Kathryn Rusch has a brilliant article where she uses a scarcity vs. abundance analogy to describe the publishing industry: most every writer, publisher, agent, editor, reviewer was raised in a scarcity model, where book shelf space was limited, publishing contracts few, and rarity was equated to quality. But in today’s reality, (virtual) book shelf space is unlimited, anyone can publish, and we are operating in an abundance model where there is an unlimited supply of books. This infinite capacity combined with increasingly powerful search engine capabilities have trained consumers (readers) to adapt to this abundance model, but producers (writers, publishers, etc.) are (often) still stuck in the scarcity way of thinking:
“All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was – by definition – short-lived. Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur.”
Did I mention it’s brilliant? (Go read the whole thing.)
This – literally – changes everything.
I thought I was forward thinking before self-publishing, but the act of going indie, of being up-close-and-personal in the indie trenches, has really changed my thinking about my writing and my author career.
There’s a tension in the Indie world about needing to publish quickly, needing to get works out there, because that is what successful self-publishers in the recent past (1-2 years) have done. There’s a drive to seek out the best way to promote books, to get on the Top 100 lists, to find the magic key to “discoverability” that will bring more book sales. The connection to book sales is visceral – you can track your rankings and sales by the hour, and those numbers mean something. They are the income that’s going directly into your bank account, the funds that make it possible to keep publishing (by paying back your investment) or justify spending your time writing (by providing actual income). So there are huge, tidal-sized forces that drive indie publishers to put out books quickly and promote them heavily in order to connect their books to readers.
The potential to make money in Indie publishing is very real. The days when even “successful” authors had a tough time living off their writing wages is starting to change. As Rachelle Gardner noted in a recent blog post, the typical advance for a first-time traditionally published author is $5,000-$15,000 per book, and most of those first-time authors do not sell through their advance, so that is all the money they will ever get from that book (and if you don’t sell through in the first 12 mos, the publisher may not be so excited about buying another book from you). Comparing this to Indie publishing, I know several authors (many, many authors, including myself) who have already earned more than $5k per book, often well before the first 12 months after publication. Of course, many indie authors also struggle to earn back what they’ve invested in their books, and everyone’s experience is going to be unique with this.
But here’s the thing: concentrating on what a book earns in the first 12 months is scarcity thinking, a left-over from limited-time-on-shelf. Because if a book didn’t hit in the first 3 or 6 or 12 months, it wasn’t going to pay back its investment … because it would become literally unavailable on the shelf. Books used to go out of print. Now, there is no reason for that to happen.
Abundance thinking says: this book is going to be on the shelves forever. FOREVER. That is a very long time, my friends.
Cue the visuals:
- Writing. Writing is the most important thing. Must spend more time writing. I already knew this, but this framework gives even more heft to that idea.
- My work is FOREVER. (If this doesn’t evoke an existential paralysis, I’m not sure what will.) While the temptation is great to pump out a warren of rabbits (or the herd of tortoises), since my work is going to be out there FOREVER, I want it to be the best that I can produce at the time. In other words, I’m not rushing to write a bunch of books quickly because I know they’ll be around to taunt me for a long time. (Also: I love this take that the highest earning self-publishers take 24% more time per word, and write 31% more words per day)
- Rankings aren’t everything. I also already knew this, but having lived through surges in rankings and sales, I can tell you that emotionally it is awesome, fun, and sort of like the sugar rush after eating cotton candy at the carnival. Which almost always makes me want to throw up. Slow and steady sales not only win the race, they’re good for my psyche.
- I need to focus on the herd of tortoises. Promotion is still important, and I’m not going to go completely into my writer’s cave, just because it’s damp there and my friends are here. I enjoy social media too much. But the writing is definitely taking precedence. And I’m thinking not just about this trilogy, but the next, and the one after that. I want my turtles to all play nice in the sandbox together.
- I still think in scarcity ways sometimes. And that’s okay. It takes time for the world to change, and for individual ways of thinking to change. And hearts. Those take the longest time of all. I still believe in creating pre-release buzz – I think it does sell books, even if it’s a scarcity way of thinking. I think consumers have been trained by abundance thinking to believe they should be able to find any book they want, but they still look to bestseller lists and other scarcity markers to guide some of their purchasing. That’s okay. Our world is in transition. Things will continue to change. But I still strongly believe that the most forward-thinking will be the winners in this new era.