Friday, February 14, 2014

Why Hugh Howey Is Wrong. Sort Of.

Like many other writers, I've been watching with interest the fallout from the publishing dirty bomb that Hugh Howey detonated this week with his Author Earnings website.

This is not a post about that site. 

It is a post, however, about something Hugh wrote today in a post titled "Luck and Lottery."

First off, I like Hugh a lot. I loved WOOL, and I'm now reading SHIFT, which I might like better than WOOL. I respect his work and his usually spot-on analysis about what is going on in traditional and self-publishing. 

Although I agree with much of what he wrote in "Luck and Lottery," there were a few points that I really took issue with, enough that I decided to write this blog post when I should really be asleep. 

He wrote that "[m]ost people will be happier getting their works out in the wild and moving on to the next project than they will reading rejection letters. We don’t see these stories."

 When I self-published The Jackpot, I was ready to become a professional writer. I had an agent. I'd had half a dozen short animated films go viral. I had more regular Internet exposure than the vast majority of writers (at the time, those videos were drawing 3,000-4,000 hits per day). I wasn't doing this just to get my work out into the wild. I was doing it to get my work in front of a lot of readers and to start making money. 

So the reason that I argue that Hugh's contention is wrong is simple, and it is this: there is one thing I've done in self-publishing that Hugh really hasn't. 

And that is fail spectacularly. 

Now hang on: I'm not saying Hugh hasn't struggled as a writer and doesn't understand the work and sacrifice it takes to become a good writer. His pre-WOOL work proves that he's been in the trenches and that he has seen his work not sell like he'd hoped.

But I'm talking specifically about self-publishing here. 

The Jackpot entered the world in the late spring of 2011 ... and crashed with a gigantic thud. It sold less than 300 copies in eight months (a good chunk of which went to friends and family). Believe me, no one was clamoring for more fiction from me.

Hugh further writes that: "...[Y]ou can self-publish, have the pride of having done so, hold a copy of a physical book you wrote in your hands, see your e-book up on Amazon, get a sale or two, hear from a reader, and want to write more."
I didn't feel pride. I felt fucking heartbreak. I felt sick. Seeing my book on Amazon ranked at #237,135 didn't make me feel very good at all. All my work. All my sweat. All for nothing. It was as painful as any rejection letter I'd ever received from an agent. Except it went on for eight miserable months. And I didn't want to write more. I wanted to take my Kindle out back and take a baseball bat to it, Office-Space style. 

Yes, The Jackpot ultimately did find great success thanks to Amazon's KDP Select program, but that was pure luck (a factor that Hugh is totally correct about and doesn't brush under the rug). Moreover, it came via a marketing strategy that no longer works, one that's as dead as the dinosaurs. Don't get me wrong, the day my book hit No. 1 in Legal Thrillers and the Top 100 overall was one of the great days of my life. But it was as much of a lucky strike as bestsellerdom via traditional publishing would've been. So, while I realize that without self-publishing, The Jackpot had a zero percent chance of becoming the No. 1 legal thriller on Amazon, it's tough to get unduly excited about a platform that gives it a 0.00000001 percent chance of that same success. 

It's like that line from Dumb and Dumber, where Jim Carrey's character says to his romantic interest: "So you're telling me there's a chance!" 

And I've never forgotten the misery of watching my book wither away on the vine. Without KDP Select, the book would have vanished. I mean, if I hadn't been able to draw readers when I had a huge audience for my videos, what hope would I have one or two or five years later? Virtually zero. The memory burns brightly as I pursue a traditional deal for my current book. 

So just remember that when you think about self-publishing. I think this is particularly applicable to those of you who can't manage the high-volume production that it seems to take to succeed self-publishing, those of you who are thinking about writing "merely" a book a year. 

Toward the end of his post, Hugh writes: "And what’s mind-blowingly-brilliant about this data is that it has already moved self-publishing into a position of equality (emphasis in original)." 

I agree, Hugh. Self-publishing is just as legitimate a way to succeed as a writer as traditional publishing. And it's just as legitimate a way to fail.


  1. Yeah, most writers will fail at this.
    But sorry to say, it's every writer's CHOICE not to keep up a high-volume production schedule. It's not self-publishing's fault. Nobody owes anyone a living, as J.A. Konrath rightly points out.
    You had a little success with your first book.
    That wasn't luck. If Select doesn't work, you find new ways to get your book out there. You write in a hot genre. That's what I had to do. My horror/thrillers weren't selling so I started writing erotica and romance.
    I enjoy writing and it was a fun game to see if I could do it...nobody forced me. I wanted to write full-time and I wanted to make money.
    People fail at this because they think that the way they WANT the world to be should make it so. Hey, if I love writing poetry, I should be able to make a living writing my damn poetry, right???? Doesn't the world owe me that???? Oh, yeah, and I should be able to only write one book of poetry a year and still succeed. I mean, why not? Isn't that fair?
    Self-publishing is part of an industry. We are at the mercy of what the public wants to buy and read, and then the question is whether we can make money providing it to them.
    Hugh Howey points out that self-publishers can do so, just the same way (or better) than traditional authors always have.
    That is the point.
    He never promised you or any writers success doing whatever you wanted to do.

  2. Amen, gniz. The point Hugh Howey always tries to drive home is, "find joy in the act of writing and publishing your story. Not in becoming a bestseller." Self-publishing is not an automatic ticket to success. There are thousands of writers who had their work published traditionally who watched their book sink into obscurity and felt just as badly, David. If you make turning your selfpub book into a bestseller your goal, that's like buying your first lottery ticket and expecting to win a million right away.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I wasn't trying to say that I expected easy riches or anything like that. What I'm trying to say is that if self-publishing success is as hard, if not HARDER, to achieve than traditional publishing success.

    Or put another way, if you self-publish a book, and you sell a hundred copies or whatever, then is that any different or better than never having published at all? Or is the fact that the book is out there enough?

    It's funny that JA Konrath frequently claims those who seek traditional deals have fallen victim to pride - presumably the pride in being validated by the antiquated publishing industry. But isn't that what self-publishers are doing, too? If your book is like the average, and you've sold enough maybe to buy a nice dinner (do the math and see how far below minimum wage you are), then what itch are you scratching other than pride or vanity?

    If you are TRULY writing for the love of writing and nothing else, why hit that Publish button at all?