The Business of Writing
Recently I made a huge decision: I self-published my novel, Saints Alive.
Huge for me, anyway. To the rest of the world, my fiction debut is somewhat less epic. But that’s okay. You have to start somewhere, and for most of us that’s the bottom.
As it happens, the bottom of self-publishing is almost immeasurably big, and it gets bigger every day.
Consider: As recently as 1998, there were about 900,000 titles listed in Books in Print. By 2012 there were 32 million. Those are just the ones that can be tracked by ISBN number. Digital-publishing specialist Thad McIlroy estimates that a million Kindle ebooks are published a year through Amazon.
If he’s correct, and if those Kindle uploads are evenly distributed throughout the year, that means Saints Alive was one of 2,740 books published on March 3, 2014, and it’s now competing for readers with the 2,740 that were published on every day since then.
So why would I throw my first novel into that gaping void – the literary equivalent of emptying my bladder into one of the Great Lakes – when I already have a decent career in publishing?
What I do for a living
I started writing my first book, Testosterone Advantage Plan, in 2000. Since then I’ve rarely gone a year without working on at least one. This year alone I’ll publish two: Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy (a project I launched with Wolfgang and Chad Waterbury back in 2010) and The Lean Muscle Diet, with Alan Aragon, which comes out December 23.
I’m deeply invested in the idea that an author is only as good as his last book, and my last book is never good enough to lift the low-grade pressure I feel almost every day. I still panic over every deadline, as my coauthors will attest. Before every release I worry that I’ve slipped past my sell-by date and I’m the last to know.
More often than not, things turn out okay. Most of my books have spent at least an hour or two in Amazon’s top 100, and rank as the number-one book in a key category, if only for that same 60-minute window. They all remain in print. Three are “in the black,” meaning my coauthors and I collect royalty checks twice a year. (My first two were work-for-hire, so there was no “black” to get into. If I’d had royalties, I’d be sitting in a much nicer chair as I write this.)
I tell you these things with a mix of gratitude, pride, and wonder. I’m grateful for every single reader, even the ones whose reviews are the equivalent of a punch to the trachea. At least they gave my work a chance. Pride comes from enjoying some success when there’s never been more competition for readers.
As for wonder, I feel it when I read sentences like this one, from Thad McIlroy: “The average author doesn’t have a hope in hell of making more than a pittance.”
That would be really scary, if not for the fact I am an average author, and I do make more than a pittance. At least when it comes to nonfiction.
I’m what the industry calls midlist, which means my books are profitable but not bestsellers. I’m not rich (although I’m very much in favor of the idea), but I’ve been able to pay the bills and keep my family in the middle class.
So far, anyway.
But that still leaves open the question I’ve asked myself over and over the past few years: Do I really want to jump into a completely different branch of publishing, one where I have no record of success and exponentially more competition?
I have some perspective on that.
The news is always bad
For as long as I’ve been in the media, going back to journalism school in the late ’70s, the forecast has been some variation on “cloudy, with an 80 percent chance of Oh my God we’re all going to die!”
There are always too many writers vying for too few jobs. There’s never enough opportunity, or money, or bandwidth.
The difference between then and now is that, until recently, you couldn’t choose to publish yourself. There were barriers to entry, guarded by agents, editors, and even the writers who were successful enough to act as gatekeepers. Collectively, we rejected anyone who tried to create his or her own reality by self-publishing. We wouldn’t even glance at their books. We only let outsiders in when they looked, spoke, and wrote like insiders, and self-publishing was the last thing an insider would do.
Of course those gatekeepers still exist. They’re my friends and allies when I write diet and workout books. Together we make the cost of entry prohibitive to outsiders. I bring subject expertise and editorial skill. They bring enough money to allow me to do this for a living, along with design, production, and distribution. With a quick glance most readers can see the difference between traditional and self-published books in my niche.
But fiction is different. Production costs are negligible. Editorial skill can be purchased by the hour. Subject expertise is unnecessary. You either write well, or you don’t. Your story captivates readers, or it doesn’t. The only advantages traditional publishers have are in distribution and prestige. And when so many self-published novelists build large, loyal audiences and make a decent living, neither of those matters.
The bottom line: Why not?
Now, it’s one thing to note that lots of writers have beaten the gatekeepers at what used to be their game. It’s another to contemplate my own odds, especially when I stare into an abyss with thousands of new competitors each week.
It really comes down to this: I feel like I’ve already beaten the odds. Early in my career I got work in newspapers and magazines despite the market being saturated with journalism-school grads. In mid-career I found a perfect niche for my interests and skills. My nonfiction books have generally sold well, starting with my very first. And I’m still challenged by the work I do for Men’s Health.
But that’s not the only writing I do.
I’ve been making up stories since childhood. I started writing short fiction in college, screenplays in the mid-1980s, and novels soon after. Some of that work objectively wasn’t bad.
I typically got through the first gatekeeper, in that I worked with an agent. I sometimes got past the second gatekeeper, the lowest-rung editor at a publishing house. But that was it, and that was only a couple of times.
The worst part was the illusion that I’d come close. The editor would have suggestions on how to make the novel salable to his or her bosses. The agent would throw in some ideas as well. And that’s where my hopes died. In effect, what the gatekeepers said was, “Your project might work with a different story, different characters, and different words. While you’re at it, try being a different writer too. What do you think?”
One thing I learned about wholesale revisions: they never work. Not for me, anyway. The farther I got from the nugget of an idea that pulled me to the keyboard in the first place, the worse the project got.
Something similar happened with Saints Alive. I worked with an agent who gave me some good ideas and some that I didn’t think would work. I decided to stay with the nugget of my idea, and she stopped returning my emails.
As a publishing lifer, I know exactly what it means when a gatekeeper doesn’t just shut the gate, she moves it in the middle of the night. An agent’s job is to sell a book to an editor, whose job is to sell it to his or her bosses, whose job is to sell truckloads of books to retailers and distributors. The agent looked at Saints Alive and saw a book that might sell armloads, and even that would depend on my family and friends coming out in force.
I’m totally fine with the family-and-friends distribution plan. If the book sits on my hard drive gathering giga-dust, I have zero readers. If it’s out there on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, I have zero + something.
Zero + thousands would be great. But for now I’ll settle for zero + you and your parole officer. If each of you like it, and tell two more people, and each of them tell two … I’m not good at math, but over time it should add up to a couple of armloads.
And if it does, you know what that means: I’ve beaten the odds again.