Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Building the Backlist Is More Important Than Instant Gratification

Since so many indie writers are relatively new to publishing, I see a lot of skewed assumptions everywhere from associates here in Houston to comments in the blogoshphere. The first question an indie writer needs to ask herself is what are her long-range plans.

Frankly, are you expecting your one book to make thousands or (in your secret heart of hearts) millions? That is, do you believe you'll win the publishing lottery?

Let's face it. We ALL want that. The one book that will earn us millions. Heck, maybe even enough to buy ourselves a castle, a la J.K. Rowling. But the truth is we have no idea if, much less when, such an event might happen.

So what do we need to maximize our revenue? A backlist.

This means getting as much quality product out as we can. If a reader finds a book they love, they will search out everything that writer has to offer. And I do mean EVERYTHING. (This is just as true for trad published writers.)

One of the reasons I was able to leave the Day Job was due to people buying something of mine, then subsequently buying every single title I have available. That's nine under my name and seven under Alter Ego. It adds up. It adds up exponentially the more titles you have available.

I'm a relatively new writer. I've only been writing fiction professionally for two years. Can you imagine the possible sales after you've been writing for five? Ten? Twenty?

The main problems most new writers have is the lack of of patience and the lack of vision. They cannot fathom steadily working for years in order to build up that back list. They cannot see that once a story is finished, it will continually earn them money.

Say you only sell one copy of one title a month. You make $2. Now, two dollars a month isn't a lot, is it? It barely covers a small, black coffee.

But put up another title. Now, it's $4 a month, right? Not necessarily. The folks that bought your first title may go back and buy your second title. A new reader loves your second title and returns to buy your first. So, more likely you've made $8 in that month.

Put a third book up. Not only are previous fans buying your new book, they're now telling their friends. Word-of-mouth kicks in. Now, you're selling five copies of the new volume per month, plus copies of the two previous books to three new fans a month. You're up to $22 a month.

But constantly putting up a new work every month is hard. Waiting for that gradual build-up is hard. Most writers give up long before they start to see any money roll in.

And that's when a new writer turns to a traditional publisher. But she is trading the instant gratification of a $3000 advance against the three months her book will actually sit on a brick-and-mortar store's shelves. She loses her rights to her book for an extended period of time that the book could be earning her money.

If that one book with the traditional publisher does not earn more than $3000 for the writer, it's deemed a failure, but the publisher will sit on the rights for as long as possible. Even if the writer does get her rights back in a reasonable time, say seven years, there's usually a good chunk of that time where the writer is making no money on that particular title.

Meanwhile, instead of putting out a title a month, the writer is normally limited by their contract from publishing additional work in that genre for a certain amount of time. If it's a multi-book contract, say three volumes, then the writer is subject to the publisher's whims. Best case scenario? The publisher does release the three books in consecutive months, but in reality, the writer is usually looking at one release a year.

Now, these are not hard and fast facts by any means, but these are some of the factors a writer needs to consider in their career paths.

In other words, don't be a sheep and follow the herd. Be an Angry Sheep forging your own path!


  1. Baaa! :D

    I agree with you completely -- most of the folks who dive into this don't seem to get that it's a marathon, not a sprint. I've seen NY-published writers I like and respect give indie publishing what they think is a fair shot, by putting up one novel, or even one short story, then three months or six months later they're making a snarky blog post about how the hype is obviously false because no one can live on $23.18 per month, or whatever they averaged.

    Totally missing the point.

    And the newbies take their cues from their favorite (usually NY-published) writers, assuming that if they don't win the lottery right away, the book, or this whole indie-pubbing thing is a failure. [headdesk]



  2. Even if the newbies are looking at successful indie writers, they hold onto visions of Amanda Hocking and John Locke and their six figure deals with trad publishers.

    The newbies DON'T look at the YEARS Amanda spent writing ten novels and trying to get a trad contract. What they should be looking at is her smart business decisions in regards to keeping control of a majority of her rights.

  3. Exactly. For too many, it's still all about the sudden fame and wealth and stardom. Success happens within the next six months or it's failure, one of the two. Dean's produce model in action. [nod/sigh]


  4. Oh, I cheer DWS's long-tail model. I've been following it since January of 2012, and it's "been very, very good to me" to paraphrase Chico Esquela.

  5. I can't even wrap my head around thousands or millions. My goodness.

  6. That's the reason for just focusing on the next book, Ivy. If you spend too much time worrying about the big picture, it affects your mindset.