Evidence I Still Don’t Get the “Long Tail” of Indie Publishing
I’m a different breed of author from what mostly existed before, a breed with an identity crisis still in some ways stuck on the old model. The “everybody has to buy it right now or DOOM” model.
When I first started publishing, there were only 300,000 books in the kindle store. Those were the days. Back when everybody thought you were an idiot or “not a real writer” if you self-published. (Don’t ask me how your method of publication can change whether or not you wrote words. It’s magic, I say!)
Anyway… in the beginning, I was foolishly selling for 99 cents to build an audience. (And most likely a lot of those people were loading up their brand new Kindles. I’m sure my book is sitting in some dark corner of somebody’s Kindle right now, and they’ve forgotten about me. Whether they will ever finally stumble upon my book and decide to read it, who knows?) For the first 17 months I just had the one ebook out because I was running all over the internet running my mouth and arguing with everybody who thought self publishing wasn’t “valid”. I was making maybe $200 a month. Often less. For that whole 17 months. But I was scrappy and adorably new at this. (And really, I’m STILL new at this, it’s only been 4 freaking years!)
Then I released the next two novellas, along with the debut novel under my other pen name. Something bizarre happened. It was a Festivus in June miracle! I sold a lot of ebooks. I mean not John Locke or Amanda Hocking or Joe Konrath a lot, but 6,500 ebooks, which was a lot for me.
After that, I started to realize that those numbers, while great, were very hard to maintain. It was a nice surge, but if I wanted to keep making the money I’d gotten a taste of, I had to raise my prices and publish more titles. Both of which I did.
It all starts to add up. Tonight while I was having some bizarre private writer meltdown (which I attribute to going 6 days without writing or editing anything. Seriously, it makes me crazy), it suddenly occurred to me that right now… every single month… I’m being paid a full midlist author advance. And here I’m sitting around flipping out about how hard it all is, and oh God what if it all ends! Seriously? I need to get a fucking grip.
The good part and bad part about having a little bit of early success is it changes the bar and your expectations. Suddenly what you had before wasn’t good enough, and you are always seeking a higher peak. But this industry has always been fairly non-linear. I’m almost 4 years into my publishing career. That’s nothing. That’s babyhood. I’m still a newbie here.
When I think about the authors who it took them decades to make a living or for a book to break out and I’m still under the 5 year mark with under 20 titles to my name (across two pen names), and I’m freaking out? Seriously? Dude, I am a WIMP.
Writing something should help this sudden neurotic thought trail. Here’s hoping.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about promotion and how much I just don’t want to do it. It exhausts the hell out of me and it gets me obsessed with my numbers. Surely I have enough of a readership at this point that I don’t have to spaz out completely. Beyond whatever I do or set up in the first week after release, I just don’t want to mess with anything else. I need to focus on the next book and the next and the next, and building my backlist because really, the only thing that doesn’t make me totally insane in this process is the writing.
Watching your numbers is what crazy people do. Because if your numbers aren’t “good enough” (whatever that means), you start spazzing out about how to promote and get them higher… which either equals annoying the piss out of people as you nag them, or laying out large chunks of money to promote a book which may or may not take off from the advertising.
The thing is… we all know what sells books. Word of mouth. The catch-22 is… someone has to read it first to start the word of mouth. What is the magic number of people who need to read it and love it and tell all their friends in order for the book to reach its potential? I don’t know. Momentum seems important, but that isn’t very “long tail”. At the same time, there are more important things to do… like write the next book and make it available everywhere I can.
Sometimes I think if I hadn’t had that little surge of too-early success, and I’d slowly built to where I am right now, I wouldn’t freak out so much about the ebb and flow of the whole process. I wouldn’t have this irrational feeling of running on a treadmill and needing to publish more and more to maintain the same level of income… like somehow in my weird little brain I thought it was going to be a steady upward trajectory? Seriously?
But the point that I’m trying to get to is… while I would love for a book or several to “break out” in a big way and make me a “supa-star” (more for job security than ego), the long tail works. Writing and publishing and writing and publishing and getting better and just continuing to amass a catalog of work, works. My options are to sit on my hands and stare at my numbers all day and whine and cry, or write and publish more books. Those are literally my only two choices.
I can write more. Or I can stop writing.
And since stopping makes me completely bug-shagging crazy, that is not an option. I must write.
So while I would like a book to break out and I hope it does someday, it could be any book I haven’t written yet (or technically any book I have as well), there is more than one way to gain momentum. One of those ways I have control over and one of them I do not.
I have no control over the momentum or sales velocity of a book. Yes, I can do some promotion. Yes I can drop a bunch of money on advertising, but at the end of the day if a book doesn’t catch fire, all the advertising in the world won’t change it because only the advertising will prop it up. When the advertising stops, if a book isn’t a “catch fire” book, it slows down and sells at the pace it would have sold without the ads.
The other kind of momentum is simply being so fucking prolific that you win that way. That’s the kind of momentum I can control. I can control how many books I write and publish. I can’t control how rabid readers are or are not about those books. I can do the best I can writing them and making sure they are professional products when they go out the door, but I can’t control another human being’s reaction to them.
So that gets us into long tail category and a mindset shift that I need to fully make or else I’ll drive myself insane. Of course all of this just makes me more stubborn and more determined to have “Prolific” become my new permanent first name.