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.


William J. Thomas said...

So what you're saying is, as writers, the Daft Punk song can be modified to apply to us.

"We write all night to get lucky."

Donna White Glaser said...

There are so many things worth quoting I may have to go make a list. The idea of how much luck matters is both freeing and daunting. Freeing because it means comparisons with successful writers aren't a matter (maybe) of they're doing it right and I'm doing it wrong. But daunting because by it's very nature, luck is uncontrollable. I think our society has difficulty accepting that we don't control everything. Or is that just me?

Bob said...

All true. And luck tends to strike more often when someone keeps trying.

I sense change in the air in the land of indie publishing, so once more it's time to revise the business plan in order to have a higher degree of getting lucky.

Unknown said...

My engineering side wishes there was a formula to all of this, but my writer side knows that the only way to have a shot is to keep my butt in the chair and continue writing.

Brandon said...

Always very solid, J.A. Thanks again for the perspective. It's nice to be humbled in this craft, and yet still test your will to write. If you are passionate about what you do, you will continue to try and innovate, and do all you can, no matter who you are or what your position in life. Here's to the success of our fellow writers.

Tim Tresslar said...

But I do deserve success.
My affirmation book tells me so…

Kriley said...

Thank you! "But even though we mutinied and took over as captain, the sea still decides our ultimate fate." is a perfect description.

V. J. Chambers said...

Totally needed this post this week. Thanks. :)

Chris W. Martinez said...

And this is why it's so very important for an author to love (possibly love-hate) the act of writing itself.

Alan Spade said...

"All true. And luck tends to strike more often when someone keeps trying."

Yes. But the more you want to keep trying, the more sacrifices are involved. Look at Hugh Howey, for instance. He got lucky, yes, but he bettered his chances. Would his books get so many reviews if he wasn't making so many efforts and sacrifices (international tours and all)?

So, just to keep being lucky, he spends a great amount of effort and time. Yes, we shouldn't compare to others authors, but I don't think I would be able to give so much to readers as he does.

We have to keep trying, but we have to do it in our own way. Little victories matters.

w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

Fleming gets a big boost when Kennedy plugs his James Bond novels. Clancy gets a big boost when Reagan plugs Red October. Luck. On the other hand,regardless of literary luck/success, there is nothing wrong with creating avenues of even small passive income like e-books, because every buck you earn passively, is one less you'll have to actively earn. Maybe the time you put into creating it pans out, maybe not. But that's part of the fun of the game isn't it? You only get all f***ed up if you equate your literary sales with your self-worth. (Net worth, maybe, but never ever self-worth). If a couple of days go by and nothing of mine sells, I say okay, you're still a very experienced attorney and a successful investor--you've been legacy published and had your fifteen minutes of infamy. Not bad. The point is when your sales are down, pick yourself up by reminding yourself of all of the successes and triumphs you have had in your life. If there aren't any you can recall, well, okay you've earned the right to denigrate your self worth--have fun doing it. You can make an e-book out of it called "You're OK, I Stink." Catchy title like that might sell--if you're lucky.

Bonnie said...

Great essay. The only thing I would add is: Be happy! Every sale should be celebrated. I received .98 from a book sale in the UK this quarter and I smiled all day because that meant I sold a book in the UK. In the UK! That's so cool Being happy means that financial success, should it ever come, is just frosting on an already tasty cake.

Unknown said...

I don't remember who said this, it was someone famous, but I've always loved this quote,

"The harder I work, the luckier I get."

PJR said...

Hey, Joe. What do you think - if luck is such a huge factor, shouldn't everyone quit worrying, reading and monitoring and just write, and write, and write, to publish, publish, publish, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Nothing more?

Jill James said...

Joe said, "Getting a complete stranger to buy your book isn't easy." I need this tattooed on my body. LOL Every sale is a stranger who decided to try my book. I need to remember this every. single. day!

Nirmala said...

I would add that even when you get lucky, you usually still have no idea why.

This week we lowered the price of my wife's book, From Stress to Stillness to $.99 on Amazon ( in preparation for a Bookbub promotion that starts this coming Saturday. And on the first few days (again before the Bookbub promotion has even started) it shot from a rank of about 70,000 up to a top rank of 388. We have lowered the prices of our books to $.99 before with no such amazing boost in the rankings happening as a result.

What was different this time? We have no idea.....

Alan Spade said...

"What do you think - if luck is such a huge factor, shouldn't everyone quit worrying, reading and monitoring and just write, and write, and write, to publish, publish, publish, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Nothing more?"

No, because you have to optimize your chances for each book. For example, I sold 9 digital copies of my last book (a 120,000 words novel). I'm grateful for those nine. I'm pretty sure if I hadn't set the price at 0.99$ for the first month, I would have sold none. You have to get at least a minimal exposure.

David L. Shutter said...

I do have a prediction:

Sometime in the near future, someone will write a piece about SP myths and add that Konrath always said it's easy to get rich self-pubbing.

It's just a feeling I have.

Joe Flynn said...

Way back in the mid-1970s, I met George R.R. Martin briefly at a writers' conference at Indiana University. He'd been published by then but he was the second banana at the confrerence to Roger Zelazny. Martin got to where he is today by writing a mountain of work.

Makes me think the higher the mountain of work you create, the easier it becomes to see success.

Anonymous said...

"Q: If only things were different!
A: They aren't."

Just what anyone in the old legacy publisher would have told you...

Jon Nichols said...

You may have inadvertently outlined exactly what has kept me from fully trying indie publishing. I'm admittedly a bit of a control freak and get put off when chances of success depend on so many outside factors. But luck is more apt to happen to those who try. So perhaps as Lao Tzu says, it's time to "act without expectation."

Unknown said...

The closest thing to a sure thing right now is Kindle First. Those four books are pretty much guaranteed to be in the top 100 for the entire month preceding their official release date. Of course you have to be lucky enough to land a deal with Amazon Publishing, and then you have to be lucky enough to be picked for that particular promotion.

I was lucky enough to get the Kindle Daily Deal a couple of weeks ago. It's not what it used to be, but it was still a nice payday.

One thing Joe didn't mention specifically is a mailing list. I've heard those help a great deal, but it takes a while to build one with enough names to give your new releases an edge. It's something I'm still working on.

Mean Teacher said...

Bentley Little is not online, does not interact with fans, and writes a book a year. The guy obviously got very lucky.

Unknown said...

Joe: This is a great post. "It all comes down to luck." "Learn to live with it." These are words to remember. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing and be grateful whenever a stranger buys one of my books. I never thought the world owes me a living, so I'm okay there.

hollis shiloh said...

I could be wrong, but I thought the time of release did matter. Isn't summer a slower time? I rushed to get some of my stories out during the bad weather, and one of them did pretty well. (Of course, it could be the cover art, or that I priced low to begin with, or some other factor.)

I also found this book helpful in understanding more about writing descriptions and picking good key words on Amazon:

I always get something from your posts, Joe: thank you. :-)

Unknown said...

This post really struck a chord for me. Been feeling pretty down on myself. Started writing full-time almost exactly 5 years ago; started self/indie publishing in July last year. I just published my 11th title today (including 3 novels). So far, I haven't even sold enough to meet the thresholds for getting paid ANYWHERE. I know it takes time, but I really thought I'd be doing better by now. I've started making pro sales on my shorts, but I love the idea that "luck means you have to keep trying until luck happens."
Thanks. I needed that. Especially this week.

Anonymous said...

This comment is for Sharon. There are some things you can try.

One, your covers aren't branded right for genre. I had to read your bio to figure out what genre your books were in. Study urban fantasy covers. Also science fiction covers involving planets. Yours are too generic.

Second, get your pricing down inside where the bestsellers in your genres price. That means 3.99 to 4.99 max for a novel.

Third, create some loss leaders that *directly* tie into your books. I'd recommend you read "Write, Publish, Repeat" to learn how funnels work. You want to sell, you need to give people an easy in to your work.

Yes, it is a lot luck. But there are things you can control, like covers, blurbs, proper genre branding, funnels, etc that will help. The nice thing is, even if you fail at first, keep trying new things and you might succeed later. Hope that helps!

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

I've gotten lucky and sold a lot of copies of my WOOL tie-in, Karma of the Silo. Top 100 lucky. But I have other books that haven't sold as well. Yet!

Enjoying the writing is its own reward. I try to remember to do that.

I also love the indie ethos of extending a hand, like Anonymous above, who made helpful suggestions to another author. This is a great and exciting time to write books.

Thanks for another classic, Joe.

Terri Herman-Ponce said...

Whew! Luck, indeed. But I'd rather write and hope for luck than not write at all. Writing is in my blood and bones and body, and for that I'm thankful. And if I hit paydirt? All the better, but it's not what's driving me to do this. An insane need to tell stories is.

Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

I think I really needed this post right about now. I published my first novel, a sci-fi thriller "Convergence," almost a month ago. It's been a bit of a struggle to get sales outside of my immediate sphere of influence, but those sales that have it made it beyond that sphere have been because of great luck. I sent out a press release shortly after publication when I found out that Read an eBook was happening (a week after my publication), hoping to tie the release into that event and snag some local coverage. Nada. Not a peep.

Then, my wife shared a note on her Facebook about the book's release. Then one of her friend's commented, tagging another friend, who is a book reviewer. She now has a copy of Convergence and will be reading it soon (and hopefully she likes it!).

I just got two-five star reviews from Amazon customers, and next week an interview I did will be hitting the web. Hopefully some more reviews will go live prior to that, and I can kind of capitalize on this, ahem, convergence of events.

So I definitely think part of this is luck, and part of it is my working on making this luck happen. It certainly hasn't been easy, but it has been personally rewarding. Joe, I've been reading your blog and books for quite a while now; thanks for the sound advice and reality-checks along the way!

Brian said...

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi believed that luck was where preparation meets opportunity.

Write, write the very best you can. (He also said, Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect). Keep writing.

Do all you can to create the opportunity (to sell books) this is marketing. If what you're doing doesn't work, find something new.

I'm just learning all this so forgive me for being late to the game. Thought I'd share it because it can't be said too often.

Amy Keeley said...

This post both depressed and inspired me. Thank you for that bit of reality. I needed it today.

Merrill Heath said...

As that great philosopher Curly Howard once said: If at first you don't succeed, keep on sucking till you do suck seed.

Write, edit, publish, repeat. That's my plan for 2014. Add in a slight amount of promotion, but not much. It's a numbers game and my goal for this year is to increase my numbers.

JA Konrath said...

Continued hard work and preparation doesn't mean luck will happen. It increases the chances it might happen, and it's a nice motivational sound byte, but in the case of sports the concept of the "best" cannot be determined by a single game. Or even several games. Luck plays a huge factor in who wins.

Consider this:

Does this also apply to the randomness of bestsellers? Probably. At any given time, anything can happen. Any book could become a bestseller for any reason, though the vast majority won't. You can try to nudge things to happen, but you don't ever have control.

That doesn't mean we don't have to try hard. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that trying hard will equal success.

Kelly Byrne said...

Word. Thanks for keeping it real. Sometimes we get caught up in the "dream" of it all, somehow thinking we're owed success if we write a book or a bunch of them. Especially when reading about those other lucky bastards, ehem, I mean, fellow writers, who are making millions because... who knows? But they put in the work, they did their time in the chair and were ready for the luck when it came knocking.

That's my take away here, whether or not that was your message. ;)

Anonymous said...

Ouch. How do I get lucky? Certainly isn't happening watching Sid the science kid with my 3 yr old. Dang.

Unknown said...

Joe, your “Pearls of Writing Wisdom” never end. Thanks again for sharing. My take away:

Write the best entertaining books you can, maximize exposure, and provide reader value, giving luck an opportunity to flourish.

You and others have proven that published eBooks are forever, but may not be “successful” until a future book attracts new readers, creating an appetite for the author. Write, write, and write. Build an inventory of quality products. Be ready for luck.

Best of luck to all...

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting what you think we control. I actually wrote it down to make sure I'm contributing to those things weekly.

People focus too much on the future. The present is what matters. The act of writing. The act of building a network. Enjoying those actions simply because you enjoy doing them. If this is all for some end goal, you'll never be happy, and likely not a success.

My two cents.

Michael said...

Joe, Did you choose to use J A Konrath as your author name, rather than Joe Konrath, so as to have a gender neutral name, and therefore potentially appeal to a larger readership? Or did you choose to write about a female detective (Jack Daniels) to appeal to a female readership? I'm guessing that most mystery/crime readers are women. Thanks.

Russell Blake said...

My take: This is a business of exceptions. It always has been. All the arts are. And they've always been unfair. More so with gatekeepers, but even without, unfair.

Then again, life's unfair. Why anyone would expect this biz to be different is beyond me.

I have no disagreement with any of Joe's points. I've run a number of businesses, and done seven startups, three of which did well. They all should have. The majority didn't. Luck is also a factor in business. Publishing is a business, and most startups fail. Doesn't matter what industry. It's the exceptions that don't.

This is a business of exceptions. All are, but this especially.

Figure out how to be an exception. That usually involves risk. Lots of it. Figure out how to be relevant to an audience. Be an unstoppable force of nature.

The odds suck. Deal with it.

If it were easy...

Stephen Leather said...

It does seem to be the case that usually - though not always - the harder people work, the luckier they get.

Hillary Rettig said...


I'm thinking that a lot of the people who are unhappy with book sales are underinvesting in marketing. Do you agree? If so, that's a controllable factor and good news because it significantly reduces the need for random luck.

For ten years I taught business development at nonprofits, and nearly every undersuccessful or struggling business is underinvesting in marketing.

Hillary Rettig said...

In fact, one of the reasons I refer authors to Newbie's Guide (the book) was that it showed what a large and sustained marketing and sales effort it takes to build a writing career.

Yeah being strategic really helps - that's partly why I wrote a productivity book, and why I'm currently writing weight loss and entrepreneurship books. Those fields have large audiences who are motivated to buy. But even strategy isn't enough - I work really hard for each sale.

I believe the successes based purely on luck are so rare as to be nonexistent. Even in the case of a seemingly "spontaneous" best seller like 50 Shades, there was probably a huge investment in PR.

Not only does marketing take a lot of work, you have to get the details right. Subtleties of book illustrations or phrasing can really reduce your audience.

Dianne G. Sagan said...

You're right that we shouldn't keep comparing ourselves to other writers. Writing the best book we can is much of it and having our book in the right place at the right time whether it is self-published or traditionally published. There is a luck factor to it.

Shirish said...

I would like to be lucky enough to have the luck that means 'you have to keep trying until luck happens.'

But the trouble is I don't know how I should keep trying. My recently published novel 'The Noble Terror' doesn't fit into any one of the established categories. So someone told me to call it 'Literary Fiction'. And it has a sharp satire, he improved the category for my novel : Literary Satire. Therefore, I have put my novel into the section of 'Literary fiction' , but because of this I am limiting my success. I have heard that literary fiction doesn't sell. My novel has mystery, comedy, and even magical realism. I don't know how to sell, how to keep trying...

annette drake said...

I really appreciate this post. Thank you for this small cup of reality.

VekTor said...

"Release dates no longer matter (the best release date for an ebook is yesterday)"

I'm starting to wonder if that is true for debut authors, and that's giving me some pause on how I should structure my current writing process.

I've been working my way forward through the archives starting from back in 2009, and one of the recurring themes that I'm noticing is that one of the strong predictors of success is how many additional titles an author has available.

Assume for the sake of argument that I'm able to bring all of the big four to bear on my debut title (excellent writing, cover, description and price). If someone does decide to take the leap on a complete unknown and actually likes the book, they'll look for other titles and see... precisely nothing.

It will remain that way for a while, as I'm not at a point where I could reasonably expect to drop my day job and write full time. To make matters worse, the first title is part of a series, with an expected three to five titles in the series itself, and I'd like to expand out on that to include additional titles set in the world brought about by the events in the series.

If I drop the book onto Amazon the moment it is ready for prime time, do I risk potentially alienating my audience by not having anything available for them to act upon? Isn't this doubly the case if the first book sets a proper "what happens next" hook at the end to entice further interest?

I'm wondering if it might be better for a debut author like me to wait until I have at least three things I can offer before I make the first one available. If I do, anyone and everyone who discovers me via my introductory title can immediately proceed further down the rabbit hole, and I can thereby greatly increase the odds of generating fans... rather than people who once read something by me many months ago, and are far less likely to recognize (or wait for) the existence of next title in the series.

Thoughts? Am I more likely to shoot myself in the foot by waiting and giving up present revenue than I am to disappoint readers that want to proceed forward in the series, but can't because the next title simply hasn't been written yet?