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 /

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