Self-Publishing & Luck

I’ve had my problems with JA Konrath in the past (in the comments of that post). His position used to be that writers needed to be traditionally published in order to prove their mettle – the measure of a writer was if publishing professionals were willing to invest some money in a book. He’s obviously had a change of heart because now he advocates for self-publishing daily – also because of money changing hands: self-publishing is legit because writers can turn a profit. To be honest, I don’t find this the greatest endorsement either because it’s still saying money is the best measure of success. Which is why I really like this comment on the guest post by David Gaughran:

I’ve been learning this business for 20 years, and I still have no idea why some titles outsell others. They just do. You can rewrite, change titles, change covers, change prices, change descriptions, and none of it translates to clear data that can be used to guarantee sales.

Publishing is an unreproduceable phenomenon. Luck is always a factor. I have books that I think are my best which don’t sell as well as books which I feel aren’t as strong. Or one week one book will be my bestseller, the next week it is another book.

Dunno why. Can’t explain it.

All I can do is keep writing.

The old Konrath might’ve said something like sales are proof that you’re a better, more-marketable writer. But that isn’t really the case. In a large part it’s a total crap-shoot. This may signal the demise of the traditional publishing industry as much as anything: they have no idea what will become successful and what won’t. Some books are demonstratively obvious, but it’s still a total mystery why this book becomes successful and this book doesn’t. How many books have been rejected in the last 50 years because publishers just “weren’t sure” if it could be successful? How many of those books were never published because the Kindle didn’t exist yet and it didn’t totally make sense for writers to take a shot at self-publishing? Thousands of books.

So eBooks are the better measure of a book’s value than could ever be found in a publisher’s editorial department or agent’s office. But still, it’s a total mystery why some books totally take off on the Kindle and some books do not. This isn’t to devalue those writers who have found success – but there are certainly a lot of good books that are not capitalizing on the eBook gold rush, and those writers are left thinking: what do I have to do? The answer in some part is to get lucky: the eBook revolution really is as much Vegas as it is a gold rush.

There’s no magic formula to getting lucky. But there is a way to redefine luck. James Altucher – self-publisher – describes his book like this:

Your new book “How to be the luckiest person alive” has just come out. What is it about?

When I was a kid I thought I needed certain things: a college education from a great school, a great home, a lot of money, someone who would love me with ease. I wanted people to think I was smart. I wanted people to think I was even special.  And as I grew older more and more goals got added to the list: a high chess rating, a published book, perfect weather, good friends,  respect in various fields, etc. I lied to myself that I needed these things to be happy. The world was going to work hard to give me these things, I thought. But it turned out the world owed me no favors.

And gradually, over time, I lost everything I had ever gained. Several times.  I’ve paced at night so many times wondering what the hell was I going to do next or trying not to care. The book is about regaining your sanity, regaining your happiness, finding luck in all the little pockets of life that people forget about.

Maybe it’s meager solace if your book isn’t as successful as you hoped it would be, but we’re extraordinarily lucky to be living during a time when the Kindle revolution is happening.  The fact that writers can make a book instantly available and even have the opportunity to hit it big. It means you’ve got a better chance at being lucky in publishing than you did 5 years ago.  As time goes on, and more and more people get ereaders, this is only going to increase those chances.  Yes, there’s going to be more competition – but this is a fundamental reason why you need to write, as well as market an existing book.  You get your name out there with different books that might appeal to different readers and you’re only helping your chances.

The Kindle revolution is really not a lot different than traditional publishing. In the old days, you’d submit a book and get an acceptance or rejection. If the latter happened, you’d think – damn – take some time to get over it, and move on to the next book. The Kindle revolution is exactly the same: if the book doesn’t hit it big, move on to the next one. You might think – if I just do this one other marketing thing then the book will take off – then you’ll just get stuck in a rut of marketing, and not writing. New books are marketing too. The great thing about eBooks is that even if you’re book is “rejected” by not selling a lot, it still sits there in the cyberspace ether with the chance of reaching people. By doing so, you’re creating your own luck. By writing more, you’re creating more of it. So even if you haven’t cashed in on the revolution, it’s a lucky time to be a writer during this historic shift in publishing.

  • Henry, Mr. Konrath was a challenge when he was anti-self-publishing on this very site, but you two are of like mind right now. Once of my favorite columns of his had to do with the very topic of luck. In his “How to Succeed,” people asked him questions and he answered:

    Q: What’s the secret to selling a lot of ebooks?

    Joe: There is no secret. Write good books, with good descriptions, good formatting, and good cover art, sell them cheap, and keep at it until you get lucky.

    Q: I have an ebook, but it isn’t selling well. What should I do to market it?

    Joe: Write another ebook, and another, and keep at it until you get lucky.

    In fact, nearly every answer had “until you get lucky” in it. Near the end he says, “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.” You can read the whole thing at http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-to-succeed.html

  • And now all our independently published books are “out there” for the world to happen upon forever. Luck can either strike or not. Why should those of us happily writing our next fabulous book care?

    • Hey Ron,
      I agree. Nobody should care. You need to make a readership care through good writing and marketing. And, well, lotsa luck.

      But luck has always been in the publishing business. In addition to cliquishness. Petty politics. Nepotism. Hey, anyone want to publish Snooki?

  • J.P., I have no personal knowledge of the traditional publishing business, but what I’ve heard about it conforms to the words you use to describe it. In some cases, I think we could probably substitute for “luck” a word that rhymes with it.