Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How Indie Publishing Has Changed My Thinking

Kathryn Rusch has a brilliant article where she uses a scarcity vs. abundance analogy to describe the publishing industry: most every writer, publisher, agent, editor, reviewer was raised in a scarcity model, where book shelf space was limited, publishing contracts few, and rarity was equated to quality. But in today's reality, (virtual) book shelf space is unlimited, anyone can publish, and we are operating in an abundance model where there is an unlimited supply of books. This infinite capacity combined with increasingly powerful search engine capabilities have trained consumers (readers) to adapt to this abundance model, but producers (writers, publishers, etc.) are (often) still stuck in the scarcity way of thinking:
"All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was - by definition - short-lived. Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur."
Did I mention it's brilliant? (Go read the whole thing.)

This - literally - changes everything.

I thought I was forward thinking before self-publishing, but the act of going indie, of being up-close-and-personal in the indie trenches, has really changed my thinking about my writing and my author career.

There's a tension in the Indie world about needing to publish quickly, needing to get works out there, because that is what successful self-publishers in the recent past (1-2 years) have done. There's a drive to seek out the best way to promote books, to get on the Top 100 lists, to find the magic key to "discoverability" that will bring more book sales. The connection to book sales is visceral - you can track your rankings and sales by the hour, and those numbers mean something. They are the income that's going directly into your bank account, the funds that make it possible to keep publishing (by paying back your investment) or justify spending your time writing (by providing actual income). So there are huge, tidal-sized forces that drive indie publishers to put out books quickly and promote them heavily in order to connect their books to readers.

The potential to make money in Indie publishing is very real. The days when even "successful" authors had a tough time living off their writing wages is starting to change. As Rachelle Gardner noted in a recent blog post, the typical advance for a first-time traditionally published author is $5,000-$15,000 per book, and most of those first-time authors do not sell through their advance, so that is all the money they will ever get from that book (and if you don't sell through in the first 12 mos, the publisher may not be so excited about buying another book from you). Comparing this to Indie publishing, I know several authors (many, many authors, including myself) who have already earned more than $5k per book, often well before the first 12 months after publication. Of course, many indie authors also struggle to earn back what they've invested in their books, and everyone's experience is going to be unique with this.

But here's the thing: concentrating on what a book earns in the first 12 months is scarcity thinking, a left-over from limited-time-on-shelf. Because if a book didn't hit in the first 3 or 6 or 12 months, it wasn't going to pay back its investment ... because it would become literally unavailable on the shelf.   Books used to go out of print. Now, there is no reason for that to happen.

Abundance thinking says: this book is going to be on the shelves forever. FOREVER. That is a very long time, my friends.

Cue the visuals:


I picked random numbers for this, so you can scale it up or down - thousands of sales instead of hundreds, or whatever. And this stops the race after 5 years, not FOREVER, as noted above. The point being, of course, that slow-n-steady wins the race (the tortoise out-earns the rabbit at about 3.5 years). This isn't just a trad-pub vs. indie-pub comparison; the same lesson applies to two indie books, where one is focused on scarcity thinking (I must have a hit right away; if not, I've failed) and one is focused on abundance thinking (I need to write more, because more books=success). 

The abundance thinker is going to focus on getting another tortoise out; the scarcity thinker is focused on promoting the rabbit. 

When you start figuring out how to build a herd of tortoises, rather than promoting your rabbit, you're starting to think in the abundance reality of today's publishing. Again, this changes everything.

My take(s):
  • Writing. Writing is the most important thing. Must spend more time writing. I already knew this, but this framework gives even more heft to that idea. 
  • My work is FOREVER. (If this doesn't evoke an existential paralysis, I'm not sure what will.) While the temptation is great to pump out a warren of rabbits (or the herd of tortoises), since my work is going to be out there FOREVER, I want it to be the best that I can produce at the time. In other words, I'm not rushing to write a bunch of books quickly because I know they'll be around to taunt me for a long time. (Also: I love this take that the highest earning self-publishers take 24% more time per word, and write 31% more words per day)  
  • Rankings aren't everything. I also already knew this, but having lived through surges in rankings and sales, I can tell you that emotionally it is awesome, fun, and sort of like the sugar rush after eating cotton candy at the carnival. Which almost always makes me want to throw up. Slow and steady sales not only win the race, they're good for my psyche.
  • I need to focus on the herd of tortoises. Promotion is still important, and I'm not going to go completely into my writer's cave, just because it's damp there and my friends are here. I enjoy social media too much. But the writing is definitely taking precedence. And I'm thinking not just about this trilogy, but the next, and the one after that. I want my turtles to all play nice in the sandbox together. 
  • I still think in scarcity ways sometimes. And that's okay. It takes time for the world to change, and for individual ways of thinking to change. And hearts. Those take the longest time of all. I still believe in creating pre-release buzz - I think it does sell books, even if it's a scarcity way of thinking. I think consumers have been trained by abundance thinking to believe they should be able to find any book they want, but they still look to bestseller lists and other scarcity markers to guide some of their purchasing. That's okay. Our world is in transition. Things will continue to change. But I still strongly believe that the most forward-thinking will be the winners in this new era.
This post is EPIC in length, so I'll stop here. But tell me: are you an abundance thinker or a scarcity thinker? And - whether you're traditional or indie bound - have the changes in the industry affected the way that you think?




51 comments:

  1. I'm constantly reminding myself I don't have to think certain ways - ways left over from querying and trying to go traditional. Usually, I recognize it for what it is. Great post. I love the new way of thinking.

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  2. This is absolutely fascinating. And good news, too, I think, for us creative types. The content creators.

    I do think there has to be some kind of option for balance. I mean there is some reason Stephen King isn't leaving his publisher to self e-pub all his books. Probably because he knows the type of reader he attracts is the type that buys his books at Kroger, or Wal-Mart, or whatever, but the bottom line, I think, is that there is more room for all of us, and we've got plenty of time to find our place in line.

    Thanks for this, Susan. Now let's get some writing done!

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    1. Thanks Matt! I'm thinking abundance is working pretty well for Stephen King too! :) Big name authors in the trad pub world have lots of incentives to stay (they get lots of marketing $ and support). Less so for the midlist writers. But your point about the "room for all of us" is exactly right - having the long tail means you have time for people to find you and time for your book to find its audience. Great comment!

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    2. Coming back almost a year later, since we've been emailing, and this post is still just as awesome. Clearly: I need to finish more manuscripts!

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  3. I'm glad this is the new model. Seriously. When I was querying, I knew there was NO WAY all the books I was writing would get published. Authors are limited to one a year (in most genres, not all). I'm too prolific for that.

    Now, all of my books can be published on my timeline!

    WOOT!!!!

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    1. I'm prolific, too, and I think that Indie offers a great way for authors (in addition to, or instead of, trad pub) to get their work out there. Go you! :)

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  4. Love it, love it, love it! This is a wonderful breakdown of the way things have changed and the way we need to change our thinking! In my personal experience, I am dealing with the scarcity model for my non-fic, which is going through the publishing process right now with a very big, traditional house. But I was so disillusioned with the process that I vowed to go indie with my fiction (which was much more near and dear to my heart). I do feel a tremendous, albeit self-induced, pressure to get my work out there and it seems like I am always "almost" ready. But then I find another detail to resolve, either with the story itself of some production-type issue that we as indie-authors have only ourselves to count on for resolution. But, when I get frustrated about the delay, I calm myself by remembering that what I put out there WILL be out there forever, with my name on it. And that is important not only from a sales perspective, but also from a personal pride perspective. So I diligently delay and resolve.

    Being so new to it, I can't say that the industry changes have affected the way I think, but since they are so dynamic and evolving, it certainly takes me a lot of time to research and understand what the heck I should be doing. Unfortunately, that cuts into my writing time, but I still consider it time well-spent in the overall goal of success, by my definition. Thank you for this truly enlightening piece - it is a very solid and succinct (EPIC or not) guide to changing our perspective to meet the true way things operate today!

    From now on, my mantra is going to be: Take a little time to promote today's rabbit, but always care for your tortoise herd! : )

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    1. It's wonderful that you have that dual-perspective with your non-fic and fiction writing! I don't think you will ever regret the delay to get it just-right before publishing. I was just telling my husband last night that I'm not a perfectionist, but I do a really good imitation! :) There's nothing wrong (and lots of things right) with setting high standards for yourself and striving to meet them. Best of luck to you!!

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  5. I really love how you have put it into perspective Susan. I am writting my first book as we speak and having absolutely no experience with the publishing industry, I was at first thinking about going with publishing house's only, but after reading this blog entry, I am now starting to think differently. Plus, I do find a sandbox filled with turtoise's is not only a great analogy, but something cute to think about. So I think I will go with that option more than anything now. I will still try to get published in a publishing house like Samhain or Amazon, but I will have my basket B close by with my indie publishing as well.

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    1. If you're working on your first book, it's still early to decide about publishing! Give yourself the gift of time to figure this stuff out. And make sure you check my Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing. Good luck on your writing journey!

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    2. Huge thanks Susan, you are the best!!!

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  6. Great post. These are all the things that lead me down this same route. It's the perfect place for forward thinking creative types.

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    1. You have to be the right kind of person to like the challenge – and unpredictability – but I think it’s awesome too!:)

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  7. You've given me lots to think about, Susan. I'm not there yet; ready to go Indie. But with saying that, over the past six months I've begun to consider it an option when I am ready. I've been paying closer attention to writers, like yourself, who have self-published, and I've been weighing the pros and cons. It seems as more time passes, Indie publishing gains in the pros column.

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    1. I'm glad I can help provide information for fellow writers wrestling with their choices! That's why I do these posts. I know you'll make the right choice for you! :)

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  8. Excellent post! I'm always so inspired after reading your posts on indie, etc. Woot! *hurries to go write* = )

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  9. Great post! I'm definitely an abundance thinker now, but it was a totally different story when I used to query. By the end of last year, I realized there was no rush; I could write whenever I wanted to, and publish whenever I wanted to. Something about the freedom of self-publishing is peaceful, though I can't say the same for formatting. ;)

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    1. Formatting suck eggs, no question about that. :)

      I love the freedom of self-pub as well! Not only can you publish the type of thing you want to write, as frequently as you want to write it, but when it finds its audience, you complete the circle and have even more motivation to write. #allgood

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  10. Brilliantly put, I couldn't agree more. Every indie needs to read this, heck it wouldn't hurt the traditionals to read it too!

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  11. AWESOME post! This is SO inspiring!!!!

    Congrats to you! :)

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  12. My thinking is changing, slowly. Thanks for putting this together in such a way that makes so much sense!

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  13. Love this. Interesting change in perspective. I embrace it

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  14. Great post, Susan. I am indie published (10 years ago when I got started, we called it self-published.) I guess I would say I'm an abundance thinker. I not only published myself but other authors as well. I actually published 4 books of my own even though I keep only 2 available for sale.

    Another indie author who published at the same time as I did wondered why I wasn't pushing my book harder. She said that a product was only hot the first 3 to 6 months after production. Well, I have news for her: my first book is required reading in local middle school and is therefore still selling--10 years later. :)

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    1. Congrats on your success! I love that your book is required reading! Very nice. So often the “conventional wisdom” is simply “the way we do things” and not always the best way. YOU were definitely forward thinking if you were self-publishing 10 years ago. Bravo! And thank you for stopping by to share your story!

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  15. Awesome post. My sales for The Man in the Cinder Clouds were modest for this past Christmas season, and in a scarcity market that would be the kiss of death, nixing any future prospects. But in today's world, my seasonal Christmas tale has another go each year. I'm hoping this year that people who read and liked my book (and most people how read it did like it) will remember it and recommend it to someone when the season rolls back around. And if the momentum doesn't pick up in 2012, I have 2013 to look forward to. Not to mention the books I will put out that have year-round marketing capabilities.

    It's a good time to be a writer...

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    1. That’s a great point, Rick! Having a longer view, lower risk option with self-publishing definitely allows for things like seasonal tales, short stories, anthologies, and other things that don’t have a wide enough market for publishers to take it on. Thanks for stopping by!

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  16. Great post! This is a very positive view of what is going on in the publishing/writing world. My upper middle grade, Stained Glass Summer, was released at the end of December. I had a hard time selling it to Traditional Publishing because it didn't fit "what was hot." Since it's been published, it's been picked up to read to a sixth grade class, I've gotten many positive reviews from both adults and kids who love the story, and it's a story that can be marketed again as a summer story--with no worries that it will be off the shelf by then. Love being a writer in this time!

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    1. There are so many more options now for writers - both awesome and a bit overwhelming! But when you have a vision for your work (which you obviously do, with Stained Glass Summer), there's almost nothing you can't do with that. Congrats! And good luck with the story!

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  17. Wow! That's an awesome way to look at things. I've often told my friends who are considering self-pubbing that it is a marathon, not a sprint. The book is out there forever (in theory), although I hadn't thought of it in terms of abundance and scarcity. Of course, it's hard not to want to be the rabbit at times, though.

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    1. Thanks! Yes, it’s very hard to not want to be the rabbit. And being the rabbit can be good – I think many books have a “surge” when they’re released. It’s just natural for people to rush out and get the latest new thing. As a commenter on facebook pointed out, the rabbit can also be on the shelf forever now (at least in ebook form) – so the rabbit can have a long tail! The point remains that the tortoise isn’t a “failure” if it continues to have slow and steady sales, and focusing on the rabbit all the time at the expense of getting another book out can be a trap. That slow and steady sales income for an author can make the difference between keeping them in the game, or not. Thanks for stopping by!

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  18. I think I already was an abundance thinker, which is why I had a hard time wrapping my head around traditional publishing to begin with. But I still had doubts--did I make the right decision? Thanks to your article I'm thinking yes, yes I did.

    Thanks Sue!

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    1. I think you are definitely a forward thinker, Ali! And I think it’s natural to second guess – we writers do that all the time. Which is why a longer perspective can help (and I definitely think you made the right choice!). 

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  19. All I can say is you make a good argument. Again I think it comes down to what you want out of it. :D

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  20. I love the tortoise vs. the hare analogy, and looking past the traditional model of "disappearing" books. So encouraging!

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  21. Excellent post, Sue! I am not spending near enough time with the writing these days. I don't have much writing time to start with due to my full time job, but that precious amount needs to be guarded more. Less social networking!

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  22. Thankyou for the great article. I have been following the ebook indie publishing trend for three years as I write a weekly curation blog. I then got challenged by writers in my country to publish an eBook and look at it from the other side...(hmm why did they push me out of the boat first...) What you write about puts into perspective what I have been mulling over for a while. How to explain it is not the first book that is important but the body of work as a whole. Thankyou for making the connections with the scarcity argument...that allowed the penny to drop with a crash! I will link to this post in my weekly blog...nice to meet you in the twitter verse by the way.
    Maureen
    New Zealand
    @craicer

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    1. Thanks for the great feedback! I'm so glad it helps. I learn so much from my writer friends, it's nice to be able to pay some of that forward! :)

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  23. Out of curiosity, how many self published YA authors do well when they aren't writing a series? I know those are doing well are mostly writing YA paranormals or SF. But what about those like myself, who write stand alone YA suspense?

    My local chapter of the RWA are all rabbits. They want results now, and they constantly post on their ratings. Just watching them, I know if I ever self publish, I won't be telling them. Those who don't do well (which is technically most of the group except the individual I mentioned on my tweet yesterday) are left feeling awful. I don't find it a very positive experience. :(

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  24. Very true, nice post!

    I spent twelve years trying to go traditional, and my plan of attack was always to sell as many short stories as I could to try to build a fanbase that might attract a publisher. Despite selling more than thirty (including two professionally) over the last five years, I was still getting the same form rejections/no responses as before, so I decided to give self-publishing a go. I've only sold eleven copies of my first self-published novel so far (about one every three days) but its still eleven more than would have read it if I spent another three years shopping it to agents and publishers who frankly wouldn't give a shit.

    Chris Ward
    Author of the Tube Riders

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  25. The fast pace of indie publishing fits my personality perfectly. I love putting the final touches on a book and knowing someone could be reading it in 48 hours. It gives me the motivation to get those last few edits done.

    I don't like working on things for a long time, but prefer working intensely on a single project, finishing, and moving on to a fresh, different one. I've got two series, and my plan is to alternate between them ... but new ideas keep coming to me, darn them!

    Now that I have two books out in my paranormal series, I'm a believe in indies focusing on series. Often, I'll see a matching pair of sales as someone picks up both titles. Not that I'm glued to my stats screen ... gosh no (whistles, looks away).

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    1. LOL! Yes, the allure of the stats screen ... I'm excited to have my second book out (cover reveal today!) just because I've seen that very thing with so many friends. And I too am an "intense worker" - I think there is no way there will ever be enough time in my lifetime to write all the stories I want to write!!

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  26. Perhaps we were separated at birth. I'm leaving only a short comment because I need to spend the next few seconds adding you to my feed reader.

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    1. LOL! I think you may be right. Thanks for stopping by! :)

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  27. Susan, this really is an awesome post!!

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    1. Hey Mira! Thanks for hopping over from Nate B's blog!

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    2. You betcha. I'm going to poke around some. I really like your perspective on indie publishing. Your books also look pretty intriguing, Susan. :)

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    3. Thank you! My short story Mind Games just came out as a single, and it's FREE on Smashwords if you'd like to check it out (it's a prequel to the novels). :)

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    1. Okay, I read it and loved it. Love this genre, and you have the touch. :)

      Will order your first one. Love finding a new writer. This is the first time it's been someone I know from the blogs!!

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers