It’s November, and that means it’s NaNoWriMo. That’s short for National Novel Writing Month in which writers from all over the world set out to write 50,000 words over 30 days in November. Five years ago I was in the midst of writing and self-publishing my first novel, which started out as my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel. At the time I was a full-time oil salesman with dreams of building a career in self-publishing. I consumed podcasts and books on the emerging world of Self Publishing. Back then – it sounded almost simple. You wrote a series of novels, put them on Amazon, make the first one free and rake in the dough on subsequent sequels. A lot of work – but still – simple.
I had a cover professionally designed, worked with a talented editor, and published my first novel in November of 2014. It was a proud moment. I had a fair amount of success with that book, made a little money, and tens of thousands of readers downloaded it. Eventually, I made the book free, and to this day it’s still sits in the Top 50 free books in its genre. Yay.
Fast forward five years and the strategy of writing a series and promoting the first book at a deep discount (or free) still holds somewhat true. The marketplace for these books has gotten more and more crowded, as more authors try to break through. Many major self-published fiction authors also have published non-fiction work on how to market your book and some are offering classes on how to succeed within the ever-shifting Amazon algorithm. Good plot, solid characters and a sharp cover are as important as building an email list, developing sales funnels, and tracking ad campaigns. I have a good friend who has worked tirelessly to master every element of this and it would take huge suitcase of money to get him to consider signing a deal with a traditional publisher. As hard as he works, and as much as he’s mastered many of the tools of the ebook marketing trade, he’s still working toward that point when his Amazon snowball starts picking up snow on its own. And he’s quick to point out that writing a book is only half of the job.
It’s understandable that self-publishing involves doing all the things that a publisher might do. It’s the difference between being a good cook and running a good restaurant. You have to manage the business end. In the end, the best writing will rise to the top, right?
Um. Not so fast.
Amazon is about selling. Selling anything. They don’t care what it is. And that means that your good book might not stand a chance compared to someone else’s good scheme. I recently downloaded two self-published books from established authors. Both books boasted 4.5-star ratings. But they were very very different. One – a work of historical fiction – turned out to be meaty, well written, impeccably edited novel, worthy of any major publisher. The other was a thinly veiled ripoff of a major spy-thriller series that contained errors you’d expect in a first draft. I couldn’t get past the first chapter that read like one of those contests for intentionally bad writing. Buried in several dozen 5-star reviews planted by the author’s friends, were a couple of reviews that revealed the true nature of the book.
I got mad. I thought, If this is a successful author on Amazon, I want no part of this world. As a reader, I was insulted. As a writer, I felt like the whole platform was a digital version of Family Dollar as a bookstore. I was ready to pull my book off Amazon and start writing query letters to major publishers like it’s 1999.
I wrote a manifesto declaring Amazon to be a failed experiment for “serious” writers and “serious” readers (as if I’m either.) Then I called my friend, and over a series of calls and texts, he talked me off the ledge.
He pointed out that Amazon has made thousands of writers into successfully published authors. Thousands of writers are making six-figures, controlling all aspects of their work, without kneeling at the altar of publishers only interested in finding the next JK Rowling. Some are even making 7 figures. Sure, there are some authors putting out some shaky work, but their fans know what they’re getting and who am I to begrudge a writer for doing what works to make a living. I mean, have you read Dean Koontz? Amazon didn’t start this. (Yeah, I’m a snob.)
The truth is, for all their differences, Amazon and traditional publishing aren’t that dissimilar in how authors are rewarded. For all books that are published and sent to bookstores, only a few “make it.” Only a few authors inhabit the upper stratosphere are large advances, all-expenses paid book tours, and movie deals. And your chances are just as good as if you plan to do it yourself, or work with a publisher. But if you want a book out next year, your odds are way better if you do it yourself. What happens next is STILL up to the quality of your writing, and how hard you work to get it out there.
This episode has me examining who I want to be as a writer. My first book and its yet unpublished sequel are genre fiction thrillers, perfect for the waters of the Amazon. But I wrote these before I faced my biggest challenge through series of health issues and the reality of living with a serious medical condition. I wouldn’t write either of these books today. I’ve had to reprioritize what writing is in my life.
I like big stories of fiction. I think of books like The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay or Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (coincidentally, both Aussies). I want to write the sort of books I want to read. And I want to be the sort of author I want to meet. Instead of writing 20 books in five years, I want to write something big and great. And I want to write a memoir. Amazon might not be the place for this work. Or it might be.
The silver lining to this evolution is that I now approach writing strictly for myself and, at the risk of sounded pretentious, for the art, as opposed to what might sell. Somewhere out there, those two things intersect and maybe I’ll find it.
‘Thursday Central’ is the online home of a group of writers in St. Pete, Florida. You’ll find anything here from poetry, to short stories, humor, and links to our work out in the world. We meet at 10am every Thursday, typically in a coffee shop somewhere on Central Avenue. The group is open to all, completely informal. We write, we socialize, we drink caffeine, and we share our latest triumphs and setbacks. To find out where we’re meeting next week, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.