Publishing: Everything old is new again.

publishingA couple of weeks ago I had a startling realization about publishing. You’ll have to excuse my tardiness, I’m a bit slow.

I was chatting with some of the writers here for our Write on the River Retreat about the current state of publishing. How the golden age of the indie author was over, how the golden age for every writer seems to be over, and I said: reminds me when I was surviving as a midlist author in traditional publishing. Everyone said I couldn’t do what I did, but I did it.

And it hit me.

Everything old is new again.

Most things go in cycles. We end back where we were, we just see it differently. Publishing has gone through a cycle. I don’t see blogs any more from indie authors crowing about how much money they’re making and how many eBooks they’re selling. I don’t see much boasting coming from anywhere in publishing.

Why? Everyone is heads down working; or they’re looking for a job. There are a number of indie, traditional and hybrid authors who were doing really well three years ago. Not so much any more.

The marketplace is saturated. Over a half million titles uploaded to Amazon last year. 95% sell less than 100, but still, there’s a lot of good stuff. Then there are so many cheap eBooks. Between Bookbub, first in series free, Kindle Unlimited, you name it, it’s never been a better time for the reader. Bookbub used to be the province of the indie/hybrid author but now we see #1 NYT trad author populating it consistently. You want to have someone pay $4.99 for your eBook against a .99 John Grisham backlist they haven’t read?

What are indie authors doing? Writing faster, trying to put out more titles. But unless they have a dedicated following, they’re part of the content flood. Colleen Hoover had an interesting blog titled What Happened to This Industry

She mentions an important thing: she sells 1/10th of the books she used to sell, but has a much larger audience than she did. I don’t think she’s alone in that. A dedicated readership is key.

I started thinking about the two decades I spent in traditional publishing pursuing a path that the gurus and pundits all said couldn’t be followed: being a mid-lister. If I wasn’t supposed to exist, how did I succeed?

Sorting through all the ups and downs, the bottom line was: I worked really hard.

I never believed I “had it made”. Every author I knew—the moment they thought they had it made, they were gone. I think that’s happened to a lot of indie authors who saw that monthly income stream and thought it would continue forever.

Even if I was under contract for three books a year, I wrote four. I always stayed a spec manuscript ahead. In that way, I stayed a publisher ahead. 12 books with Random House, over a million paperbacks sold, and they say “Later dude. You’re not frontlist any more. We didn’t spend any money or time promoting or marketing you, but you failed.”

But by then I had a new series going with a different publisher. And thus it went.

And we’re back there again. Consistency. Hard work. Keeping a positive attitude when you fall into what I always called the “black pit”. Where all the news is bad, nothing good is going on, but you just keep doing it. You change things, you re-evaluate. You modify your business plan. Most importantly, you learn to be a better writer. Or is that gooder writer?

I recently wrote a blog reference an article titled “I published my debut novel to critical acclaim—and then I promptly went broke.”

The title tells you everything you need to know—who cares about critical acclaim? That doesn’t equal sales. The author thought that she had it made before her first book even came out. I mean, seriously? She isn’t alone; she was just brave enough, or foolish enough, to put it out there.

Colleen Hoover was brave enough to say publicly what other indie/hybrid authors won’t say: sales are down. Mine are down, not anywhere near as much, but that’s because mine are spread across over 70 titles in several genres. I’ve got a lot of eggs in a lot of baskets so things are good; not as great as they were, but I’ll take it. And it’s going back up because I’ve retooled, re-evaluted, and adjusted.

nick-rowe_0008When I had this realization that things were back to where I was in some ways, it made me feel good. For several reasons:

  1. I’d succeeded where others said I’d fail. Sort of like all the tough military school I went through where they’d say, look to you left, look to your right, one of you isn’t going to be here in a week. It never occurred to me that the person was me. I was thinking, well, hate to see ya’ go fella. Actually, honestly, I didn’t think that; it just sounded good when I wrote it. I was actually focused on what I needed to do to succeed. Their success of failure was their deal. I can’t waste time worrying about other writers and their success or failure. I try to help writers with this blog at times (slideshow every Saturday on the craft of writing and other things), with my workshops and presentations, but everyone is in their own unique situation.
  2. Don’t listen to the gurus and pundits unless they’re doing it themselves. I’ve seen several pundits try their hand at making money with something written on line and seen them fail. But they’re still punditing. I read them, evaluate, take what I need, leave the rest.
  3. I’m in a much better place now because I’m indie. I don’t have all those people standing between me and the reader. The readers determine my fate and my paycheck. I determine what the readers get. So while I have less help, I have total responsibility. I value that responsibility because it means control, especially since I can remembers all those years when I had no control.
  4. I can reach readers via the Internet. One time, during my trad career, I mailed out 3,400 letters, individually addressed to every indie bookstore in the country. I included sign book stickers in every letter. Means I signed a shitload of stickers. I heard back from 3 stores. Now, I can reach readers directly and with a message I can tailor.

While everything old is new again, there are some changes. I still believe it’s the best time ever to be a writer. But if you want to succeed in this new world, it means doing the same thing it required to succeed in the old: Be serious, work hard, be professional, and remember the most important person is the reader.


PS: 8-9 October is the last Write on the River Workshop for the year. Limited to four, I’ve got one slot left. Email me more info and a cut rate at this late stage.


  1. Thanks for the awesome food for thought, Bob. It’s a grim reality, but it seems to be navigable.

  2. Excellent post, Bob! I began as a technical writer, so only have 10 novels available. Fortunately, they are not my only source of income, because my sales are also down.
    I originally published through regional presses, but am not completely indie for the same reasons you are:”So while I have less help, I have total responsibility. I value that responsibility because it means control, especially since I can remembers all those years when I had no control.”

  3. Interesting take on a changing industry. Bob. I’ve read a lot in my life, more than most and I have fallen for series such as Nero Wolfe, mostly because they are well written and keep my interest. That being said, no one writes compelling stories like you. You are the personification of “couldn’t put it down”. My first was Bodyguard of Lies, which I still believe would make for a blockbuster movie. I’ve read many of your other works, all of them a great read. You prove that to be a successful writer you just have to be fantastic.

  4. “I can’t waste time worrying about other writers and their success or failure.”

    Or how their success/failure may or most probably, may not, affect me.

    I’ve kept one of your rules in my head since you came to talk to the St. Louis RWA – Keep one spec book in hand. Always.

    I’m doing well now, but as you know, things change. So I keep learning, and writing, and reading. Thanks for staying real.

  5. The easiest way to analyze the market is to pretend books are widgets. To date that has proved very accurate. If supply increases at a rate greater then demand increases, then average book revenue falls. Then prices fall. It happens with widgets. It happens with books.

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