(Indie) writing is NOT a lottery

I see this meme perpetuated even by some big-name indie writers: somehow all writing is a lottery and participants (authors) are just playing the odds.

This is so fundamentally wrong on so many levels it’s laughable.

First of all, anyone who took and comprehended basic introductory statistics in college will know that they cannot be applied to the individual. It is simply not accurate to say that if 1 in 10,000 books makes money (I have no idea what the statistic is, I’m just pulling that number out of my ass for illustration purposes) then my (or your, or anyone’s) “odds” of writing a book which makes money are 1/10,000–i.e., miniscule. This is a false conclusion. Statistics in the aggregate cannot be applied to any individual because they only represent the aggregate behavior. They don’t account for individual variation and the very real fact that there are often specific reasons why one book sells and another does not; Or why one author succeeds in making enough money to quit his day job and write full-time where others do not. A statistic simply tells you about the whole: i.e., the whole sample exhibited whatever characteristics. Even if you’re part of the sample, the overall results don’t say anything about your future–only your past. They are based on historical data–and while historical data can be helpful for predicting the future of the whole, it is not robust at the individual level. Which is to say that if the statistic is that the indie ebook market is growing 30% year over year, that tells you that the overall ebook market is growing at that rate–not necessarily your own sales as an author. The rest of the market might be moving that way while your specific sales fall…or the opposite could occur. In a few years perhaps we’ll hear about declining ebook sales (I have not idea if this is the truth but hey, what goes up must come down, right?). Such a thing could occur while your individual sales continue to increase.

This is why the aggregate statistics are only useful for illuminating generalities: the indie ebook market is growing; some indie authors make a lot of money; indie authors sell a lot of books. They are not useful for telling YOU–an individual–how many ebook sales you’ll generate when you publish your first, second, or twentieth book; They are not useful for telling you how much you can expect to make as an author; They cannot tell you whether you have what it takes to make a living as an indie (or traditionally published) author. They can only provide hints as to what SOME authors are accomplishing.

There is simply no randomness to who wins and loses as an indie writer. That should be an empowering and very scary realization. If you have not yet succeeded, you have a choice: keep trying new things and forge onward until you achieve success, or quit.

Also, keep in mind that the statistics don’t reveal what makes one author successful and another unsuccessful. They simply reveal the (typically) median or average between the two (or more).

So we’ve covered the statistics. Now let’s talk about why making it as an indie writer is NOT a lottery.

A lottery is simply a game of chance where the odds are completely independent of the actor’s (in this case, the indie author’s) skill level, persistence, experience, etc. A lottery is one where the payout and odds are established and independent–i.e., where the actor/player/author cannot change the odds no matter what they do. You buy one lottery ticket and your odds are X, you buy another lottery ticket and your odds for the second ticket remain X. Granted, if you buy more lottery tickets your odds increase from infinitesimally small to slightly less infinitesimally small, but even so beyond buying more tickets there’s nothing you can do to increase the odds in your favor.

Traditional publishing is much more like a lottery, but still isn’t a *true* lottery, because the “odds” (i.e., the statistics) in your favor aren’t good. But even so, while the statistics are often referred to as “odds” they aren’t–in the strictest sense. They are simply statistics. Just because your chance of becoming the next J. K. Rowling is (I have no idea if this is the statistic or not) 1 in 10,000,000 (maybe worse) does not mean that you won’t be the next J.K. Rowling. Perhaps you will be. The statistic doesn’t apply to you. It only postulates that 1 in 10 Million writers will be the next J.K. Rowling. It has nothing to say about whether that will be you or not.

Even with traditional publishing–where the statistics about how many books are rejected versus accepted and the average size of advance are abysmal–there is still a great deal an author can do to succeed. They can stop blogging and start writing their first book, for example. They can write another book after they finish their first. And they can write books, one after the other, until they start writing books which are good enough to be accepted. They can try different genres, different voices, different approaches until they find what works. Maybe they’ll be a wildly successful traditionally published author, maybe not. But the truth of the matter is that no lottery occurred. You are responsible for a great deal of your success.

Most writers fail in both traditional publishing and indie publishing because they simply write a book or two or three and then wonder why the world isn’t knocking down their door check in hand. The truth is it takes many books written to really master the art. I’ve written five full-length screenplays–no small feat–and they were all abysmally bad. If you manage to write a first novel which is reasonably entertaining than you should congratulate yourself, because most first novels will be horrid. This is not an indication of talent; but merely the first careening steps of an infant. You’ll hit your head many times, fall down the stairs, and spend a lot of time on the floor in agony before you figure it out.

Stick with the writing and you will improve. Perhaps you’ll never be a word smith, but perhaps you’ll be able to tell an engaging riveting tale none-the-less. It doesn’t take big words, or complex ideas to entertain readers. My wife and I enjoy Clive Cussler’s books. Anyone who’s ever read them will tell you that they’re a lot of fun as long as you don’t take them too seriously. They’re like big budget action movies. You come for the well-executed thrills, action, and CG–not the acting and thoughtful plot line.

This leads us to the fundamental difference between indie publishing and traditional publishing. In indie publishing YOU are empowered. Your books are exactly as crappy or as excellent as you can make them. You can put out the first draft and hope you’ll sell a few copies before readers catch on and leave scathing reviews, or you can write a few drafts, hire an editor, hire a cover designer, and really make the book shine. You control how long you take to write the book, how much you spend on getting the book ready for publication, when you release the book, and how you promote it. You can manage your web presence wisely and cultivate readership effectively and track your expenses and keep a tight set of books, or not. You, and you alone, are responsible for your success.

Let’s put it this way: if you write great books, they will find an audience. Period. As they say in Hollywood, there is an unlimited appetite for a great script. Same goes for novels. If you’re not selling well then you need to put on your introspective thinking cap. Are you books truly as good as they can be? Are you still improving as an author? Are you doing all you can to find and develop your reader/customer base? Are you spending too much or too little on editing, covers, promotion, etc.? Always be willing to go back to the drawing board.

The truth is, as a writer, you’re never at a set skill level. You are always either improving or declining. Even Steven King isn’t above getting sloppy (I don’t read his books, but I’ve heard that recently he’s lost his touch for some readers). Writing is a skill which must be honed over a long time, with many words typed, and constantly attended to. Like a garden, if you get lazy the weeds will grow up, the sun will scorch your fledgling carrots into the ground, and your crop simply won’t grow–no matter how long you’ve been gardening. But a good gardener doesn’t let those things happen: They not only know how to plant a garden, they also know how to tend a garden…and they do until the crop is harvested.

This leads me to my next point: Indie writing is small business. Yes, yes, I know writers hate to think about “business” and I suspect this is what separates the successful from the less so. But I think that applying the small business mindset to writing will assist many writers in establishing accurate and helpful expectations. Most small businesses fail (9 out of 10–at least) but some succeed. Before we proceed, remember that the statistic that most small businesses fail does not in any way mean that YOUR small business will fail. It simply represents the performance of the aggregate. If that particular statistic applied to every small business, do you think banks would loan small businesses money? Would they loan your small business money? Not on your life. They loan small businesses money, at slim margins, because they’re pretty skilled (though not perfect) at determining which small businesses are likely to succeed. They do this by looking at the experience level of the management, what differentiates the products and services the business offers, how robust their accounting is, how well capitalized they are, whether they have a real business plan, and their past performance. In other words, they look at the individual because they know the individual matters, not the statistic.

So most small businesses fail, but some succeed. How do some succeed and others fail? For many of the reasons banks attempt to filter for: poor accounting, not capitalized sufficiently, the owner ran off with the $500,000 loan to Jamaica, poor product differentiation, lack of experience, poor location, etc. Some small businesses are launched in the worst possible location, with the most generic commodity products, no marketing, inexperienced owners and staff, no capital, no plan, and no accountant. How likely are they to succeed? Similarly, if you write your first book and publish it to Amazon and wait, how likely are you to succeed? You need to have a plan. You need to be able to track expenses and income and manage both effectively. You need to be smart about marketing. And you need to work on your products until you’re selling what the market is buying. In the book world, you need to have more than one product, ahem, book, too. If you discovered a neat little small business in a great location with a great staff which was well run but they only sold one excellent product, how likely would they be to succeed? Not very likely. Even those Batteries-Only style stores these days carry more than just batteries, and they don’t just carry one battery–they carry every shape, size, and type of battery.

An excellent anecdotal story to illustrate my point: my dad started a seat cover shop forty-ish years ago in Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman is a small town–probably around 20,000 in population at the time, and not tremendously bigger now. This was in the 70’s. He had one sewing machine (purchased with a loan from his parents), a few yards of fabric, and a really cheap but well exposed location (a derelict gas station on main street). He didn’t make much money the first year, or the second, or the third. We didn’t have much to eat in those days and our housing was extremely humble. But somehow he and my mom survived on his hard work and the kindness of strangers.

Gradually his business grew. Eventually he was making $12,000 a year, then a few years later $20,000. After nearly twenty years of being in business–with many costly mistakes (including an attempt to franchise the operation) behind him–he was bringing home, perhaps, $40,000 a year. In the 90’s the internet arrived. One of the things that set my dad apart from others (and still does) is that he was willing to try new things. Though the internet was a new thing, he saw opportunity and worked hard to get his seat cover shop online. Initially the website was crude but effective and it didn’t take long before his high-quality custom seat covers where generating more sales in other countries and states than in Bozeman, Montana. The local market became a sideline to the internet market. All along this time he kept experimenting with different fabrics, products, and approaches to efficiency, he improved the website and experimented with different marketing approaches. He kept track of data–constantly measuring ROI and cost effectiveness of every aspect of the business. Finally, nearly 25 (or so) years in, he was bringing home around $64,000/year. Not bad, but not jet-buying money considering the time invested. Then one day an idea struck. And because of all of his prior experience and ability he was able to capitalize on it. An employee made the offhand remark that they should make and sell camouflage seat covers. Strangely my dad thought, why not? So they did.

In the subsequent years, business boomed. The new custom camouflage seat covers were, by far, their most popular product. At one point, my dad estimated that 20% of all trucks in Iowa had his seat covers on them–or was it Illinois? I can’t remember. Anyway, he sold them as fast as he could make them, often having a three-month waiting list for delivery (people who had paid but had to wait three months for delivery). He raised the price and still sales surged. Within several years the business became worth millions. And that’s when he sold it. For millions.

While one could take many lessons from that (true) story, the main point I want to make is this: success isn’t overnight and it takes a LOT of hard work, persistence, and willingness to adapt and try new things. Sometimes you’ll be trudging along, perhaps barely making a living (or not even), for year after year, decade after decade, until finally you hit upon the right combination. After years of trying, you NAIL IT. You slam it out of the park and run the bases. But if you’d turned tail and run, quit, or given up earlier, you’d simply think you’d never have made it, because you never give yourself the opportunity to. Like my dad. I’m sure there were many times when he thought about getting a “real” job, a nice, stable, decent paying corporate gig (not that Bozeman had many of those). And if he had no one would have given him any grief for doing it. Perhaps they all would have commiserated about his decision: “yeah, I just wasn’t making any money in the seat cover business, so I had to get a job.” “Yeah, that happens T, most small businesses fail. I guess you already knew that, eh?”

But the truth is, because he had the raw ability and willingness and persisted in constantly improving his business and sticking with it, he was able to get to that point when he was, essentially, an All Star Seat Cover Guru who could hit home runs. And it paid off. BIG.

For writers this means that we need to adapt the same mindset. We need to see ourselves as small business owners: our business is writing, books are our products, and we are our single greatest asset. We need to buckle up for the long-haul, overcome challenges, master the basics, and adapt when it’s clear our approach isn’t working. Eventually, we’ll write books which empirically ARE excellent, release them to a well-developed readership accumulated over years (who rely on us for our high-quality products, ahem, books), and reap the rewards of success. Keep in mind that this also entails keeping a handle on all the other details and running a tight business. If you’re your greatest enemy and constantly spending money you don’t have, you’re likely to put yourself out of business.

All the above is why it drives me crazy when I hear all the grousing about writing for a living being a lottery, or authors on the Kindle Boards complaining about how hard it is to develop a following, get any exposure, and make any money. If they truly considered themselves small business owners, they’d buckle down and do whatever was necessary. Try things. Fail. Try other things. Some things work, some things don’t. Keep trying. Keep writing. Keep improving. Success will come. Time spent complaining is not time spent succeeding.

Last point: another primary complain I hear is how hard it is to get find readers when there are so many books published every day, every month, every year. They complain that there’s so much content out there now that good books simply cannot be found. This is BS of the highest order. Because it’s really no different than a small business working with what it’s got: the location it’s in, the products they have, the marketing they can afford. And yeah, of course it takes time to build a small business (or readership) when you’re just starting out. You’re likely to have a less than optimal location (because it’s all you can afford), a few decent (but not stellar–not yet) products, a small or non-existent marketing budget, the whole shooting match. It’s an uphill battle both ways. So there’s that. But then there’s this: where a problem exists in the web space of sufficient magnitude, solutions appear. It is in Amazon’s best interest to ensure that quality books which will sell well find readers. I’d lay money they’re already working very hard on the book discovery problem. Solutions are coming that will likely do what they can to identify quality–even unreviewed–books. Those authors who have honed their skills and built out their backlist will be in prime position to take advantage.

That’s my soap box for the day. Get crack’in. Get writing. If you can take it, you can make it.


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