The new year is a time to look ahead but also a time to reflect. The timing of this column is significant to me because ten years ago yesterday – January 12, 2007 – I sat down to write what would become my first science fiction novel. I finished the first draft in ten days, the second draft in four, and had a completed third draft by the end of the month. I started recording it – a few chapters at a time – in the front seat of my car because it was the quietest place I could find. I released the first episode at Podiobooks.com on February 17th. I made every mistake. I did everything wrong.
I wrote four novels that first year and podcast them all. I had no idea what I was doing and never imagined that I’d be here – ten years later – a full time novelist.
This column isn’t to tell you how great I am. It’s to help lend some perspective on how much the industry has changed since I began. Many think the golden age is over. The people who were in it when it began will always be the winners and there’s no room for the new folks coming along behind. The pool is flooded and it’s impossible to rise to the top.
Yeah. Not so much.
In 2007, the Kindle wasn’t on the market. Self-publishing consisted of Lulu and BookSurge for print-on-demand titles. The price points killed sales. Booksurge – which would become CreateSpace – took a drubbing in 2008 when Amazon tried to get all the POD authors to use only their interface to sell books on Amazon. It’s not that bad now, but the wise POD authors always list through CreateSpace for Amazon these days in order to keep their titles from going out-of-stock, but I digress.
In January, 2010, I signed with a small press to produce my books in text formats. They convinced me that we could do better together than I could on my own. The salient point is that I built my audience for three full years and across six titles before I tried to sell what we’d consider a book. I did it by giving my stories away as free podcasts.
I made a lot of strategic decisions in those years about what to write, where to release it, how to promote it, and what tools and techniques to use to build that audience. It took months to get the first hundred, a year to get the first thousand. By the time I signed with the publisher in 2010, I had a million downloads across all the episodes in all the books and that took three years.
We released Quarter Share just before the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in the spring of 2010. By then the Kindle was making noise in the marketplace so we released both ebook and paper. That ebook thing was a gamble. In those days selling a few hundred ebooks a year was a Big Deal. We had a release party at BaltiCon and a table where I hand sold a few copies in paper, mostly to the fans who already knew the story from listening. Quarter Share sold a few hundred on release and settled down to about ten a month.
Things stayed quiet until the Kindle Autumn of 2010. That’s the point where the Kindle’s market penetration tipped into the mainstream market for heavy readers. It would be another three months before Kindles became more common with casual readers. In October I became the first author at my publishing house to sell a thousand units in a single month with a single title. Others had sold a thousand across multiple titles, but that was the beginning for me.
By 2012 I dissolved the contract with my publisher by exercising my exit clause, got my rights back and spent a year re-issuing the four titles they’d released under my own imprint. By then I had eight books. Now I’m working on lucky number thirteen and the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.
But here’s the thing.
The fundamental market has changed, but for the better. Millions of people read ebooks now. Dedicated devices are less common. Tablets and smartphones have taken over. Amazon and Kobo have a presence everywhere around the globe making digital products available to almost half a billion English speakers. The early stigma of self-publishing as vanity press has not disappeared but has become significantly diluted as dedicated self-publishers approach the work professionally in order to produce works that rival – even exceed – the quality of those published by the Bigs.
The reality of publishing today encompasses a variety of paths. Small, productive self-publishers can – and often do – earn more than authors published by the likes of Random House and Macmillan. They get fat and happy on sales numbers that are too small to support any of the bigger houses and some of the small. With reduced fixed cost overheads and very small variable costs people like me can do what most authors were never able to achieve ten years ago. We can quit our day jobs.
It’s not fast. I spent three years just building audience for my stories and five years before becoming a full time author in the summer of 2012.
It’s not easy. I’ve written over two million words across my novels. I’ve tried and failed a couple of times along the way. I’ve had to learn some hard lessons.
It’s not guaranteed. Fiction is still art and art is fickle.
But it is possible if you’re willing to do the work – the real work, not the work you want to do. If you’re willing to stick it out for years, not weeks or months, in order to build the structures, establish your audience, and work it like the business that it is. The life of an author isn't a sprint or a marathon. It's not a race of any kind. There's only one finish line and it's the one we all face. If there's one thing I've learned over the last decade it's that writing is a way of life.
So Happy New Year, RMFW. We're already almost two weeks in. Go write something great.