Footing the Bill

There’s a story making the rounds of the publishing community.

Brent Underwood explains exactly what an author needs to do to create a best-selling book.

Note that I didn’t say “write” a best-selling book.

The TL;DR of Brent’s piece is that a trivially-easy manipulation of Amazon’s book categories allows damn near anything to become a bestseller.

Don’t take my word for it; go read his confessional exposé.

Even worse, there are marketing agencies that use the trick to sell “guaranteed” bestseller status. That’s not surprising, really. This is, after all, a world in which you can buy positive reviews of anything, even the worst examples, for pennies. Category manipulation is the depressingly-logical next step.

So why am I griping about this here? I spend so much time on this blog talking about non-literary matters that it’s easy for y’all to forget that I’m trying to get my writing published*. This is largely by design. I’m sure a few of you would be fascinated to follow the ups and downs of the writer’s life in as much detail as I cared to post. The vast majority of you, however, are sensible people, and would quickly get bored with accounts of query letters written, short story submissions, and Twitter-like announcements of how many words I’ve committed to electrons each day.

* Yes, I will be doing the annual “State of the Fourth Estate” post in a couple of weeks.

Even the most sensible people make mistakes, and occasionally an otherwise-sensible person will ask me how my career is going. More often than not, the next question will be “Why don’t you self-publish? I hear that’s really easy.”

After I get done banging my head against the nearest hard surface, I explain that yes, self-publishing is easy. So easy, in fact, that anyone can do it, and most of them have.

Usual disclaimer here: I’m not one of those annoying people who think anything self-published is crap. I do, however, subscribe to Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of self-published material is crap. So, to be brutally honest, is 90% of everything. We could argue about the percentage, but IMNSHO, the proportion of self-published writing that’s legitimately worthwhile is no worse than for any other distribution mechanism.

The problem with self-publishing is that there’s just flat out so much of it that it’s hard for anyone to get noticed. I mentioned this just a couple of weeks after I started blogging, but nothing has happened in the last three years to change my opinion: to succeed in self-publishing, you need to either be a marketing genius or hire one.

Let’s face it: geniuses are no more common in marketing than in any other field. They’re rare. Good, competent marketers are much more common, but scam artists and incompetent louts are more common still–Sturgeon’s Law again.

And, as Mr. Underwood’s tale makes clear, those scammers and time-servers love useless “methods” like the instant bestseller that doesn’t actually sell any copies.

The result is that so-called promotion of that self-published 90% crap drowns out the real promotion of the other 10%. It also drowns out the promotion of the worthwhile 10% of non-self-published writing.

Which brings us back to why I don’t want to self-publish. At least publishers have full-time marketing people working on the problem of being found behind the garbage thrown up by the scam-artists preying on self-publishers. (I’m speaking broadly here–I’m well aware that smaller presses don’t have the same levels of staffing as larger ones, and rely on authors to do more of the legwork. But the good ones–again, my NSHO–still have some form of professional marketing.)

Yes, even with an established publisher, I’d still have to promote my own writing, but I’d have an ally. That’s important to me. I know I’m not a genius marketer, nor do I want to spend all of my time on promotion at the expense of actually writing anything else.

Moving on. Non-writing-related cat pictures tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Footing the Bill

  1. I guess we could argue 95 or 98% crap, but neither of us would have accurate data, so we’d only increase the crapercentage.

    But another, very important, point, is that when you self-publish, you also become your own bookseller, If not the best reason to not self-publish, pretty damn close. And every minute spent trying to foist my masterpieces on potential readers is a minute I could be writing a book. And never mind keeping business and tax records to satisfy the folks who will come knockin’ at my door each year for their cuts of my pies.

    And truthfully, since anyone can self-publish, where’s the sense of accomplishment gonna come from?

    I’ll continue to go the commercial publishing route.


    • The gratification of getting a fan letter would be adequate compensation for missing out on the sense of accomplishment if I were to go self-pub.

      But yes, the bookseller piece (and cover designer and tax accountant, and about seventy million other specialized occupations) would put me off of self-publishing, even without the marketing piece.


  2. oooh, kitties!!

    Ah, Sturgeon’s Law. Truer today than ever.

    I self-published, if only because my couple of seedy mystery novels were written as a a major prank on the local political establishment which wouldn’t fly if they didn’t get printed. I definitely got my money’s worth in laughs, but the years of phone calls from a succession of “new marketing agents” trying to get me to buy marketing packages and even a five-figure film trailer for pitching to studios… let’s say it was special.

    Mind you, it was fun to fantasize about that trailer. But who has ten grand? I mean could they actually have sold any of those things?


    • Regrettably, they almost certainly have sold a bunch of them. Look at the storied history of Publish America next time you want to get depressed over wholesale fleecing of the gullible.


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