul said...

This needed to be said.

"Write a good book," he said.

"But how do you qualify a good book?" she asked.

"You don't. Readers will. Sales will. If sales aren't there, it's probably not a good book." He studied her face. "Or promotion isn't where it needs to be."

"So this book writing stuff has depth after the book's been written?"

"More than you know. And no one person has all the answers. Just keep plugging away. It'll happen, or it won't."

"Gee. Thanks."

Bob said...

Maybe you don't have a 42 title backlist you got the rights back to from traditional publishing like I do? Or like quite a few other successes in the indie world have who started out trad and got rights back? The actual number of self-pub successes who had zero trad titles is extremely low.

I think there's a lot of confusing information out there from those of us who are having great success in indie publishing.

Luck? Luck is lightning striking. It helps to climb up that really steep hill and hold up a lightning rod-- ie work your ass off.

But sometimes the fickle finger of fate just pokes someone in the fourth point of contact (an Airborne School term, you can google it).

A couple of things distinguish the not so lucky but very successful authors (both trad, indie, and my term hybrid, which I should have copyrighted back in 2011 since there are now apparently 'hybrid' readers):

They work hard. Very, very hard.

They are willing to learn. When I taught for Writers Digest years ago, snail mail (haha remember that?), I had thousands of students over the years. I can count on one hand the number that actually wanted to learn and change. I'm still uncertain why all the others took the course, except for a thing many writers want: validation.

Aint gonna happen.

The successful authors know they run a business. Regardless of publishing path, successful authors understand that they are self-employed in the world of publishing. That means spending a lot of time running that business. Effectively.

Yes. The vast majority of self-pubbed titles being uploaded are not of quality. That's okay. It's part of the system that has allowed those of us in a different place to also put out titles that would never have seen the light of day ever again, or ever now.

The funny thing is this: those who are not of quality don't read blogs like this, or if they do, don't think it applies to them.

Sort of like letters to the editor. I've never seen a single letter to the editor where someone says: "I'm doing something stupid, something I should be doing, I'm an asshole, etc.". Nope-- its the other people who are all those things.

Nothing but good times ahead.

Walter Knight said...

Luck and the future ain't what it used to be.

Joe Konrath said...

The actual number of self-pub successes who had zero trad titles is extremely low.

That's an interesting bit of info.

If it is provable, I wonder how important self-pubbing an out of print backlist is vs. honing your craft well enough to sell to legacy publishers in the first place.

My backlist no doubt helped me make a lot of money. But my backlist was also pretty solid evidence that I knew how to craft a marketable story. Chicken vs. egg, sure, but I'm glad there wasn't Kindle when I wrote my first few novels, because those novels weren't good and I probably would have self-pubbed them. Rejection helped me improve as a writer.

J. R. Tomlin said...

"Loch Ness Monster LGBT BDSM Amish Space Opera". For GOD'S sake, Joe, don't give people ideas! Someone will try it.

Paul Duffau said...

Well, the good news is that I believe in luck. The bad news is until good luck hits (not all luck is good, after all,) I need to keep grinding. Fortunately, my skillset includes grinding and "too-dumb-to-quit."

Have I reached the level of success I wanted? Came in with zero expectations and got caught by surprise when my first book, in its very tiny niche, did well. The ladies that I wrote it for loved it. So, yep, already exceeded expectations.

Still, the feeling I get when I see people reading my stuff (KU is very motivating for the newbie to see people actually reading, page by page) makes the work plenty worthwhile, even if the sales don't keep up with the effort expended. I'll keep the day job until lightning strikes. If it doesn't, too bad. As I told my kids growing up, life ain't fair.

Also, writing in a genre that has more people in it than the listings in the phone book for a ghost town would help, but that's another project.



John Ellsworth said...

The question isn't whether there is luck; the question is whether I can produce luck.

Peter Spenser said...

@Bob

“which I should have copyrighted back in 2011”

No. Which you should have trademarked back in 2011.

The piece within which you mentioned “hybrid authors” is already covered by copyright. It’s a common mistake to confuse the two terms.

Marva Dasef said...

I finally went with "I suck." Just because I have 30 years of successful technical writing under my belt, it doesn't mean I can write compelling fiction. Since I know I can "write" (e.g., spelling, grammar, blah blah), then it must be my concepts, plots, characters, or something else.

The world has convinced me, along with people like you, Joe, that I may as well hang it up on writing.

Thanks to the reading public for letting me know I'm a failure. I really appreciate it.

Oh, and my mother doesn't even read "that kind of book," thus I didn't even have mom's encouragement.

I still think my books are good, but I don't get to be the judge of that.

Peter Spenser said...

@Joe

One of your statements really sums up a lot of what I have encountered in the world of Indie Publishing, irrespective of whether anyone believes in luck or not:

“Maybe you're incapable of putting out good books, no matter how much time you spend at it.”

Some people really should just move on and do something else. The problem is, too often, the ones who should the most are the ones who realize it the least.

Joe Flynn said...

The best reason for writing is that it's something you love to do. Writing gives you pleasure. You write a page and it makes you laugh, cry or tremble. If you get that far and you're having a good time, you do it some more. Then you let some other people read your work. If they react the same way you did, then you publish, see if the wider world agrees with the smaller one. If it does, great. If it doesn't and you're having fun anyway, still great If writing is no fun at all, don't bother.

J. Eliot Mason said...

I think people are confused by what "luck" means. Luck isn't having babysat for a major publisher's ceo's kid. Luck isn't having saved an agent from being hit by a car. Those are shortcuts. Luck is being able to write something someone wants to read. Through a series of life experiences, genetics, and upbringing you have a smidgen of writing ability. If you have sold one book to a complete stranger, and they liked it, then call yourself licky. Hard work and dedication will do the rest. Also, like Joe Flynn said, if you love it who gives a shit! Have some fun for Christ's sake!

Alan Spade said...

I like the words "and still not reach your measure of success". So true. Everybody has they own measure of success.

I was on a signing session on Saturday, and a 50 year old lady told me she preferred one of my books, The Breath of Aoles, over Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Of course, I was delighted, but I also felt very lucky.

I think the old saying about luck favoring the prepared is true. But you also have to read Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and particularly the passage about golfers, to understand the big part that luck plays. It's the same thing with writing.

We also must know what we talk about. My idea of luck is a number of parameters, or factors, too numerous to be controlled by a single human being. That doesn't mean we cannot control any of these factors.

If I consider the addictive power of games of luck (like, gambling in casinos), I have to acknowledge that the Nordic mythology, which portrays Loki as the god of luck and dissension, an evil god, has a bit of truth into it.

That's why it's no use for me to believe in luck. I can believe in my own luck, but that's a different thing than merely believing in luck. (Remark: did you notice that there's just a single letter between luck and the "f" word?)

Regarding the different factors that could make an author quit: we also have to remember that even a great author like Kristin Kathryn Rusch thinks at least once by novel that her writing is lousy.

We aren't the best judges for what we write. What we feel sometimes about our writing should be, in my opinion, put closer to the Author's Imposture Syndrome.

In short, maybe we feel our writing to be lousy because we have a streak of lucidity, (and if it's about a given passage, we should always have it reread by someone else, or put it down to reread it later) but if we are really devoted to what we do, there's a good chance that we're a victim of the common Author's Imposture Syndrome.

Alfred Poor said...

As Louis Pasteur said, "Fortune favors the prepared mind." You can't make your own good luck, but you can prepare yourself to recognize the opportunity to recognize it when it smacks you in the fact. Joe, this post is an excellent recipe for how book authors can prepare themselves for luck when it comes along. Well said, and worth repeating!

angel said...

Okay so after 4 years of reading this blog I've decided to post. I agree with you 100%. I've watched luck bless people for years. For example, I just watched it happen to an author I know hit the #1 spot on amazon over the weekend. Does her book have errors? Yep. (They always do, she REALLY needs an editor) Is the writing prosey and cliched? Yep yep. But she has a great personality. People are drawn to her. The bigger blogs with lots of followers decided a while back to push her regardless of errors. (As in they will literally say, "I love this book despite the errors.")

Yes, I think she works hard. Yes, she hustles with a smile and that opens a lot of doors (just like some of us find Joe's gruffness endearing). But I also think she, and so many others are lucky as hell. Right place at the right time. Right relationships, right personality, right genre (Amish Aliens!). Lightning does strike. The hard part though is keeping it up. You may get struck once but every author has to put in the time to keep the fire going.

I'll just be over here with a metal rod in one hand and my next manuscript in the other.

Thanks for the post.

adan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adan said...

I'll go with luck :-)

And keep playing and creating.

BRYAN HIGBY said...

Cut to the bone. Excellent. That's why you've reached such a level of success, that and luck! LOL! Great post! Face your demons and the truth.

Anonymous said...

Spot on Joe!

People think that self publishing means any book that wouldn't have made it through the old publishing channels can now find a paying audience. As people are finding, that is not the case.

Part of the problem are the self publishing gurus out there trying to convince writers that all they need to do is use their clever marketing strategies to succeed. That any book can be sold. As long as you buy their marketing course! :-)

Edmund de Wight said...

Some readers tell me I'm amazing. Others tell me that I suck. I guess that means I'm at least doing it right for 'somebody'. So I'll just sit in my chair, crank out more writing while trying to improve my quality each time; build a back list and wait for that lightning bolt of luck to strike - or not. Either way those few still like me so I'll call that success I guess.
And my mom doesn't read my sort of fiction either so I will continue to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Lindsay Buroker said...

I haven't had any major lucky breaks or mega hits, and I'm well into six figures writing steampunk (not a popular genre, though you can sometimes cross over into epic fantasy/sword & sorcery which are slightly less unpopular). I've published 20 novels in the last 5 years, along with some shorter stuff. I've never had a book traditionally published. I didn't have a trunk full of manuscripts when I started.

I have absolutely seen people get lucky and make lots of money riding that luck, but I think you can do pretty damned well by slowly building a fan base over the years and writing a lot of books (and paying attention to what's working this year for marketing). But you can't suck. Unless you really really like the guy.

Peter Spenser said...

@ Lindsay

“But you can't suck. Unless you really really like the guy.”

Lindsay! (gasp) I’m ashamed of you!
:-)

Nat Russo said...

I'm a firm believer in the saying "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." We can't control the latter. But we can damned well control the former.

Selena Kitt said...

"The actual number of self-pub successes who had zero trad titles is extremely low."
----

I'd like to see your stats and where you get them from? From my perspective (it's opposite yours) I see PLENTY of self-pubbed success stories who never had traditional deals or published with legacy. Most of them are in romance, granted, where the readership is truly voracious. But there are a LOT of them. More than you might think or realize, maybe?

victoriafoxxe said...

It comes down to genre, writing ability, and business sense. I've seen plenty of writers make it, with some combination of the above. Romance, Erotica, and some sub-genres of Horror (i.e Zombies) seem to have their own rules.

Many of the self-pubbed bestsellers in those areas did it with no backllist. But then we're talking voracious readers, who don't have enough to read. And probably never will.

I hear what Joe is saying and even what Bob is saying - but I keep seeing outliers who break all those rules.

And remember when both of you guys were the champions of people who broke the rules. Remember when "no more Gatekeepers" was your rallying cry?

I do.

Anonymous said...

I know it was pure luck the director found my script and wanted to film it.

I also know, the film deserved that one start rating.

What I learned. I was lucky. My script sucked. As a result, the film sucked. I knew I had to step up to the plate and become a better writer in case I got lucky again and someone wants to film one of my scripts.

Luck is great, but if your story sucks, it's still going to suck, no matter how lucky you get.

Anonymous said...

I really question Bob's statement that the number of indie authors who have achieved success without a trad publishing deal is very low. How would you even know? The wonderful thing about self publishing is that it's possible to be a quiet, anonymous success. I know a couple of dozen (yes, really) indie-only authors who are earning six figure incomes in romance, including myself, and I know they're telling the truth because I check their sales rankings. (I publish under a pen name, by the way.)

As for luck - to an extent, I think you make your own luck. I self published for a year and a half, and published about 15 books in different genres, before I finally found the genre that happened to work for me. That was what propelled me from $3000 a month to a very, very comfortable income - within a month. One month, my books are ranking about 1200, the next month, I'm cracking the top 100 on Amazon.

So what made me lucky was that I kept trying again, and again, and again. I studied the market, I studied successful authors, when something didn't work I'd try something new, and finally something clicked.

Nat Russo said...

I think it's also important to define what you (personally...each of us) define as "success".

I still work a day job, and likely will until retirement age. But I've sold more than 10k e-books in the last 1.5 years. I'm periodically interviewed on podcasts and other places. I have an active writing craft blog that sees a couple hundred visits every day. I have a healthy number of Twitter and Facebook followers who are very active. And my debut novel (a fantasy) remained in the top-100 of its genre list (metaphysical fantasy - paid) for more than a year after publication.

I'm successful. No one will really convince me otherwise, because I control how I define "success".

Anonymous said...

I hate the advice,cut to the bone.

In my book 'Hero to the Gods. The Sorith Chronicles part XXII' I have a scene when The Oracle of Man witnesses a fly land on a table and fight an ant for a crumb of hearty bread. The scene runs for six pages, but serves as a metaphor for the whole novel. (Once they have fought over the crumb a spider attacks and kills both before also eating the said crumb of baked floury dough.) In another scene a character watches the sun set over the sea for four pages.

If I cut to the bone these scenes would be lost and instead of a 1200 page book it would probably be down to less than 200.

Chas Dawkes

David L. Shutter said...

"I think it's also important to define what you (personally...each of us) define as "success"."

If Howey had only a fraction of the success he's seen but was still able to go back to sea on a 20-something foot mono-hull as old as him, instead of a state of the art, million dollar, custom built catamaran, I'm confident that he would still consider himself amazingly successful. Perspective counts for a lot.

Scott Dyson said...

Most of us who have self-published some of our work (my own is limited to three short story collections and two novellas in the horror genre, more or less) don't have enough feedback as to whether our work is good or not. An editor you're paying or a beta-reader isn't enough. If it's for readers to judge, they have to actually "read" something to make that judgement and if you can't be found, how do you get judged? I've had several people tell me that they really liked my stuff, not just friends, and I was good enough to get a story into the anthology QUANTUM ZOO recently, but OTOH, it doesn't translate into sales.

I like what my fellow Rambler Joseph Flynn said above. If you enjoy writing, then write...and let whatever comes your way come. If it's a ton of success, great. You've hit the jackpot. Your horse came in. In other words, luck...;-)

Steven M. Moore said...

These are all good points. I always say that the only time I play the lottery is when I publish another ebook. I also say that as long as each ebook entertains at least one reader, that ebook is a success. I don't set the bars high in measuring my writing success.
That said, let's turn things around and assume my prose sucks. I'm writing up a storm and having fun doing it. I'm also giving my formatter, cover artist, and publicist some much needed cash three or four times per year.
Not every business has good products. Some businesses are successful in spite of bad products. There are plenty of books that suck that do well (I'll refrain from giving examples).
The important thing is that readers have choices. They do now. Many! Maybe too many? I'm first and foremost an avid reader, so I like the choices I have now. On the other hand, people who do this as long as I have don't deserve any more luck than the newbie. But I'm happy when a few readers choose my ebooks. :-)
(Geez, this is what happens when the morning caffeine is depleted.)
r/Steve

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter what the truth is to the role lucks plays in success. What matters is each individual's perception of that role. If you think luck is paramount, then you have one more reason to quit.

Everyone is looking for something, it's human nature. Either you look for excuses, or you look for opportunities.

I had zero trad pub titles and now I have 32 KDP novels and a healthy 6 figure income. Not once during the entire process did I stop to consider the role of luck. Never. I was too busy collecting 500 rejection letters and studying on how to correct the flaws in my writing.

Anonymous said...

IS THAT REALLY TRUE...SIX FIGURES, 32 TITLES...? HOW LONG DID THAT TAKE TO DO???

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

I can think off the top of my head of seven authors (1 SF, 2 SF YA, 2 Urban Fantasy, 2 Romance) who are making between $150,000 and $400,000 per year. These all happen to be women, and none were trad pubbed first -- though one is now Amazon pubbed. I can think of three men in that category as well, all indie from the get-go.

I think it's changing rapidly, and the trad-pubbed first writers are in the early wave, while anyone who is newish is unlikely to bother with that path in the first place.

Absolutely luck is critical. But if you write one book (and one of the women above has written only one book and vaulted up to super success instantly -- a lightning strike) you can't do much with it... there's nothing further to sell. If you write five you're that much more likely to have luck, and if it strikes, you have something to make money on. If you write ten, fifteen, twenty... better chance of luck, improving books, and lots of product to sell when you finally attract buyers.

Anonymous said...

Ways to increase your chance of being lucky:

1.) Write in a popular genre with a big, hungry audience. Romance, mystery, thriller, those are the ones that I personally would recommend.

2.) Study the genre that you pick, read widely in it, and especially pay attention to what bestselling in the authors are doing. Study their books, study their blurbs, study their covers.

3.) Be a good writer. Not necessarily an amazingly great writer, but at least a good writer. This takes practice.

Derek Murphy said...

I love the tone of this article: yes many indie authors are whining about how hard things are and how everybody is against them and nobody will give them a chance and building a platform is too much work. Yes a lot of self-publishing authors are publishing crap with ugly covers and bad writing. But is "luck" what leads to success?

Doubtful. Unless it's "lucky" to write in more popular genres with more readers, rather than a quirky memoir nobody wants. Or it's "lucky" to persevere... after your first few books don't sell at all. Do you give up? Or do you learn how to design books, edit (or hire a designer and editor), you learn craft and practice writing, you build your platform, you learn from your mistakes and become successful by treating your writing like a business.

You can't "business" your way to the top, and since most authors don't know anything about business and just focus on writing, the ones that succeed are usually accidentally doing enough of the right things to make it... but the ones who are doing the wrong things can either learn and figure shit out and change what they're doing, or they can be stubborn and keep on doing it anyway and then blame luck or chance or fortune.

If your books aren't selling, it's your fault. Somewhere in the process of writing and publishing your books, you got something wrong. Figure it out and fix it. If the book is great, it's probably the cover or lack of reviews. If the book sucks, there's no hope - but you can rewrite it, or write a better one. Or write 10 more.

Do you suck? Maybe. Can you unsuck yourself by more work and action and learning and less whining? Absolutely. So is "luck" the key to success? Only if, like most authors, you are just writing what you want to write and putting them out there into the world and doing absolutely nothing to promote them and hoping for the best. But that's not a great way to go about things.

C.J. Carella said...

My father was always fond of saying "Luck is the meeting of preparation with opportunity." Preparation is under your control. Opportunity may or may not materialize.

I'm on my second year writing. First year I sold $8K. Second year I'm going to make less than that (unless the last three months really take off) because I tried a different genre and the sales of those books were 1/10th of my first set. Bad luck? Maybe. Maybe I suck at one genre and do well on the other, or the competition is fiercer in horror than in alternate history/superheroes. So I'm writing another book in the first genre, where I know I'll sell 300 copies in the first month and another 600-800 over the next twelve months. Maybe along the way the books will reach critical mass and I'll take off. Maybe I'll never do as well as on my first year.

But I'll keep plugging away, and try to be prepared for opportunity to come a'knocking. And when/if that happens, I'll be the first to say "I got lucky."

Patricia Lynne said...

I believe in luck. As for myself, I don't know if I've just been unlucky or suck. I recently got a review where the reader raved about my book, so I guess I can't suck that bad. I've decided to enjoy the ride. I have a day job to pay the bills, so that keeps that worry at bay and let's me focus on writing and publishing because I love doing it. Maybe one day I'll be able to pay bills and write for the love of it. Or maybe I won't. It's all luck. Either way, I'll just keep writing.

Aimlesswriter said...

Maybe 50 percent luck and 50 percent hard work? After all, you have to be in it to win it. If you're not putting the effort/energy into writing, maybe nothing great will happen.
However, your story still inspires.
;)

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon2-

I am the six figures/32 titles author above. It took 4 years of writing and submitting to amass my 500 rejections from trad pub. It has taken 4 more years since my first KDP novel (which garnered 7 sales on its first day). That brings us to today, 8 years time. 300,000 copies sold, approx. $500k earned the past 4 years. These days I publish a novel every 6 weeks, of course writing is my full time passion, several hours a day/7 days a week. 3 of my paperbacks are in every Barnes and Noble in the country, but that is less than 10% of my paycheck.

Again, the role luck plays is immaterial to me. I had plenty of chances to chalk up my many failures to 'bad luck', but never felt the desire to do so. I hope that others here follow my lead.

Read, write, learn, repeat.

Nat Russo said...

That brings us to today, 8 years time. 300,000 copies sold, approx. $500k earned the past 4 years. These days I publish a novel every 6 weeks, of course writing is my full time passion, several hours a day/7 days a week. 3 of my paperbacks are in every Barnes and Noble in the country, but that is less than 10% of my paycheck.

May I ask which genre you write in? Also, what is your typical word count in these books? The reason I ask is that I'm a fantasy author. 120k is a short-to-average book in my genre. I can't conceive of the possibility of going from storyboard, through 1st draft, through beta process, through revisions, through cover concept and creation, through formatting and publishing, every 6 weeks. Hell, my "cool off" period after the 1st draft is 4 weeks unto itself.

Just sincerely curious.

Jonas Saul said...

I've never been traditionally published. I have 32 titles on Amazon. I make a six-figure income and haven't worked outside the house since 2010. My wife is retired as well. I have an agent in Hollywood. We're turning my 15-book Sarah Roberts Series into a TV series. The first season is already written. I've flown to Hollywood three times in the past year from Greece, where I've been spending my time writing near the beaches of the Aegean Sea.

This is success for me. I'm happy, content and paid well for the 5-6 books I write per year in the thriller genre.

I guess I'm one of the rare indies. I'm happy. I'm lucky. I'm grateful.

Data Guy said...


"The actual number of self-pub successes who had zero trad titles is extremely low."

We've all heard that myth, time and time again. But you know what's really crazy? :)

That's not what the actual data shows. Not even close.

In the most recent Author Earnings report, which combined 7 quarters of individual Amazon Kindle earnings for over 200,000 authors, one of the biggest surprises was how well the very newest indie entrants are doing relative to their traditionally-published peers. Equally surprising, if you download the accompanying spreadsheet, is how few titles on average those indies are achieving those earnings with: between 4 and 10 titles each, in many cases, for the very highest earners.

If you look at all indies earning more than $100,000 from their Amazon Kindle bestsellers, they had an average of 16 listed titles each, while their traditionally published peers had on average 25 listed titles each.

Some indies have done well with large backlists.
Just as many others have done equally well or better without any tradpub backlists.
As always, YMMV. :)

Mark Asher said...

Hard work and smarts trump talent most of the time, I'm guessing. More books and better market positioning and better marketing efforts probably makes more money than native talent, but what's more important? Writing to make a lot of money or writing something you loved creating and making a little money from it?

Most indie writers are going to write and make a little money. A tiny percentage are going to write and make a lot of money.

Joshua Simcox said...

"I've never been traditionally published. I have 32 titles on Amazon. I make a six-figure income and haven't worked outside the house since 2010. My wife is retired as well. I have an agent in Hollywood. We're turning my 15-book Sarah Roberts Series into a TV series. The first season is already written. I've flown to Hollywood three times in the past year from Greece, where I've been spending my time writing near the beaches of the Aegean Sea.

This is success for me. I'm happy, content and paid well for the 5-6 books I write per year in the thriller genre.

I guess I'm one of the rare indies. I'm happy. I'm lucky. I'm grateful."

Which would be great were it not for the deceptive pen name and the cover art with striking similarities to those of John Saul's novels. I've noticed the real John Saul is now being credited with novels written by "Jonas"; I wonder how many of John's fans have clicked the Buy button on a "Jonas Saul" without taking a closer look? It's not quite as egregious as the writers calling themselves "Dan Koontz" and "Preston Child", but it does seem ethically shaky at best. Certainly a trad publisher never would've allowed such a pen name, at least not in the horror/thriller genre.

Terri Herman-Ponce said...

Luck is a huge factor. I've read too many books by authors who are VERY GOOD. Who tell amazing stories but who just can't get discovered in the mire of all the other books out there. This business is hard. We write because we love it, not because we're after the money. Money would be nice. Not needing the day job even nicer. But it doesn't change the fact that writers, true storytellers, have it in their blood. There are days we hope for luck. Most times, we're happy that even a few people have found us. This is truly a fickle business.

Christopher John Chater said...

The good news is that you can suck and still be a best selling author. How many blogs and mainstream articles have been written about Dan Brown's suckiness as a wordsmith, (whether fair or unfair) yet the guy still makes ga-billions. Don't let suckiness stop you from pursuing your dreams!

Hey Joe, in response to your blog trying to uncover KENPC and ranking, I published my numbers on my blog along with a Q and A with BookBub's Diana Urban. http://www.christopherjohnchater.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Writing in an underserved genre with a rabid fanbase is really where the money is. There are people making a killing on post-apocalyptic/prepper stuff who can barely write beyond a middle school level. Same for people churning out BBW bear/dragon/wolf/animal-of-your-fantasy books who can't figure out their "their" from their "there." Obviously these people will never make a lasting career out of this given their lack of writing ability, but FOR NOW, they're making a killing. Of course, if you write in this genre and you also happen to be a good writer, you should be killing it--I mean really KILLING it--and if you're not, then you're doing something really, really wrong.

Steven M. Moore said...

Echoing some of Terri's comments, I would have stopped long ago if I didn't love to write. I think I tell a good story and enjoy telling it--that's what drives me. Maybe I suck at it. Over 1000 rejections from agents and some sitting of a MS for months might lead to that conclusion, but instead it led me to POD (too expensive) and now ebooks (the Goldilocks fit). I collected what-ifs, plot, settings, and character ideas for years, and now I can let the blarney flow.
For whatever reason, I don't have an extensive readership, so maybe I do suck. My few reviewers don't seem to think so, but that's an absurd situation anyway--the Amazon rating system is like American Idol where the popular vote can't determine a good singer from a bad one--but it's also a vicious circle because those reviews spawn more readership which spawn more reviews ad infinitum. Is there anything more to be said about a book when it has fifty reviews? I don't think so. But that's the situation we have to live with.
There are many good and bad things about the current situation. No one can say that this publishing upheaval has stabilized. I'll just ride it out and keep on writing--it's too much fun to quit! Is that whining? I don't think so.
r/Steve

Jill James said...

I think luck is the "spark." You pile up the kindling, have the twigs in a pile, ready to go. You have the big logs nearby. And...fire, flames, warmth.

P. Moore said...

I've never traditionally published. I have 3 books out and a novella and before the end of the year I'll have made a little over 500k. My first book was published June of last year. Now I do attribute that to making my first book free, I also write in the romance genre and I say my prayers ever day :0

Rex Kusler said...

I wish my parents would have named me Clive. I don't ever correct anybody when they mispronounce my last name anyway.

Steven M. Moore said...

@ Rex, great name for a writer! My biggest mistake in my impoverished writing career? No, it wasn't trying to be traditionally published at the start. That was a mistake--who knew back then?. Nope, the biggest mistake was using my real name instead of pseudonym. Do you know how many Steve Moore's are out there? Even Steven M. Moore's? ;-)
r/Steve

Jessie Perez said...

I suck....but I don't care...
I suck at structure...I DON'T CARE...
I suck at Story...I DON'T CARE....
I will Keep writing til this WANT/NEED goes away...
Closet writers UNITE!!!!.....
:)

Kimberly Steele said...

Also, I love it how many take for granted that they were born in a rich country where they had a decent internet connection, time to write a book, and the resources to publish it independently. That's called LUCK and it's great for some of us and not so great for a writer hiding under a rubble heap in Syria right now. You have to make the most of it.

While I'm kvetching, look at the age we live in! Independent authors have never had it so good! We can cut out the middleman... that doesn't mean automatic, guaranteed, infomercial-shiny success.

Recently, I've been suffering through the endless nightmare of trying to (re)publish my books on Createspace. I am convinced Hemingway or Fitzgerald would have drank themselves to death by this point. There's only so much "Your file was rejected because you forgot a one millimeter margin in Adobe InDesign" one human can take before either eating a gun or slashing one's own wrists and going for a merry jog.

Talent and perseverance are one thing. Luck is quite another.

Eric Z said...

Let Profit Be Your Guide

Steven M. Moore said...

@ Kimberly,
Maybe H and F did drink themselves to death? When I was in academia, we (the unknown scientists) used to whine about how even Einstein couldn't land an academic position (receive tenure, get published, etc) today. All non-productive whining.
I'm violently in agreement with you. Every day I'm thankful for being alive, for living in a country that offers me opportunities to write what I want, and for a chance to play the old Irish bard of old and entertain a few readers.
Inre about Createspace and a general question: I've published mostly ebooks because of cost, but I've thought about republishing via Createspace when my tired, arthritic, touch-typing fingers no longer are serviceable. (I'm also studying voice-to-text software.) Is Createspace worth my while? Ebooks tend to dominate the genre-fiction sales, so this is a legitimate question.
r/Steve

Louis Shalako said...

I'm sorry you feel that way, Joe. I still don't believe in luck.

Joe Konrath said...

I'm sorry you feel that way, Joe. I still don't believe in luck.

You don't have to believe in something for it to exist.

That said, I think it's important to back up your beliefs with data and logic. Simply denying the existence of random events that can increase or decrease fortune doesn't make for a compelling back and forth in the comments.

If no luck is involved in success, then there should be a surefire scientific formula that will ensure it for all who follow. For example, if I put liquid h20 in a freezer that is below zero degrees Celsius, it will become solid. Guaranteed outcome every time, and can be tested with controls.

If there is no luck in publishing, what are the determining factors for success? Why are some books more successful than others? What determines who, where, how, and why books are purchased, and the quantity they are purchased in?

When you show me all of that is under your control, and subject to the scientific method, you win the debate. I'll be here, waiting. :)

Alan Spade said...

Bloody Mary has been lucky in the french store. It's now ranked #2, with only 5 reviews (four 5 stars and one 4 stars) and a nice price of €5.99. Congrats, Joe! :)

http://www.amazon.fr/gp/bestsellers/digital-text/ref=pd_dp_ts_kinc_1

My own free ebook has not been so lucky, but is, as I write this, #217 in the Free US store and #4 in Epic Fantasy.

Richard Schiver said...

If it wasn't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all.

With that in mind I still put myself in front of the computer every morning without fail, whether sick, tired, or not at all interested in writing I still do what needs to be done. For me writing is all I know, and aside from a loving family, it's really all I have left.

I work a dead end job to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. I know my chances are slim to none, of ever breaking out, but I continue to push ahead.

To me everything I write is crap. I view 5 star reviews with suspicion, What do they want?

I know I can go to my deathbed secure in the knowledge that I did everything I could, that I played the game as hard as I was able, and die peacefully with no regrets.

I'm a writer. It's what I do.

BRYAN HIGBY said...

Well said Richard. Couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

best title to a blog post...ever

Jeremy Kester said...

This is an awesome post. Perfect. I love it. All of those statements are dead on point... and yes... luck still has a lot to do with it.

Anonymous said...


Will DRM eventually go away?:

"Craig Mod has a fascinating article for Aeon, talking about the unfortunate stagnation in digital books. He spent years reading books almost exclusively in ebook form, but has gradually moved back to physical books, and the article is a long and detailed exploration into the limits of ebooks today -- nearly all of which are not due to actual limitations of the medium, but deliberate choices by the platform providers (mainly Amazon, obviously) to create closed, limited, DRM-laden platforms for ebooks."

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20151003/08020932433/stagnation-ebooks-due-to-closed-platforms-drm.shtml

DMG Byrnes said...

I absolutely agree that luck can be a huge factor in success. You could pen the most outrageously brilliant book in existence and if people don't know its out there or how to find it, it will be lost in obscurity until it does find traction and gain a voice among the people to spread it. Luck plays in a roll in the people and opportunities that may come your way, just as much as hard work. Going out looking for those opportunities absolutely is your own doing, but the right person stumbling across your website, your writing, your blog can do so much more for you unexpectedly, and you can't engineer situations like that. You can do a lot to help luck along and improve your chances the same way buying multiple tickets ups your chances of winning the lottery, but you still have to do something, like buy the ticket. Interesting article in its entirety, thank you for sharing.

















































































































































Bill Peschel said...

Let me add to what Joe said by quoting David Lynch. You know, the guy who's created some awesome stuff and some stuff people thought was not so awesome:

"You better love your work and the doing. Because what comes after, there’s no guarantees. Sometimes, you get the frosting on the cake. Sometime, you don’t. But if you love the doing and you believe in what you do, it’s OK."

In other words, you can't control whether something you write will sell or not sell. Period.

You can't even control what people will like about your books. Flaubert had this to say about Madame Bovary:

"The success you obtain is never the kind you wanted. It was the farcical bits in Madame Bovary that made it a success." (He was referring in particular to the scene with Emma and her lover riding through town in a closed carriage, with them crying out, "Go on!", "No, straight on!" and "Get on, will you!"

Anonymous said...

You are one of a kind, Joe. I'm feeling the love. Sail on!

Cheryl Gorman said...

Luck. Is. Everything. Period.

You can write great books and without luck you will go nowhere.

Unknown said...

After studying the lives of entrepreneurs - both those who succeeded and those who did not - I agree with you. Luck plays a huge role in success. Being smart, doing everything right and working hard is about 10% of success. 90% is luck - either being in the right place at the right time, hitting trends just when it's about to go exponential, or a single, seemingly insignificant, event that changes everything.

dvrahz said...

My first time on this blog. I'm self publishing a memoir and novel as "we speak." I was forced to change names and locations in memoir. Had an editor. Edited it myself numerous times. Found a couple of geographical errors now that it is on Amazon. Beating myself up worse than you are now. I bet you're a good if not very good writer. Don't let that airbag beat us up! What is your novel? I will read it.

Louis J Desy Jr said...

I am shocked at how many book do not seem to sell anything most days, even books that I would consider steady sellers like one of the classics.

I put out a small book, mostly as a proof of process, to see what the whole process was from to finish with a downloadable product. It is a book about my experiences taking the bar exam and only about 30 pages long of text. It has at best only around a total of 150 units downloaded, most on free promotion days around holidays.

One in a while, one or two paid units will sell.

I am not surprised at the number of units distributed, since the topic is a very small market. I estimate that less than 50,000 people take a bar exam each year, and all of them are probably already flooded with material/courses/guides etc for studying for the bar exam.

But what I was surprised at, was that the times a few units do get downloaded, how much the ranking changes, and that it shows many books do not sell anything most of the time, even books that I would consider classics and except at least one sale per day, considering there are over 300 million people in the United States.

Right now the last time my book had a unit downloaded, was November 13, 2015 for one unit. Nine days later the book has a ranking of 860,0840. I think there are two or three million books there, so that means the majority of them have had no activity in over a week or not more than one unit.

When I get two downloads, I have had times the ranking jumped into the mid five digit figure.

One time I saw that I had three or four downloads, and the ranking jumped up to for just under 13,0000; meaning that only a little over 10,000 books sell more three copies per day.

I was some what shocked at the low volume of book that generally sell for most books, but it does match what some people wrote were publishers are just interested in moving a total number of books and it didn't matter how many titles that number covered. While the authors were starving since on even 100 books per month at $20 retail per book at 17.5% royalty; that would only $350 for the author, it is not enough to 'live on' but if the publisher has 100 of these going on, it can keep them in business.

Luke Kendall said...

I honestly think a lot of people don't like to admit the role of luck because it lessens the magnitude of their accomplishment. For some, they think that success is always earned (or even god-given), and to suggest that luck might be involved is anathema. Hard work, good work of course is almost always necessary; but luck really does play a significant role IMHO.