Why I’m no longer a self-published author

Fire your (self-)publisher

Photo by Echo Grid on Unsplash

About a year ago, I removed A Falling Body from the Kindle store. It hadn’t sold even a single copy for several months and I worried that by languishing there without showing any sign of life, it was probably doing no good to my reputation with Amazon. More to the point, it was annoying me: its baleful presence felt like an accusation or a reproof. Obviously, I wasn’t doing enough to market or promote it. A few people said to me that it was a mistake to remove it: as long as it existed on the platform there was a chance that somebody might discover it by tripping over it. I felt sure that that wasn’t true, though I wasn’t sure why at the time.

The book remained available through iBooks, Kobo and a handful of other ebook sellers and I set up a page for it with Payhip, which attracted a few hundred page views but just one additional buyer — my cousin. That’s how things remained until two weeks ago, when I was writing about Goodreads and the self-published author. Among the relevant material I found using Google were two stories by Ewan Morrison from the Guardian in 2012. These stories are six years old now and we all know that the ebook publishing business is changing fast, so naturally I read them with a sense that the situation might have changed dramatically since they were written.

In 2012, Morrison expected the self-publishing “bubble” to have burst within 18 months. Clearly, that didn’t happen, so to that extent his reading is wrong. But, as they say, prediction is notoriously difficult, particularly when it’s about the future. There is, I think, an unending supply of aspirants who “always dreamt of being an author”, so it should be no surprise that they are enough to keep the self-publishing industry going, long after it should be clear that the economic model doesn’t work — at least not for the authors.

Morrison foresaw that the bubble would progress through 7 named stages, culminating in the final disillusionment of the indie author:

[T]his was in fact the business model of Amazon and other platforms in the first place: a model called “the long tail”. With five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author — since they had to cut costs to 99p — has made only £99 after a year’s work.

His prediction of a collapse within 18 months was based on the assumption that the authors would behave in an economically rational manner and quit the business. Unfortunately for them, “aspiring” authors have been conditioned to accept years, even decades, of rejection, failure, setbacks and unpaid work. We’re told, and tell each other, that to give up would be a betrayal of our “dream”. As a consequence, we make perfect targets for “a kind of Ponzi scheme — one created by digital companies to prey on the desires of an expanding mass of consumers who also wanted to be believe they could be ‘creative’”.

Of course, there are self-published authors who have been and continue to be enviably successful. They’re a tiny — proportionally infinitesimal — minority. And as Morrison points out, for many of those who have made indie authorship their main business, their best selling book is the one which explains to other would-be self-publishers how they did it! In fact, some observers believe that more money is made from self-publishers — selling them how-to books, courses and services (editing, design, marketing) — than by self-publishers.

Amazon’s model is analogous to social media (where the “content” is created voluntarily by the users) or blogging on a free WordPress site: you (the user of the service) are not the customer. Similarly, in the business of selling ebooks (and print-on-demand books) to readers, you (the author) are not the enterprise. You’re not, in effect, the seller. According to the business model, you’re not the one who’s meant to make money from the deal.

When you qualify a term, you change its meaning to a greater or a lesser extent. I’ve long been fascinated by the way we sometimes qualify something to the extent of actually reversing its meaning. So, Lucio Colletti was able to show that “dialectical materialism” is not materialism at all but its opposite, idealism. In much the same way, “magic realism”—though it certainly didn’t start out that way—has regrettably come to mean something far removed from realism, more like fantasy. And “self-publishing” is not Publishing. In practical terms, it’s the opposite of publishing.

That’s why Amazon so generously provides free publishing tools and will store your digital file on its servers, at no cost to you, till kingdom come, whether you sell any copies or not. But, if we’re not the sellers of the ebooks we write, what the heck are we? I like the term “digital sharecroppers” which I think was popularized, if not coined, by Nicholas Carr.

I’m not willing to play that game any more. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up writing fiction. (Of course not.) I’ve been posting A Falling Body in parts of 1,500 to 2,500 words, here on Medium. You can read it, if you’re so inclined, for free. I’m about to get back to work on another novel (working title: Songs We Know, nicked from an album by Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell). When that’s finished … well, I probably won’t self-publish it, at least not as an ebook or print-on-demand. Time will tell.

Update: I decided that Songs We Know would work better as a novella, so I removed a subplot, halving the number of words in the first draft, and you can now read it under the title Dear Old Stockholm:

And here are some of my more recent thoughts about traditional publishing, self-publishing, ebooks and related questions: