long tail

Most of the suggestions in this post still hold as relevant and useful.  Shocking, in this fast evolving business! –t.


It seems appropriate that as Anchored Authors turns a year old, we pause and take stock of our lot as anchored authors.  Where do we stand in the publishing industry these days when everyone is crying the death of the industry as we know it?

It may or may not surprise you that I think there is huge potential for us as authors (anchored or not) to finally come into our own, which means anchored authors may be able to unshackle themselves from their anchor once and for all.

What do I mean by coming into our own?  To have far, far more control over our careers, our revenue streams, and our success. I don’t think we’ll become 100% independent, [boy, I got that one wrong! – t.] but we will be able to pick and chose to which degree we want to be dependent upon services (publication, editing, printing, marketing, distribution, shipping, fulfillment) that we once had no choice about others supplying on our behalf.

A little over a year ago, Kevin Kelly published his explosive post “1,000 True Fans” on The Technium. The central thesis was that a creative (artists, musician, author) didn’t need millions of fans to make a comfortable living.  All they needed was 1,000 true fans, who would spend $100 a year, and the creative would make $100K a year providing their 1,000 true fans with exactly the creative product their true fans sought.

The post was debated heatedly and still generates a ton of wordage because of the sheer novelty of its approach to the idea of how creative people interact with their fans, and the strong use of technology as a medium.

Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans model sits at the tail end of The Long Tail.  The Long Tail was a term coined by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, to describe a phenomenon of marketing that the Internet, in particular, has been able to take advantage of, and of which Amazon is the perfect example.  The book publishing industry is a closed circuit, perfect example of the Long Tail in a non-Internet environment, so I’ll use the book publishing industry as the working example:

long tail

The long tail has a head, where a few authors sell very large quantities of books.  The head is very short.  The rest of the industry consists of a long tail where all of the rest of the authors sell a very few copies of their books.  The drop off (if you look at the curve, above), is sharp.  As I quoted Michael Allen of On Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile in “The Hidden Class of Writer – Authors With Day Jobs

“…writers are unlikely to be successful in achieving their ambitions. In the book world, … bestsellers tend to become massive, while sales of ‘ordinary’ books are minuscule. It is not that bestsellers sell twice as many copies as the average novel: they sell hundreds of times as many.”

Kevin Kelly was proposing, with his 1,000 True Fans theory, that an author sit at the other end of the long tail, collect around him a mere 1,000 fans (but they must be true fans), and ignore the in-fighting, jostling, and all-round guerilla chaos that goes on at the steep head of the curve as everyone else tries to get a foothold on the slippery up-slope, where there’s only limited seating, anyway.

He has a point, but in the year since his post burst upon the scene and scalded everyone, there’s been a slight shift in the paradigm:

  1. E-books, e-book readers and the eating of small fish by big fish and big fish by bigger fish in the publishing world is shifting things in ways even the experts can’t keep up with.
  2. No-one knows how quickly e-book reading will be adopted by the reading public in general…if it will at all.
  3. The big tipping point in the publishing industry will be when more people read electronically than don’t…and no-one can predict when that moment will arrive….or if it will.  Fact is, the more people read electronically, the more people will begin to read electronically.  Peer pressure, fashion, trends, cultural influence, watching friends and family do it, will all help the technologically slow and fearful try it for themselves.*  The most resistant to e-reading (“I just like the feel of a book in my hands, that’s all!” – my daughter, believe it or not) will continue to resist, but eventually will hit a point where the book they want just simply isn’t available in paper.    Hey, eventually everyone changed over to DVDs, right?
     (*I don’t think it’s a great secret that I post ahead.  The day after I scheduled this post, I tripped over another post: ‘E-Books Reach a “Tipping Point,” Triggering Explosive Growth’ on CBS that echoes what I’ve said, above.)
  4. Both Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon.com now offer an electronic reader that allows readers to buy their books right there on the reader, no matter where they’re located…and that’s going to speed up the acceptance of e-reading.  See #3 above.
  5. Why the big fuss over e-reading?  Because it removes New York publishers as the key players in the publishing scene, and gives authors the ability to publish with anyone they like, and still reach readers they once could only reach via New York publishers.
  6. Kelly’s definition of a “true” fan has been demonstrated as hard to create and even harder to maintain.  Something slightly less than a true fan would be easier to cultivate and maintain — especially for authors using the net, which is text-based, as a medium to keep contact with fans.  This necessarily means that the numbers of fans you would have to cultivate would be higher than 1,000.  But certainly not in the millions necessary for a New York Times best seller hit.

If you’ve read this far and still don’t feel a slight twinge of hope or positive outlook for yourself as an author sans anchor, you’re not letting your imagination soar enough. Think of it this way: Yeah, the industry looks like its falling apart, but that’s usually when the greatest opportunities present themselves:

1.  If you’re happily publishing at the moment

If you’re publishing, and not feeling even a twinge of concern about the future of your career, great!  Keep doing what you’re doing, keep publishing in your genre, keep talking to your fans and cultivating new ones, so that your royalty cheques keep rising.  Keep adding to your escape stash, keep working toward the day when either your royalty cheques or your escape stash are high enough for you to quit the day job.  And let us know here so we can celebrate with you.

2.  If you’re worried about your publisher’s future

If your publisher’s future looks at all shaky — rumours running, editors being off-loaded, Part 10s being declared — maybe you should have a chat with your editor.  Be aware that often even the editors don’t know the full story, but if you’re not too comfortable your editor’s answers, go digging for more information.  Does the publisher have a board?  Can you find records from the last public board meeting?  Sometimes there’s enough in those minutes to give you a whiff of anything fishy.

And sometimes all the digging in the world doesn’t unearth the truth, and you’ll get blindsided with an ugly announcement one day that the publisher is closing its doors, or has just been bought out.  Being bought out isn’t the end of the world — you may be kept on as a producing author.    And maybe not.  Again, this could be an opportunity in disguise, a chance to shape your career in a way that gives you back more control that you had before. Skip to #5.

3.  If you’re in between publishers

See #5.

4. If you hate your publisher

If you’re with a robust publisher, but can’t stand working with them, think real hard about jumping ship just because they’re a bitch to work with.  You’ll be deserting your readers and your backlist, and there’s career-impacting penalties for both.  See:

The Ultimate Goal Of An Anchored Author’s Career

How I performed Hara-kiri on my career – and how you can avoid disembowelment as an author.

Publishing terms, POD and the Amazon “Thing” – Foundation Series

5.  Pick your point on the long tail.

Where do you want to be on the long tail?  This is where the fracturing of the industry provides the most opportunity.  Yes, there’s risk involved, but the risk is wrapped up in the fact that no-one really knows where the industry is going to end up, and so that makes you as much of an expert as the experts, and everyone is taking the same sort of risk.   Actually, for you and me, the risk is minimized, because as individuals, we can respond to industry shifts far more swiftly than the corporations can retool, so if we guess wrong, we can turn our systems around overnight.

You have the whole buffet to chose from.  What do you want your business model to be?  It can be a mix and match of:

  • self publishing
  • royalty publishing
  • small press
  • New York publication
  • Internet/electronic/pod press (including publishing directly with Fictionwise/Barnes&Noble/Amazon)
  • traditional print mass market paperback
  • hardcover/MMPB (hard/soft)
  • e-books
  • print-on-demand
  • Podcast
  • self-distribution
  • traditional distribution
  • fulfillment and/or distribution services

You weigh up where you think the industry is going, and settle on a model that works for you, what you write, where your readers hang out, and how you can reach most of them.  If the majority of your readers are e-book resistant, don’t go the e-book route…but research this!  Get figures!  Don’t guess!  It just so happens that the vast majority of my readers suck up e-books like crazy, so I publish via e-book publishers.  Also think about how you’re going to be able to reach your readers in the next five years.  Remember, the industry is shifting, and how readers behave today isn’t what they’re going to be doing in five years time.

If you’re in a position to chose a publisher, pick one that fits your own model and reaches your readers in the format you prefer, and start cultivating them … you’re working your model.  Your model.

The number of fans you will need to bring your monthly (quarterly/semi/annual) cheques to a level you can live on will depend on the model you’ve chosen.  You could be getting advances — which I hope you’ve been adding to your escape stash, which may already have topped out and you’re in a position to quit the day job.

If you’re using a model that brings in only royalties — which is more and more common these days — then you should see a slow but steady rise in your regular cheques as your number of fans builds, book by book.  This is where the Kelly theory really starts to work.  As you cultivate your fans directly through email, your newsletter, and discussion lists, you’ll see the hard work start to pay off.  You’ll actually get to know the names of some of your fans, and when you have an event on-line, you’ll see their names in the crowd, as they faithfully turn up to cheer you on.  While not True Fans by Kelly’s definition, these are the sort of fans you want to have, the ones that buy your books because your name is on the cover.  These are the fans that in the 50’s used to boast about having your autograph, but in today’s terms, can proudly say they have your email address and talk to you all the time.

And these are the fans that will get you to quitting your day job.

So pick your model, work it, write your novels, love your fans, and enjoy the life.  If you’re not shooting for the unscalable head of the long tail, quitting the day job could actually be much closer than you ever thought it might be.

And that’s why I’m so positive about what looks like such a crappy future.

First appeared on Anchored Authors in April/May, 2009

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