Sunday, November 20, 2011
How to Eat the Publishing Elephant
James Scott Bell
The elephant is our most versatile bestial metaphor.
We sometimes refer to the big issue everyone knows is there (but no one is talking about) as "the elephant in the room." Back in November of 2008, in conference rooms at publishing houses throughout New York, the elephant in the room was the Amazon Kindle. Was this device going to change publishing as we know it? Maybe no one wanted to talk about it back then, until the elephant broke out of the room and started stampeding all over midtown Manhattan.
Then there's the story of the three blind men coming up to an elephant. One touches the tail, another the leg, the other the trunk. Each man assumes the elephant is something other than it is, because he has only one bit of data. This we can liken to those who think they know everything there is about publishing (or anything else, for that matter) when they only have experience with one part of it.
But the metaphor I want to work with today is the question, How do you eat an elephant? The answer, of course, is "one bite at a time."
This applies to the world of successful self-publishing. Note the key word successful. It's easy to self-publish (too easy, some would say). But to be successful at it is an entirely different matter.
A lot of people are expecting to eat the whole elephant in one bite. That's because some of the early adopters did that. Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Blake Crouch – these are some of the names that jumped in early and did some heavy munching. Barry Eisler famously walked away from a traditional print deal and went E to feast on elephant. Bob Mayer, king of the backlist, consumed several elephants earlier this year when releasing all those titles close to one another.
But these are the notable exceptions to what is now the undeniable rule: the vast majority of writers will not get anywhere near rapid success. And if they expect to, they will be sorely disappointed and may even chuck the whole publishing thing.
Which is fine. We need less content, not more, because most of the two million self-published offerings out there are, well. . . let's just say the bulk of it pretty much affirms Sturgeon's Law.
But if you want to be successful as an indie author, you can be – if you eat the elephant one bite at a time and chew thoroughly.
By "success" I mean making a profit. You can make a profit from your self-publishing if you do certain things and do them right (like knowing how to write. That really helps). How large a profit it is impossible to say up front. It may just be Starbuck's money. Everyone's mileage is going to vary. But here's the rub: If you keep taking more and more bites, and do so carefully and with purpose, you have a chance to make more profit. That's called "business." If you want to be a professional writer, you are essentially running a small enterprise. Your job: provide value.
My business includes a traditional arm where I partner with publishers like Kensington and Writer's Digest Books. It also now includes an indie division. I have taken a few bites at the indie elephant, wanting to learn as I go and see what works. I've studied the field, too. And while there are many things one needs to do well, the unalterable foundation is quality + volume. Thus, the elephant wisdom that has become evident over this last crazy year of indie publishing is: if you want to be successful at it you need to be in it for the long haul, and by that I mean the rest of your life.
Let me repeat: the rest of your life.
If you are truly a writer, that won't be difficult for you. But if you are just in this to try to make some easy lettuce, it will be. And should be.
A real writer writes, wants to write, would do it even if the prospect of making killer money was nil. Storytellers tell stories, which is why I plan to be found dead at my computer, my stone cold fingers over the keyboard. I only hope I have just typed "The End." Or better yet, clicked "Upload."
I will keep on biting the elephant. And when I'm old and toothless, I'll gum the elephant. Because a real writer never stops.
Happy eating, friends.