Reality check

Imagine you live in a small town where there have been only two hair salons for as long as you can remember. Their prices are similar, their stylists are competent enough, and there’s enough business to keep them both nicely profitable. Now picture what would happen if eight more salons opened up in a matter of months. All ten shops would jockey for customers, price wars would ensue, every marketing strategy in the world would be employed, but ultimately all of them would struggle to remain afloat. After all, five times the number of heads full of hair didn’t magically appear. Some of the stylists would move on to something else eventually due to a lack of repeat customers, but even the most skilled hairdressers would be hard-pressed to make a living.

This is a very simple analogy for what’s happened in the publishing world since the advent of the digital age. As nearly as I can tell from my research, the multiplying factor is more likely to be ten rather than the five I used in my example. That’s right–approximately ten times as many titles are published every year compared to the final years of print-only books. Statistics vary depending on the source, but at the very least millions of titles are now published every year. According to Wikipedia, amazon alone published 4 million e-titles in 2016. Holy moley. I recall naively thinking when I uploaded my first book that readers would stumble upon it. Very, very unlikely.

Now, as if the sheer volume wasn’t daunting enough, consider how difficult it is to compete against free books. If the hair salons I mentioned started offering free services–for example, one free wet and cut to a new customer–sooner or later the other shops would follow suit. You could go quite a while without paying for a trim if you played it right. Let’s say your new book is a BDSM romance. I just typed in “free BDSM romance” in the Amazon search bar and received 5,727 results. A reader need never buy another book from the Kindle store and will never run out of something to read.

One of the things I’ve had to accept is that buying books is a process that has evolved as much as publishing has. Before eReaders, we went to bookstores and browsed the aisles, looking for covers that caught the eye or checking to see if our favorite author had a new release. My daughter and I could easily spend an hour in the store at the local mall picking out a handful of paperbacks.

Now we type in keywords on a tablet and read blurbs that don’t always accurately reflect the plot or quality of the book itself. As a result of making some truly regrettable purchases, I wised up enough to begin reading samples first. Recommendations by friends with similar taste help point me toward good reads; otherwise I could easily drown in the overwhelming ocean of offerings. And speaking of bookstores–I read a statistic that less than 1% of the books published now will ever be stocked on a store shelf. No kidding. That’s probably all the room they can spare.

Most of us authors will try multiple marketing strategies in order to gain readers and sell more books. A recent trend is for writers who’ve had success before the boom to publish how-to books and tell you how to emulate their process. Some of their suggestions are still sound, but many tactics have been nerfed by changes in online publishing and social media. Make sure any guidebooks you follow are current.

So am I saying to all those indie authors–including me–we should give up on writing? Absolutely not if you love it, if you feel compelled to tell your stories. But don’t fool yourself by thinking it’s an easy living–it’s rarely a living at all. The vast majority of self-published authors average less than two hundred book sales a year and that number continues to drop as more and more writers jump into the pool. Have realistic expectations.

Knowing this, I have days of wallowing in the indie author blues. I have no delusions I’ll hit the NYT or sell thousands of copies. What keeps me going is my love of the written word, the joy found in the connections I’ve made with other authors, and the much appreciated feedback I receive from readers. That’s the payoff that means the most to me–when someone tells me they loved my last book. I want to hear that sentiment about my next book too, so I strive to make it even better. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. That…and coffee.

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