Well-regarded Tor and self-published author Tobias Buckell just posted a wide-ranging analysis of the hype and letdown attached to much current self-publishing that has been getting considerable airtime on Facebook and elsewhere: “Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now.” He followed up with me by answering some questions at length. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
TeleRead: Just how bad do you think the shovels-to-the-goldrush overgrowth of services and Smashwords-like platforms has become for the self-publishing community? How badly does this exacerbate the bias?
Tobias Buckell: Even though I could rag on Smashwords for the user interface and the constant glitching whenever I’ve tried to test it, I think aggregators are actually fantastic. Not a lot of authors are, or need to be, technically oriented. Being able to use MS Word to upload the manuscript and see it published is freeing. I’m not a fan of the meat grinder, but the fact is, whether we have Smashwords or anything else, we’re already opening the floodgates, so to speak. The gold rush is here. I’m agnostic about tools; the technology is a genie that isn’t going to be stuffed back in the bottle. The question for me is more: what now? How do we get better as writers; how do we do better by the reader? How do we become better business people? We’ve created a direct-to-reader marketplace, but now what?
The emphasis, and partly this is because this is what the high school classroom atmosphere of the Internet echo-chambers, has been copies sold or what has been made. But as a reader, every time I see another article that talks about an indie publishing success and fails to mention a single thing about the stories in question, because hey, we’re telling stories here, I die a little inside. Because as I point out in the post, there is a huge curve of sales out there—not everyone is making big money. Not everyone will. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re doing a disservice by creating strange expectations.
This isn’t unique, by the way. A ton of people starting bombarding YA agents and editors with novels because they wanted to get rich like J.K. Rowling because the news focused on success. Everyone likes a winner, and success amplifies success (it’s an unfair snowball, but there you go). But in so-called traditional publishing, particularly in my own genre of science fiction, there is more of a tradition of tempering expectations. I think fewer people go in expecting to get rich. When I talk about publishing, I try to reinforce that. (One of my most visited pages is still my SF/F author advance survey.) Since I’m a hybrid author, I also try to pass on any data I see about what to expect on the digital direct side as well.
TeleRead: Digital disruption in music or film doesn’t seem to have had quite the same everyman-his-own-Napster impact as it has in publishing. What do you think the reasons are for this, and the likely consequences?
Buckell: A lot of people try to compare music, film, and book publishing. There are obvious similarities, but ultimately they are different forms and we should realize that. The way things will play out will be different. Music worked by bundling songs together into albums. In books we don’t have that; a book is a long continuous product. Harder to strip out into components (though some novella collections that become a book might be, but the bulk of the business is novels).
But I’d also point out that music ‘disruption’ is not quite as simple as people make it out to be. It started to get disrupted in 1999 when I was in college, with Napster. Right now a large number of people still buy CDs in some form. Large music studios still exist, though the overall share of profits has dived (though CDs may have pumped that up to begin with). The large organizations that everyone derided as being dinosaurs have actually adapted to continuing to serve us our product, and we give them money.
What has happened is that we lost most of the record stores for sure. We have some direct sales musicians, which is cool. But a lot of the same artists and studios are still collaborating because those systems (for marketing, finding musicians, taking advantage of them, etc.) are stronger than their detractors imagine. And as fast as disruption has seemed, it’s actually slow enough on the ground that it’s more that smaller, nimbler groups get out in front of the slow dinosaurs, [while] some dinosaurs stumble, [and] others continue strongly moving on and hoovering up stuff.
Mostly I think the likely consequences are that we see lots of experimentation and more ways to do things. Today I’m able to work with large publishers, direct sales, crowdfunding, sales off my website, and some interesting other companies that are popping up. To view it simply as a someone must win/someone must lose’ point of view is to miss the fact that in abundance what you get is more, not zero sum. But people are tribal, and there are a lot of ‘leaders’ who get followers (and thus attention and ink and eyeballs) by declaring ‘X is dead’ and laying down ‘the one true new way’ to success. I find them little different than Harold Camping (the man who claimed the world was going to end last year).
No matter how much things change, the fact remains that making a living off art is hard. And the rules are always changing. I came into the field in the mid-90s, right after the midlist paperback boom deflated, and authors were getting cut loose from publishers left and right. Every ten years there is another crisis in regards to delivery systems, or some major change. In the past, they were usually invisible to readers.
TeleRead: How harmful do you think the cult of self-publishing success is now to actually getting good results from self-publishing?
Buckell: Well, it’s less harmful than the vanity publishing days when people would spend money on getting books printed and end up ruining their life savings! What people risk losing is not making as much money as they might have if they’d been somewhat more agnostic, or less of a follower of any one method. That’s mostly a loss of cognitive surplus, to paraphrase Clay Shirky. I still see a lot more writers than I’d like spending money on advertising outlays online for books that are selling in the dozens, but thankfully a lot of people are gathering in online forums and trading tips on what works. Yay Internet.
I think the damage mostly comes from the angry, strident arguing online, and some of the personalities who feel invested in declaring that there is ‘one true way.’ I was heartened to hear recently that an Amazon rep stated that when they looked at the data they spotted that hybrid authors on average made more money than those invested in one method or the other. That’s an interesting piece of data, if I understood it right. It shows, I think, where the smart money lies: platform and publishing mechanism independent, testing out all waters.
I think when you surround yourself by people who echo-chamber you, you can still succeed. Many people in life do. But at some point, you do run the risk of cognitive dissonance. Gathering data, paying attention to failures, learning from your own failed projects: I find that more interesting. When I’m asked about writing I try to encourage people to persevere, work hard to tell good stories, and get it in it for the long haul. Because for most of us, it’s going to be a lot of hard work.
Because ultimately, no matter what mechanism you choose, I hate seeing amazing voices give up because they hit the wall of unrealistic expectations. And I hate seeing writers not developing, or getting better, due to surrounding themselves in strange echo-chambers, which from my perspective happens quite a bit. I’m grateful and lucky to have been surrounded by friends with varied careers and approaches, and who are always interested in poking at assumptions.