Chicken Little and Self-Publishing

It seems like half the blogs out there that have anything to do with self-publishing are shouting, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” because of some things Amazon has done lately, such as removing a lot of reader reviews from books after a series of fake and “sock puppet” review scandals, modifications to their KDP Select program that have largely eliminated the gold rush following free book giveaways, and continuing to change their ranking algorithms, often not to the direct benefit of self-published books. I have only one thing to say to these folks: chill.

One of the things that drives me nuts when I read some of the things people are writing about the current publishing environment, particularly with regard to Amazon, is the entitlement mentality of many self-published authors. It’s become a litany of “Amazon is being unfair to self-published authors, let me count the ways…” Amazon has changed book ranking algorithms since the gold rush in late 2011 and early 2012. KDP Select isn’t the goldmine it used to be. Tons of reader reviews have been removed from books in the wake of the paid review and sock puppet scandals. There are rumors and rumors of rumors that some of the algorithms behind the also-boughts have changed. Those are probably the biggest gripes, but you won’t have to dig far to find more.

Listen, none of us would be having any of these discussions were it not for Amazon. Yes, they’re not the only game in town – and I look forward to the day when other retailers will pose a more serious challenge to their dominance in the marketplace – but Amazon and the Kindle made possible the dream of writing full-time as a self-published author. Love him or hate him, Jeff Bezos made the self-published author lifestyle a real possibility. But it’s not necessarily easy to get there. I had to work my butt off over the course of three years after I published my first book to get to where I could consider leaving my day job, and even that involved an element of luck. But without Amazon, it would have never happened. Period.

Let’s take a look at something else. Amazon is a business, and like all businesses they want to make money, and to do that they want to offer products that consumers want to buy. They’re not out to screw self-published authors. We make a lot of money for them…but so do books published by the Big 6. Are they using us? Sure they are. We’re an asset, a resource, a supplier of products that their customers want, just like every other supplier in their massive product catalog. I’ll let you, the Self-Published Author, in on a painful little secret: you are not special. That’s right. In business terms, you are no more special than the people who make hula-hoops or dog treats. They’re on Amazon to make money the same as you, and some of those folks don’t have nearly as good a deal as we do in self-publishing.

For those who say we’re witnessing the downfall of self-publishing (“The sky is falling!”), I say bah. Humbug, even. We’re participating in the birth of something new. The whole publishing paradigm is evolving, and it’s going to be years before the bits and pieces floating around in the maelstrom congeal into the industry-to-be. Things are fluid, and the only constant we can rightfully expect is change. This is nothing that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, but people seem to keep forgetting it. Good things like the KDP Select gold rush are going to happen. Bad things like reader reviews being pulled en masse are going to happen. New companies catering to self-published authors are going to come and go. Some people are going to get rich. Most aren’t. That’s just life, my friend. Get over it and drive on.

Another factor I’ll comment on is time. Well, let’s make that time and volume. I’ve been self-publishing since 2008, which makes me a fairly old hand at this (or so I’ve been told), and I’m making enough that I’ve been able to transition to writing as a full-time career. Not all, but a great many of the people who have been complaining about Amazon and worrying over the future of self-publishing have been in this game for a lot less time. And what hits me right between the eyes is that a lot of the complaining is about sales of books that number in the dozens per month for an author, and sometimes not even that. I’ve heard complaints along the lines of, “Last month I sold eight copies of my book that’s been out three months, then Amazon did XYZ and this month I only sold three copies. Amazon is being so unfaiiiirrrr!” Really? Come back and talk to me after you’ve put three or four years of solid effort into building your business (because this is a business for you, right?) by learning how to run a business, writing more books, promoting them, and developing a fan base. Chances are that then we won’t need to worry about having a discussion about Amazon or other retailers being “unfair” because you’ll understand that it is, indeed, just business. Instead, we’ll have a nice, long strategy session of how to take advantage of the latest opportunities.

In the end, those people who have talent, determination, and perseverance (along with a little bit of luck) are going to succeed in the long run, just as they would in any industry. Those who want to sit and bemoan how unfair things are will wind up being left behind.

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31 thoughts on “Chicken Little and Self-Publishing

  • Kim Goldberg

    Good on ya Michael for all you have accomplished with self-publishing and for going about it in such a business-like way that you got yourself to the point where you could quit the day job! I totally agree with your article here – those who want to put in the hard work (and presumably also have some talent and brains to go along with it) will get the reward via amazon or anything in else in life they pursue. 😉 Retweeting.

  • cederhill

    My take on this is to save the angst that some may feel over Amazon’s things is to look at Amazon as traditional publisher… just with more flexibility. This way you can potentially become less disappointed with a bad result.

  • Andrew

    I’ve come to the conclusion that you write because you love it, not for the money. Not saying I don’t want to make a living as an author, but the fact of the matter is that even IF you are willing to work hard at the craft, do the marketing, and put in the time, you might not make it. I tend to think that there is a fair bit of luck involved. Look at the likes of Melville or Poe, who really only became big after they were dead. Seems like their luck wasn’t in, haha. To me it’s something of a giant crapshoot, with the caveat that you can weight the dice a bit in your own favor by going about things smart.

    So you do it because you like it, and you (well, not YOU in particular!) quit griping and count yourself lucky you had a chance to put your stuff out there for people to read, because most writers up til this point never got the chance.

    Frankly for me, it would be enough if some people read my stories and enjoyed them. Well, when any of them are readable, that is haha

  • Jonathan Winn

    Interesting thoughts and I agree with many of them. Yes, it is a business and, yes, as with any business, the results we see as Self-published authors on Amazon will shift and change as the industry itself shifts and changes. The only constant is change and it is part of our job to adapt and carry on.

    But above and beyond all this, you really have to have strong product. And more and more I’m seeing self-published authors with really bad work — awkward sentences, adverbs left and right, typos, atrocious grammar, writing whole books in First Person Present Tense (perhaps that’s just a pet peeve of mine) — complain about a lack of sales. I mean, really?

    There are those who make self-pubbing look “easy”. We’ve all seen the stories. First book BOOM! Best seller. And they often flame out after a short time. That’s not everyone’s story. For some of us, it might take years to find our audience. But it can be done. Following your advice — running it like a business, putting out GOOD if not GREAT product consistently, finding and building your fan base, etc — is the way to go. Not complaining about and/or blaming Amazon when your sales aren’t strong.

    I think, more importantly, stop watching the sales numbers and get back to work. 🙂

  • Terry Wright

    Right on, Michael. The advent of electronic self publishing made it possible for me to not only publish some of my works, but also other authors’ works, from California to the UK through my website at This technology is just the beginning, and for those authors who want to take on the challenge of electronic publishing, I see only good things ahead.