Two facts about ebooks that every writer should know

Prompted by messages from readers of my books, and various agencies and professionals offering to sell me various services, I feel the need (yet again!) to dispel some illusions about the nature of self-publishing.

It seems to me that the majority of the hype about the greatness of self-publishing and ebooks is written from the perspective of the publishing industry. What about the perspective of the writer?

Having published and worked hard to promote two self-published novels, and as I come near to the end of writing my third, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing, and why it is not the market miracle that many pundits say it is. Not for the writers, that is.

There are a lot of rags-to-riches stories about people who write books, publish them electronically, and then unexpectedly get very popular and very rich, in a short reach of time. As it happens I know at least one writer who has become remarkably successful as an independent writer. (And I believe he deserves it; his books are awesome. Check them out here.) But his story is the exception, not the rule.

For every ebook that becomes massively successful, there are literally thousands of ebooks that sell very poorly. They’ll sell perhaps only a few hundred copies in the first six weeks, and then sales will dwindle to one or two copies a month, six months later.

So here is an uncomfortable, but true statement that everyone involved in e-publishing should acknowledge. Self-publishing an ebook is absolutely NOT a get-rich-quick scheme for writers, unless you are really, really lucky. And there is no polite way to say this: anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. There is simply no guarantee that “if you build it, they will come.”

This leads to a second, less uncomfortable but still true statement that every writer should acknowledge. Writers therefore need a reason to write which has nothing to do with economics. Similarly, artists of every kind need a reason to make art which has nothing to do with economics. Because if your only reason to write is to get rich, then you probably will not get rich. So if that’s your one-and-only reason for being a writer, then stop writing, right now, and do something else.

Suppose you put a lot of time and effort into marketing your ebook. The success of an ebook is impossible to predict, no matter how much marketing you do; although marketing does help. (And, admittedly, I don’t do enough to market my own books.) But a well-promoted book could be a commercial success for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the book’s quality. Crappy books can sell very well, excellent books can sell poorly. There’s no correlation, one way or another, between a book’s quality and its commercial standing.

(Although I suspect that if the writer cares more about commercial success than about artistic quality, then the artistic quality will probably suffer. And that benefits no one. Not even the writer himself. But I digress.)

But this is not to say that writers shouldn’t be paid. Artists in our society are almost never paid what their work is worth. Sure, I’d be delighted to make enough money from my book royalties to retire at 40 years old and build a castle in a small town in the mountains or by the sea, and then write more books for the rest of my life. But the likelihood of that happening is so enormously small that it would be irrational to even wish for it.

(And no, “positive thinking” is no help here either. To be successful one must be ambitious and willful, but one must also pay attention to the facts. The gurus who teach “visualizing success” and “manifesting your reality” are all scammers who are bilking you for money. Ignore them.)

But to return to my point. Artists, musicians, writers, and creative people of every kind need a reason to do what they do other than making money. Now I’d like to add that some of the usual non-economic reasons to write seem pedantic to me now: “Because I have to,” or “Because I’ll die if I don’t,”, etc. A better reason might be like this: “because I love something so much that I want to do something about it, I want to tell everyone about it, I want to encourage others to love it too.”

Ideally, it should be something that genuinely deserves your love; not just something that you chose on a whim, as if you merely rolled some dice. Think of something that you believe everyone should love, not just something which you happen to find personally interesting. And turn it into art, and offer it to the world.

For my part, I write because I love ideas, and people, and beauty, and justice, and the earth. Most of all, I love knowledge. And I think everyone should love those things too.

And yes, I do hope to make a living by writing about such things. I’m not saying that I will write for nothing. But I am saying something like this: A good medical doctor cares more about health than about the money she makes; a good lawyer cares more about justice than about the money she makes; a good teacher cares about knowledge and education more than about the money she makes; a good minister cares more about spirituality than about the money she makes. No one expects those people to work for free. And no one expects them to work for pennies, either. We expect them to be paid very handsomely. But they succeed at their tasks best when they care about the good of their profession more than almost anything else. Perhaps I equivocate a little bit on the meaning of the word “success”: to some it means making lots of money, to others it means making an intrinsically desireable life experience. It’s in this second sense of the word that I am emphasizing here. Artists and creative people should care more about art and beauty than about getting paid – again let me repeat that they should get paid, and generously so – but artists succeed best when they care more about art and beauty than almost anything else.

I originally wrote this as a series of notes on my Twitter feed, but it seemed to me that it deserved a more thorough expression. Please, share it with everyone who you think needs to hear it. Actually, share it with everybody: as an independent author, I need everyone’s help to promote my work. And please accept my thanks.)

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One Response to Two facts about ebooks that every writer should know

  1. Pingback: JK Rowling does care about writing, and that’s why she should keep doing it.

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