I expect that the question I’m about to address is one that every self-published author has spent some tough moments grappling with at some point during their creative journey. If you haven’t already guessed what that question is, here’s a clue: another title for this post could have been “What’s the Point?”
The question, of course, is whether it’s worth writing a book at all these days. Yes, advances in self-publishing make the theoretical possibility of reaching a large audience far easier than ever before. On the other hand, I read yesterday that the number of available English titles has expanded in the last 20 years from 900,000 to 32 million. That’s right, 32 million. And you can add another 300,000 to 400,000 titles to that number every year. So how does anyone’s labor of love succeed in sticking its nose high enough up above that tidal wave of competition to be noticed by anyone at all?
The answer, of course, is that for the vast number of books and authors, it just doesn’t. At the same time, instead of the handful of vanity publishers that worked quietly on the sidelines during the pre-Internet era, there is now an ever-expanding horde of community sites, publicists, social media platforms, and other entrepreneurial ventures created to “serve” self-published authors, few of which will actually move the needle of any author’s sales at all no matter how diligently he or she makes use of them.
In point of fact, what we are seeing is far less a new age of opportunity for the author than a radical expansion of the number and variety of vanity publishing services. At the same time, authors are feeling an enormous pressure to commoditize their own work. Want to write genre fiction? Well, then you better pump out a couple of titles a year, give some away for free periodically, and spend as much time promoting as writing. And if you want to write literary fiction, well, there are more literary agents every day that will be happy to ignore your query letters. Publishers? Forget about it.
Which takes us to the dirty little, secret question of self-publishing: is writing a book really worth it at all? Or, to paraphrase the preacher leading up to the climactic scene of Blazing Saddles, are we all just engaging in literary self-abuse?
That’s the question that I’ve wrestled with for a while now. It’s an especially hard question if you want to write a book that you’re really proud of, because that takes a lot of really hard work. For example, when I finished the first draft of my book, I revised it twice, and then hired a professional to give it a light edit and a careful proofread. They did a terrible job, as it turned, out, and I then spent scores of hours rereading (and re-reading) my own book to catch the dozens of typos they missed, and then more time and money resubmitting the files. I also lots of time poring through stock photos to find a great cover graphic, and then working with a designer to come up with a cover I could be proud of.
I also paid to set up well-designed Twitter and Facebook pages to support my do promotional efforts, and then spent many, many hours on both services building a larger following. I also spent a lot of time on GoodReads, started blogging here, spent lots of time on other author blogs, and doing all of the other things that self-published authors do. And this was after having spent a great deal of time researching the self-publishing process while finishing my book. The result? About 400 books sold over a two year period.
At this point, it may be worth mentioning that I’ve been a serious non-fiction writer for fifteen years, establishing this web site and building a global following there, for many years regularly serving up to a million page views a month (gaining 25,000 monthly visitors from Beijing alone). I built that traffic up by figuring out how to do, and how to promote, serious journalism on real-world issues of importance to a particular audience. It wasn’t easy, and I had to figure out how to do it along the way, but the important point is that it was a possible goal to pursue and achieve.
Fiction writing, though, is another matter. It’s a hyper-saturated market, and differentiating yourself is almost impossible. Are you really good? Well, there are a lot of other really good writers out there as well. Want to advertise? Well, what exactly can you say in your advertisement that will set your genre book apart from all of the others that are coming out – literally – every day?
It’s not like starting a restaurant (which is hard enough), where if you have great food, atmosphere and service you stand a reasonable chance of building up a local following through word of mouth, because the only competition is from the finite number of other eateries within reasonable driving distance. That’s because the flip side of the self-publishing revolution is that nothing is local – you’re in competition with every other writer in the world that writes in the same language. What’s your strategy for dealing with that? Answer: there really isn’t one, beyond good luck.
It’s hard, therefore, for a fiction writer to eventually escape facing up to the question, “what am I doing this for, and does it make any sense?”
The best answer I’ve come up with for continuing to write fiction is that I enjoy the craft of writing. And the best rationale for doing so despite the limited prospects for building more than a token following is that writing can be a good hobby if you don’t take it too seriously.
But if you accept that as your premise, exactly how much time and money does it make sense to put into a hobby? Why, for example, should you pay a few hundred bucks, and spend a lot of time, coming up with a really good book cover you can be proud of, and cover text that meets professional standards? Why spend the extra time and effort to come up with a print version at all, if 95% of the small number of people that read your book are going to spend just $.99 (if anything) to read it as an eBook instead? Why not just set up a blog, and post chapters and leave it at that, never going back to improve it at all?
The answer, I expect, is that for 99.9% of self-published authors, there’s no reason to put in any more effort than that at all, at least to the extent that your motivation relates to pleasing additional readers. As I’ve written over and over again, it’s all too easy to confuse activity with goal achievement. Gaining Twitter and Facebook followers for promotion purposes is a huge time suck if it doesn’t increase sales. Same answer with writing blog entries like this. Or running ads that don’t sell books, or setting up yet another author page at yet another community site. Sure, blogging and tweeting can provide the satisfaction of connecting with other authors, which isn’t to be underappreciated, but let’s be clear about what’s being accomplished (and what isn’t).
So with that austere assessment of the self-publishing landscape, what do I decide to do next? Do I bother to complete my second, half-finished book, which I’m actually pretty happy with so far? Or do I just give up writing fiction at all?
In other words, what’s the point?
If you’re a self-published author as well, and particularly one that’s been at it for awhile, I’d be very interested in hearing how you’ve come out on the same question, and why.