Business Musings: Sales People, Hype Machines, Big Fish, And The Music Man
Sometimes I think the best preparation I had for the business of writing was marrying (and then divorcing) a man who could talk anyone into anything. He liked sales and he was always the best salesperson in the room…in the beginning. But his sales dwindled over time, because his early sales were based on hype, and his customers would eventually realize it. They wouldn’t come back, so he was always dealing with new customers, until he ran out of leads.
He would explain the hype methods to me. They fascinated me in a sociological way, and upset me in another way, mostly because human beings can be, and often are, very gullible. Many of the gullible suffer at the hands of people like my ex-husband.
Please note that I haven’t talked to the man in over thirty years, and I have no idea if he’s still like this. It might have been a youthful phase. After all, we did marry at 19.
The experience did leave me with an admiration for great sales people. It also inoculated me against most kinds of hype. I can see beneath the blather, and know how to look for the accurate numbers…if I care.
Mostly, I don’t care. Someone starts working me, or hyping me, or trying to impress in that I have juice kinda way, and I ignore them. Or mentally dismiss them.
I did so not very long ago when Dean and I went to lunch with some writers here in Vegas. One of them kept trying to impress with his contacts (all of whom I knew better than he did) and his sales (which I will get to below), and so I mentally dismissed him and talked to the other person at the table, who was much more interesting, and not trying to impress me at all.
Dean got annoyed. I mean, really annoyed. That kind of hype machine sets his teeth on edge. He too has a big bullshit meter, but he loathes it when someone tries to manipulate his opinion with nothing more than hot air. Needless to say that lunch will remain a one-off.
The various hype machines in the world of indie publishing are one of the many reasons Dean and I both blog.
But hype machines didn’t start with indie. They started in traditional publishing, before computers put real numbers underneath the industry. My first agent was a hype machine. He could negotiate a deal by pitting one party against another, all the while lying through his teeth.
Publishers hated him, but the market was limited in those days, and they had to deal with him. He got me good book deals. He had to, because he also embezzled from me and all of his other clients. You can’t embezzle if there’s no money.
He could lie with impunity back then because there was no way that publishers could find out the truth. Publishing houses didn’t share sales information. Books were shipped at large numbers, but no one would talk about the returns. Often, traditional publishers had no idea how well their own books were doing for a year or more.
So a lot of careers were built on hype and hype alone.
The writers weren’t doing the hype back then. The agents and the publishers were. The publishers would hype the books they paid too much for to their sales forces at sales conferences. The sales force would then hype those books to the numerous bookstores around the country.
But the hype ended there, because the bookstores didn’t have to be responsible for their ordering. So they would order the big hyped books as well as some by favorite authors, and if the big hyped books didn’t sell, they’d be returned when the store needed the shelf space.
I helped a bookstore owner ship back books (full copy returns) two years after the books arrived in the store. This was about 1990, and I remember being shocked. The bookstore owner said, “I tried to sell this stuff.” And he was right. He did. For two years.
He ended up getting a refund plus shipping costs. Sucha deal. The writer and the publisher were the ones who took the bath.
That’s what happens with hype.
Hype goes on in indie all the time. But the hype is not from publisher to reader or even writer to reader. The hype is writer to writer.
Sometimes the hype designed to get newbie writers to buy the not-quite-newbie writer’s system for promoting books. There are a lot of indie writing gurus out there with two years’ experience, five books under their belts, and lots of sales on one platform (usually Amazon). Those gurus then stop writing fiction (for the most part) and make their money on webinars and selling their system for getting rich off writing.
It’s a tried-and-true hype method that has existed at least since the turn of the previous century—people who promise one thing (that won’t work) while making their actual money off the poor folk who are buying the system. If you want to see a devastating commentary on it, look no farther than The Music Man, and watch what happens to little Winthrop Paroo (Ron Howard—or as he was known then, Little Ronnie Howard) when he realizes that the band that Harold Hill, the titular Music Man, promises is a lie.
The reason that musical works is because Harold Hill finally sees the destruction he’s causing. The reason the musical doesn’t work (if you think about it) is that Harold Hill is a charming asshole who has left carnage behind him—dozens, maybe hundreds, of Winthrop Paroos. Even if Harold Hill remains an upstanding citizen of River City, Iowa, he will never atone for all of those broken Winthrop Paroos.
I guess that’s why I mentally dismiss these hype guys, and often speak out against the gurus. I know that all of us have a bit of little Winthrop Paroo inside of us, especially when it comes to our dreams, and gurus like the ones I mention above are all about getting rich by (ultimately) shattering dreams.
But there’s another reason for writer-to-writer hype. It’s simple human nature. Writers are insecure creatures, and one writer just wants to impress other writers.
It’s the Big Man On Campus Syndrome. Or the Big Fish In A Small Pond Syndrome. Or the Emperor Has No Clothes Syndrome.
Whatever you call this syndrome, it’s designed to make the Big Fish feel better about himself and the smaller fish understand that he’s important. It’s a devastating syndrome for all involved.
Because here’s something my ex taught me: the Big Fish can’t convince others that he’s a Big Fish if he doesn’t believe it himself. In other words, the Big Fish believes his own hype.
Big Fish types can’t handle being around people who believe in evidence and logic. Big Fish types hate real world questions—prove this, show me that, or my favorite reporter question: Why does that matter to anyone else?
(Often, in one-on-one conversations, I ask it more rudely: Why are you telling me this? And sometimes add: Why should I care? Yeah, I told you. Rude.)
Big Fish types aren’t entirely blind. They often recognize that others are more successful than they are. Either they try to co-opt that success by rubbing shoulders with the Bigger Fish (and using those Bigger Fish to impress smaller fish) or they avoid the Bigger Fish altogether. Some Big Fish will use their contact with the Bigger Fish to their advantage, learning what they can, and then discarding the relationship when they can no longer get mileage out of it.
Usually, though, Big Fish run from Bigger Fish. The Big Fish knows they can’t compete, so they flee to a different pond. I’ve even known Big Fish who have pretended that the encounters with the Bigger Fish never happened. The Big Fish’s (teeny tiny) ego can’t handle the memory of the encounter, so they bury it deep.
While those encounters are difficult for Big Fish, they’re not the worst thing that can happen around a Big Fish. The true problem is if the Big Fish finds a pond filled with smaller fish and/or shy Bigger Fish.
The Big Fish dominates the pond, making sure everyone understands how successful he is. In the case of indie, the Big Fish usually say they write more. They may not publish as much as some of the smaller fish, maybe because (the Big Fish says) they’re waiting for the go-ahead from one of their Bigger Fish Friends. Or some movie project prevents them from publishing right now. Or they have a major game project on the line.
None of that is true. Because at some point, the Big Fish is more interested in being a Big Fish than in sitting alone in a room and making stuff up.
The Big Fish often has had a good start—much like my ex used to. The Big Fish might have had a month of sales on Amazon, say, that resulted in $15,000 that month. The Big Fish might have stumbled onto a system that resulted in a lot of money (by small fish standards) very fast.
Eventually, though, the Big Fish won’t be able to sustain those numbers. But to admit that the numbers fluctuate would mean the Big Fish would lose prestige (in his mind, anyway). So he lies. And lies. And lies some more.
If he can’t sustain the lie, he will vanish from the pond. That’s why so many gurus have a shelf-life of about five years. It takes that long for it to become clear to the smaller fish that the Big Fish ain’t performing up to snuff any more.
But you know what’s mostly missing from indie? The truth-tellers. The reporters who go behind the scenes of some of these gurus with their systems and debunk those systems. That’s probably because most of the Big Fish vanish before their system gets the attention of someone who wants to spend the time debunking it.
Writers don’t want to debunk a money-making system. They want that system to work for them, and when it doesn’t, they blame themselves.
And therein lies one of the problems of Big Fish Syndrome.
Because if you buy what the Big Fish is selling—even if you don’t spend actual cash on it—you’re buying into a lie.
Recently, we had a side conversation in one of our webinars about sales numbers. Writers believe that their worth is based on their sales figures. This is not particular to indies. You’ll hear it from traditionally published writers as well, writers who worry that they’re not on bestseller lists or that they don’t sell as well as some well-known bestseller.
The thing is, trad pubbed writers never discuss their sales figures—if, indeed, they actually know those figures. Indie writers will discuss those figures, but often in misleading terms.
For example, a Big Fish writer might say that his books have sold 100,000 copies, and the implication is that the books have sold 100,000 copies each. But the truth is that the books have sold 100,000 copies altogether.
Smaller fish never ask the clarifying questions. Did you mean each of your books sell 100,000 copies? Over what period of time? Weeks, months, years? Were those books sold or were those downloads or were they incorporated in page reads (from Amazon). Were those books freebies? Or did the customer actually pay for them? Were they part of a bundle or were they standalone?
And on, and on, and on.
You can’t tell what another writer did from one piece of data alone. Especially if that data is incomplete.
100,000 paid sales of an ebook is impressive in December of 2018. 100,000 paid sales of an ebook was impressive in December of 2010, but different. Because there was less competition in the ebook space in 2010. Back then, most traditional publishers had overpriced their books (terribly) and the indie movement was just catching on. So writers went from zero sales to 100,000 within months, simply because supply had not yet caught up with demand.
So if Big Fish writer is claiming he sold 100,000 copies of his book relatively quickly, then it would be good to know when those sales happened.
Sometimes you can look. The Big Fish guru types don’t refresh their fiction product that often, so you might see the 2010 publication date. Or reviews that date from 2010. If you dig a little, you can find out a few things—but never enough to know the truth.
Dean and I make a lot of money on our writing, but you can’t tell it just from Amazon alone. We have hundreds of products, some under pen names. Some of those books are truly languishing, with no sales at all in 2018. Others got more promotion in 2018 than ever before (Dean’s Cold Poker Gang series got promotion for the first time ever, and as I write this, the first book, Kill Game, is still on one of Amazon’s tiny bestseller lists (#19 on private investigators), four months after the promotion ended), and we’re reaping the halo of those promotions.
But even the most determined person can’t figure out what kind of money we’re earning on our writing—not even if they looked at all of the other ebook distributors, somehow got information on the print sales, examined the audio sales, discovered the book bundle downloads (which then led to other purchases) and so on and so forth. Because we run multiple cash streams on each thing we write, there’s no way for an outsider to eyeball our numbers and see how well we’re doing.
That’s different for the folks who are in Kindle Unlimited. They’re exclusive, and so glancing at the Amazon rankings and the length of time on bestseller lists might—might—give outsiders a sense of how that author’s books are selling. If Amazon hasn’t messed with the algorithms. If the outsider can figure out what other books were released around the same time. If, if, if.
The truth is, you can’t know how well another writer is doing. Ever. A traditionally published writer I know, whose work has been on the bestseller lists in the U.S. for decades, makes $5,000 per book with no royalties, because she signed such a bad contract that she has to write fast just to pay her rent. (She had her publisher put the money “in escrow” and it will release years after the books were in print. Yes, that is a real contract clause. Yes, she fell for it.)
Another mid-list writer I know is so good with money that he invests his $5,000 advances in things like real estate and stocks, and manages to make more money off his investments than he does off the writing. But the writing provides the seed.
One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of the Big Fish writers is that they often have a different (less obvious) source of income outside of the writing. They have an inheritance, for example, or they retired from the day job on a good pension, or their spouse has a great high-paying job. The Big Fish almost never talk about these outside sources of income, because they don’t fit into the narrative of Super Success With Writing!
Maybe it’s my journalist’s instincts. I always look to see what’s behind a hype machine. A few of them aren’t hype machines at all, but folks who are really and truly doing well. But most hype machines will move to another pond within ten years.
I can’t even remember the names of the hype machines from 2010. Except for two of them. One went back to traditional publishing a few years ago. Quietly. After shutting down his blog. The second moved laterally into gaming, where he already had a bit of a name. Quietly. After shutting down his blog.
And so on and so forth.
The point of all of this?
Learn how to tune out the hype. The gurus, the hype machines, the Big Fish, they will all disappear five years from now—if they have nothing solid behind them. Some will fail spectacularly, and it’ll be news in the indie world. But most of them will sneak away to a new pond, and you won’t even notice they’re missing until someone says, “Whatever happened to X?” and then everyone will realize that X vanished months/years ago.
Happens all the time. That’s what a long-term perspective in this business gives you. Not only can you see past the hype, but you know if you’re patient, that hype machine who is making you doubt yourself won’t even be around in 2023.
Write what you love. Set up a solid business model of the kind that you want to build. Focus on a slow build, and concentrate on providing books to anyone who wants to read your work.
If you do those things, and stay true to yourself, you will still have a career five years from now. Will you be rich? Maybe. If you figure out what works for you. Will you be successful? Depends on your definition of success. Will you be happy? Ah, hell, how do I know? I don’t have a crystal ball.
But I do know this: You’ll be happier if you do what you love than you will be if you’re just blowing hot air around a room as you try to impress people you look down on.
So shut out the hype as much as you can. Take what little bits of advice that make sense to you from the gurus out there, and apply those bits to your business. But avoid “systems.” Because they don’t work, often not even for the person who developed it.
Do your thing, and you’ll have a greater chance of being around five years from now than that supposedly super-successful person “everyone” is talking about.
Remember that, and you’ll be just fine.
A lot of you have told me lately that you’re “failures” even though your books are selling. They might only be selling one copy a week or they might be selling dozens of copies per day. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll find someone who you believe is doing better than you are. Without evidence, and without proof.
That’s why I wrote today’s blog. Because I want you to celebrate each sale, each reader. Those sales are important. Someone liked your work enough to spend money on it. Be happy about that.
I’m happy that so many of you come to this website on Thursdays. You support my work in a whole bunch of ways, from commenting to emailing to donations.
I focus on the donations, because they do pay for the blog. (If you want to donate regularly, go to my Patreon page. If you want to make a one-time contribution, use PayPal below.)
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Thank you all for coming here and keeping me on my toes.
I do appreciate it more than I can say.
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“Business Musings: Sales People, Hype Machines, Big Fish, And The Music Man,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / colematt.