I’ve heard the rise of independent publishing called a revolution more times than I can count. It’s highly touted as such, especially by indie authors for whom – and I am one of these – the doors to the traditional publishers seemed shut forever. A strong reaction to seeing your work in print – at last! – is perfectly understandable. Some of us have battled the “gatekeepers” for years, or even decades. To be handed the opportunity to get the job done without the need to acquire an agent, or be lucky enough to have a manuscript land on just the right desk on just the right day, is not to be treated lightly. And it isn’t. It has been embraced with a will by a legion of struggling writers with the greatest of excitement and enthusiasm. Small wonder the cry “Vive la révolution!” is heard.
But is it really a revolution?
Revolutions, by their nature, sweep old ways of doing things aside, and replace these with something new. But for all that digital self-publishing and print-on-demand seem revolutionary to indie authors, I don’t believe that’s quite what we have going on here. Something major has remained the same, something with a stubborn resistance to the most ardent revolutionary fervor. Almost as soon as people began to avail themselves of PubIt, Kindle Direct Press, and aggregators such as Smashwords, they also discovered (or rediscovered) the single greatest challenge any author can ever face. It’s a hurdle you must overcome whether or not you publish independently, so it doesn’t matter if you were successful with the gatekeepers or did an end run around them. And it’s a task that makes the challenge of writing, editing, and producing a book on your own pale by comparison.
You need to find your audience. You need to get your book out where it can be discovered by readers, and in a way that draws attention to your work. As every author, indie or otherwise, very soon learns, that’s not at all easy. The digital age has conjured up no shortage of options for both book promotion and book discovery, to be sure. But which ones work? Which tricks are actually worth the time spent? Which of them actually sell books? No one seems to know for sure. Depending on how you interpret the averages, they all work, or none of them do. Ask if “idea X” sells books and as many people will shout “No!” as sing its praises. The tricks that do seem to work for the majority of indie authors fade in effectiveness over time, perhaps due to the sheer number of authors trying to run that particular play. In the end, it seems most of us in the indie world have ended up no better off than the average traditionally published midlist author, for whom marketing support by the publisher has become a rare and rarified thing.
If you want an audience, you need to take on the tasks of marketing and promotion for yourself and make it happen. Simply putting the book out there won’t get it done. You need to work the social media, run promotional contests, attend genre gatherings and do public readings, and keep your eyes and mind open for any other possible means of making people notice your books. This takes a lot of time, and that’s time that most of us would rather spend writing. Nothing for it. It must be done, and even then, the process yields results at speeds that can best be described as glacial. For some, frustration and disillusionment with the self-publishing “revolution” soon sets in. Sales are flat and it seems nothing can be done to change that. People getting started can’t seem to get the ball rolling. Authors who had something on the ball are watching sales drop no matter what they do. The revolutionary expectations raised by the ability to go around the industry gatekeepers seem to remain, for many indie authors, out of reach.
Vive la révolution?
The idea that we are part of a publishing revolution seems to have encouraged some overly optimistic expectations, and now that the first great wave of indie authors is rushing along, excitement is giving way to a certain amount of anxiety. Weren’t things supposed to be different, now? Surely this should be easier to do, with the traditional publishers out of the way! But the truth of the matter is that digital self-publishing and POD haven't made it any easier to succeed as an author. They've made it easier to put your work out there, and after that it’s the same old same old. Virtual shelves or the corner of a brick-and-mortar store, if people don’t find your book they can’t read it. A lot of good writers, more every day, are getting their chance to put their work out there, but after publication only sheer persistence, coupled with the production of other, high-quality books, gives you any chance of success at all. That’s how it’s always been. There’s gold in them thar hills, to be sure, but you’d better sharpen your shovel and be prepared to dig deep! You need to go into this business with high hopes, but no expectations.
A revolution? Not really, or at least, not completely. The old ways have not entirely been swept away, but that’s no reason for panic or despair. Think of modern self-publishing with its digital speed and efficiency as an opportunity, not a revolution. Anyone who does the work of writing and editing a book, anyone willing to put ego on hold and really listen to beta readers or freelance editors, and who can then stomach the daily grind of finding ways to promote a book, now has the opportunity to be published and achieve some measure of success. For some of us this will lead to great things. For most of us it won’t. That, also, is the way it used to be. Any given author today is no more, or less, likely to succeed than in pre-ebook days. You are, however, more likely to be published at all. The only clear path to failure is to be so intimidated by the challenge ahead that you just don’t try.
Vive la possibilité!
Take a look at Tom's book The Luck of Han'anga on Amazon.