Publish or Perish goes the old adage, and it’s still true today—if you haven’t had a book published, blogged for a year, or tweeted thousands of times; your ideas, opinions, clout, and career may well perish. What idea maker is not blogging daily? What celebrity is not tweeting incessantly, never mind inanely? What presidential wannabe doesn’t have an autobiography, and wasn’t that the point anyway?
Yes, publish or perish is the name of the game, but now the rules have changed. Can’t get a callback from a New York literary agent? Can’t get your pithy quips retweeted across the social media spectrum? Can’t get a political action committee to fund your exploratory aspirations to recapture or redefine America?
No prob: Publish or Perish or Self-publish!
Independent authors are pioneers of a revolutionary publishing landscape, trailblazing into the uncharted territory of vanity publishing where no self-respecting literary professional nor book reviewer dare go. Anyone can upload a manuscript to the Amazon Kindle bookstore for free, or $99 and BookBaby will get your breakthrough opus into all the major ebook markets. But will it matter?
“Vanity publishing is like T-ball,” complained mystery short story writer Leigh Lundin. “Everyone gets a chance at bat, gets a hit, and takes home a trophy. But don’t expect anyone other than your mom to applaud.” That was 2009. Over the past three years, the nature of self-publishing has changed radically.
In April 2010 26-year-old Amanda Hocking uploaded one of her 17 unpublished novels into the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing system after filling a shoebox with rejection letters. The once-amateur author remembers, “I didn’t think anything would come of it.” Within days she was moving copies of her vampire romp My Blood Approves. The next month she added two more titles and sold hundreds. That June sales went into thousands. Within a year Hocking fans had bought more than a million copies of her nine paranormal romance stories in the Amazon Kindle bookstore, and she signed a $2 million contract with St. Martin’s Press in March 2011.
While the nature of the press is in a revolutionary phase today, the revolutionary power of the press was part of the founding of America some 300 years ago. Ben Franklin was a teenage apprentice in the Boston print shop of his brother James Franklin in 1721, when the elder brother launched The New-England Courant, the first independent newspaper published in the colonies. Ben worked as a typesetter for the Courant and yearned to write, but when James would not print anything written by his younger sibling, the boy penned letters under the pseudonym Silence Dogood, posing as an opinionated book-reading country widow, who quickly gained a following with the paper’s readers.
The adult Franklin established himself in Philadelphia and became co-publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette and began publishing his famous Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1733. The annual pamphlet became a runaway bestseller for over twenty years—not for any revolutionary politics, but for the usefulness of it’s calendar and the delightfulness of it’s popular content covering astronomy, astrology, weather forecasts, poems, proverbs, and puzzles.
Franklin was the Arianna Huffington of his day: a savvy businessperson, popular publisher, and a political heavyweight. Along with other colonial printers in Philadelphia, they established the means for the popular distribution of independently published books and newspapers. When the revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, written anonymously by Thomas Paine, was published in 1776, it sold a 1/2 million copies within a year. Put that on your Kindle—actually, you can: Common Sense ranks in the top 200 on the Free list in the Kindle Store.
While Franklin witnessed a revolution in the power of publishing over the course of his lifetime, we’ve experienced a revolution in the nature of publishing in a few short years. Ebook sales have trended up geometrically and are starting to spike, according to a recent AAP Monthly StatShot report from the Association of American Publishers. Ebook revenues increased 76% in January 2012 compared to January 2011, accounting for an overall increase of 27% for the book publishing industry.
U.S. ebook sales for 2011 have been estimated at nearly $1 billion and global sales at more than $3 billion, but does anybody actually know how many titles are being published? By whom? To whom? Through what distribution channels? Those answers and a peak at the future would cost $2,780 for the Mobile Publishing 2011-2016 report from Juniper Research. What I do know from their press release on the ebook section is that “continued strong growth in the dedicated eReader market, allied to an upsurge in usage across tablet devices, will push annual revenues from eBooks delivered to portable devices to $9.7 billion by 2016.” A Digital Book World news item adds that “about 30% of e-books will be purchased on tablets, 15% will be purchased on smartphones and roughly 55% will be purchased on e-readers by 2016.”
With all these new authors, publishers, and ebooks, the question remains: Will it matter or will most authors still perish? Especially when so many indie authors are offering ebooks on the cheap to get traction with readers and to build their publishing clout. Eighteen self-published titles were in the Amazon Kindle Store Top 100 Best Sellers of 2011, but their average price was merely $1.40 versus an average of $8.26 for all books in the Top 100, notes indie author Piotr Kowalczyk on his blog Ebook Friendly. Kowalczyk also points out that self-published books typically reach the Kindle Top 100 list for only a month or two, while traditionally published titles by bestselling authors can maintain high sales for a year or more.
“Write without pay until somebody offers pay,” said Mark Twain. “If nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” Twain’s advice is still appropriate today. The trick for indie authors is to try establishing an ebook for free in the Kindle Store for a few weeks; then as visibility grows, find out if new readers will pay 99¢. If not, at least you didn’t saw down trees for paper pulp and contribute to global warming.
Indie author Rachel Thompson is a mom, a wife, a recovering pharmaceuticals rep, a social media consultant, and “a chick who writes stuff that makes you laugh.” She currently has two Amazon Kindle bestsellers, A Walk in the Snark (#1 for Parenting & Families, Motherhood, and Humor, and #5 in the Top 100) and The Mancode: Exposed (#1 for Essays and Humor, and #6 in the Top 100). However, they are assigned to the Amazon Free list. How can Thompson sell something for free? Well, her ebooks are listed at a price of $1.99, but she often discounts them to 99¢ to keep them moving and even has freebie specials. Rachel shared her marketing secrets in a recent interview on BlogWorld:
“Realize your first book isn’t going to be your moneymaker. It’s your name maker. Pricing it above $2.99 will only upset readers and it won’t sell. If you’re in this to make money, think again. If you want to put out a quality product, make your name, and hopefully have people read your story, great. Pay for ads, pulse price at 99 cents, do blog tours, work your social media constantly, be nice to people, give away without expectation to receive…”
This successful self-published author and self-proclaimed Queen of Snark is also a queen of social media marketing, tweeting on the hour as @RachelintheOC to over 15,000 followers and following over 11,000 of her readers. I’ve downloaded her ebooks, follow her on Twitter, and in February I noticed a direct message from Thompson to my Twitter account:
That looked like an automated spam message, so I tweeted a direct message back to her:
Within fifteen minutes, she shot back:
Surprised that Rachel was live on Twitter, I kept up the conversation:
She engaged directly and honestly with a nice wink, more smarmy charm than snark:
In my content marketing work as a consultant, my advice for social media is to aim for a balance of 80% engagement with 20% promotion in messaging. The goal is to build relationships based on the value of content and conversation that can be complemented by marketing messages that don’t feel like a hard-sell hammer. The Queen of Snark is happy to disagree, as Rachel flips the dynamic and loves to spotlight her books, celebrate herself, and toss some snarky tweets into the mix to engage with her audience. That’s branding baby! And it moves books from author to readers.
“The traditional publishing market is driven by profit, not by readers’ demands, interests, or curiosities,” states Dara M. Beevas, vice president at Beaver’s Pond Press, an independent publisher, in her “5 Reasons Indie Publishing is the Future” post on The Indie Writer’s Network. “The fact is that publishers were afraid of how eBooks would affect their bottom-lines. Instead of seeing themselves as ‘content creators,’ they married themselves to being ‘bookbuilders.’ In doing so, they let retailers pioneer a necessary advancement in publishing. This also created the perfect storm for indie authors to provide readers with what they wanted: good content that is easily accessible, quickly shared, and purchased at a reasonable price.”
Publish or Perish or Self-Publish. Same game, new rules. Profit or Perish? I’ll check back with Rachel in the OC in a few months or a few years. Meanwhile, I need to get back to finishing my own masterpiece: Sawing Wood.