Living Inside The Bubble

The Guardian published a worthwhile article today on what they're calling the "self-epublishing bubble." Here's an excerpt:

All of this ebook talk is becoming a business in itself. Money is being made out of thin air in this strange new speculative meta-practice: there are seminars, conferences and courses springing up everywhere, even at the Society of Authors (a writers' union which, until recently, was largely against epublication). Television and radio programmes are being made about self-epublishing (I've personally been asked to speak about it on 12 occasions since August). Everyone can be a writer now: it only takes 10 minutes to upload your own ebook, and according to the New York Times "81% of people feel they have a book in them ... And should write it"

But all of this gives me an alarming sense of deja vu. There's another name for what happens when people start to make money out of speculation and hype: it's called a bubble. Like the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble before it, the DIY epublishing bubble is inflating around us. Each of those other bubbles also saw, in their earliest stages, a great deal of fuss made over a "new" phenomenon, which was then over-hyped and over-leveraged. But speculation, as we've learned at our peril, is a very dangerous foundation for any business. And when the epub bubble bursts, as all previous bubbles have done, the fall-out for publishing and writing may be even harder to repair than it is proving to be in the fields of mortgages, derivatives and personal debt. Because this bubble is based on cultural, not purely economic, grounds.

Self-epublishing has indeed, as many of you are aware, become all the rage in the past year. With bookstores closing and ebook sales growing every month and major publishers lowering their advances while keeping their standard digital royalty rates at 25%, the possible 70% royalties an author can earn on their own self-published work becomes very alluring.

But, as I always say, just because you can, doesn't necessarily mean you should.

That's not to say you should never self-publish, but if you do it you have to make sure you do it right.

Everyone is looking for a quick buck, and while some self-published authors are finding success, the majority aren't. Then again, you have to ask yourself just what does success mean. If it means making over six figures in a year selling ebooks alone, then you probably shouldn't hold your breath. If it means bringing in some extra income to help pay bills, then that's much more realistic.

The other day I was asked to come speak to the Garden State Horror Writers about the success I've had self-epublishing (I'll be there April 14th, BTW). While I'm happy to go speak, I stressed the fact that I wasn't going to talk about "tips and tricks" of selling digital content so much as what I've been doing personally to market my own work. After all, what works for one writer most likely won't work for another. Everyone went crazy for John Locke's How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! (which currently has over 170 five-star reviews, in case you were wondering), but how many writers have since also sold over one million ebooks? Locke's get-rich-quick ebook was published in June of last year. Seven months have since passed. Where are all those newly successful writers?

The Guardian article provides the seven stages of any economic bubble. The last stage--"Revulsion/Lender of Last Resort"--gives us this insight:

After a long year of trying to sell self-epublished books, attempting to self-promote on all available networking sites, and realising that they have been in competition with hundreds of thousands of newcomers just like them, the vast majority of the newly self-epublished authors discover that they have sold less than 100 books each. They then discover that this was in fact the business model of Amazon and other epub platforms in the first place: a model called "the long tail". With five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author – since they had to cut costs to 99p – has made only £99 after a year's work. Disillusionment sets in as they realise that they were sold an idea of success which could, by definition, not possibly be extended to all who were willing to take part.

The now ex-self-epublished authors decide not to publish again (it was a strain anyway, and it was made harder by the fact that they weren't paid for their work and had to work after hours while doing another job – and they realised that self-promoting online would have to be a full-time job.) They come to see self-epublishing as a kind of Ponzi scheme – one created by digital companies to prey on the desires of an expanding mass of consumers who also wanted to be believe they could be "creative". They also become disillusioned with their ereaders, which are now out of date anyway. And so they return to the mainstream publishers to look for culture. Unfortunately, as a result of the ebook market implosion it is impossible for publishers to push their prices back up to pre-bubble levels (from 99p to £12.99), and so their infrastructure continues to decline. And since they have decided to look for new talent in self-epublishing, they are trapped in the very same bubble that everyone else is trying to get out of.

And this is in fact very true. Many writers, when they don't get that immediate success, will stop self-publishing (maybe even writing completely). These are the same writers who idolize bestsellers like King and Koontz and Patterson, failing to remember that it took each of those writers many years and a lot of hard work to gain the kind of readership they now have (say what you will about Patterson, but the man is a marketing machine). Not many writers enter the field with a massive following and sell a ton of copies of their debut. Those that do were given a very hefty advance from a major publisher looking to recoup that money. It's in that publisher's best interest for the author to succeed, so they do everything they can to ensure it happens.

So no, self-epublishing is not a guaranteed success, and any writer going into it thinking it is is way beyond delusional. Again, some writers will have success, but many will not. Some will have success for the first year or two and that's it; some won't have success for the first five years, and then suddenly bam, their books take off. Nobody really knows how publishing works, and anybody telling you otherwise is full of shit.

Speaking of which, did you know Jonathan Franzen hates ebooks? It's true. Though curiously, when Freedom sold a ridiculous amount of ebooks two years ago, he didn't seem to have a problem with them then.

Anyway, do I think self-epublishing is a bubble? Yes and no. Yes, eventually many writers who are having success now will fade away, but it doesn't mean digital publishing will vanish. As we have all seen from the music industry, digital is where we are headed and where we will stay. So it's best for writers to take their work seriously and understand that success won't happen overnight. As long as they keep writing, then they're at least doing something right.