You Got Some Booksplainin’ To Do: Buckell On Bias In Self-Publishing

Tobias Buckell wrote a very smart and rational post (FEATURING CHARTS) about survivorship bias in self-publishing. Go read it. I’ll wait. I like the post a lot — Buckell frequently tickles my sweet spot in terms of being moderate and looking at the pro’s and con’s of both sides of the publishing fence (as I attempted to do here in this rather lengthy post.) I’d maybe argue that Smashwords isn’t the shining ideal in terms of data — but it’s also the only data we have.

This post generated some very interesting discussion over at Facebook, and one commenter there (who I like) said the following: “…if you have a thousand authors on the traditional path who make zilch, and a thousand authors on the indie path who publish their own book and make just a dollar, you know what? The indies are doing better. Something is better than nothing.”

Now, this is an idea I’ve seen put out there before.

It’s interesting.

But I don’t buy it.

Let’s pull this apart a little bit.

First, traditional authors don’t generally make zilch, though I understand the point — you don’t “choose” to traditionally publish so much as you “choose” to try to traditionally publish, and if you fail, you make no money. The suggestion here then is that indie publishers will at least make a dollar — which is maybe true, but you could just as easily lose money on a self-publishing endeavor presuming you start out right and invest some money (cover, editing, design, marketing, whatever). And generally speaking, those who are actually publishing traditionally are doing so with an advance in hand — usually north of five grand.

Second, that word again that keeps popping up — “better.” Like it’s a tug-of-war and one side wants to win. (Or, more appropriately to how it often feels: like it’s a big ol’ stinky-winky dick-waving contest MY PUBLISHING IS BIGGER THAN YOUR PUBLISHING *waggle waggle waggle*.) Let’s all take a deep breath and say it: neither path is better than the other. They’re two very viable options and different authors will do better walking divergent paths. We don’t all have to march lockstep and drink the fucking Flavor-Aid and pick one cult over another. Embrace publishing agonisticism. Don’t judge. You’re not better. I’m not better. The schoolyard finger-pointing is eye-rollingly tiresome at this point.

Third, the indication that “better” is bound up with “money” — but then at the same time suggesting that a few bucks here and there is “better than nothing.” Bare minimum is not a great selling point for anything and it’s not a very good reason to self-publish. We self-publish for a variety of reasons — control, risk, cutting out middle-men, etc. — but one of them should not be “I really need a roll of quarters for the downstairs laundry.”

Listen, if you have a book, and it’s done, you can try to hold out for the traditional advance or you can take a shot at generating some income now with self-publishing. Neither is wrong. Neither is a guarantee. You may make no money, a moderate amount of money, or enough money to build a house out of actual money (“MY FLOOR IS TILED WITH SUSAN B. ANTHONY DOLLARS, MY CURTAINS ARE STITCHED-TOGETHER BENJAMINS, AND MY JACUZZI SPITS OUT MOLTEN ZINC FROM MELTED PENNIES — wait, don’t get the jacuzzi, it’s just for show”).

But don’t judge others for the path they take. Find what works for you, what suits you, and do it. We should all be very happy that these options exist, by the way — self-publishers should be happy that traditional publishing is still an option. Why? Because if that goes away, the incentive to keep self-publishers happy by companies like Amazon fades away. A rich, diverse playing field means more people are finding success all over.

Look at it another way: some people will want to sell their own lemonade, some people would rather work for a lemonade company, others still would rather formulate their own lemonade recipe and sell that through a lemonade recipe distributor (okay, we’re probably entering the stuff of fiction here — LEMONPUNK, BABY), but you get my point. We wouldn’t want everyone to have to punch a time clock just as we wouldn’t want everyone to have to start their own entrepreneurial businesses. It’s all good. Relax.

Oh, and last point: don’t automatically listen to what somebody tells you as what you “should” do. Think. Process. Weigh the options. Personal anecdote time (meaning, works for me, not for you): I had an easy time getting an agent for Blackbirds but a hard time selling it to a publisher at first. And I heard along the way the cries to self-publish. (And oh did I consider it.) Then, even after I had gotten the deal, the occasional comment persisted — I should’ve self-published, it would’ve earned me more than the standard genre fiction advance. Blah blah blah.

Now, I don’t have any time travel devices handy (Delorean, Police Box, cosmic treadmill, temporal suppository) — but since that time, I’ve sold the rights of the book to a handful of foreign markets (with another undergoing bidding even now) and have sold the film/TV rights (one day I look forward to that announcement because it’s damn exciting). And I’ve made more money on that book and its sequel than you would imagine. I’m still making money on that book. And it was a small genre release that continues to do nice — if not overwhelming — numbers in the marketplace.

The point isn’t that I did that and you should do that, too. The only thing that I did that I hope you’ll emulate is that I looked long and hard at it and made the decision I felt best suited me as a writer and the book I had written. It paid off.

The point is that I’m happy with the choice I made. I’m glad I didn’t pull the trigger and just publish it in the same way I’m glad I didn’t publish any of the five novels I’d written before that one (which is another piece of fucked-up frequently-seen self-publisher advice: “Just press publish! Better to make money than to sit in a drawer somewhere!”). Some turds are better flushed, people. My earlier books were stinkers — unfit for public shaming.

Further, I’m glad I did self-publish my Atlanta Burns series. Because that led me to new audience, new skills, and to new opportunities (Kickstarter, Amazon Children’s).

Let each writer and each writer’s book find its own path.

Examine all sides. Look to the failures and the successes.

Then jump.

The End.

* — be advised, Tobias invented the word “Booksplaining.” Please incorporate it into your publishing slang going forward or you will be violently Tasered THANK YOU GOODBYE.