The Long Tail

In writing about the new wave of self-publishing, stories tend to get very excited over the potential for success and the ways in which self-publishers are capturing readers for books that traditional publishers didn’t want. But the stories often ignore the fact that the long tail of publishing includes a large number of items that will sell very little indeed. A recent story in the Washington Post, which celebrated the unexpected successes of some self-publishers, included a segment that deserves to be highlighted for all of us.

WE NOW INSERT THIS PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT BECAUSE WE DO NOT WANT YOU CALLING US WHEN YOUR e-BOOK TANKS:

Don’t sprint to e-pub that novel you wrote on vacation that time but never sent to anyone because your wife said it stinks and what does she know? Well, maybe a lot.

The overwhelming number of self-publishing e-authors are consigned to the same fate as their print counterparts: oblivion.

“We have less than 50 people who are making more than $50,000 per year. We have a lot who don’t sell a single book,” says Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords.com, a Web site that helped launch indie publishing.

“When I load all our numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s the typical power curve,” he says. “On the left, there’s a skinny area of the chart where people are knocking it out of the park. And then we have a very, very long tail off to the right, where some titles sell very few at all.”

Over on the Kindleboards, writers are fond of saying that self-publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. And while it’s true that some self-publishers find instant success, for most it takes a long time and a lot of work to find any success at all. And some of us—a group that might even include me—won’t find much success no matter what. That’s the nature of the ride we’re on.

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