The View From Here

Some comments on self-publishing and the way people go about it.

I started reading before I started school. In the beginning, I just made up stories based on the pictures in my Little Golden Books. When I was four, I shocked my parents by actually reading to them.

But even then, I think I wanted to be a writer.

Growing up, writing seemed like a good, clean job. Indoors, out of the weather. Maybe air conditioned. Nice chair. Just you and the work. I learned to type because my handwriting lacks readability, even today. Maybe especially today.

The problem I ran into involved getting paid for that job.

For much of my life publishing didn’t yield the kinds of income that could support me, let alone my family or bankers. So I did what any normal person would do.

I got a real job.

Several actually. Starting with enlisting in the US Coast Guard at 17 to avoid being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. I had three to five careers, depending on how you count them. Everything from temporary agency to VP. Spent a couple of decades in the corporate data mines. Did a couple different stints as educator. One as a stand-up corporate trainer. One as adjunct faculty. Worked as technology director (bit-twiddler) for a national 501( c )( 3 ) serving the low incidence disability sector.

That last one is important because it resulted in me finally becoming a writer. Being mine, the path I followed wasn’t exactly a straight line.

My specialty is distance education. Specifically, online. While my grad school classmates came from educational backgrounds to learn technology, I came from a technology background. I needed to learn education.

That’s a story in itself as they kept telling me that technology wouldn’t do the kinds of things I actually did with it on a regular basis, but I digress.

I really wanted to figure out a way to get access to higher education to a huge swath of rural learners. In those days, post-Mosaic but pre-broadband, that meant trying to get high bandwidth content like audio and video to people who only had dial-up access to the internet.

In late 2004, Dave Winer, Adam Curry, and an intrepid band of internet people invented what we call podcasting today. I latched onto it and stuck it in my ears.

In early 2006 I discovered fiction podcasting with Podiobooks (now Scribl) and listened to every novel they had. It wasn’t many. Podcasting showed me two important things.

  1. The downloads happened “off hours.” They came to my computer overnight when I wasn’t using it. They didn’t need high bandwidth.
  2. The writers/podcasters were having a lot of fun.

Here was a possible answer to two of my long standing problems. How to deliver quality audio over dial-up and how to get my stories to potential readers. In this case, listeners.

Don’t quibble. Reading is reading.

The only remaining problem was — well — I had to write something and produce it. Not just anything. Podiobooks only accepted novel length works. I think they asked for at least five episodes, delivered weekly. Most of them ran longer but could I write a novel?

I’d started half a dozen times over the course of my life. Bought old typewriters and refurbished them for the old Dashiell Hammett feeling. Burned reams of paper. Never found a story. I spent too much effort on the image and not enough on the work. Could I do it this time? With something at stake?

Yeah. I could.

I had a friend, a fellow science fiction fan who egged me on. She read the chapters as I completed them and pushed me to make them better.

January 12, 2007, I wrote the first line of what would become my first completed novel. Which is to say I stole a famous first line from somebody else and just kept going. (I kept that gimmick for years until I ran out of lines I wanted to steal and had to make up lines of my own.)

On January 22, 2007, I finished the novel at 78k. Second draft took it over 82k and another three days. I had what I called a final draft by the 25th.

That was when I discovered I hated the sound of my own voice.

Luckily, that’s a pretty common problem. Nobody else had any problem with it so I sucked it up, printed out the first episode worth of text, and started recording in the front seat of my car. It was the quietest place I could find.

Obviously, I wasn’t driving at the time.

In mid-February, 2007, I uploaded the first episode to Podiobooks and started my publishing career.

I wrote four novels that year, including one during NaNoWriMo. None of them were very long. I got all of them onto Podiobooks by year’s end.

By that time I had about 100 listeners. Within a few months, I had 1000. At last count — sometime in 2010 — 80,000 people had downloaded the last chapter of the last book I narrated.

In the spring of 2009, I was getting half a dozen emails a month from people who wanted to read the books for themselves. I wouldn’t send them manuscripts or PDFs (Permanently Damaged Files) because I still had the idea that I might want to publish them someday.

So I did what anybody would do. I started sending out queries.

I sent out six. I got a request for some first pages, but eventually I got rejections from those who answered. Now, I thank that last agent for rejecting me.

About that time, I had occasion to chat with J C Hutchins, fellow Podiobooks alum, great writer, and supportive colleague.

He asked, “What do you want from your writing?”

I had no answer.

“Figure that out, and the rest will follow.”

It took me a couple of weeks. Money? Not really. I had a good day job, one I liked. Writing was something I just did. I wanted to keep doing it.

I kept getting the emails. “Where can I buy your books?”

I had to answer “You can’t.”

I hated that answer. So I changed it to “You can’t yet.”

Eventually I realized that the only thing I wanted from my writing was to get it into the hands and heads of readers.

That became more nuanced later on, but it’s still the core value.

I want my stories to be read.

At that exact point I realized that the best answer an agent or publisher could give me was “no.”

The problem lies in what publishers do. They sell books to bookstores, relying on the bookstores to sell them to readers. That’s if they publish them at all. Unless you’re a big name — and nobody starts out that way — your book is on one of the back pages of the quarterly catalogs. A bookseller might see it after they’ve picked up all the copies of Big Name’s latest blockbuster. If they get a few copies, they’ll go onto the shelf beside all the other books that aren’t on the front tables or end cap displays.

I mean, sure, it would be cool to see your book on a bookstore’s shelf but that just means it hasn’t been sold. Ideally, you’d like to see it sold out, but they don’t label shelves like that.

So I did what any normal person would do.

I ran some numbers.

They weren’t any better in 2009 than they are today in 2022. Only one in a hundred submissions get accepted by agents. Maybe another one in a hundred get picked up by publishers and see actual publication in a quarterly catalog.

The average advance for those books getting picked up was $3000 spread across three payments — on signing, on completed manuscript, and on publication. Only one out of ten books earned out, that is, earned the advance back in royalties. If you didn’t earn out, you didn’t get another contract. Don’t pass Go. Don’t collect $200.

If the typical royalty was a dollar per sale, that meant that only one out of ten sold 3,000 units. Most sold fewer. The latest trial testimony re Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House gave pretty stark numbers that some sold many fewer than 3,000.

Could I sell 3,000 on my own?


I did what any normal person would do.

I looked at marketing.

Up Next: What Is Marketing?

I’m old, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m old school. When I learned it back near the close of the 20th century, marketing was what you did to figure out what product or service you’d produce for which market. Basically figuring out what kind of widget you’d make to sell.

On its face, a simple process.

Step one. Where is there a need that isn’t being met? Step two. Figure out what you can do about it.

In marketing speak, these are external and internal scans.

Externally, you’re looking at market size in terms of revenue, geographic location, innovation adoption rates, and market penetration. You're looking for underserved customers or products that need improvement. The bigger the potential market, the more likely you'll be able to attract enough customers to warrant entering.

The internal scan involves what you can bring to the table. How much time and money can you spend? What special knowledge do you have? Even what kinds of things interest you enough that you’d be willing to stick with them for more than a couple of years?

Writers get it backwards for the most part. Instead of figuring out what market they want to be in, they write something. Then they’re left with trying to figure out if somebody will buy it.

In my case, I knew I needed to write a novel for my future podcast experience. I also knew I wanted to write science fiction because that’s my comfort zone. I’ve been reading it since they let me sign out books from the elementary school library.

I always picked the ones with the rocket ship or atom stickers on the spine. Do they still do that?

Anyway, that’s when I realized a couple of important factors about writing science fiction.

  1. There’s a lot of different stuff there. Near earth, first contact, time travel, military sf, space opera, science fiction romance. I can’t even tell you how many there are without looking them up.

  2. I couldn’t write better than the household names already on the shelf.

Rephrased, I needed to pick a niche and I needed to figure out a story that all those people weren’t already telling.

I needed to fine tune my scans and focus on my goal, reaching readers. I picked space opera as my target. Partly because it’s what I like to read most. Partly because I believe that space opera could be more than just the military science fiction that dominates the niche.

In marketing terms, I picked my market and differentiated my product so it would stand out on the shelves.

But how could I compete with all those big names? I’m just one guy in his basement.

Luckily marketing showed me I didn’t have to.

The big names all have one liability that I don't. They all rely on publishers to sell books to bookstores and on bookstores to sell books to readers. I only need to convince readers to give my books a try.

I never have to worry about availability because there's a 100% chance my books will be published.

My books appear on the same digital shelves as the big names, albeit at somewhat more reasonable prices. The largest bookstore in the world is on everybody's desk, available on everyone's phone. All day, every day, twenty-four/seven. Readers can even order an edition with a non-refreshable cellulose display, if they prefer.

So how do I convince readers to try my stories?

First, we need to talk about markets and media.

Conceptually, markets exist on a continuum. Mass markets, like national or even global brands, make goods and services available to the most people across the widest geographical area. Niche markets exist to provide specialized products to limited numbers of buyers.

Think about media as an abstract. Television and radio networks, large publishing houses. Or so-called “consumer brands” that provide commodity goods like toothpaste or tissues. They use mass media channels to make people aware of their goods and services.

The other end of the spectrum is niche. Niche is sometimes local but always limited in what it offers. Model railroads are niche. They only appeal to a smallish subset of any given population. Science fiction novels are — likewise — a niche. Doug’s Dog Groomers is niche because Doug runs his business out of the strip mall down the street. While a lot of people have dogs, it’s just Doug so it’s local and niche.

How do these two different scales of commerce work in this continuum?

On the mass media side, they use a lot of broadcast (one-way) communications. TV ads on national programs. Print ads in appropriate print media. Billboards. You name it. The goal is to put your message in front of everybody you can reach in the hope that some infinitesimal percentage of those people will respond favorably to your message. If you can reach a hundred million people, you may only need a fraction of a percent of them to buy your widget.

But it takes deep pockets to reach that many people at once.

In niche media, you find some of the same techniques but they tend to work best in local settings for products or services that a lot of the locals want. Restaurants. Dog groomers. Hair salons. Everybody has hair but nobody wants to leave town for a haircut.

What about global settings for niche products? Think: hobbyists like stamp collectors and model builders. Specialized mass media still works there. A limited pool of potential buyers makes this difficult but a limited number of outlets helps focus attention where it matters.

While niche media might not need deep pockets, it still needs more than pocket change.

Authors who’ve tried advertising to promote their books with ads found out pretty quickly. It can work, but making it scale and making it reliable is big ask.

Key point: Ads are mass media tools. Mass media relies on a lot of views to get a few positive responses.

Luckily there’s social media. With social media, you use a two-way channel to reach your customers. Your readers. It doesn’t cost much out of pocket to talk to people around the world and have them talk back. That “talk back” part is why it’s social media and not broadcast.

But there’s a catch.

Not only can they talk back, they can also control who talks to them. Unlike broadcast/mass market channels, if the recipient of your message doesn’t like it — or you — they can block you. They’ll never hear another word. Their willingness to put up with your promotional messages hinges on maintaining a “yes” with them. As soon as it flips to “no,” you’ve lost them forever.

So how do you let people know about your story without actually telling them? The common wisdom is “be interesting.” For a lot of people that winds up being cat pictures or dining experiences. They intersperse “oh, by the way, I wrote a book. You might like it” messages between the snappy snapshots and witty repartee. They try to find the balance point between promotional content and filler.

A concept known as social capital drives this bus and it’s based on something called social presence.

Social presence is the degree to which people perceive you as being there in any given context. In physical spaces, some people are wall flowers. They’d have a hard time getting an alibi from the cocktail party because nobody remembers they were there. They don’t earn a lot of social capital with the various attendees.

You know who does? The drunk with the lampshade on their head dancing on the coffee table.

Again, there’s a catch.

The drunk has a lot of social presence. People know he’s there alright. The catch? It’s a unilateral decision on the observer’s part. Maybe they’re amused and the social capital is positive. “That Bob. What a cut up. We’ll have to have him over for dinner.” Maybe they’re appalled and the social capital is negative, draining any goodwill away faster than a red Solo cup rolling down the stairs. On the way home they say, “That Bob. Remind me to never invite him to any of our parties.”

But poor Bob doesn’t know which is which. He might not even notice the snub until, suddenly, nobody’s inviting him to parties any more.

I think of social capital as pennies. Every time somebody reads one of my messages on social media, they make a choice. If they like it, they drop a penny in their bank. If they don’t like it they take a penny out. If the bank is empty too many times, they block me. I’ve lost them, probably forever. No matter how much they may like my next message, they won’t get it. I’m dead to them.

The logical question is “How much is too much?”

Can you do nine cat pictures and a promo? Sure. You can. How risk averse are you?

There's a non-zero probability that your mass media message won't be welcome in a social media channel. Are you willing to take the chance that your promo won't hit them the wrong way? That they didn't have a flat tire on the way home and the first thing they saw was a message about the great review you just got on your book? Are you willing to lose a few potential future readers for the sake of a few new ones now?

Most writers — rightly — hate this. It’s why they feel like marketing is icky. Of course, that’s not marketing. It’s sales and promotion, but I digress.

Personally, my approach has always been “one.” Not one a day or one a month. Not one out of every ten. Not one per time zone.

One notice on my blog. One notice on my newsletter. Just one and only to those people who, theoretically, want to see it.

Key point: The goal of niche marketing is to get your messages in front of only those people who want to see them. People sign up for the newsletter to get that message. They visit your website to find out what’s happening.

But they only follow you on social media if you’re interesting enough. As soon as you stop being interesting, you’re toast. Do they want your promotional messages cluttering up their various timelines? Maybe. Maybe not.

So how can you be interesting?

Be interested in them. Find out what books they like. What movies they’ve seen. What games they play. Share what others are doing. Talk to them, not at them. Have conversations, not speeches. Make it easy for new people to find you and your work, but don’t put the lampshade on your head.

So how do you get that new audience?

Do what any normal person would do.

Borrow one.

Up Next: Priming the Pump

The process of priming a pump involves putting a little fluid in the system so the pump has something to work with. It forces the air out so the pump can pump.

New writers need to prime the sales pump but getting those first few sales can rival the twelve labors of Hercules. So many things to do. So many moving parts. Getting advanced reader copies out to generate buzz. Chasing reviews. Cover reveals. Blog hops. Figuring out advertising. Planning release parties.

How’s a new writer supposed to do all that?

My advice: Don’t.

That’s a lot of stuff. It takes a lot of time to figure it out and more time to actually do it. That’s time a new author needs to be doing something more important. Writing the next book.

There’s a danger in priming the pump too early. Once you’ve emptied the metaphorical pond of readers, the pump stops working. In the beginning, that pond is really shallow. Maybe only a few dozen people pick up your book.

Then what?

Maybe they liked it, but it’s a one off. An artisanal potato chip packaged in its own bag. What can they do? They go read something else. Something you didn’t write.

Why didn’t they read your next book?

Because you haven’t written it yet. You were too busy with the labors of Hercules to get it written, edited, produced, and published. You spent so much time and money trying to sell your first book, you don’t have a follow up for the people you managed to sell it to. So they go away. Maybe they’ll remember six months from now. Maybe they won’t. In the meantime, your well’s run dry. The pump stopped pumping. You’ll need to prime it again.

Hercules only did his labors once. Don’t be Sisyphus, constantly having to roll that boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down with every new release.

Before you think about priming the pump, write the next book — ideally the next four — all in the same niche. If you change niches, you have to start over. It’s true that some readers read promiscuously, jumping from mysteries to thrillers to romance to gamelit, but that’s not how you build an audience.

I know that’s a big ask. What if you write all that, get it all published, and nobody likes it?

It’s possible. It might take ten or a dozen.

I got lucky after four but my work didn’t catch fire until I hit five. By the time I had eight, I crashed the Podiobooks server on Christmas eve because so many people wanted the next story.

How? Easy. I borrowed an audience to prime the pump and then kept them coming back by releasing more and more books. No ads. No blog hops. No “buy my book” social media. No ARCs. Just more books.

How do you borrow an audience? It’s not like a lawnmower you can return when you're done with your lawn.

Easy. Make allies.

I didn’t have to ask because all the Podiobooks authors talked about each other’s books to their audiences. There weren't many of us. We all knew each other, or at least of each other. We listened to each other’s work. We became allies. It’s just good practice to talk about somebody else’s work rather than your own. Much easier, too. Less like tooting your own horn. Less like “marketing.”

That was then. Now? It still works, but you have to find your people. They don’t aggregate naturally.

The answer: Social media.

Find authors in your niche. You should be reading them anyway as a matter of course. You can’t participate in the slow-motion conversation of letters if you’re not taking in what others are putting out. When you find somebody whose work you like, even admire, let them know. Reach out. Tell them how much you liked their last book.

Don’t ask for something. Give them something. Recommend their work on your reader-facing blog. Whatever it is you do to talk to the people you hope will be fans someday, tweet, toot, insta, tok about them. You can help them without permission and they will notice. Most will reciprocate when the time comes.

Caveat: Watch what they do in their own channels. Do they talk with their readers or just other authors? Do they just talk about their own books or are they active participants in a wider conversation? Are they authentic? Do they have a positive social presence?

A tip I got early on was to start talking to the fans I didn’t have yet. Don’t waste time talking about how to manage your time as a writer or the thirteen plot points needed to save the cat.

Talk to them about things readers want to know about. Things like when’s the next book coming or where you’ll be appearing at a convention. (Local cons are great places to meet potential fans.) One of my colleagues always operated as if he had thousands of readers, even when he only had a dozen. Now he has multiple thousands of readers. Still talks to them the same way.

Eventually, you’ll be able to turn to your allies and maybe ask for a cover blurb for your next release. I’ve had allies-turned-friends ask for help promoting a new release. Knowing their work, liking their work, it was a no-brainer. Of course, I helped.

Note the key words “eventually” and “knowing/liking.” Another important concept involves social capital and how you spend it.

Don’t recommend a book your audience won’t like. It could be the next Great American Novel, but if your audience is cozy mysteries, they might not appreciate it.

Every time you recommend a book, you’re risking social capital. If you’re right and the readers like the recommendation, you might add a bit of social capital in their account. If you’re not, you’ll lose a bit. The more capital you have with the individual reader, the more likely they’ll take your next recommendation positively. Your social capital balance becomes a measure of your influence. You want that balance to be as high as possible.

Of course, the more positively they respond, the more social capital you’ll earn with the other author as well. You become a stronger ally in their eyes.

But — as always — there’s a catch.

How do you write and publish that many books before you know if anybody will like them?

Go back to marketing. Your internal scan should tell you whether or not you’re a writer. Writers write. Steve Jobs had the right of it. Real artists ship.

Your internal scan might tell you, that one or two was all you had. You gave it a shot and now you’re ready to move on to something you’re more in tune with.

Maybe you need to put it down temporarily.

Maybe you want to write but can’t figure out how to keep doing it. It can be expensive, both in time and money.

I ran into that problem and did what any normal person would do.

I ran the numbers.

Up Next: By the Numbers

Being risk averse, I’m always trying to figure out the probability of various actions. Probabilities become important when real money’s on the table, as when you’re shelling out cash for cover art or editing — the only actual production costs authors should incur.

Not to say we don’t pay for other things.

Self-pubbed authors have fixed overhead costs in addition to the cost of actually producing the book. Infrastructure like websites and email list services. Software. Heck, even printers, ink, and paper, if you swing that way. Those are all fixed cost. They're the price of doing business you'll incur every month and not the variable costs associated with producing a particular book.

So when I advise people to write five novels in a single niche before trying to prime the pump on sales, I’m aware that I’m asking people to put real money at risk.

Writers who pursue the traditional path incur those costs as soon as the book gets picked up. They just don't see it. The publisher figures out how much a book needs to earn before they even set eyes on a manuscript. If they don’t think the book will sell enough units to offset the cost of covers, editing, layout, and all the other variable expenses along with a generous slice of their fixed overhead, they won’t take it. If the book doesn’t earn that much, the writer won’t get another contract from that publisher. They may not get the rights back either.

Writers who self-publish need to do their own accounting to figure out how much they can afford to spend to produce their books.

I’ve seen some pretty horrific numbers coming from new authors. Authors spending way too much for their first novel, beggaring themselves and sacrificing later work on the altar of “let’s see if anybody likes this one.”

Tip: They don’t.

Taking costs in order:

Unless you’ve got a few thousand dollars stashed away to start this new business, go with a premade cover. They can be had for under a $100. I haven’t checked lately but they used to be available for under $50. Google has a nice list of pre-made cover providers. It’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours between writing sessions. I know people who’ve bought a whole series worth of covers before they even wrote the books, but they weren’t new writers trying to finance a startup.

Editing is the biggest expense. Figure out how much you can afford to spend in a year and divide that by the number of books you intend to publish. That’s how much you should spend on editing for any given book. You’re unlikely to earn that money back for a very long time on your earliest works. Budget accordingly.

Speaking of numbers, if that number of books isn't greater than one, it’s going to be a long time before you’ve got enough work out there to get a foothold in the marketplace. That’s why it’s important that new authors don’t fritter away their time trying to interest readers in their first novel at the expense of growing their catalog.

A good first novel release might net $50–$100 in the first month and a few dollars for the next few months before petering out to zero. It’s pump failure as the pool of readers dries up. If yours does better than that, rock on. Few new authors manage $1000 on the first book in the first year. Some first novels sell pretty well, particularly if the author has done a good job networking with other authors.

I bring this up to temper your expectations about first novel launches. A lot will depend on what you write and what you price the book at.

In the US, romance, action/thriller, and speculative fiction account for upwards of 70% of all fiction sold. If you’re writing outside those genres, you’re going to have a harder time. Not impossible, but remember romance earns the right to be the queen. Do not speak against the throne, but recognize the rest of us only share left overs from the royal table. Luckily it’s a big table.

Form matters, too. Novels sell better than shorter works.

Novellas had a renaissance early on in ebook history. They’re still out there. People still write them. They still sell. The shorter form isn’t necessarily better. They can cost less to get edited, but you can't charge as much for them either.

Some readers like short stories, but shorts are a notorious hard sell. There are too few markets for them. Anthologies come along occasionally. It’s possible to put a few together in a collection of your own, but shorts are a tough market to break even in. My hat’s off for anybody who writes short fiction.

The basic rule: If you write in a niche that nobody reads, there’s a good chance nobody will read your book, too.

I’ve talked about costs. What about revenue?

Economics has some words to help us. Price flexibility of demand is the degree to which a buyer will pay a higher cost for the same or similar product. Generally speaking, the more something costs, the fewer people can/will buy it. Economists plot this on a graph as a curve with cost on one axis and units sold on the other. That curve always has an inflection point where sales for a given product decline as the price of that product rise.

For ebooks, that inflection point was $4.99 for a very long time. There wasn’t much difference between $2.99 (the lowest price Amazon allowed authors to earn a 70% margin) and $5.00. Anything above $5 and the number of units sold tapered off. Above $6 and those numbers dropped sharply.

That told me that readers’ price flexibility of demand stalled around $5. That became the optimal price for me. Enough revenue to support me and the optimal number of units sold to support audience growth.

It’s also why traditional publishers window ebook prices at prices above $10 in order to make the physical copies more attractive to readers. Once they’ve sold as many hard copies as they can, they’ll lower the price of ebooks to just under the $10 price mark. It helps them with their narrative when dealing with bookstores and their stance that ebooks don’t sell very many units so authors don’t need to think about them.

But I digress.

Economics has another useful concept — fungibility. Nothing to do with mushrooms. It’s the degree to which some product might be substituted for another.

Brand loyalty keeps you buying whatever commodity you buy, like toothpaste. In a pinch, say the store is out of your brand, you might buy another. Commodities like toothpaste have high fungibility. You can substitute one for another.

Other goods have fungibility. Potatoes as a starchy veg can substitute for rice and vice versa. Depending on your geography, you may eat more of one than the other but from a dietary standpoint, they serve the same basic function as — say — bread. They’re not quite equal. It’s not as similar as brands of toothpaste, but still fungible.

Books are a different matter. Books have very low fungibility. Sure we read the stories we like but even within genre niches you know the authors you like and the ones you don’t. The lack of fungibility becomes significantly pronounced when you switch genres. Almost nobody would accept a Clive Cussler novel because Nora Roberts was sold out.

Niche matters here because fungibility matters to the reader. Once they’ve read the top twenty books in their niche, fungibility suggests they’ll take a chance on an unknown rather than switch niches. Not a hundred percent, but enough that it’s worth staying close to your reader by giving them something that’s available in a genre they like when their preferred brand has run out.

That’s where your book picks up readers organically while other books dominate the charts. You don’t need to be a best seller. You just need to be available.

It might seem hard to believe but heavy readers will go through the top 10 or 20 books in a matter of a couple of weeks and are left looking for something else to read. Since a lot of those titles camp out in the top slots, those readers have to look further down the list before they find something they haven't read. Having your books there waiting for them is one way you move up in rank.

Stepping back, it should be obvious that a writer can’t make a living from people reading only one book a year. Even one a month. We make bank on the heavy readers plowing through four or more books a week. They don’t all read genre fiction but enough do that it matters what you write.

But back to risk. What risk is most important to you?

From the beginning, I wanted to get my books in the hands — and ears — of readers. Traditional publishing puts too many obstacles in that path. The chance that my stories might not get to readers is too great. I have to convince an agent, or at least an acquisitions editor to take a chance on the story. The publisher has to try to convince bookstores to stock it. Bookstores have to convince readers to read it.

All for a book by an author nobody ever heard of.

Along the way, publishers want me to do things that, honestly, I’m not willing to do. Mostly because they’re stupid, mass media attempts to use mass market tools in social media channels. Blogging. Tweeting. Instagram and Tik-Tok. All to promote your book by cover reveals and insider tips on how the book got written and why the character they loved so much had to be killed off. This stuff also takes time away from the single most important thing I can do. Writing the next book. Nothing sells your last book better than the current one.

For me, the risk of traditional publishing is too great. The payoffs are too small to offset the risk.

By doing it myself, I can guarantee that readers at least have a chance to get my books. I always have a 100% chance the books appear on the shelves of the largest digital bookstores in the world.

I’m blessed that my audience built slowly over a couple of years before my income from writing matched, then exceeded, the income from my day job. My catalog has grown enough that my income exceeds my wildest expectations.

I just needed to be careful how I primed the pump.

Up Next: Interaction, Engagement, Influence

The goal of any sales and promotion effort centers around getting people to buy the product or service. Social media focuses on interaction and engagement as proxies – or sometimes pre-requisites – for influence (what the literature calls authority).

You see it when agents and publishers require writers to participate in social media channels, then judge them on how many friends or follows they have. They require a certain level of likes and comments to prove that the writer has a sufficiently large following to be worth investing in.

The problems become obvious when you start analyzing what each of those three terms mean.

Interaction consists of the easiest form of response. It's the knee-jerk “like” or “re-tweet” or “boost.” A reader saw the message and blessed it, likely without even remembering they did it a minute later. This can give the message's author a nice warm feeling but it doesn't really mean the post had any effect on the reader. They didn't need to think about the response.

Engagement takes things to the next level. A reply to any social media posting requires the reader to process the message at a deeper level in order to compose a response – even the most shallow or trite one. That deeper level of processing makes engagement something different from interaction.

But the goal is not to garner either interaction or engagement. The goal is to get the reader to react positively to your message.

Maybe you want them to buy your book. Maybe you just want them to sign up for your newsletter. Whatever action you want them to take needs to go beyond the simple “talk to me” responses typified by interaction and engagement.

But that action doesn't happen on social media. It happens in your newsletter sign-up or the book's storefront. Your success isn't measured by likes or replies, but rather new sign-ups or sales.

Worse, those actions don't correspond to the observed instances of interaction and engagement.

Sure, some of those people like your posts and chat with you, but the largest component of any audience consists of the people you never heard from. They're the lurkers who operate from the shadows or perhaps never look at social media at all.

Lurkers are the real audience for social media marketing. For every person who follows, friends, and likes you, there can be a hundred you never know about. Your voice becomes amplified beyond what you can see from the stage and into the dark recesses of the balcony.

You might see them signing up for your newsletter but unless you sell books on your own site, you'll never know who bought your book. Was it somebody who follows you on social media? Or somebody who heard about it by observing a conversation?

Maybe it's just a person who bought it because their friend recommended it to them.

You don't know. You can't know.

Which is why chasing interaction and engagement can be a frustrating and – sometimes – pointless activity.

While having them is nice, what you really need is influence.

Up Next: Very Superstitious

Superstition: (noun) An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.[1]

These days my life seems to revolve around song cues. Tunes pop into my head, infecting me with earworms until I figure out why that song stays on repeat. Today it's the old Stevie Wonder song “Superstition.”

I think the cause is all the talk I'm seeing about reviews on the Toot-place. Writers turning themselves inside out to get more reviews so they can get more sales. It's all very superstitious and a waste of time.

Reviews do not drive sales. Sales drive reviews.

Logic suggests, if you want more reviews, then sell more books.

A lot of writers fight me on this. If reviews drove sales then my books with the most reviews would be getting the most sales. That's patently false. My oldest books are the ones with the most reviews, because they have the most cumulative sales.[2]

It's not just my books. It's everybody's books. The longer they're out in the marketplace, the more they sell. The more they sell, the larger the population of reviewers becomes so the reviews accumulate.

The dynamic I see repeated time and again?

A new author releases their first book and panics, believing the myth that they need fifty reviews before magical, good things happen. They scramble around, talk up the book. As the word spreads, more sales accrue which results in more reviews. The author sees more reviews and thinks that the reviews caused the new sales.

In statistics we call that correlation without causation. The two statistics are correlated, but the cause of the one – sales – is not the other – reviews. That link goes the opposite way.

Maybe it's clearer if you consider that it's impossible to review a book you haven't read without lying.

How do readers get books?

They buy them or get them from the library. Advance reader copies consist of pre-publication giveaways. They represent no-cost sales. The author trades their current time and focus – along with future revenue – for those potential reviews under the belief that a future potential reader, seeing the review, will treat that title more generously.

That dynamic underscores the point.

If the author hadn't sold the book (at a zero price) to the advance reader, they wouldn't be able to get a review.

Why do writers spend so much time and effort to get reviews in the first place?

One valid reason: They need some number of reviews before they can submit a book to one of the promotional sites.

Whether that will make a difference in the long run remains an unknown. Promotional sites can be boom or bust. Roll the dice and see what happens. At least that's a reason based on logic.

I don't buy the social proof argument.

Most readers find reviews on Amazon or its step-child Goodreads. The potential reader is already looking at the book's cover. They're seeing the product description and the cumulative star rating. The author has already done the heavy lifting by getting their book in front of a potential reader.

The argument for social proof holds that readers look at the reviews to decide whether or not the book is worth the time and money after they've already decided to look at the book.

My counter argument is that they only look to confirm the decision they've already made.

They've already made the effort to look up the book. They've seen the cover and description. Most people will reject it within a few seconds unless they see something they like.

At that point the potential reader – having already invested effort to find the book, look at the cover, and read the first few lines of the description – must decide whether or not to take the plunge.

The social proof argument holds that the potential reader will scroll down the page to find the reviews in order to make up their mind.

I see three situations.

  1. The reader doesn't like something. Maybe the cover. Maybe the description. Maybe the price. They're disposed to reject it but they need a reason, so they look at the reviews to confirm that decision. “Oh, look! See? too much swearing! I hate that.” Without reviews, this reader would have already passed.
  2. The reader likes something, but not all of it. Again, cover, description, price are okay but maybe the star rankings aren't high enough. They disposed to sample/buy but they need a reason. They look at the reviews to confirm their decision. “Oh, look! See? Too much swearing! Sounds great!” Without reviews, this reader would have already bought.
  3. The reader is a true edge case. They really like the cover, but the description leaves them flat, or vice versa. Could there be something in the reviews that helps? Without reviews, this reader would probably flip a metaphorical coin. I'm not convinced that this is the most common situation.

I acknowledge that some readers just like to spend time reading about reading and religiously check the reviews to see what other people wrote about the writing. Those aren't the heavy readers I'm looking for.

My personal stance: Just sample the book and see for yourself.

It doesn't usually take much time to read enough of the sample to decide to toss it. You can take the “Look Inside” option right on the Amazon page to see the opening paragraphs. I also know how easily the review process can be gamed. I don't trust it, especially for an author I never heard of before.

For me, chasing reviews isn't worth the time or effort. That's effort better spent writing the next book.

Believing that reviews make a significant positive difference in sales?

Very superstitious.

Up Next:A Bucket of Pennies

  1. Def. retrieved from Wordnik and credited to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  2. Well, except for that one book that pissed the fans off. That got a lot of reviews quickly but that's a different story.

A lot of people worry about going all-in with Amazon. What if he starts charging self-publishers to publish? What if he stops letting us publish there? What if it all goes away tomorrow? What do we do?

They're valid concerns. The world seems to have more than its share of billionaires gone wild. Diversification into the wider network of tiny outlets, taking the smaller levels of sales across a wide collection of storefronts makes a certain sense.

Using a distributor like Draft2Digital can take the tedium out of managing all those stores for a small piece of the action. For a lot of reasons, going wide makes sense for some authors.

Financially, the question comes down to whether you think you can do better with the wider collection than you could within Amazon's ecosystem of sales and Kindle Unlimited subscriptions.

I started wide, but over the years, my non-Amazon revenue fell from 10% to 5% while my Amazon revenue doubled. I was never able to get any traction on all those smaller markets. I chose to go all-in late in 2015 and haven't looked back.

Would it be the same today? I don't know, but I know I'm too risk averse to cut out 60% of my income on the chance that those other, smaller, markets in aggregate would cover the loss. They're called “golden handcuffs” for a reason.

But the risk of Amazon changing the terms? Of cutting me out? Other than some fluke of digital mayhem, I've never worried about Amazon's terms changing to disadvantage me too much.

First, the commitment for my text editions is only ninety days. If things go really west, I can pull out. Yes, I'd have to rebuild but that's why I keep a website and maintain a mailing list. I can't keep all my current readers, but I can keep enough of them to reboot the business. I always have a backup plan for when it all goes wrong.

Second, I'm making hay while the sun shines. The money coming to me stays with me. It's a lot of money but I'm aware that the stream may dry up one day. I'm salting it away like Ebenezer Scrooge was running my budget. Someday I might want to retire and I'll need it then.

Third, I understand that Amazon is not just the name of the company. It's the business model for the enterprise.

Imagine you have a big bucket of pennies. You stood on the street corner with a sign that said “Buy a Penny – $1” and every day people line up around the block to buy your pennies.

How soon would you stop selling pennies?

Now imagine that about once a day, somebody gives you $10 for a penny. You never know who, or if, but over time you figure out that about once a day some shmuck will pay you $10 for one of your pennies.

How soon would you stop selling pennies?

Imagine that once a month somebody pays you $100. Once a quarter somebody gives you $1000. Once a year somebody buys a penny and gives you $100,000 for it.

You don't know who. You just know that one of the people lined up to pay $1 for a penny is going to be your jackpot.

How soon would you stop selling pennies? What incentive would you have to make it more difficult to buy the penny?

The value isn't in the individual sale. It's in the random payoffs that come out of the blue from a flood of people who just pay the dollar.

That's what self-publishers are to Amazon. They spend a penny. They earn at least a buck. Sometimes they earn a million bucks, but they never know which penny will pay out big.

Just like the river system in South America, Amazon collects a massive stream of small payouts into a torrent of revenue. Some of it comes from the people who just manage to cover the dollar. Some more of it comes from the people who make a few more sales. Most of it comes from the self-publishers and small presses who manage to earn six- and even seven-figures a year. They sometimes publish how many people earn certain thresholds each year. The last numbers I saw showed that over 1000 authors earned six figures and nine or ten earned over a million. Those earning at least $50,000 numbered in the multiple thousands.

That was then. I suspect it's a little different now, but a lot of self-publishers are still in the game.

As for Amazon, they're still selling pennies. They're still not sure which of those pennies are going to pay off. They'd be stupid to make it harder or do anything to throttle that cash cow.

I can believe Amazon might be a lot of things. Venal. Greedy. Demanding. Possibly, evil.

But I can't believe Amazon is stupid.

Up Next: About the Algorithms

I keep reading about how Amazon's algorithm did this and that. How it buried this book or uses reviews to determine ranking. Here's what I've learned about them.

First, it's not the algorithm. Amazon has at least three – Bestseller, Popularity, and Recommendations – that control what gets displayed on any of their lists and pages.

Second, from our side of the screen, they're all black boxes. We have no direct knowledge of what they use or how they work. Which isn't to say we haven't been able to make some educated guesses based on the data going in and the data coming out.

Are we right? Hard to tell, but what we believe continues to accurately predict outcomes within a narrow range of variability.


If you start with a specific title, scroll down to see that books sales rank, you can click the links to find the bestseller list for that category. You can also search on the term “bestsellers” to find the master list.

The best seller algorithm uses daily sales units, almost exclusively, to determine a books rating. It uses a weighted average that gives more weight to current sales than recent past. Those sales are also windowed. The algorithm ignores sales numbers that occurred too long ago.

It's why you see a book's ranking drop precipitously about a week or ten days after launching. Authors who spend a lot of time and effort to pump up that first day have little or no support for follow through sales going forward. It's one of the liabilities of pre-orders. Readers like them, but it screws up the title's visibility after launch by front loading all those pre-orders which then get aged out of the ranking calculation.

A common myth holds that the number of reviews matters. That Amazon won't give a sales rank until you get some number of reviews. The most common number I hear is 50. That's patently false. I've had sales rank show up on my books in as little as a day with fewer than a dozen reviews.

One theory holds that Amazon waits for certain days of the week and runs a batch process to update all the product description pages at once. It makes as much sense as anything else.

Key point: Your bestseller rating is a number based on your sales, but your rank is based on everybody else's rank. If your rank is 1000, that means 999 books have a rating number higher than yours at that moment. There's got to be a tie-breaker calculation in there but it's likely to be the variability of sales during the algorithm's window period. They favor consistent sales over spikes. Even relatively low rankings will give you better visibility – and earn more revenue – if they're consistent.

Note that this gets updated hourly and every book in the store gets a new position based on that calculation. For books with a sales rank above 100,000, best seller ranks can change drastically and in unexpected directions. Sure your book may have sold more in the last hour, but with over six million books lower than 100,000, it would only take a few of them moving up to drop your higher rating into a lower rank. If your big sales day earlier in the week aged out of the calculation, today's rank will be lower in spite of the current uptick in sales.


If you browse books by category, you'll find the popularity list. This list uses the bestseller rank weighted by price to adjust the book's position on the list. You will occasionally see books with higher sales rank listed below titles with higher cover prices. It's not a big difference, but it's a difference.

The category lists used to be more prominent and more important for ebooks. New Kindle owners had little to go by beyond what genres they liked. As the flood of new Kindle users has waned, this list has fallen in importance for reader driven, serendipitous discovery.


There are a few different recommendation engines. One recommends books you might like at the bottom of a particular book's page. A different list shows up when you just look at the top level of the Kindle bookstore. The selections are context sensitive but based on the books you've bought and even the books you've looked at.

You have some control of these, although getting to the actual settings via a three-dot menu can be aggravating. Once there, you'll be presented with a long list of previous purchases that you can set to use or ignore for future recommendations. If you buy a lot of gifts, this can be helpful.


Amazon does promote self-published books without asking for payment. They send out email promos all the time – at least once a week. Genre related titles to the ones you've looked at but not purchased (including your own) feature regularly. It's their way of asking “Are you still interested in this book?” but they recommend other titles from that niche.

They also send out invitations to participate in promotional activities at least once a quarter. The factors influencing that algorithm remain unknown. Almost certainly, you need sufficient presence in the market through the number of books in your catalog and/or your overall sales for them to notice you. Anything beyond that is speculation.

Watch the inbox associated with your account. They'll email you an invitation which you'll need to accept in order to be included. Amazon reps have said that they invite way more people than respond, so keep an eye open. Most of them don't result in much but sometimes a little bit of help is all you need.

Final Point

Amazon does not block books except for some morality issues, mostly putting erotica in the ghetto.

Yes, authors get caught sideways by Amazon. It's rare, but it happens.

It's why you always own your own piece of the internet by having a website and an email list. Those two things will give you a fall back position and you can begin exploring the wide world beyond Amazon.

Up Next: Practice Makes Perfect

But what practice are you trying to perfect?

In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell posited that to become really good at something (other than sports), you needed to practice for about 10,000 hours. He's been quick to point out that the 10,000 hours of practice isn't enough by itself.

James Clear espouses the concept of “deliberate practice.” He describes a mindfulness approach to practice involving experimenting and refining. He also points out that you need feedback – usually measurement and coaching. Without the feedback, it's only repetition.

Repeating the same mistake over and over just makes it harder to stop.

New writers have been told to write a million words and throw them away. Maybe it was David Eddings. Perhaps Jerry Pournelle or Ray Bradbury. Maybe even Elmore Leonard[1], but the point being that it takes that long to get good.

But where do writers get valid feedback?

Clear points to coaching.

A good mentor can help a new writer. Working with such a mentor is the gold standard of coaching but busy writers have their own work to publish. Finding the right mentor can feel like trying to find a marriage partner. Right or wrong, a mentor can change your life “for better or worse” as the saying goes.

A lot of writers swear by critique groups. The upside to them rests on the supposed expertise of your fellow group members. The downside comes when the critic's vision for what your story needs to be doesn't match your own. Or when the feedback feels more like “I needed to find something wrong so I'm going to hammer on this.”

Some writers hire editors to do a developmental edit on the manuscript to help point out the flaws that might be invisible to the author. We tend to see what we think is on the page, after all, not necessarily what's actually written. This can be expensive over the course of your apprenticeship. It suffers from the same drawbacks as critique groups. Most developmental editors have a framework. If your story doesn't fit that frame – like you're trying for a four-act, kishōtenketsu story but the editor keeps trying to shoehorn it into three-acts with appropriate stakes to drive the story forward.

I am not knocking either of those two paths. Finding some good experienced writers or editors to pursue your craft with can be beneficial. Choosing the correct critique group or editor feels a lot like dating. If your partner only wants you do it their way, it might not be a good fit.

Beta readers offer another path. You offer the book to some trusted readers to tell you what they think of it. For new writers, finding those readers can be nigh on impossible. For established writers, finding good ones takes time and effort.

I've seen authors ask beta readers to fill out a 20-question survey about the story in detail. That's probably not a good approach when you're asking somebody to do you a favor. Personally, I ask “Does the story work for you?” and let it go at that. I usually get a lot more feedback, but I leave it up to them as to how much or how little.

Again, “This was great!” is less than optimal, but welcome, nevertheless. I always keep in mind the advice Neil Gaiman gives:

“Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

If coaching seems problematic, then measurement must be pointless.

You can only measure so many things. Hours spent putting words on the page. The number of words you put on the page today. The number of cups of your favorite beverage it took you to spend those hours and write those words.

None of those things really matter if you're not thinking about what you're doing. If you're not experimenting and refining. You can't really measure an experiment except by trying it out and that means publishing.

What's the point of writing something and stuffing it in a drawer? A lot of authors have done it. While we occasionally hear about somebody's work being discovered after they've died, I suspect some real geniuses have never been discovered because their heirs just tossed the piles of paper out.

Those seeking the traditional path have the worst path to walk. Submitting manuscripts into the void, competing for the limited openings. They measure their progress by how many rejections they get, how many partial – even full – requests that didn't pan out.

Some will look at their writing and think “I need to get better” without considering that the rejection might have nothing to do with the work and more to do with the fact that the publisher just signed a book last week that's too similar to the one you sent them. Or they're having a bad day at the coffee machine. Or they didn't like your query letter. You just never know. It can take you weeks or months before you get any actual feedback from an agent or publisher and years before the books get offered to readers.

What do you do in the meantime?

Self-published authors offer their books to readers within a few weeks. I'm not suggesting the process is any less rigorous in terms of production and distribution. Just that the author can agree with their editors or not. At least that got the feedback. True, the books might not sell but that's hardly different from being traditionally published.

The abbreviated timeline represents something more important to a writer.


We're trained to make things better. We draft and polish until the story shines. Sometimes we polish too much, taking the edge off and ruining it.

What we're not trained in is letting go. Pushing the ugly duckling out of the nest to swim on its own for better or worse.

You want feedback? Get it from readers. Even not selling is feedback of a sort.

The first few books will fall flat. You'll be tempted to shotgun a bunch of niches to see which one you get traction in. That's seldom effective, but a lot of people try it.

Getting your first novel out the door represents a giant step on the road to improving your writing. Once it's gone, you can look back and think about what you might have done differently, perhaps better. Maybe the ending could have been stronger. Was the main character too perfect? Or maybe too stupid?

Reflecting on what you wanted from the story compared to what you got can be pretty effective feedback. You have to let it go – publish it – before you can reflect in any kind of meaningful way. Without that step, you're just doing another draft. A draft that may not be better, might even be worse.

It's just repetition, not deliberate practice.

Next up: All-in Or Wide?

1. Woodward, K., “One Million Words To Competency,” Who Said It First?” March 14, 2014.

Not to get all Coke/Pepsi on you, but this question keeps coming up. It follows the same tradpub vs selfpub argument format. One side is right and the other isn't.

We don't do well with nuance, it seems.

The terms refer to whether a self-published author goes all-in with an exclusive arrangement with Amazon or sells to the wider markets in addition to Amazon or even without Amazon.

Proponents of going wide cite the aggregated amount of non-Amazon revenue as a primary focus. It's a good one. Probably the right one. The amount is always larger than Amazon's contribution to their bottom line.

Writing can be expensive. Finding the best path to generate revenue never goes out of style.

Some will prefer the argument about diversification of risk. If one market goes away, they're at less risk of a revenue collapse. Perhaps they focus on the various genres they write and some markets do better with different genres.

It makes sense. For somebody writing in diverse genres like billionaire romance and international thriller, niches might work better.

Still others will take the ethical line. They won't do business with Amazon because of the way they treat their workers and suppliers. You really can't fault somebody for trying to do good in the world.

All-in people have a different perspective. They see the golden handcuffs as a worthy price to pay. They believe that the benefits in time, effort, and income outweigh the liabilities of dining with the devil, even with a short spoon.

Different people, different writers, different goals. They all make sense. To them. Not so much to others.

The key piece to this puzzle involves how each of us came to the conclusion we have.

Me? I started wide when I began publishing text editions of my books early in 2010. I stayed wide until late 2015.

For me, the decision rested on a single observed reality. Over that period, my sales increased a hundred fold. The contribution from non-Amazon sources shrank from 10% to under 5%.

When Amazon started the re-vamped Kindle Unlimited program, I looked at my non-Amazon numbers and decided to give it a try. A 90-day commitment felt like the right experiment to make. It didn't cost me much to give up the non-Amazon sales. (Sorry to both my iBooks readers. You were great.)

Honestly, coming back from being wide took a lot more than 90 days and I couldn't get into the exclusive program until I could get all the little international stores to pull the books. I eventually resorted to filing the equivalent of DMCA takedown notices on a couple.

When I finally got into KU, the improved revenue kept me there. I never left. The 90 days turned in to years.

But that's me and my experience.

Others have had the opposite experience with not finding much traction on Amazon, so they move to wide. Perhaps it's because of the length of catalog or the genre niche. Perhaps they're basing their decision on the risks involved with a single point of failure or the ethical issues of dealing with Amazon.

What ever the reason, they're right. For them.

Maybe we could just take a step back from the us versus them crap and just admit that we're all writers who want to get our stories to readers the best ways we know how.

Up Next: Finagling Finance