There aren’t many people who have their pulse on the publishing biz quite like Mike Shatzkin does. The author of The Shatzkin Files, Mike has been in the trenches for a long time. He has amassed a pile of experience, and he has a sharp mind for spotting trends. He also happens to be one of my favorite people in the publishing biz. I’ve only met Mike twice in person, but I consider him a friend (he probably considers me a nuissance. I bumped into Mike at the Frankfurt Fair and had to force myself not to wear out my welcome).
I noticed him chatting in the comments with quite possibly my favorite industry blogger, The Passive Guy, who I’ve also accosted in person. With a bear hug. Seeing the two of them going back and forth, what could I do other than butt in where I wasn’t wanted?
The discussion touched on the number of indies doing very well in today’s market. Mike thinks times are getting worse for unknown indies. Mr. PG and myself are more optimistic. I see a new author every month or so break out and climb the Amazon bestseller lists. Having been on those lists, I know what that author is going through, how much they’re selling, what they are making. I’ve spoken with quite a few of these authors on the phone (for some reason, people email me and ask for advice. Like I know what I’m doing. Or what happened. Or why). Beyond these visible bestsellers, I’ve heard from several hundred authors who are making a great living, authors you’ve never heard of. Mr. PG has the same sorts of experiences from his blog (which everyone should be checking daily. I do).
Mike brought up an interesting point in one of his comments. It illuminates a vastly different perspective, one that possibly separates the self-publishing optimists from the pessimists. Here’s what he said, in response to my point about the number of self-pubbed mid-listers who are making a very good living off their fiction sales:
Hugh, it is definitely a remarkable story. But anecdata is still anecdata whether you get it in a trickle or through a firehose. I suspect Amazon publishes far more authors than the Big Five publishers combined. *Most *of them vanish without a trace. Whether the ones that succeed are a statistically significant percentage of not is something you can’t determine by counting just the hits and not being aware of all the at-bats.
And this made me realize that some of us are looking at absolute numbers while others are looking at chances of success. I’ve already blogged about how unfair it is to look at the number of people self-publishing while ignoring the vast numbers of people submitting to the traditional machine and not even landing an agent (it’s the mistake of counting the top 1% of one pile and comparing that to the totality of another pile). This is a new and second difference in outlook that Mike illuminates, and it’s one that I felt needs to be shared.
Is the number of people succeeding at self-publishing a tiny fraction of the number of people publishing overall? Absolutely. But I don’t think it’s a small number in absolute terms, which is all we should care about. Keep in mind that the number of people reading wasn’t enough to support the number of authors publishing traditionally. This has always been the limiting factor. And again, forget the fact that the number of people who got published before was a tiny fraction of those who tried. We’ve covered that. This is a matter of judging the success of a method of publication by the relative number of those who succeed rather than the raw number.
If the NBA expanded into twice or quadruple the number of teams next year, the chances of making it into the NBA wouldn’t appreciably increase. There are hundreds of thousands of kids playing in middle school, high school, and college. Upping the number of NBA players by several hundred wouldn’t dent the daunting odds of making it to the highest levels. And yet, the number of people making a great living playing basketball would increase several times over.
This is what’s happening in the writing world right now. No one is covering this story. No one even seems to be trying. Because it takes a lot of work. I put out a call on just one writing forum and was overwhelmed by the responses. Hundreds of people got in touch in a single day. Their stories brought tears to my eyes. People you’ve never heard of whose lives have been changed by self-publishing. Is it a tiny fraction? Next time you go into a bookstore, consider the warehouses one would need to store the manuscripts that never got a chance. This is an industry of fractions.
And yet, if there were 1,000 people making a great living off their fiction in the US 5 years ago (and I doubt it was that many), then self-publishing has tripled or quadrupled the number of people making a living with their art. That’s a story. An incredible story. The fact that a huge number of more people are self-publishing and not doing well is beside the point. That’s a different story, one that has been told ad nauseam. This other story will get out one day, I’m confident of that. And it will help inform writers who face a difficult decision.