Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I have been haunted by Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken,” ever since I blundered into the poem in a high school English class. The final stanza should be familiar:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two Roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Is this a lament or an expression of quiet gratitude about the road not taken?

The notion of opportunity costs is a poorly understood economic concept for similar reasons. As part of an effort to quantify what it will cost to pursue some line of endeavor you should add in the cost of not doing something else. In the relatively simple case of an investment, the opportunity cost of buying stock is the interest you would have earned if you left the money in the bank. The analysis, however, rapidly becomes much more complicated as you move from the predictable to the unpredictable. For example, what is the opportunity cost of taking one job instead of another, or marrying one person instead of another?

Artisan publishing doesn’t preclude other kinds of publishing. There are certainly cases where an artisan publishing effort led to a lucrative contract with a major publisher. But a simple fact of life is that the more time you put in to one line of endeavor, the less time you have for others.

In the third stanza, Frost says:

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Your good intentions notwithstanding, way inevitably leads on to way and the road of artisan publishing will take you to different places than the well-marked path of traditional publishing.

It isn’t simply that in addition to writing you will have to become skilled at production and marketing, it’s that as an artisan publisher the nature of the projects you undertake will be different: you may choose to go ahead and publish a manuscript that agents and editors say isn’t sufficiently commercial; you may produce a collection of short stories or a novella that would have stood little chance of being published in the past because it was too long for a magazine and too short for a book; or you may simply write more or less than a traditional publisher is willing to absorb.

The differences arise not because one road is better than another but because they simply go to different places. What counts as success for an artisan is different from what counts as success for a large organization. Making money is, of course, part of both roads, but questions of how and why have different answers depending on the road.

If, instead of being fascinated with the new prospects opening up before you as you go down the road, you find yourself looking over your shoulder and spending more time wondering about the other road—the one more traveled by, and better marked—perhaps artisan publishing is not for you.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Artisan Publishing, book 7 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Writing, In Perspective

As consuming as our cares about craft, promotion, and publishing in general are, every so often it is good to step back and put our problems in perspective. There are far too many people who are unable to join us in bemoaning the changes buffeting the culture of letters because they’re distracted by trifling annoyances like not starving,  succumbing to disease, or becoming a casualty.

Humans have always dreamed and told stories. That we have the time and the means to catch those dreams and render them in an enduring form, which has the potential to touch the lives of far more people than could ever fit around a campfire, is something our forbearers would find miraculous.

For much of our history only the rich and powerful were able to leave a durable legacy because palaces, temples, and monuments of stone were about your only options if you wanted future generations to know you were here. In time, books provided a more effective way to preserve your thoughts and feelings for those who would follow, but they were still the province of an elite sliver of society. Now billions of us can write for the ages.

Of course, nothing is ever certain. A host of calamities, from asteroids to zombies, could reduce us to fossilized traces. But in the grand scheme of things, we’re incredibly fortunate to have words to worry about, rejections to receive, and the perpetually perplexing publishing industry to enjoy.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Show Me the Money!

If you’re toying with the notion of becoming an artisan publisher because you want to get rich quick, stop immediately. There are many other ways to make money that take far less effort and produce a more timely return. Some people have indeed made their fortune writing books just like others have become wealthy by winning the lottery, but neither approach offers a predictable, repeatable path to instant riches.

In a world where entire factories are optimized to produce as much of one thing as quickly as possible, the artisan’s handcrafted approach can never compete purely on price. Of course, artisans can make a living but they will never enjoy the profits that can be generated by the economies of scale in a large operation.

You might argue that the old economy-of-scale distinction between artisans and major enterprises doesn’t apply to electronic books because production costs have dropped to almost nothing: an artisan publisher can “publish” just as easily as a major publisher and, as a smaller operator with lower fixed costs, they can afford to undercut the big houses on price.

But the changes that have opened new prospects for artisan publishers have also given large organizations new ways to gain advantage. Specifically, established publishers continue to enjoy economies of scale in marketing and discoverability. Because they have been producing a great many books for a large audience they have the attention of an army of reviewers and booksellers. You won’t command the attention of as large an audience until you are as well established as they are.

Don’t make the simplistic mistake, as you’re dazzled by the prospect of a 70% royalty, of thinking all you have to do is sell 50,000 copies of a $2.99 book to earn a six-figure income. Even with a dedicated sales force and standing orders from bookstores, major publishers rarely sell 50,000 copies of a title. On average, books published nationally—which includes bestsellers—sell between three and five thousand copies.

You may sigh and ask, “Are you saying we should publish for love, not money?”

No. It’s simply that the money will not come quickly. Unlike ancient artisans, who were paid once for their work and depended on the next commission for their continued livelihood, an artisan publisher gets paid every time someone buys another copy of the books in his or her catalog. In web terms, artisan publishing is all about the long tail—the slow growth in the value of the collection of published work over time.

What this really means is that artisan publishing operates under a more traditional model than current publishers. Before most large publishing houses became divisions in even larger corporate entities they earned their ongoing income from their backlist—books published prior to the current year that were in print and on sale. Your goal as an artisan publisher is similar: because you can never compete with the major players on the number of titles you release or marketing to create a false sense of urgency your best bet is to supply a steady stream of high quality content which will, in turn, generate a steady stream of revenue.

There’s money to be made as an artisan publisher, but it won’t come all at once.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

The problem with asking a child what they want to be when they grow up is that they can only see the cool parts of the job—they have no idea how much work it takes to become something or how much drudgery there is between the exciting bits. Firefighters, for example, spend more time sitting in the firehouse waiting for something to happen than racing through town, lights flashing and sirens wailing, in their cool trucks.

As we grow, we learn that wishes often come with a price. In W. W. Jacobs’ classic 1902 story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” a family receives the titular talisman along with a warning that while it would grant three wishes it would do so, “to their sorrow.” They wish for a sum of money sufficient to settle their mortgage and receive that exact amount in settlement after the son is killed in a horrible industrial accident.

Publishing yourself looks easy—and glamorous—when you hear about ebook superstars laughing all the way to the bank.

The reality for the vast majority of people who release their own work is at best unremarkable and often disappointing.

Part of the reason is simply structural: much of our social and economic world is ruled by what’s called a power law distribution, where a few elements—be they cities, celebrities, or songs—stand out by orders of magnitude from their peers. Some things, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, become runaway social phenomena. But those blockbusters are always the exception, not the rule.

A more important reason—because it is a matter over which you have some control—that many people are disappointed with the results of their efforts at self-publishing stems from the weight of expectations they bring along with them. The electronic pioneers help inflate expectations because their experience comes from a time when demand exceeded supply. But the deeper and more pervasive problem is something akin to the gamblers fallacy: you believe that you will be the exception—even though sales of most books are best measured in hundreds of copies; your book is going to sell tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies.

But the deepest reason many people find the path disappointing is because they didn’t understand what they were signing up for. Beyond the straightforward matters of quality and integrity you make a commitment to your readers when you publish something. The nature of the commitment is nebulous—you generally have no further customer obligations after someone purchases your book—but it is real enough that businesses account for it under the heading, “goodwill.” If you want your books to continue to sell, you have to continue to market the book. In order to live up to the title, “publisher,” you have to periodically release new material. Continuing to show up in the marketplace reassures your readers that they have bought into a going concern. If you “fire and forget,” a few books, readers will return the favor.

Artisan publishing is not something to be undertaken on a whim, but in the full and sober knowledge that you may be setting out on a long, difficult road that will yield success slowly at best.

Image: Simon Howden /