This is about being a writer, not a swimmer. But in a way, it is also about not drowning.
I have achieved some success as a writer. But my development economically is stagnant and I am treading water in the sea of money where sharks are circling intending to eat any value I may create.
I have, of course, created some value. If I had published my 21 books 25 years ago, and I had a contract with a major publishing house, I would be doing as well as some of the authors you see occasionally making best-seller lists today. I am not saying I would be a million-dollar celebrity author like Stephen King, James Patterson, or J. K. Rowling, but I would be a full-time writer making a decent living at it. I am not bragging. I have had a lot of literary education, and I know from input from professional editors and former employees of the major publishing houses that my skills as a storyteller are as good as, or even better than many of the traditionally-published authors today. I stood next to Terry Brooks (author of Sword of Shannara) in a MacDonald’s waiting for my Big Mac in Corpus Christi one time in the 1980s. As former English teachers both, we have a lot in common. But he started publishing in the 1970s, and he only taught for a couple of years. I taught for 31 years and only began seriously trying to get published in 2007.
Obviously, the publishing industry changed in the time between meeting Terry Brooks and getting published myself. Back then the major publishing houses were the gate-keepers, taking submissions and winnowing out the chaff to find the diamonds in the rough (Yes, that is a mixed metaphor, but either I don’t really care about that anymore, or somewhere along the way I have actually found a diamond or two growing alongside the grains of wheat.) If you wrote well enough to win a contract, they would offer you a standard twenty-thousand-dollar signing bonus and a book contract that would guarantee standard royalties for the duration of the book’s life in print. You would then be committed to whatever promotional book tours, lectures, and signings the publisher thought would be most effective, and your next book would have to be offered to them first. Of course, my first book would’ve been a commercial flop from the get-go, although that would probably not be the book I succeeded in publishing first.
Things no longer work like that. When I successfully got the first yes from a publisher in 2007, it was from Publish America. That was a total scam. They paid me one dollar to publish my book Aeroquest. But that wasn’t the scam part. They did publish the book, and they did pay me a dollar. But their attempt to make money did not come from that. I was supposed to do all my own editing and proofreading. They would do the formatting and the marketing. I had to compile a list of family and friends to receive a promotional letter. The only attempts they made to sell copies of my book were to those people on my list. They added typos to the final form of my book and then offered to fix all of that for a hefty fee. They made a couple of hundred dollars doing that. I got a total of six dollars in profits for myself. Publish America was sued out of existence in 2014, the same year that my contract with them was up and I got back the publishing rights to the book.
So, then, I vowed I was going to submit to a publishing house that was still open to submissions, and I found I-Universe which was an imprint for Penguin Books. I submitted a manuscript that they tepidly loved and agreed to publish, for a fee. It was explained to me that, in order to compete with things like Amazon, the traditional publishers were also putting more on their authors in order to guarantee they could still produce profits for shareholders and eliminate the risk from flops the way traditional publishing had always had to weather them. I would have to pay my own editors (company-provided professionals who were actually worth what they cost, I learned a lot from them.) I would also have to participate in and pay for marketing efforts. All told, it ended up costing me about five thousand dollars. And the pre-made cover they forced on me has no real connection to the story itself. (Nowhere in the comedy about aliens invading a small town in Iowa did any silhouette girl fly a kite at night. The girl characters were all green, fin-headed aliens.)
I didn’t feel as cheated by I-Universe even though I spent a lot more money with them. My book ended up winning two awards from them, Editor’s Choice and Rising Star Awards. And I learned everything I know about the publishing world from the good people I worked with. They were square with me, telling me that the traditional publishing business was dying, and they were all worried about their own jobs going away. They keyed me in on how to effectively open and present a good fictional story. They started me writing this blog, and they would’ve included me in many more marketing ventures to make my book profitable if I hadn’t gone bankrupt in 2017 and had sworn off paying them more money in 2014. They still try to get me to invest more money in marketing schemes. They hate seeing my award-winning book sit unprofitably unmarketed. But the total earnings in royalties that book has made is only sixteen dollars, and they will not cut my first royalties check until that reaches $25. Not gonna happen.
Then I killed a publisher with my next well-written book. PDMI Publishing LLC was enthusiastic about publishing my snowstorm opus, a comedy about orphans freezing to death in a small town (or, actually only almost freezing to death, to be less snarky about it.) But as I finished that book with a rookie editor that the firm had newly hired, they had to go out of business from losing too much money in a single year. They were not the only publisher to collapse financially in 2016.
So, my publishing solution was to turn to Amazon, slayer of traditional and small publishers alike.
With Amazon KDP I am free to publish anything and everything I want to publish. But I have to do everything myself. Writing, editing, formatting, proofreading, illustrating, designing book covers, and marketing are all entirely up to me. There are many successful authors on Amazon. Some of them even make more money than they spend. Amazon pays you monthly royalties, even if you only make two cents because somebody read four pages of one of your books that month on Kindle Unlimited.
But Amazon can freeze or delete your account for any reason at any time. And some of those decisions are made more by algorithm than any actual reader of your books. They can accuse you even of plagiarizing your own books if you are not careful. The whole scheme behind KDP is to do none of the work themselves, but pay out as little of the profits as possible to the authors and keep as much easy money as the scheme can generate.
So, I am a published author… for now. Writing whatever the hell I want and not caring much about whether I make any money or not. That’s not the point of being an author. You can’t be a starving artist if you are not actually an artist… and you can’t be one without starving either.