So it’s been a little over a month since I published The Second Transit. I had little or no expectations for how the book would do, so the fact that anyone has read it at all is really amazing for me. My first foray into book self-publishing has given me an up-close look at the tradeoffs of this amazing democratizing platform, so I thought I’d share them.
First off, the Kindle Direct Publishing platform is just a really outstanding product. You upload a reasonably well formatted PDF and some cover art, and anyone can have an attractive, easily accessible book published in no time. It’s easy to see why the big publishers hate this. Down with the gatekeepers! (Disclaimer: I once considered going to work on Amazon’s Kindle group, but we weren’t up for a relocation to Seattle. They are a great team.)
Of course, the flip side is obvious: the discovery problem. There are literally thousands of new ebooks published every single day, so absolutely no one is going to discover your work by accident. There’s an Amazon recommendation algorithm, of course, but it doesn’t kick in unless you gain serious traction. Otherwise, there are built-in marketing tools that, like anywhere else, will allow you to buy exposure and hope and pray that your cover and description are catchy enough. Self-service marketing is not well supported – I don’t even have referral stats to who finds my book on Amazon. You can also do limited-time-only free and discounted promotional periods once every 90 days or so. (I took advantage of this to offer my book for free when I launched.)
In the first week I launched, about 300 people downloaded my book – mostly during the free period. Since then, adoption totally evaporated, and I’ve averaged one sale every two days or so (at $2.99), during what I would consider reasonably heavy self-promotion on Twitter. (Sorry – I try not to be obnoxious.) I’ve made not quite enough to take my wife out to breakfast. I’ve also given away a number of copies to friends and asked them to leave a rating/review if they liked it.
The long and short is that Amazon provides an amazing publishing platform, but it’s up to you to build an audience. And therein, of course, lies the rub.
Platforms that democratize opportunity are unquestionably good, whether it’s Kindle, or Shopify, or Stripe, etc. They knock down a lot of bad barriers, but other critical ones remain. Derek Thompson makes the point in his book Hit Makers that sheer exposure is sufficient to make many creative works successful – you see this in music all the time. But particularly with content that requires a significant personal investment to try (like a book), consumers are very reticent about trying new things – they tend to like to stick to what they know (like authors or series) or social proof (like prestigious awards and opinion-leader reviews). This is where publishers, and the marketing investments they control, are incredibly helpful. They act as broadcasters for the product. With social media, other “broadcasters” with big audiences can do this too, and for free, but typically (and rightly) protect access to those audiences jealously. The broad social distribution enabled by a couple of what Thompson calls “dark broadcasters” is what’s required for most content to “go viral,” which traditional publishing can then co-opt into its business model.
(For what it’s worth, if anyone with a million followers wants to tweet out my book, I’ll name a character after you in my next book.)
In the self-published authoring world, you have a lot of the usual “just doing this for myself” talk, but all of us secretly want to be Andy Weir (of the self-published “The Martian” fame). And, truth be told, while there’s an awful lot of crap out there, there are also a lot of Weir-quality authors out there that you’ve just never heard of because they don’t have audiences. The long tail of content means that there is now something for everyone out there, but discovery is still a mostly manual, intention-driven process.
Thus, publishing my book has made me a believer again in traditional publishing. Tech, at least thus far, has no idea how to tackle the Discovery problem, and a solution is not really in the offing. Nevertheless, for a small potato like me, Kindle-style self-publishing is a huge advantage.