Business Musings: Things Indie Writers Learned in 2014

Business Musings Business Rusch Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

I’d love to say nothing, but that’s not true—if we’re discussing indie writers who have remained in the business for several years. There will always be new indie writers who know very little, and there will always be those with “experience” who turn a year or two worth of sales into a know-it-all platform.

However, those indie writers who’ve been at this since the beginning of the self-publishing revolution in 2009 have learned a lot in 2014. Like last week’s piece, “What Traditional Publishing Learned in 2014,” [link], this week’s will be my opinion. Next week, I’ll examine what I learned (or relearned) in 2014, before moving to brand-new topics.

A few bits of organizational business: Unlike my previous two blog series, The Freelancer’s Survival Guide  and The Business Rusch, Business Musings will appear irregularly. Sometimes it’ll show up in the old Thursday slot like last week’s, and sometimes it’ll show up on a different day like this week’s. Sometimes it’ll be long (like this week), sometimes there will be two or three posts in a week, and sometimes there will be none. If you worry that you might miss one, check back and look at the tab Business Musings under either the Business Resources or Writer Resources in the header.

Also, please note that, as in the past, I’ll be using “indie writer” instead of “self-published writer,” following the music model. I’ll also talk about “indie publishing” instead of “self publishing,” because so many writers who are not with traditional publishers have started their own presses. It’s not accurate to lump all writers who are not following the traditional route into the self-publishing basket any longer, if it ever was.

So, back to the topic at hand. What did indie writers learn in 2014? I wish they all learned the same things simultaneously, but they didn’t (and won’t). I also wish that there were indie writer financial statements, like there are financial statements for the big traditional publishers (which is what I based much of last week’s piece on).

Even if indie writers have formed corporations, those corporations are privately held, and therefore the quarterly financial reports are not public. Privately held companies do not need to list their earnings to anyone outside of the company (except the IRS), and therefore the smart ones do not.

So, in this blog post, I’m piecing together a lot of other people’s blog posts, anecdotal evidence, and just plain common sense. In other words, good old journalist me feels a bit uncomfortable, even though this is an opinion piece, because I don’t have as much quantifiable information as I’m used to for these blogs.

What have indie writers learned?

Writing Is Hard

Telling stories is fun. Every person does it. Some of us do it better than others. When we’re in school, those of us who tell stories verbally often get pushed into theater or the dramatic arts. Those of us who tell stories well on paper often get rewarded with excellent grades and much acclaim. Teachers love good writers. And good writers are told they’re talented.

As a student, I often wrote essays instead of taking multiple-choice tests, partly because even then I was a good writer, but also because I’m dyslexic. I screw up a multiple-choice test most of the time.

Writing was easy; multiple choice was hard.

When something is easy, then you should do it, right?

The problem is that when you go from the high school or college stage to the Big International World of Storytelling, your chops can’t be just okay. They have to be wonderful. Even if you have an innate talent, you have to improve on that talent.

Plus, writers spend most of their time alone. Writers get no feedback, and what feedback they get is often negative.

It takes a certain personality type to persevere through the solitude and negative feedback. I often say I’m a writing junkie, but more accurately, I’m a storytelling junkie. I consume and create story in equal measures. Take my stories away, I’ll wither and die.

Most people have a real life that writing gets in the way of. I have a writing life that real events interrupt. Most writers who have committed a novel or two find the writing life not to their taste.

Solitude and making things up is not for everyone.

Nor should it be.

Publishing Is Hard

It doesn’t matter if you’re self-published, published by a small press, or published by a big traditional press, publishing is fraught with all kinds of pitfalls. And they collide with the work you do—the stories you tell, which are part of you.

Self-publishing is even harder, because you have to learn the skills of running an actual business. No one is capable of writing a fantastic book, doing a fantastic cover, writing a fantastic cover blurb, designing a marvelous interior, copyediting their own book, marketing that book properly, and writing the next book. You will do some of that poorly. Guaranteed, you’ll copy edit poorly. You can’t see your own mistakes.

At some point, a writer will have to learn how to manage contractors or employees, how to handle accounting and invoicing, how to read contracts, and how to do all those things most writers are trying to escape when they’re telling stories.

If you don’t learn to love business, self-publishing can be a soul-sucking experience.

The problem is that if you don’t learn to love business, you’ll get destroyed in traditional publishing. It’ll just take ten years, where in self-publishing, it’ll take less time. That’s why I do a business blog for writers. Business, as you’ll see below, is the thing that destroys the dreams of most writers.

In this new world, business-oriented writers will do better than those who want to be taken care of. But even those business-oriented writers had better have a really tough skin.

Achieving Real Success Is Hard

Sure, your first book can have 50,000 free downloads. Is that success?

Not to a long-term writer.

Sure, your first book can have 50,000 99-cent downloads. Is that success?

Not to a long-term writer.

Sure, your first book can have 50,000 $4.99 downloads. Is that success?

Well, that’s a hell of a start, the kind that’ll make the long-term writer start rooting for you, and hoping you make it through all the upcoming pitfalls. Why? Because readers are spending noticeable money (not pocket change) on your book. Lots of readers. You’re developing a true fan base, and you’re making real money.

We all measure success differently, and we should know what it is before we start publishing. But most writers don’t. Success is finishing a novel (check). Success is getting that novel published (check). Success is getting good reviews (check). Success is getting paid for that novel. (check) Success is making a living. (um, what?)

Making a living means doing the process all over again. And again, and again. Most writers achieve the first goals or a version of the first goals. And then, the real work hits them.

Lots of writers have been publishing indie long enough to realize that self-publishing is as much work as a day job, if not more work. Lots of writers who started their own publishing companies have learned that indie publishing is more work than a day job.

And expensive. Because once you’re in business, you have to pay for things that, as a writer, you usually don’t have to pay for.

Even major success—paid sales in the tens or hundreds of thousands—requires undreamed-of work. Those sales decline without more work—more books, more books, more books.

Eventually, maintaining success becomes as hard if not impossible.

The publishing business is about ups and downs, not a slowly upward trending line. And that’s really hard. Especially when success is fleeting and its definition constantly changes.

Making a Living Is Hard

Without focus, making a living at writing and publishing is almost impossible. The focus has to be two-pronged: producing the best books you can possible produce (which means constant learning on the writing) and publishing your books in a way that capitalizes not just on current product, but on future and past product as well (which means constant learning about business).

Most writers simply do not have the training for this. Indie publishing is harder, significantly harder, than traditional publishing. Yes, the percentage the writer earns per sale is larger, but the time the writer spends on things that aren’t writing is also larger.

It takes time to learn how hard writing and publishing is. It seems easy at first. It seems like something that talented college kid can do with his eyes closed.

But it’s not. Eventually the eyes must open, butts must be planted in chairs, work must get completed, published, marketed, rinse, repeat, and often without quickly quantifiable results.

Writers want it now. (We always have.) Most writers won’t get it now. They’ll get a taste of it, and then that taste will go away. Some writers are stubborn and stick it out for a few years, but after that, they get discouraged (and so do their friends and family).

To make matters worse…

The Gold Rush Has Ended

Even those whose talent for denial is as big as the ocean can see that now. Yes, there was a gold rush and it was brief. It happened mostly in 2009 and early 2010, when there wasn’t enough material on Amazon’s Kindle Store to satisfy the needs of the readers with their brand new Kindle devices. Couple that with the relative ease of uploading books onto Amazon’s e-book platform, and the barriers to publication broke down.

It’s important to understand that because there wasn’t a lot to buy, readers would pick up free books or books from rapidly spreading word of mouth, just to sample those books. Even though the books had bad covers and no copy-editing, the books would sell well if they contained a good story.

Traditional publishing decided to upload some of its backlist in 2010, and their ebook design sucked as well. It took everyone a while to get a handle on the format.

Once that handle happened, though, the gold rush ended. The days of slapping something up and making a lot of sales were gone by the end of 2010. But the rumors persisted and a lot of people got into indie publishing expecting to get rich.

For a while, it was possible to game Amazon’s algorithms to increase sales, but even that had pretty much ended by 2012. I’ll discuss this more later in the article, but here’s the upshot:

You are not entitled to fame and riches just because you published a book.

It has always been this way, and it was even this way in the gold rush. There had to be something good about that book to get a reader’s attention.

First-time writers can still outsell established writers with the right book, but how do you know what the right book is? You never will. No one will until that book takes off. It can’t be manipulated. People have tried for generations. If manipulation were possible, traditional publishing would hire writers to write the same book over and over, and never accept anything outside of their system again.

What does the absolute, complete, and total end of the gold rush mean?

It means that long-time indie writers have finally realized that if they did everything “right” (put their books free or 99 cents, had a newsletter, had the bestest key words, wrote something that was “hot”) and the books didn’t sell gangbusters and make the writer rich, then the writer had to make changes. And those changes would be for the long haul.

The idea of those changes, the fact that it isn’t easy, is causing a lot of writers to question everything. As Smashwords’ Mark Coker said in a blog post in November: 

The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it. … Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all.

The absolute unarguable end of the gold rush made 2014…

The Year of the Quitter

Writers have disappeared from the dawn of publishing. I wrote an entire three-blog series about that in 2012, listing 12 reasons why writers stop writing. 

Those twelve reasons are:

  1. Writers can’t get a new book contract under that name.
  2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.
  3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.
  4. They achieved all their goals.
  5. They were no longer interested in writing.
  6. They moved to a different part of the industry.
  7. They got discouraged.
  8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.
  9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.
  10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing
  11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.
  12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.

Writers have quit self-publishing throughout the past five years. I wrote a blog post in 2013 about traditionally published writers who gave self-publishing one chance, then returned to traditional publishing. 

Those of us who have been in the publishing business for a long time have seen writers go away from the start of our careers. It’s predictable. We also knew that the rate of writers disappearing would accelerate from 2014-2015, when indie writers realized just how hard writing is. A lot of indie writers disagreed with us every time we made that prediction. They believed that if a writer didn’t have to deal with traditional publishing, the writer wouldn’t quit.

And now, there are blogs and comments and anecdotal evidence everywhere that indie writers are quitting in droves. This point’s hardest of all to quantify, because most indie writers who have given up just fade away. It’s not even a what-happened-to, because most of these folks never had a following. But for those who did have a small following, a few people noticed when these writers faded.

For example, Michael Kingswood, a commenter on Dean’s blog, did an informal study of the writers reporting sales on the Kindle Boards. Michael wrote on Dean’s “Writing in Public: Year 2, Month 4, Day 25” post: 

…a lot of the folks who were posting about killer sales [on the Kindle Boards] a couple years ago have vanished. Some of them I’ve looked up on Amazon or wherever, curious to see what they’ve been up to. Some are still going strong, plugging along, just not coming by the forums anymore (I guess they got bored too). But many others haven’t released a book in a while. I can think of a couple multi-tens-of-thousands sellers from the $.99 or bust days who have put nothing new out for a long time, like years. Hell, most of the other indies that I started with and conversed with back in the day have vanished completely. Blogs haven’t been updated in months or years, no releases in that long either.

Because I paid so little attention to those “bestsellers” in the beginning, I would have no idea how to replicate Michael’s search. I used the Kindle Boards then as I do now: I look for the occasional new promotional idea, modify it to my purposes, and move on. I never get involved in the discussions or the personalities—even when I’m the one being trashed. (Which happened a lot when I was doing the Business Rusch regularly.)

Sometimes writers leave indie publishing in a very public way. As I settled in to write this section, I did a Google search for a blog post I had seen in the fall, written by a writer who quit publically. I couldn’t find that post quickly. I found a different one instead, which went up earlier this month.

Suw Charman-Anderson, a British digital rights advocate and major blogger who crowd-funded her first novella, wrote a long blog on why she’s no longer going to self-publish her fiction.

She lists three reasons for quitting.

The first is the changes in the VAT early next year. (She calls the changes by the law’s nickname, VAT mini-one-stop-shop or VATMOSS.) She sells her books on her website and the change in the VAT law means she’s going to stop. She writes:

I earn so little through ebook sales that there’s just no point in me continuing to sell them, as the time, energy and money spent on dealing with VATMOSS would be entirely wasted…. And yes, there are other etailers I could sell through, but again, there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done and, given my meagre back catalogue and the fact that I am not producing new works at a fast enough rate, I’m back to finding it not worth the time right now.

The second reason she’s quitting?

I have entirely fallen out of love with self-publishing. I started to get fed up with the verbiage, the self-congratulatory bullshit, the boasting, the ideologues preaching to their choirs, the judgemental cockwombles, and the ridiculous purity tests about a year ago.

Yeah, 2014 was pretty ugly in the writer wars. I’ve been through writers wars before, and I wait them out, but I was happy not to be blogging in the summer. Because of some of the other writer wars, I’m not going to my beloved sf conventions for a while, so I get this reason for quitting. I just don’t get it enough to quit writing.

And the final reason—probably the real reason?

Because self-publishing has stopped me from writing. I didn’t anticipate that particular side-effect. In fact, I had anticipated quite the opposite. I write my best stuff when I know it’s going to be read. I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t know that someone out there would be reading it…. When you do something you love for a hobby and then try to turn that hobby into a business it can suck all the joy out of that thing that you do….

I think a lot of self-published writers who have quit or who are thinking of quitting can empathize with that bit about turning a hobby into a business. I like Charman-Anderson’s honesty here, because so many authors don’t want to admit what they’re really feeling. She says it in a nutshell:

If I’m ever going to write again, I need to reclaim it as something akin to hobby. It’s not, at this point in time or at this point in my life, a business [Emphasis KKR]

Charman-Anderson’s blog inspired a few people in her comments to reveal that they too have given up on self-publishing.

Honestly, I’m all for it. Not because I’m competitive, and I want the other writers to disappear, but because I believe that there are hundreds of different ways to be a writer. I have always said that I blog for established career writers, writers who consistently make a living at writing. You’ll note in my blogs over the years that I give equal treatment to traditional publishing and indie publishing because both are valid ways to make a living. A third way has appeared: being a hybrid writer. That’s the career path I’ve chosen.

But it’s not an easy path for anyone, and it’s not easy to make a living as a writer.

Most writers—even those who have had some success—quit the business. The publishing business is hard. It’s not hard in that way the poor construction workers at the bottom of my hill have to deal with; as I write this, those poor people working in a torrential downpour as idiot holiday tourists are zooming through the construction zone at 30 miles over the speed limit. That’s dangerous as well as hard. Nor is publishing hard in the way that being a surgeon is. I make one tiny mistake as a writer, and I delete and try over. The surgeon makes one tiny mistake, and someone could die.

But publishing is hard emotionally and it’s hard financially, particularly in the beginning.

I don’t know anything about the writers that Michael Kingswood mentioned or the ones in Charman-Anderson’s comment thread. But if you look at the 12 reasons writers quit, then you glance at Charman-Anderson’s blog, you’ll see that she gave reasons 7, 9, and 11 (VATMOSS) as her reasons for leaving self-publishing, 7 being the main reason.

If she hadn’t gotten discouraged, she would have overcome 9 and 11. But she doesn’t enjoy writing any longer, so she’s trying to recapture the joy.

What writer among us can argue with that? I think that’s a wonderful, valid goal, and I think if you scratch a lot of writers who’ve “quit” writing, you’ll find that they, like Charman-Anderson, have simply given up writing in public.

For everyone who spoke up about quitting, a dozen more have just vanished. This is not something to rejoice or criticize (so be careful in the comments). This is just something that is and always has been.

It’s sad if the writer has to let go of a dream. But sometimes, letting go of one dream enables people to find their actual dream. And that’s a good thing.

The Rise of the Survivors

I’m pretty sure more writers quit than survived publishing in 2014, but that’s because more writers always quit than survive. As I said above, the entire profession is hard, and for those people who want to get by without working hard, this profession is not for them. (Yes, I have a blog post on this coming in 2015.)

But those indies who’ve been at this for a few years and have survived learned a bunch of things in 2014.

Those things are:

Gaming The System Is Impossible

I started a blog post sometime last summer titled “Whining Is Not A Business Strategy,” and mercifully for all of us, I did not finish it. What caused that post, in addition to the big traditional publishing fight and all those trad-pubbed authors with their New York Times ads, was the complaints happening in the indie world.

Rather than link to them (which means I have to revisit them), I will list some of them. If you hear words in your head as you read, hear these in the tone of a five-year-old who doesn’t want to go to bed (and add That’s Not Fair! to the end of every sentence).

  • “Every time we figure out how Amazon’s algorithm works, Amazon changes the algorithm.”
  • “Free doesn’t help me sell my books any more.”
  • “99 cents doesn’t help me sell my books any more.”
  • “The tags are gone.”
  • “I can’t seem to get enough reviews.”
  • “Now, when I post on social media, no one responds.”

And on, and on, and on. Every trick that writers have used to up their “bestseller” numbers—usually on Amazon—worked for a nano-second, or worked in 2010, or worked for a month in 2013, and don’t work now.

Generally speaking, the first person who tried it had some success. The first person who blogged about it sent a whole bunch of like-minded system-gaming writers into the algorithm and guess what? They broke it. When algorithms are being manipulated, they cease to work as intended, which is as a snapshot of the market.

Gigantic retailers like Amazon use those algorithms to find out what consumers want, not enable writers who would rather take shortcuts to sell more copies of their books. So why wouldn’t Amazon or Kobo or iTunes change up how they do things when someone messes with their systems? Their business isn’t about writers. It’s about selling stuff to consumers.

Which brings us to the next thing indie writers learned in 2014…

Amazon Does Not Love You

Oh, the wailing. Oh, the teeth-nashing. OMG, Kindle Unlimited screwed writers who went exclusively with Kindle. When Amazon decided to go head-to-head with Oyster and Scribd and all those streaming book services, and shoved Amazon-only writers into Kindle Unlimited, it became clear that Amazon didn’t introduce its Kindle Direct Publishing Platform to help writers.

Amazon did it to help Amazon better serve its customers.

Kindle Unlimited made books free across the board. So the consumer who subscribed had access to free books, and those discount buyers? The ones who only “bought” free and 99-cent books? They flocked to Kindle Unlimited instead.

This has had an impact on the discount writers. (Those who were making a living [or something of a living] on writing books cheaply priced.) As the latest Author Earnings Report stated:

For indie authors as a whole, Kindle Unlimited likely means a lower overall share of daily author earnings going to artists’ pockets. (Similar to the effect music subscription services have had for those artists.) The boost in sales do not seem to make up for the lost market share of other sales outlets. If exclusivity was not required to participate in KU (or if indie authors were paid the same as traditionally published ebooks), this would not be the case.

The problem with Kindle Unlimited isn’t that it exists. It is that it penalizes the writers who have gone to Amazon exclusively. In other words, those indie authors who were Amazon’s best friends? The break-up is a little messy.

In the last month, authors from H.M. Ward to J.A. Konrath have left Kindle Select. Konrath won’t say how much his sales have decreased, but Ward was honest about her losses. She said that her income went down by 75%. And she’s not alone, according to an article on The Digital Reader titled, “Author Discontent Grows as Kindle Unlimited Hits Its Fifth Month.”

Does that mean Amazon will now get rid of the service and play nice with writers? Not if the service is making Amazon money and keeping its customers happy.

Because Amazon doesn’t love you. Amazon is clear about who it loves. It loves its customers. And it loves its customers because its customers are the source of its revenue.

So, like any big company, Amazon loves money.

Who knew?

In addition to learning that Amazon doesn’t love its indie supporters, indie writers also learned…

No One Loves You

Oh, dear. That fickle finger of fate. If I had room, I’d post a gif.

Over and over again in 2014, indie writers learned that big companies were…big companies. It took months into 2014 before EroticaGate receded into the past. Kobo removed erotic book titles wholecloth in October of 2013, and then reviewed all of the books in an attempt to be fair before making the removal permanent. (For many books, the removal wasn’t permanent.)

Books got pulled for other reasons. Amazon would ban an author who wrote (nasty) reviews of another author’s work. If a book looks “suspicious,” meaning it might have stolen copyrighted material inside, the book got taken down without a hearing. All sites have that policy. Some allow the writer to appeal. Some do not.

There is no guarantee, none, that a book will appear in a bookstore. I don’t care if that bookstore is a brick-and-mortar store down the block or a bookstore that exists only on line.

Writers are not entitled to have their books on the virtual shelves or the real shelves.

And indies really, truly, completely learned that lesson in 2014.

Your Readers Don’t Even Love You (All The Time)

You don’t collect and hoard readers. Readers can collect and hoard books. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Readers support the authors whose work they enjoy. Readers can become very passionate about writers/books/series. But when that writer stops writing or the books don’t appear fast enough or the series doesn’t get complete, the reader moves on to other writers’ work.

Sorry. Your readers might love you today, but six months from now your readers (particularly your younger readers) might consider you a phase that they outgrew.

Just because you have a reader doesn’t mean you get to keep them. You must earn them. You’re only as good as your most recent book—whatever that is. I add “whatever that is” because in this world, books don’t go out of print. So to one reader, your most recent book might have been published in 2010, and to another, your most recent book really is your most recent book.

If the reader doesn’t like that book, then the reader probably won’t pick up your next—or pick it up as fast as he normally would.

And a lot of very popular writers learned those lesson in 2014. That was one of the Kindle Unlimited lessons (see above).

If readers can get something for less, they will, even if that might hurt the writer’s bottom line. It makes sense. Are you going to spend a lot of money to support someone else when you need that money yourself? Not unless you’re the parent of or the responsible party for that someone else.

2014 was the year in which many indie writers learned they can’t rely on their readers to always fill in the financial gaps…even if the sales figures remain the same.

(Sidebar: 2015 will be the year that traditionally published bestsellers will learn that lesson. Again, that’s an upcoming post.)

The successful indie writer doesn’t take her readers for granted—and she certainly never talks about “getting” readers, as if she can keep them. The successful writer should be grateful for each and every reader she has, and even more grateful for the returning readers.

I know I am.

Sales Based On Price No Longer Work

They really haven’t worked for years, but, like the gold rush, even the most denial-filled indie writers are starting to figure out that just because their books are cheap, it doesn’t mean readers will pick up that book. For some of the reasons why, see the Gaming The System part above.

I’ve written about this before, especially in my Discoverability posts earlier in the year. The arguments I got about price were just irritating. It didn’t help that I wrote them backwards (as I often do when I’m structuring a book). The information on price—and how-to price your work—is best in the book Discoverability which came out this fall.

Or read those blog posts here for free (horrors! Free!), but start with “Marketing And Readers” and go back to the pricing posts. 

Russell Blake has a lovely blog on price called “The New Landscape.” (Even though the landscape isn’t new. It’s the way that retail works.) And now that traditional publishers have been dragged kicking and screaming into pricing ebooks as ebooks not as a necessary evil that cuts into hardcover sales, the final nail really is in the indie-is-cheaper coffin. Go. Read the post. He might be talking to you. 

I’m not going to dwell on pricing here. Let Blake fight that fight. I fought it earlier in the year, and I’m pooped. If you haven’t learned that you’re selling books retail by now, and that means learning all the stuff other retail businesses learn about price (Google “pricing strategies for retail.” Go ahead. I dare you). There’s a lot to learn, and you don’t learn it by doing what other writers do. You learn business.

The surviving indies are doing just that.

As they realize—or as Blake pointed out in his blog…

Running With The Big Dogs Is Hard

Now that the last thing that differentiated traditional publishing from indie—price— has leveled out, indies discovered in 2014 that they’re no longer competing with each other. They’re competing with traditionally published books, including long-term bestsellers who, I’m sorry, know more about craft than I do. Hell, I’m constantly learning how to improve my storytelling from these folks.

You should too.

Because if you want to sell your books at big numbers, then you need to offer as good or better products than the long-term traditional bestsellers do.

If that scares you and makes you want to quit, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

If that excites you, welcome, my friend. We have a lot to discuss.

Yep, running with the big dogs is hard. It has always been hard. Even when indie writers sold well at cheap prices, they were competing with the big dogs. And they weren’t really doing better—except that they got a better royalty rate. Indies were selling niche books in a niche market. As that market grew, the indie market share grew—but so did the Big Dog market share.

If that weren’t true, then traditional publishers wouldn’t have gotten into prolonged fights with online retailers—first Simon & Schuster with Barnes & Noble in 2013 (remember that?) and then everyone and Amazon. The Justice Department wouldn’t have gotten involved.

We’re talking about a lot of money, folks, and indie right now only has a teeny tiny bit of the pie. You want more, up your game.

Or as Blake says,

Pro basketball players don’t tell themselves that they don’t have to be all that great because there are plenty of mediocre players. Pro dancers don’t argue that they should be given center stage because they’re precious snowflakes, and their deficiencies should be ignored. Pro competitors in any arena strive to be the absolute best, and demand the most out of themselves, making no excuses, asking for and offering no quarter.

The indies who can’t cut it are leaving in droves. The survivors who remain are tough competitors. They might not be able to play one-on-one with LeBron, but they’re working on it.

And that’s all we can do.

The major lesson those indies have learned in 2014 is…

There Is No Status Quo

Working in the arts means accepting constant change. Constant change. The change hit the publishing industry in its delivery systems as well in the 21st century, and that was the shock.

But so many writers kept waiting for things to stabilize. They thought once they figured out the algorithms, they had it made. Once they figured out how to leverage free, they had it made. Once they figured out how to “get” readers, they had it made.

Um, nope.

Being an artist is about constant improvement. Working forward. Doing your best work. But your best work this year should be better than your best work in 2010. Does that mean you should revise everything you did in 2010 to make it more appropriate for 2015? Nope.

Move forward.

One of the stupidest gambits I’ve heard from writers in recent years comes from the indie world. Apparently, writers are now searching key words on Amazon bestseller lists—and writing books based on those key words.

Oh, heavens, folks. The Amazon bestseller lists are a fraction of the market in the first place, and in the second, they only reflect what sells well now. What will sell well next Christmas is anyone’s guess—and generally speaking, anyone will be wrong.

All these gamings and gambits and strategies are based on status-quo thinking.

Smart survivor indies realize that they need to do the best they can, writing what interests them, then putting the correct cover on the book for that book’s publication date, maybe marketing that book or maybe not, and then writing the next book.

Because if you’ve pleased a reader with a good story and the reader finishes that story, you have a short window for that reader to search for another book of yours. Once the window is closes, the reader moves on to other writers, and forgets you.

Not even readers remain the same from minute to minute.

There is no status quo in the arts. None. Never has been, never will be.

So stop searching for one, and move forward, doing your best work.

Like the smart indies are doing.

Smart indies have made one other major realization in 2014, and it’s an important one.

There Is Such A Thing As An Indie Midlist Career

Just like in traditional publishing, indie publishing has proven over and over again that not every writer is a true bestseller—and by that, I mean someone who earns 6-to-8 figures per year regularly on his books.

But, as the Passive Guy proved with his posts called “Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs,” lots and lots and lots of indie authors are making enough to out earn what they earned working for someone else. 

M.C.A. Hogarth wrote the best blog on this, though. She understands the financial value of the artistic freedom that indie writing has given all of us. She writes,

And here’s the best news of all: I don’t have to be a bestseller to make comfortable money. In the past, if I had wanted to stay home and write books full-time, I had to hope I could sell my books to thousands of people. Now, I can make good money selling to hundreds. And hundreds of people is do-able. It might take some time to get there—I put my first story up on Amazon in 2009, so I’m into year 5 here—but it can be done.

This, this, is what the self-publishing revolution has brought us. It has brought us writers who can write whatever they want. All those writers who wanted to get rich quick or who wanted millions of sales as validation or who write to order because they think that’s how it’s done are wrong.

They didn’t survive or, if they’re still with us, they won’t be around five years from now.

Writers like M.C.A. Hogarth? Writers like me? We’ll be around.

Because we’re doing what we love.

And when you do what you love, you learn all aspects of it, from craft to business. You do what you need to in order to continue doing what you love.

But mostly, you get rewarded for your creativity in large and small ways.

What did indie writers learn in 2014? Hell if I know. I learned (again) that this is one marvelous and exciting career. I learned I’m lucky to do it for a living.

I learned that life is pretty damn good.

Next week, I’ll post a long blog on the details of the things I’ve learned in 2014—warts and all.

And then in 2015, I’ll post some of those (already finished) blogs I’ve promised you.

Yes, I’m back. And happy to be writing nonfiction again.

Who’d’ve thunk it?

Certainly not me.

Thanks for visiting the blog—and thanks for all the support last week. Your letters, comments, and private notes really touched me. Thanks too for the donations, because I don’t get paid for most of the nonfiction that I write.

So…if you found anything of value in this post, please leave a tip on the way out. And yes, White Mist Mountain is my company. 🙂


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“Business Musings: “Things Indie Writers Learned in 2014,” copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


78 thoughts on “Business Musings: Things Indie Writers Learned in 2014

  1. Great article! There were a lot of these points I saw myself throughout last year, especially with KU. Thank you for the breakdown and in depth review! I really enjoyed the post 🙂

  2. Kris,

    Thank you for this sobering and honest article. Your business posts have helped a lot of writers (myself included) face the realities of having an indie writer career. I published my first novel in 2014 and realized I have made a lot of mistakes. But, I’m going forward because I love telling stories and want to make a career out of it. I hope you continue to write these type of posts for as long as you can.


    BTW, I did leave a tip on the way out. 🙂

  3. I’ve been publishing for over 20 years, both traditionally and indie, and this is one of the best articles I’ve ever seen on the business side of things. Practical, well-researched, and points out the truth about giving away your work. Thank you!

  4. I got redirected to this really wonderful article. Initially a bit depressing I ended up feeling “braced” – resolved to try harder. Thanks.

  5. Great article, thanks. You should have a way to subscribe so I can get each of your posts via email. I don’t want to miss any. The Jetpack plugin for WordPress is a good way to do this.

        1. Lynne, I’ve had several experts look at the RSS feed. They say there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m no longer getting complaints about it except your mention. Maybe others have given up. If so, they haven’t said. I wish I could do more, but we can’t locate a problem. (There was one last year, and that was fixed.)

  6. As a fairly new author, I found this very refreshing, over all of the workshops telling me the get rich schemes (a moving target). Now, I just want to get my first fiction novel finally edited (third round with a content editor) and published so it quits getting in the way of my second book!

  7. Glad to see you back, Kris! And really glad you are choosing to continue as a voice of reason and priceless mentorship in the industry.

    I’ve been pursuing publication since 1996-ish (wow…just had a moment, there), and I feel like I’ve missed an entire fleet’s worth of boats in the writing industry. But I keep dog-paddling because I can’t not write. Plus, I grew up lower middle class, and learned the hard way that a life spent waiting for your ship to come in is a life spent on a dock, rather than in a shipyard, building your own dinghy. 😉

    I’m not one of those success stories, though. I published, and the world did not fall at my feet in awe of my brilliance. I tried not to expect it to, but there’s a little part of me that could not shake that hope (I feed it chocolate, otherwise it gets petulant). What that experience (aka “not selling”) did for me was encourage me to look long and hard at the things I could control–which is precious little outside the actual writing of the books. In 2014, this indie writer learned (or rather, re-learned) that I could finally catch every publicity bandwagon or subgenre boom or fresh market and it still wouldn’t matter if I *didn’t love the writing.* If I didn’t keep at the writing. If I didn’t write my best and keep searching for that new insight to learn about craft or new way to approach storytelling.

    I suspect, too, that part of the Great Gold Rush was a lot of people ticking “write a book” off their bucket lists, or “publishing” their family histories, personal memoirs, and collections of old letters–which is fine, and for those people who only ever have one book in ’em, I’m glad the landscape gave them an opportunity, however brief, to be heard.

    I’m less glad that the rush included opportunists like the get-rich-quick system-gamers who published six pages worth of scraped SEO content with provocative titles and put them up on KU to snooker users into opening the books (get past the title page, and you reach 10% and the scraper gets paid). But with the end of the rush, hopefully the scrapers and the spammers will find some other industry to pester.

    The best–maybe the only–way to weather the storms of the industry is in a boat made of writing. No matter what the future holds, I’ll still be here, in my little boat, writing. Because if I didn’t, I’d drown.

  8. This is a great post! I am lucky that the core group of authors I became friendly with when I first got published in 2010 are still around. In the past almost 5 years, I’ve seen lots of authors come onto the scene with a flash and then vanish after one or two books.

    Writing book after book after book, year after year, in solitude, is not for everyone. I think some people try it once, decide the payout wasn’t “worth it” or the time wasn’t “worth it” and go back to their regular lives. You kinda have to just love it so much you can’t imagine being happy doing anything else. Even when I hate it, I love it. 🙂

    Sometimes I think about quitting all social media and promotion, and focus on just writing and sending out a newsletter when I have a new release. But then I’d miss out on actually connecting with the very people I’m writing for. I cherish the friendships I’ve made with readers. But if I felt burned-out, I would quit social media and promo before I quit writing.

    I think if there is anything in the world that someone can do *other* than write, they should do that other thing. Because choosing to be a writer is a very hard path. It’s not for the faint of heart.

    This year, regarding changes, I chose to continue traditional publishing with NY in addition to indie-publishing, because having advance money upfront takes a lot of the fear-factor out of waiting to see if a book sells before you make any money. That said, I can’t see myself giving up indie-publishing because I love the control so much, and the monthly income (NY pays twice a year… Hard to budget on that, plus royalties are lower per book than self-pub) even if the monthly self-pub income has lowered with the introduction of Kindle Unlimited. We’ll just have to adapt and figure out ways around it so we can make enough money to keep on goin’ on! 🙂

  9. What a lot of indie authors didn’t learn in 2014… How to evaluate and critique their own work — because they can’t write. I’m no expert at all, but I reckon I’ve got a rough idea what I’m doing and often, when I read on a forum about a writer’s inexplicable failure to sell books, I have a quick look at their releases and within the first paragraph or two discover their craft is way below the standard it has to be. And I mean has to be.
    That gold rush let a lot of writers get away with literary murder. Now the emphasis is returning to solid, well-crafted writing. The absolute, number one priority for any indie author must be to write very, very well and to enjoy learning your craft as much as they enjoy creating the story. To do this, they must learn to “see” their own writing clearly…
    Yes, it’s a bit of a bug-bear of mine. It drives me nuts to see basic errors in a book’s opening sentence.

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