Friday, May 4, 2018

War of the Worlds

I was watching one of those DIY publishing success vids this weekend—something to the effect of Earn 7-Figures Annual Passive Income from Your Backlist!—mostly out of curiosity but also because I’m always looking for pointers as far as marketing and promotion. It’s my least favorite part of the job, so yes, I’m open to learning a few new tricks.

This particular course came down to writing erotica, hiring ghost-writers, buying reviews, and a bunch of other things that really have nothing to do with writing. And because my primary reason for becoming a writer was...I love to write and wanted to do that for a wasn't especially useful.

The fact that it wasn't useful to me doesn't mean the formula wouldn't work--there seems to be plenty of evidence that these tactics do work for some people.

Which is interesting because in all honesty it goes against everything I've believed for the last thirty years of my publishing life. Live and learn. See! I can admit I'm wrong.

Once upon a time most of us became writers because we had a story to tell. You can argue whether all the stories were worth telling or whether we have a right to tell certain stories, but mostly people used to become writers because they wanted to, well, write.

I mean, not always. And not entirely. A lot--maybe the majority?--of writers always hoped (and still do?) to maybe one day earn a living at telling stories. But the view of writing as a surefire get-rich-quick scheme is comparatively new.

By the way, I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm just saying it's hard for a lot of writers coming from backgrounds similar to mine to wrap their minds around.

Until I was watching that vid, my question was always: why would anyone want to tackle a job like writing if you didn't really love to write? 

Because good writing is difficult. As difficult as any other art.

But I see now that it's the wrong question. People who got rich selling Amway or Herbalife weren't necessarily in love with the products. They were in love with getting rich off the products. And while I balk at books being regarded as any other commodity, is that really logical? I don't see anything wrong with the desire to be rich or in trying to find new and inventive (legal) ways to make money.

Right after I clicked out of that vid I stumbled upon the whole #cockygate thing. (In other words, yes, I was wasting time surfing the net.)

Like everyone else I was outraged, sure, but also bewildered at what the hell this unknown author could be thinking. I mean, I get the obvious thing she was thinking--Destroy Competition, Will Robinson!!!--but there's no way in hell that trademark is going to stand, and she has to know it, so why start this particular war? What could have convinced her it was a great idea to burn every bridge in the entire world of publishing?

That's when the light came on. Hopkins is not living in the same publishing world as me. She's not operating in the same publishing world as most of the writers I know. She's operating in an alternate publishing world--kind of like Universal's Dark Universe--where writing is a get-rich-quick scheme and keywords are way more valuable than the actual story.

Of course she was willing to go to war to protect her most effective keyword! Her whole writing career is based on it. Burning bridges? She's not looking to forge relationships with fellow authors--other than those enrolled in the same Twenty Books to 50K club. Hopkins is not in love with the creative process. She doesn't *need* to write in the way that so many authors say they *need* to write to stay sane. She wasn't looking to hone her craft. She's not planning to stick around for longer than it will take to make whatever she considers bank.

Which, by the way, is okay. Whether I like it or not.

Granted, it's not quite that simple because clearly there are other issues in the Hopkins case, but for me the takeaway lesson was...we are not alone. The Dark Universe is out there and it's not going anywhere. Hopkins thought of trademarking her keyword first, but she won't be the last--in fact, a friend on Goodreads mentioned that there have already been attempts to trademark "rebellion" and "litRPG." WTH??? The keywords, the stuffed subtitles, the paid reviews and click farm launches and ghost's all part of a new set of strategies for a new breed of writer. Or maybe "writer" isn't exactly the word. I see "authorpreneur" bandied about, and it does seem kind of appropriate.

So long as publishing is viewed as a viable get rich scheme (and there's nothing wrong with the math in the twenty books to 50K line of reasoning) and Amazon doesn't change the rules of the game in any significant way, we're going to continue along this Two Worlds path for the foreseeable future of publishing.

But is that actually as worrying as some of my writer friends seem to think? Okay, it's not exactly inspirational, but when I see someone getting rich off selling real estate or inventing a new household gadget, I don't get angry and start doubting the value of my own work or the wisdom of my chosen profession.

I wanted to be a writer not the manager of an apartment building, so why would I care what apartment managers do all day? Their world is not my world.

It's pretty much the same thing here.

If you want to be a writer--if you love writing itself--you can still make a living at it. Is it more challenging than it used to be? Well, that depends on your "used to be." If you started a decade ago, yes, it's more challenging now. If you started twenty years ago, no, it's a lot easier now, even with KU and all those enterprising apartment managers hiring ghost writers and putting out a book every three weeks or less. Everything is relative. 

Nobody likes to talk money in publishing. Which is to say the people who are doing brilliantly don't mind boasting, and a lot of people who hope to eventually do brilliantly don't mind fudging, but for the rest of us resisting the lure of Kindle Unlimited and keyword stuffing it's hard to get concrete (reassuring) numbers. So here's the bottom line. I've been grossing that magical 6-Figure income for the past five years. Even last year, which was a HORRENDOUS year for me productivity-wise was (which I did not realize until we did our taxes) a 6-Figure year. Again.

Comfortably 6-Figures. Without KU. Without a hell of a lot of promotion. Without giving a thought to keywords or bothering with almost any advertising.

Now that's what I grossed. I didn't take that home because I put it all back into my business. In fact, I lost money last year. Ouch. Second year in a row. Double ouch. But the point is even someone who has been around as long as me and isn't doing a hell of a lot more than the writing itself does not have to resort to the bullshit--which means if you are starting to panic over things like whether you have to commit to KU and everything that goes with it--I'm here to reassure you that no. You don't. You really don't.

Writing still matters. Storytelling still matters. Human interaction still matters. Despite the fact that all we ever seem to hear about is what's happening in the world of KU...there's a whole other publishing universe out there.

Maybe it's your world.


  1. I agree with your live-and-let-live philosophy, but I'm not so sure the other world is viable in the long term.

    The first thing that jumps out at me is the "buying reviews" thing. That smells like something that's rotten and festering, and at any moment it could burst open and release its stink for everyone to see/smell/notice. Seriously, if someone, maybe an ambitious blogger, decides to go poking around, figures out who the really busy reviewers-for-pay are, or hacks into the client database of one or more of the companies offering this service, and makes it all public, a writer whose reviews were (I'll be kind and assume mostly) bought could find themselves getting a whole lot of exactly the wrong kind of publicity.

    And the more successful they were, the more people who've heard their name, the better their results were in the 20-books-to-50K thing or similar? The more shit is going to rain down on their heads, because people are more likely to repeat negative gossip about someone famous than someone obscure.

    And in general, every time some key factor about the business changes -- like every time Amazon tries to fumigate the roaches out of KU by changing how the payment system works yet again -- the writers who were gaming that system the hardest, the people who were dancing right on the edge of the cliff and using every exploit they could find, are the ones to suffer the most (even if they weren't actually scamming) and scream the loudest. (Like all the folks who'd been breaking up their novels into twenty little chapter-long "books" and calling them "serials," so they could get a KU share for each read of a chapter instead of one read of the book, as a particularly scammy example. When Amazon plugged that hole, you'd think these folks were being skinned alive with a dull grapefruit spoon. [eyeroll]) And again, these are usually people who are following some kind of get-rich-quick blueprint.

    Sure, you can pull that off for a while, make your bank and then go do whatever it is you actually want to do with your life. But there also seem to be a lot of writers who think that this -- gaming the system as hard as you can -- is the way to make writing and especially indie publishing work. The people screaming the loudest whenever Amazon tweaks KU aren't usually griping about their investment savings, so far as I can tell; they're griping about how they now can't pay their mortgage, or can't pay their kids' private school fees, or whatever. That's not someone looking to earn a pile of money to invest in something real later on, or using their not-going-to-last income to buy a new car, or take the family on vacation. These seem to be folks who thinks this is The System, and that (very foolishly, especially considering how many times this house of cards has collapsed so far) surely This Time it'll last forever.

    I feel sorry for these folks, and I'll feel just as sorry for the next batch of people who find they can't pay their mortgage next time Amazon cleans house. But at the same time, I get very impatient with people who read a book or watch a video and figure, "Cool! I'll do this and be rich forever!" and then rest their (and their family's [sigh]) financial stability on what's clearly, to anyone paying attention, a collection of short-term tricks.

    I can feel sorry for someone while at the same time wanting to smack them upside the head in hopes of jarring a few brain cells loose. :/


  2. I went through a kind of panicky period where I felt like I had to figure out some way to compete with KU while still doing what I do. Eventually it sank in that even if that was possible, it wasn't necessary. The thing that has been a problem for me during the past couple of years is my lack of productivity--and that's not something that can be fixed by any gimmick out there. I actually LIKE my writing process when I'm not feeling stressed and pushed beyond my limits.

    I think there's a little bit of that happening all across publishing right now. People who should know better are seeing some of the, in fairness, *staggering* success stories from KU authors and others, and they feel like they need to do something different to compete.

    And it's very possible they DO need to do something different--I could certainly make more effort to advertise--but I still believe that for me I can best reach the type of reader who enjoys my work, simply by consistently producing the best quality writing I can.

    I think that is still true for all of us who came to writing and publishing through those original channels.

    Or maybe I'm just being naive.

    1. No, I agree with you. Sure, there's a gravy train you can try to hop on if you want to, but I honestly don't think it's going to last. It certainly won't last in its current form, and the people who do best in KU are the ones who are gaming the system as hard as they can. More power to them, but it just makes them that much more vulnerable to any change Amazon makes.

      Like you, I haven't been very productive lately, and most of what I've done (and everything I've published) has been on the SFF or mystery side, under another name. Both my personas could be much more productive, and that they're not is on me. Like you, I recognize that no tricks or gimmicks are going to change things for me.

      But you're right that there's a lot of success to be had just writing and publishing, going wide rather than exclusive with Amazon or anyone else, and ignoring the gimmicks. I might not be terribly productive right now, but I know people who are, and who are making as much as you (and without, I think, your name recognition in their genres) so it does work. That approach is building a steady career, rather than hopping on a roller coaster that could end at any time.

    2. I do agree with that.

      I think Amazon has changed how people read--and a lot of what's happening in KU right now serves an audience that really was ignored for a long time.

      Frankly, those aren't my readers so what happens in that area of the market doesn't affect me one way or the other.

      The danger, as you point out, comes from relying entirely on Amazon. Amazon is all about the long game and every so often -- inevitably -- they change things up again and authors have to scramble.

      But even more than that is quality of life. I see this discussions in groups like Dirty Discourse and so forth, and so many of these authors are miserable. They're writing at an unsustainable pace--and half the time they're writing stuff they have no interest in. Yeesh.

      How is that better than any other high paying but horrible day job?

      Besides which, it isn't high paying for most of them. Most of them aren't earning big bucks because it's ALWAYS the same rule. A few people at the top earn most of the money. It doesn't matter what the industry is and it doesn't matter what the magic formula is. The breakdown is always the same.