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One of the biggest distinctions between old publishing and new is the nature of luck.
The fact is, in the old model, something had to become a bestseller. What to Expect When You’re Expecting just hit its tenth year on the bestseller lists (520 weeks in a row, 17 million copies sold). It’s a great book from a great publisher, but a run like that is as much the work of good timing, good breaks and the fickle finger of fate. There’s a reason the expression, “surprise bestseller” is in the vernacular. Most bestsellers are in fact, surprises.
Do the math: 170,000 real books published a year, probably 50,000 of them are commercial, well constructed and seriously published. Of those 50,000, as many as 100 (that’s 2 a week) hit their potential. One out of five hundred. It’s got to be some book, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
Since there doesn’t appear to be a significant correlation between publishing prowess and success (even great editors, great marketers and great sales teams at publishers don’t regularly succeed), at some point it comes down to a spin of the wheel. And the author gets to take that spin at someone else’s expense. Yes, she has to write a great book and yes she has to tour or whatever the publisher asks, but it’s the publisher that’s putting cash and risk on the line. Why do some books from unknown authors sell great while others don’t? No one knows.
Compare this to the lonely life of the self-published author. This is streetfighting, one reader at a time. Getting a word file turned into an ebook is trivially easy. Getting a book into the world isn’t so hard. Being discovered and talked about: really hard.
Building a tribe is not a matter of a miracle, instead, it’s about converting tiny groups of people at a time, leading them, connecting them, building an audience. When a self-published author does this, she has a new job. Not the author part, the publisher part. She’s not putting a book into the universe and hoping it will be found. She’s not even putting a book in a journalist’s hands and hoping it will be hyped. No, she is engaging in a years-long journey to build a platform. It might take a decade to become an overnight success, but if you keep it up, if you keep building, the odds keep getting better and better.
That’s why it’s silly to compare the two ways of making a book happen. If you can get a great deal from a publisher and you’re into the spin, go spin! If you want to control the building of the platform, get your hands dirty and avoid the whims of fate, then the other path makes a lot more sense, no?
[analogy alert: the above applies to your career, to musicians, to entrepreneurs, to VCs, coaches and just about everyone who is hoping to get picked.]