The Truth Will Set You Free (Or Dishearten You)

The battle wages on in the dialogue between aspiring self-publishers and dyed-in-the-wool traditionally-published authors. Well, perhaps I’m overstating the situation to call it a “battle,” since all sides seem to coexist magnanimously at the moment. Though who can say what the future will bring? One need look no further than the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent decision to bring an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and the industry’s leading publishers to see that the pressure is steadily building.

Here on the Fictorians blog, we’ve periodically discussed the pros and cons of either approach, and indeed, in the following weeks and months we’ll be devoting even more column inches to the subject of self-publishing. And that’s only to be expected, since most aspiring authors are in that awkward in-between stage of deciding whether to go it alone and start uploading our manuscripts to the Kindle Store or hold back in the hopes of securing a lucrative (or limiting) deal with a New York giant.

Noted this past Sunday in our blog’s weekly Sunday Reads feature is a thoughtful article by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in which she draws several compelling analogies to explain the current state of affairs in the publishing world. Her position is sound (at least, to my own sensibilities) and her composition lengthy (hard to be helped), and I recommend you set aside a few minutes to peruse it.

After painting an elaborate and persuasive picture of the virus threatening traditional publishers (which is scarcity thinking, and if you don’t know what I mean by that, clearly you didn’t follow my link in the previous paragraph), she comes to a familiar premise. Instead of working tirelessly and placing high expectations on one manuscript, one should produce and release as large a backlist as possible. Instead of one book selling millions, you may end up with dozens of books selling hundreds or thousands. Ultimately, it’s a numbers game and the more titles you have to your name, the better.

I’ve heard this counsel before, and theoretically it’s great advice. Especially if you’re already an established or midlist author. If you’re just starting out in your career and have no (or few) readers outside your immediate friends and family, it goes down about as palatably as a wheatgrass smoothie. “Well,” one might say, “sometimes the truth hurts.”

Why does it hurt? Isn’t this good news for new writers? Well, this is a case where Rusch isn’t really talking to me, the new writer. She’s in the desirable position of having an existing readership… and I think she’s more or less speaking to her peers this time around. That’s her perogative! After all, it’s unavoidable: sometimes advice from established writers doesn’t speak directly to newbies. The truth is the truth, and it caters to no one. If an established author like Rusch never manages to write another bestseller in the remainder of her writing career, a long backlist of titles will indeed keep her afloat, selling hundreds or thousands of copies in place of a million-dollar golden egg. Rusch argues that it’s not altogether important to hard-sell a manuscript upon initial release, or reach a big audience, because if the book is worthy the audience will, eventually, come to you. The speed of a book’s success isn’t paramount, even if that success is inevitable. It could take fifteen years. Or much longer. She calls it “understanding the long tail.”

I agree with her. I respect her opinion and can find no basis to quarrel with it. She’s almost certainly right on all counts.

Which is, unfortunately, a little disheartening, because for fresh-out-of-the-gaters like me, speedily finding an audience remains a priority. It must, or else becoming a successful full-time writer is even further away and out-of-reach than ever. Can I wait fifteen years or longer for my dream to realize? I just released a book this year that I’m certain is good enough to secure an audience-but I really need that audience to find it now. I’ll be thrilled whenever they find it, either this year or in the summer of 2030, but if it takes until 2030 I’ll still be mired in my day job. Alas.

Mind you, I’ll never give up on this dream, and I’m not threatening to. I’m just saying that my day job really gets me down sometimes…

4 responses on “The Truth Will Set You Free (Or Dishearten You)

  1. Colette

    This is the part that worries me more than anything else, regardless of how I publish–finding an audience as a new writer. So far, I haven’t seen anyone with magical solutions.

  2. Brandon M Lindsay

    I’m pretty resigned to the fact that gaining a sizable audience is going to be an uphill battle (there’s that word again) and it’s going to take time. However, for those of us who are thinking of self-publishing, there is this to consider: the year or two (or more) of production time that goes into a traditionally published book is a year or two where we actually have a book in our hands to promote. A year or two was the blink of an eye not too long ago; now, in this new world of instant publishing, it’s a much bigger deal.

    Michael J. Sullivan started out from the same place we are and eventually became a bit of a star. He wrote a really inspiring article (I wish I still had the link, sorry) about how you should make humble goals for expanding your audience: just get one person to read your book. Once you do, find someone else to read it. Hopefully one of ten people who read it will like it enough to tell other people about it, and word of your book will spread from there. Yes, it’s a lengthy process, but it paid dividends for him. His first book deal with a big publisher came with a six-figure advance, and all because he worked to get one fan at a time.

  3. Evan Braun Post author

    Brandon, that’s a very nice way of looking at things: we *do* have an almost two-year headstart on traditionally-published authors. I’ll have to take a look at my sales two years post-release before gauging my success. I love that!

  4. Robert Stermscheg

    Good point, Brandon. It all starts with a few readers that appreciate the book(and hopefully the talent behind it). Then we nudge, encourage, even pray that they will spread the good news. Some actually will. All it takes is one. Probably the worst thing though for us aspiring writers is to visit that family member or friend and find your masterpiece(sure, it has that potential) sitting all forlorn on a shelf, never having been opened. I’m sure it’s happened, but we can’t give up.
    The best remedy is to keep writing.

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