I have a confession to make: I’ve been a chump. When it comes to writing, I’ve been a major chump.
Webster says that a chump is someone who is foolish or easily deceived. That’s been me as a writer. For 90% of my life as a writer, I’ve been a chump. Time to come clean.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I work on a few writing projects that will make me little to no money. One is a story that may never get published. The other project will hardly be read. I’ve been devoting a lot of time to both projects.
I’ve been thinking about this as I see more reports on how rare it is for self-published authors to make considerable income. I’ve been mulling it over while watching this thread go wild at KBoards, asking if KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) is chump change for chumps.
I’m here to tell you that KDP is a place for chumps.
I know because I’ve been one. Let me tell you my story:
The year was 1986. Having recently read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Ender’s Game, I decided to write a novel. I was eleven years old. I sat down in front of my father’s Apple IIe computer, and began pecking away. I wrote a story about an oaf who stumbles through a hole in his yard, discovers that the Earth is a spaceship, and begins playing chess with his robotic bedpan. Adams and Card would’ve been very much not-proud of my attempts.
Within weeks, I abandoned that novel.
Then I started another. This time, a rip-off of Tolkien. Elves, dwarves, mages, and warriors.
A abandoned that puppy as well.
For the next 23 years, I read voraciously. I dreamed of writing a novel. This was at the very top of any bucket list I would’ve made during that period, a bucket list that swung wildly from marrying Wonder Woman to spending a year living on the Great Wall of China. Writing a novel was always at the top. Because it was the thing I tried most often to do and failed at most consistently.
I could never write anything worth reading. I would never be good enough. I was wasting my time. It took too much effort, and for what? No one would want to read what I wrote, not even me. I could never make a living as a novelists. Those people had college degrees. They studied literature. They had MFAs. And so writing-a-novel sat on my bucket list right above sailing-around-the-world.
When I was 23, I tried to sail around the world. I didn’t get very far. I spent a year in the Bahamas, went through a couple bad storms, ran out of money, and started working on boats to earn enough to get by. I wrote a lot. Poetry. Short stories. First chapters of novels. I read several books a week. I knew by then that I’d never sail around the world, just as I knew I’d never write a novel.
In 2009, I was 34 years old. I know how young 34 is, believe me. But I felt like my chance at so many dreams had passed me by. I was living on land, domesticated by the love of my life, with a perfect dog, a tiny home, no debt, and time on my hand. Yes, I was young, but I’d given up on some of my dreams. And so when I sat down to write one day, it was simply to write a first chapter. It wasn’t to write a novel. Just a beginning. The story was called Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.
Instead of a chapter, I wrote 50 pages.
Amber came home from work, and I showed her the printed pages, my hands still shaking from mania and from having stared at a computer screen for ten straight hours. I’d written over 10,000 words since she left the house. I demanded that she read. She humored me. An hour later, she asked for more. She asked what happened next.
I said, “I have no freaking clue.”
For the next six days, I wrote. I may have eaten a little. I may have slept a touch. But mostly, I wrote.
In seven days, I had a 70,000 word rough draft. An entire story. Beginning, middle, and end. With foreshadowing. Characters I cared about. A plot that made me weep and laugh. Something I was proud of.
Amber read it and loved it. I spent the next seven days revising. I added 30,000 words, wrote a different ending, brought one character back to life, killed another, and had a decent draft. We were in Charleston, visiting my mom and sister the day I wrote the last word on the new ending. On a Sunday afternoon, we went to dinner, and I stared at the USB memory stick sitting on the table with us. A novel I wrote was on that USB stick. We drank wine. My mom, sister, and Amber chatted and laughed. I stared numbly at this thing, sitting on the table, a scratch off my bucket list.
The five hour drive back to Boone was one I’ll never forget. I was a different person. Before that moment, I was a bibliophile vagabond. I was a sailor. A dog lover. A life partner. A decent son. A middling brother. A failed writer.
Now I was one less of these things. I felt alive. I knew that this was what I was meant to do: Write.
And so I started work on the sequel, Molly Fyde and the Land of Light. Meanwhile, I sent the entire Word document of my first novel to any takers. My cousin Lisa. Online friends. Strangers. Whoever would read the thing. I started a blog and considered uploading the novel in free installments. But the feedback kept coming in. My cousin Lisa said it was the best novel she’d read in ages. Could she send it to friends? Sure. An online friend (and professional editor) said it didn’t suck. That it didn’t suck a lot. That I should get it published.
So I googled how to get published. I spent a week learning about query letters. I went to the library and found a thick book of agents and publishers. I queried. I kept writing. I kept sending out copies of that draft to anyone who would read it.
Two small presses expressed interest in my pitch. I sent partial submissions, which led to full submissions, which led to offers. Tiny advances, but I didn’t care. Someone was going to edit my work and pay to have it printed. This was beyond bucket list. This was something else entirely. Another celebratory dinner. A contract signed. A book edited and released.
Any dreams of making a living as a writer were short lived. I’m not sure I even entertained such a fantasy. I knew it would be up to me to sell every copy of every book. I knew how little I would make, how few friends and family I had, and how few of these would dare to buy their nephew’s science fiction novel. I knew this as I signed the contract, as I went through the edits. I knew it as I wrote the sequel and started on book three.
I didn’t care.
The contract came for Molly Fyde and the Land of Light. I had a long conversation with Amber. I liked the writing more than the publishing. I enjoyed creating new worlds and new characters. I enjoyed sharing these stories with friends and family. I really enjoyed creating my own cover art, doing my own pagination and layouts, and contributing to my blog. When I wanted to move some text to the left five pixels, I wanted to do it on my computer, fiddle as much as I wanted in order to change how the story was delivered, not send emails back and forth with someone else, explaining my idea and getting a PDF in return. I just wanted to create stories, in their completed form, the entire book.
So I didn’t sign that contract. I bought the rights to my first novel back. In less time than it took to learn how to query, I learned how to publish my works on my own. Paperbacks and ebooks. It took me a weekend to learn how.
And so I wrote for the love of writing. I got a job in a bookstore. I wrote every morning before work; I wrote over my lunch hour; I wrote at night and on weekends.
I made my stories available. I was one of the early chumps who used KDP to upload my ebooks. I used a print on demand service for my paperbacks. For my birthday, Amber bought me a Kindle. I downloaded the first Molly Fyde book to the device and stared at it. And then, overcome with guilt over the price of the thing, I talked her into returning it.
I wrote and wrote. It was a hobby, in the dearest sense of the word. A passion. Something I would do if monthly fees were required. Something I would gladly pay to do.
Rather than play video games or watch TV with my spare time, I wrote. My father said I should spend more time promoting my existing novels rather than write more of them. My mother asked if Oprah knew I’d written a novel. I told my super-excited and proud parents that I’d be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of my works, total, if I wrote twenty novels over the next ten years.
That was my goal in 2009. Write two novels a year for the next ten years. Twenty novels, and then I’d see where I was.
It is almost six years since I started writing that first novel. I think I’ve written fourteen novels since then. In addition to the novels, I’ve written novellas, short stories, edited three anthologies, helped direct a graphic novel, and wrote a children’s book. All for the love of it. And the biggest cost to me was my time.
Six years spent writing, mostly while working a full-time job. For several novels, I spent nothing on the production. I did my own cover art, my own pagination, my own layouts, my own formatting. Friends and family helped with the editing. This was no different than my years as a painter, when I stretched my own canvases. Or my years as a photographer, where I had my own matting and framing workshop. I cut glass and mounted my work. I blended pulp and pressed my own paper. It was fun. I loved it.
But keep in mind that for over 20 years, I routinely gave up on writing. I started novels and abandoned them. Keep that in mind.
It wasn’t until 2009 that I started writing and loving it. A mere six years later, I have put a down payment on a sailboat. This will be my second boat. My first was the one I sailed to the Bahamas sixteen years ago. The one I lived on while in college. I spent five years living aboard that boat. I hope to spend the next five, at the very least, on my next boat.
This next boat is much nicer than my last one, and I owe that to my readers. I owe it to my writing. I owe it to the years I spent pursuing something that I love. I owe it mostly to KDP, CreateSpace, and ACX. These tools allowed me to share my stories with the world. There are many such tools available, but these three have introduced me to the vast majority of my readership and the vast majority of my earnings.
Now let’s get back to me being a chump.
But first, a disclaimer. Because the reports on earnings for self-publishers are right: Most people don’t have this level of success. Publishing stories like mine are the exception. Just like lottery winners are the exception.
But that’s a horrible analogy, a lottery. It’s one you see thrown around a lot, but it misses the point. Here’s a better analogy than a lottery: Imagine someone showing up to your house and giving you a fat check because of how many people read and enjoyed your Facebook posts. Or because a lot of people thought your front yard was beautiful. Or because your knitting or piano-playing were widely enjoyed.
Imagine this only happened to a few hundred people over the past five years. But now imagine that thousands of people are getting decent sized checks for their Facebook posts or Twitter feeds or forum contributions or hilarious emails to friends. Imagine that some entity was distributing more money to people like this than the 5 major publishers were distributing to all of their authors, combined.
This is how I look at my situation, and the situation of thousands of other writers. I’d be writing and making my stories available no matter what. Everyone reading this writes and entertains somewhere for free. But in my case and thousands of other cases like mine, KDP, Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble, CreateSpace, and ACX insist on paying. And paying more, and more often, than a publisher would. All while working at our pace, in full control, doing what we love.
Let’s forget for a moment most of the flaws in these self-selected surveys that are meant to dissuade us. Forget for a moment that this survey in particular was focused on our “most recent release,” and that many self-published authors taking the survey complained that their most recent release just came out a week or a month ago. They weren’t asked about their other twelve works, which continue to sell. No, for all the survey’s flaws, there is only one that matters, and it’s a flaw that shows up in practically every survey that looks at publishing income. It’s the flaw that made a chump out of me.
You see, the first poor assumption here is that all those self-published authors are in it for the money. And the second poor assumption is that the authors who get publishing contracts are the only ones who tried to get publishing contracts. Plenty of people have a dream to write and be published by a major publishing house, earnings be damned. 99% of these people fail. You never see them or their works. Their dreams are never counted.
This was me. For over twenty years, this was me. Dreaming of writing, but thinking my fate rested in the hands of others, terrified I wouldn’t be good enough, that I wouldn’t pass muster, that I’d never be allowed to chase that dream, and so I gave up with the first glimmer of doubt, the first stab of self-criticism.
Stories of rejection letters and piles of submissions threw gasoline on these doubts. Stories of those who tried and gave up. Even stories of tragic vindication like the publication history of A Confederacy of Dunces filled me with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of pointless struggles. Fear of being denied a chance.
KDP is for chumps. Because it’s one of the best places for chumps to gather and to stop being chumps. KDP is for chumps like restaurants are for the hungry. It’s a magnet for chumps, and as soon as you enter, you stop being one.
I was foolish for giving up on my writing. I didn’t have realistic hopes of making my stories available. It wasn’t until I started writing on forums and blogging and finding an audience through the free and open publishing miracle that is the internet, that I started to believe. And I stopped being a chump.
Going back to that thread on KBoards, I’m sorry that not everyone’s dream of vast riches comes true. There are a lot of people out there dreaming of getting rich quick, just as there always has been. But this wasn’t my dream. It’s never been my dream.
My dream was to write a novel. It’s been my dream since I was eleven years old. I’ve spent most of my writing life being a chump, because I couldn’t see what must be blindingly obvious to so many digital natives today: The only person who could deny me this dream was myself. I was the only thing standing in my way.
Maybe your dream is different. Maybe you want to be published by a major house. Maybe you want to get rich quick. I’d love to see the survey that gave us those odds. Because those dreams aren’t up to you. Only the writing is. And here’s where the gathering of chumps have an advantage that confuses the pundits.
You see, the same surveys have shown that the chances of earning a living are about equal between self-published authors and traditionally published authors. The chances are equally bad, that is. Very few earn a full-time living making art. But consider this: On one side of this comparison, you have a group of lottery winners who got lucky and scored that publishing contract. You have the 1% of winners. On the other side of the comparison, you have all the chumps who decided to stop being chumps and make their stories available to the world.
That’s right. For once, the 99% are doing just as well as the 1%. There are a lot of happy chumps out there, making art, connecting with colleagues and fans, getting a story out and working on the next, engaging with the entire process of storytelling, finding a passion and reveling in it, with everything that comes after a big fat bonus, however slim others want to make it out to be.