Recent Misconceptions

I follow an extremely famous genre fiction author on Tumblr, and a few weeks back this author answered a question from his inbox. It went something like this.

Q: I have finished my first novel, had it professionally edited and even commissioned cover art. I haven’t been able to get an agent to represent me and I don’t know what to do now. Do you have any advice?

A: Write the next one. The truth is, the first book may not be good enough. Keep writing, get better, and keep trying.

Now, this isn’t necessarily bad advice. It’s very possible the book in question isn’t ‘good enough’, because that describes a lot of books, although: that isn’t why agents and publishers reject books, or not entirely why. They reject books they don’t think will sell, which isn’t a quality assessment; its a marketing evaluation.

But that part isn’t my problem with this. My problem is that this is incomplete advice.

This is an example of a publishing industry machine that hasn’t entirely caught up with the times. I don’t fault the extremely famous genre fiction author who gave this advice, because he’s right in the middle of that machine, and when he started out this was valid, specifically because traditional publishing was the only game in town.

It’s no longer the only game, though, which is why this is incomplete advice. The rest of the advice is, hey, you can also self-publish that book.

There continues to be resistance to the idea that self-publishing/indie publishing is a viable option. At least once a month a new article comes out announcing that doing it yourself isn’t a key to success because most self-published authors make less than $500 a year or whatever metric they feel like rolling out.

And you know what? That’s true. The problem is that nobody ever looks at the other side of the publishing aisle to see what’s going on over there.

If you manage to run the gauntlet between agent and publisher and get your debut book published by a major publisher, I have some bad news for you: there is a very good chance that advance you got is all the money you’re going to see from that book.

No? Okay, let me put it another way.

Let’s say the guy who asked the extremely famous genre fiction author that question went out and published his professionally edited book himself, and let’s say he makes only $500 in a calendar year from that book. That’s $500 more than he made from the traditional publishing deal he never got for that year. And if he did that before spending two years trying to land an agent (so that agent could spend two years trying to get a publishing deal) he would have been working on that next book a whole lot sooner.

Having said all of that, it’s possible the person who asked that question wasn’t actually interested in making money off of their book.

I’m not really kidding. He’s not the only one, either.

There’s a thing in self-publishing called chasing letters. What it’s about is getting to either the USA Today or New York Times bestseller list. (The letters, then, are USAT and NYT.) The argument is that by making one of those lists, one has made it in some demonstrable way, and can put that label on all of future correspondences and sell more books because readers will be more inclined to buy a book from a NYT Bestselling Author.

Enough people are interested in getting these letters that they’re doing some things that are (in my personal opinion) completely nuts. For example: getting one of your novels into a book bundle containing nineteen other novels from nineteen other authors, putting the entire bundle up for $0.99, and setting up a long lead-time for preordering. Then, advertising the living hell out of it—at great cost—to get the preorders above a certain threshold, so that when the bundle is released, it rockets to the top of all the bestseller charts.

A week later, after the NYT and USAT lists have been published, the bundle can get unpublished and, (as I imagine it) slink somewhere.

Now, I can go in front of a roomful of indie writers and describe that, and at least half of them will say that’s good, clever marketing. Pretty much anybody not associated with the industry will go, what the actual fuck?

Nobody’s making any money off these bundles, (with the possible exception of the person who organized it, depending on how honest they’re being about advertising costs,) so the only remaining goals are:

  1. exposure from people discovering your book in the pile of twenty they’ve downloaded;
  2. the letters.

To the first point… maybe. This is arguably a less effective way to get your novel onto a reader’s Kindle than making your book free, because at least then someone saw the cover and read the blurb and decided to pull the trigger on it. But still, it made it onto someone’s Kindle, so: maybe.

To the second point, even assuming (as we are) that nobody is calling themselves “1/20th of a NYT Bestseller”, those letters aren’t going to be moving any books. I’m sorry, but hardly anybody cares.

However, they do get to call themselves a NYT Bestselling Author, and maybe that was what they were after.

Which brings me back to the point: maybe that writer spent two years trying to get an agent because the most important thing to them is to go into a bookstore and see their book on the shelf, with a Penguin/Random House symbol on the spine, and they’re not getting that from the indie market.

If that’s why you’re doing it, you aren’t in it for the money. Just like the indie writers chasing letters, you’re doing it for some other reason.

If you’re trying to succeed as a fiction writer in today’s industry there are a few things that you have to understand, because the marketplace is drastically different than the one either of us grew up in.

  • The odds that you will earn enough to quit the day job and write full-time are extremely bad, but they are far better in indie publishing than in traditional publishing.

For a work of fiction, advances are $5K-$10K for  first-time novel, if the author is very lucky. I’m not going to throw around royalty numbers, but that’s just not a lot of money. I know indie authors who make at least that much per year, and quite a few authors who make that and more every month. Perhaps these are still exceptions to the rule, but once again: that advance is probably all you’re making. Not ‘per year’, period.

  • The odds of earning some money from indie publishing are the same as the odds of earning no money from traditional publishing: very good.

Again, you aren’t earning anything while waiting for someone to decide whether or not to publish your book. Put the book in a drawer and go write the next one is no longer good advice.

  • The letters are meaningless unless there are sales behind them.

They will not get you sales; they are meant to be proof of sales. (Whether or not they are this either is a separate argument.)

and most importantly:

  • Maybe don’t go to someone who broke into publishing over twenty years ago for advice on how to break into publishing.

Their advice is probably going to be dated.

Join my mailing list for announcements of new blog posts like this one, and to receive my weekly newsletter Writing from the border of Sorrow Falls. You can sign up from here.

Liked it? Take a second to support Gene Doucette on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on November 3, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    That kind of behavior – cheating your way onto a list – has always annoyed me.

    It depends on most of the buyers NOT figuring out what is going on – or the ethical potholes of claiming yourself to be a NYT bestselling authors based on 1/20th of a $.99 boxed set would gag most of the readers. Or maybe they’re not that picky.

    It’s smoke and mirrors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon banned it as a legitimate claim for an author’s further books.

    And no, that’s not because I’m not in such a set. It’s just that I don’t respect an author who does that. So I’m probably not their intended audience anyway.

    They’d probably say that some readers would at least read their work, as a result of the promotion. That’s fine. It’s the ‘letters’ claims that debases the whole system (although, for those in the know, with the manipulations of the NYTimes made to the lists, they are lucky readers give them any credit already).

    Go ahead and play games if you like. At some point, people are going to read your work, and that’s where pie hits fan.

Leave a Comment