Back in 2011, when I published my first book, things were easier. There were fewer books competing for readers’ attention. The Kindle was still pretty new to readers; they were hungry for new books from authors they’d never read. I had a couple of books out and they sold extremely well; better than they should have given my talent level at the time. Even better, I had to do nothing to promote them; Amazon did it for me. I sold thousands of books, positive reviews flowed in, and life was pretty good for a part-time writer.
Then, in January 2013, that all came to a screeching halt.
Literally, overnight, sales dried up. The same books that had been moving nicely through the system for the past two years suddenly went dormant. It was as if a switched had been flipped and the lights just went out. And for all I know about the black box that is Amazon, maybe that’s exactly what happened.
The era collectively known as the Kindle Gold Rush was over.
Many writers quit. I didn’t. Since the end of the Gold Rush, I’ve written an additional eight novels, another five novellas, and fourteen short stories. But no matter how many books I’ve released since the “good ol’ days”, it hasn’t had much effect. My Badlands series sells okay (for which I’m truly grateful), but the other books don’t move much, if at all.
The reasons for this are myriad and anecdotal. The market is saturated with boatloads of books for sale in the Kindle store. Kindle Unlimited has had a negative impact too, cannibalizing sales and driving down payments to authors. And those of us who opt out of exclusivity with Amazon pay dearly; KU books rank higher than non-KU books and are much more visible to customers. In other words, if a writer wants to diversify his risk and reach more readers on more platforms, then he’s gonna get dinged for it.
And don’t get me started on the scammers currently infecting Kindle Unlimited.
Since 2011, most of Amazon’s competition hasn’t really gained much ground. Sony has gotten out of the game. Diesel is gone. Barnes and Noble has pretty much dropped the ball with their Nook effort. Apple still doesn’t seem to care about selling ebooks, despite having their iBooks app on literally hundreds of millions of devices. Google doesn’t seem to care about selling ebooks any more than Apple does.
At least Kobo has upped their game a little. They at least seem like they care and are trying to sell more books and reach more readers. It seems to be working because they’re now my number one sales channel.
There’s also a lot more competition within the Kindle store; Amazon has their own publishing imprints to push now and New York publishing houses have finally digitized much of their backlist books, adding thousands more titles to the Kindle store. Last count I remember, there are something like two or three million books in the Kindle store.
To cut through the noise, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money. Advertising on platforms like Facebook and Amazon are pretty much required now if you want to sell books. And now the latest tactic is “writing to market”, an approach I’m not too keen on. Feels too much like a popularity contest, and pandering isn’t really in my veins.
The good news is that royalty rates for ebooks are still at 70% at most of the major retailers. And the gatekeepers are gone, so we’re still free to write and publish whatever we like. These two factors alone are reason enough to celebrate. If one can still manage to sell books that people want to read, the profit margin continues to favor writers. That’s a big deal.
This is just the state of publishing today, for better or worse. Some writers are killing it in this new market, many are not. It’s always been a lottery to some extent. The world doesn’t owe anybody a living, myself included. And while things might not be easy, I find it’s much better to face reality for what it truly is, not what we’d like it to be.
Every year I reassess my writing business and writing life. Since 2015 I’ve been focused primarily on production. Writing more books. Writing better books. Streamlining the revision, editing, and proofreading processes. Reducing production costs so that I can actually afford to release the books I write without losing my ass on them.
Two years later, that effort has born fruit. My writing is better. I’m WAY more productive now. My books turn a profit, albeit small. I’ve experimented with a new series and I’ve grown my most lucrative series (with more growth planned). I’ve written whatever the hell I want, depending solely on my mood at the time. That’s allowed me to try new genres and to write some books I’m pretty proud of.
But high production takes its toll. Waking up at 4:30 every weekday morning to write ain’t easy, not with a full-time career, a wife and two kids, and all the normal crap that comes with being an adult. Then working weekends on editing, proofreading, covers, and promotion…it all adds up.
Succeeding at anything requires sacrifice, and with that sacrifice, one expects to see some return. So here I am at the end of 2017, looking for a way to quantify that success. Goal-oriented people like myself are always looking for ways to measure success, to show gains, to show progress. In terms of sales, it ain’t looking good for me. But after thinking on this for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been going about the notion of success all wrong.
High sales equals popularity and people tend to gauge success through popularity. Anybody who’s been to high school knows that. And anybody who’s picked up a book and seen “New York Times Bestseller!” stamped across the cover knows it too. If something is popular, it must be good, right? And if not, it must be bad. Right?
I’m not so sure of that.
For years, I bought into using popularity as a measuring stick for my own work. I got caught up in the rat race, in the idea that validation comes from outside.
I was wrong.
As I wind down 2017, I’ve been reassessing things. Over the past six years I’ve proven a lot. I’ve proven that I can produce consistently. I’ve proven that I can write books that folks tend to like (for whatever that’s worth). I’ve proven that I can work full-time as a programmer and still crank out books at a faster rate than the pros who do nothing else but write. And while I’ve gained a lot proving all this, I’ve lost sight of why I write in the first place: to have fun.
So I’ve decided to take back control. I determine success. Nobody else. And to me, success is defined by setting goals and accomplishing them while having as much fun as I can. Success is writing books I care about, books that I think are worthwhile. Books I’d like to read myself.
And to hell with the numbers and what anybody else thinks.
2018 is gonna look a lot different for me than the past couple of years. 2018 will be all about me writing for the love of the story and nothing else. If that resonates with people, great. If not, who cares? Read it or don’t. I have a lucrative day job that I really like, and that affords me the luxury of writing whatever the hell I want, whenever I want to write it. And that truly is a luxury. I don’t have to write something I hate for money and I don’t have to chase numbers for validation. And I don’t have to crank out a novel per month unless I want to.
I’m looking forward to next year more than I have any before it. It’s a wide open road for me.
And that’s just the way I like it.