Ah, this is the question that every author has asked themselves, at some point in their career. Now, I personally believe that one should not write books for money – as opposed to getting paid to write, ’tis a subtle difference. One should write with love and passion, and if a work makes it into the big beyond, then it’s a nice bonus. A really nice bonus. Now, regardless of what your motives are, the question remains. And the answer is: no, of course not, don’t be silly.
The cruel math
People suck at numbers. It has to do with hope, you see. A survival mechanism that helps us survive also gives us no understanding of how probability works. In fact, most people confuse risk and probability. Which is why people tend to focus on low-probability high-risk scenarios like meteor strikes or nuclear reactor meltdowns, but they ignore high-probability low-risk things like slipping in the shower or eating bad clams.
This also affects our judgment when it comes to books, sales and success.
Too many books
In the game of bestsellers, the odds are stacked against you, left and right. First, there’s the market saturation. With self-publication, there are more books out there than ever before. Statistically, this means your chances are less. This wouldn’t be a problem if more and more people read books, but this isn’t the case. Reading is constant, while there is much more material to read. Even if there’s as little as twice as many books on the markets today as there were five years ago, on average, your chances of being discovered let alone becoming successful are now half of they used to be.
Luck & survivorship bias
This is an important element, even crueler than the math. Because it cannot be quantified. Thus, no matter how smart or clever you are, or how savvy you are as a marketeer, there is an unknown force that affects your success. Could be negligible, could be huge. Hard to know. But it comes to timing, market trends, random things happening like a movie or a TV show that suddenly creates a surge of popularity or buzz around a genre, or someone famous talking about a work.
When it comes to luck though, again, humans tend to get confused. The same problem with risk and probability. Here, it’s the survivorship bias phenomenon.
Often, probably because we’re intoxicated with hope, we tend to look at people who made it big. The underdog that beat the system, the little indie author that is now rolling in quiche. We ignore the thousands that didn’t make it.
In situations like this, it is far more important to look at failures rather than successes. Because they tell us more about what not to do, rather what to do. The success is often a series of lucky turns and narrow escapes from failure rather than a calculated path. Ask any random author, and most will tell you they worked 10 years in a bar, they eked until they suddenly became famous, they considered giving up, and so on. That’s no master plan. That’s just humans doing the best they can in their current sitation.
Thus, asking successful “examples” for a recipe is like asking humans why all the other species of the homo genus are extinct. In advance.
This is a big problem, because it influences future authors with silly notions that they can somehow rig the game by emulating those who did manage to become famous and successful. But that simply doesn’t work. You won’t be the next Hemmingway by living in Cuba. In fact, you will probably reduce your chance by tarnishing your own distinct authorship signature with a cheap imitation of other people’s styles, which are a culmination of unique personalities and years and years of unreplicable experience.
You need money to make money
Marketing is pretty much like the stock market. There’s some science involved, but in the end, it’s all about gravity. The more mass you have, i.e. money, the more you bend the space around you to your will. But let’s talk in practical terms.
Say it costs one dollar to put an ad for your book in front of a reader. If you have a thousand dollars, you will be able to display this ad to one thousand people. But if you have a million, then you automatically have a x1000 greater reach. This is before we’ve even discussed the actual book material, its quality and anything else associated. But let’s be even more practical.
Goodreads is the biggest writer-reader platform in the world. It’s a social medium of sorts, and authors and book worms flock there in their tens of thousands to hawk wares, scribble reviews, bicker about favorite genres, and do many other merry book things. Goodreads also comes with a Giveaway program.
In the past, authors could offer physical copies of their work (one or more) worldwide. They had to incur the cost of printing the books and shipping them to the winners of giveaways. In the past couple of years, the program has changed, and now it comes with a basic tier price of USD119. This allows authors to ship 100 electronic copies of a book to readers in the US plus a few other select territories only. From a purely financial perspective, this makes absolute sense, and it’s significantly cheaper … per book.
The problem is, you need 119 dollars to begin with.
Many authors, especially in the self-publication and indie sphere, don’t necessarily have tons of free cash lying around. With physical giveaways, they could send a copy or two at a relatively modest cost. Now they can influence far more – but they also need more dosh. P.S. There’s also the premium edition of the Giveaway program, which costs USD599.
I’ve tried the basic program with several of my works. A typical return on investment, and by that I mean reviews not sales, is about 3-10%. In other words, 3-10 people out of the 100 winners of the digital copy will bother writing a review of your work. Effectively, this means, it costs something like 11-35 dollars per book to get a review, whose quality or rating you do not control in any way.
So to be a bestseller, you need a decent marketing budget. But that’s something few people can afford right away – not before actually making money on selling books. Catch 22. And we didn’t even talk about the cost of printing books, getting cover art, proofediting, and a whole bunch of other services that are essential to even having a book published in the first place.
The writing needs to be … sellable
Now, after we put aside the personal plights – the things you sort of control, it’s time to verge into areas that you don’t – your readership.
Writing books is a very individual ritual. But those who read it won’t be privy to your internal musings. They expect something else. A good story? Possibly. A complete work? Most definitely. Something that resonates with their values? Yup.
And this is where you hit a big social and cultural problem slash reality. No matter what you think or feel, the book market is predominantly North American. Which means, no matter what you think or feel, most books that make it big will have to resonate with the North American values.
Quite often, this means books with clearly delineated good & evil, happy ending, and a plot line that allows the reader to be occassionally scared or worried, but not too much. Now, this may sound condescending and portray the North American audience as simple, but again, that would be YOU doing the wrong math.
Individually, things are as colorful as they can be. On a market level, bestsellers are by and large average, and they resonate quite well with the overall mood of the audience. At this point, you will probably invoke G. R. R. Martin or Stephen King as examples to the contrary. Which would be you doing the bad math again. They are, as brilliant and gritty as their writing is, tiny exceptions.
If you feel skeptical about my claims, have a look at things from higher up. Look at national trends. You won’t find a huge percentage of non-American authors making it to the bestseller list in North American markets. If we invoke statistics, with populations of Great Britain, Germany and Russia at roughly 1/5, 1/3 and 1/2 the US figures, respectively, you might argue, all things being equal, that there ought to be “more” of the books from authors from these territories in the book stores. Or at the very least in the bestseller list. But this simply isn’t the case. You could say language barrier. But hey, this does not apply to Great Britain.
I also have a personal example to share – my Woes & Hose series of fantasy adventure books. These are grim, cynical works laced with dark humor, full of amoral characters, and with no happy ending, so to speak. They typically have received more positive reviews from the audience outside of the US. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just the way things are.
Bestsellers often mean books = television. Buy hey, just compare the British version of Coupling with the American one. The Office, the same thing. Death at a Funeral, again, one idea, two completely executions. There are obvious reasons for these cultural differences. Because people expect different things.
So if your writing is less … shownmanship-like, then it is also less likely to be a bestseller. Now, it could be, but we’re talking about probabilities. And they aren’t high.
So where does that leave you?
If you look at the numbers, and decide that writing isn’t for you, then it really isn’t. Because you shouldn’t be dissuaded from writing by statistical nightmares. Writing is meant to be an expression of self. That’s a dimensionless thing. A higher thing. It’s like asking yourself, will you ever be a millionaire. The answer is simple. But if that dissuades you from following your dreams, then those dreams aren’t worth following in the first place.
However, one should also be pragmatic. Earning the bread and whatnot. Well, in that case, money and luck are your best bets. High-quality content? That’s always good, but unfortunately, in this game, it’s only nice to have.