Nobody’s Job but Yours

16 Apr

I’ve got a running joke with a friend who’s a traditionally-published author. Whenever we talk about indie authors, each sentence ends with BUY MY BOOK.

Barnes and Noble’s new strategy of dumping all reviews when a minor revision is uploaded is messed up and wrong! BUY MY BOOK.

Traditional authors don’t understand they are being exploited by The Man. BUY MY BOOK.

And everybody’s favorite: Once you make it as an indie author, you’re obligated to help other indie authors succeed, too. BUY MY…

No. No. I am not doing this again. I have already done this dance with webcomics.

I’m spending a lot of time lurking in indie book communities to learn the tricks of the trade, and there are plenty of parallels between indie publishing and webcomics. Except indie publishing has only hit its stride in the past five years, while webcomics has a full fifteen-year head start. Let me go ahead and clarify this point: Yes, self-publishing (books and comics) has been around for a long, long time. Yes, writers and artists were both early adopters of the Internet as a place to post their work and distribute it to a wider readership. The introduction of the Kindle, the Nook, and other e-book readers, however, is a more recent phenomenon and has transformed the indie writer community from dedicated authors who just happen publish online to one in which anybody with a trunk novel can throw it up on Apple or Amazon. These e-book platforms, as well as the popularity of major e-book retailers, changed the nature of online publishing, both by increasing the number of potential readers and by dropping the barriers to putting a finished book in digital print.

You with me? Good. Back to webcomics.

Early webcomics faced many of the same stigma which characterize today’s indie publishing ventures. There was the general opinion that a webcomic was online only because Marvel or Image or a major newspaper didn’t think the product was good enough to publish, and the creator was forced to go online because Waaah! I’ll show them! Fast-forward fifteen years and now webcomics are just… comics. That’s all they are. My decision to refer to them as “webcomics” in this article is a designation of culture rather than of medium.

I came in after the “there are comics on the Internet?” argument had been settled (but right at the cusp of the “there are girls making comics on the Internet?” one, which was just as distasteful and depersonalizing but in a completely different way).  A Girl and Her Fed launched in April of 2006, and it was a rich learning experience because damn! Some of the people in your own community can be vicious.

I’m one of the successful ones.  I’ve got a dedicated readership, I enjoy a wonderful community of readers and fellow creators, and I have a diverse product line.  My recent novel, Digital Divide (BUY MY BOOK), is part of this product line. I have not yet had a full fiscal year to evaluate book sales, so I don’t know how that will affect my net take, but I typically make between $5,000-$10,000 USD from my webcomic.  The high end was a blip; it’s usually closer to $7,500 per year.

And I’m one of the successful ones!

I am too old to live on ramen, and I need health insurance and money to pay my mortgage, so I have a very horrible day job in which I edit dissertations, grant and business proposals, and peer-reviewed journal articles before these go to press.  I hate it.  I would much rather work on my comic and my novels and dig in my garden all day long, but that is not how the real world works.

I don’t think that many new indie authors realize this.

Newcomers to webcomics used to point to the rock stars, those big-name comics that are wildly popular and have a huge product line.  Everyone used to see themselves as the next Penny Arcade, living off of their enthusiastic fanbase and nine measly panels per week. That attitude has changed over the last five years. Most of the serious newcomers to webcomics approach putting their product online as part of multi-phase marketing strategy, and they still have low expectations for financial success. For example, Axe Cop was picked up by Fox for a TV show, has a line of toys coming out, and creator Ethan Nicolle recently remarked that he made “a similar income as a shift manager at Starbucks.”

(If you ever want to get seriously, rabidly depressed about how little a gifted webcomic creator makes, go browse some of Skullkickers creator Jim Zub’s blog posts.)

I no longer see the forum posts where a webcomics newbie put up fifty strips and then quit in a red rage because the work got to be too much, with no reward. The expectation of success has cratered.  Ten years ago, the rule of thumb was that a webcomic could provide a decent living for its creator if it had 10,000 daily readers. Today, I have roughly twice that number. Please refer to the prior mention of my gross proceeds, where I can count on a minimum of $5,000 per year. That’s gross, mind you. Not net.

Webcomic creators have become thoroughly and rightfully disillusioned, but the expectation for success is still dangerously high in the indie author community. They have their rock stars, too, and the same names get trotted out in every article.  E.L. James, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, Beth Reekles… I’ll shut up now.

I’m not linking to any specifics here (it’d be a dick move if I did, considering), but many members of the indie community are clinging to the idea that these rock stars need to help the little guys succeed.  This infuriates me. This has always infuriated me. There was a dude in the webcomics community (and yes, I will link to him) some years back who decided the easiest way to get traffic was via trolling, and he lunged straight at the rock stars’ throats. He demanded they were obligated to publicly recognize other, smaller webcomics, as it was their job to help them succeed.

I am so glad that dude has vanished off of the face of the Internet.

Listen. Success is your job. No one else’s. You should never feel that anyone is obligated to promote your work, or act as your mouthpiece. If you’ve decided to go the indie route, promotion is now part of your job. Now, how you decide to do your job is your business. One of the most depressing things I’ve read recently was from an indie author who complained that he was decently popular but sales weren’t enough, so he was thinking of licensing out his properties to other indie writers à la James Patterson. By doing so, he could realize a steady stream of books for his community, increasing his usual production line from six books per year to two or three times that. Now, to me, that is not writing. That’s mass-production. If I were to churn out a half-dozen books a year, it would strip the joy right out of the process. But if that’s how he wants to define success, more power to him, and let’s all send a little prayer to the carpal tunnel gods on his behalf.

Other indie authors attain success by promoting and supporting other indie authors. Good for them! This is a great, positive attitude, and I am all for community-building. But they have decided to do this as part of their business model, and you can guarantee that there is a ton of self-promotion in these positive messages (BUY MY BOOK!).

It is not the rock stars’ job to shill for you. They got to where they are by design or by accident, but they are not there to help you succeed.

In indie publishing, as with webcomics, there are no gatekeepers. There are no editors. There are no penalties for walking away from a project, other than those you put on yourself. There is you, your product, and your audience. Good products resonate with an audience and can help you become more successful, but these do not guarantee it: quality has never been a guarantee of popularity or of financial reward.  And there is a very good chance that even if you are widely successful, you will still need to keep your day job (guys, don’t rush into the boss’s office and scream “I quit, suckers!” without waiting to see if your success is financially sustainable). But all of this is your responsibility.  Define success to yourself and do what you need to do to reach it, but don’t hold grudges when a more popular colleague’s priorities differ from yours.

tl:dr version? There is nothing wrong with the phrase: BUY MY BOOK.  Just decide when and how you want to say it.

EDITS: Done, I think?  I removed a link and the reference to The Oatmeal, as that’s a relative newcomer to webcomics.

EDIT 2: Nope, one last edit. More of a comment, really. It is a huge pet peeve of mine how people will go to hear a published author speak and then ask that author how they can break into publishing, or try to shove a copy of their own book into that author’s hands.  The fact that they share a profession (or hobby) seems to convey the right to receive help in it. I’m sure this happens in other professions, but it’s exactly the same as bringing cupcakes to a restaurant opening and demanding the chef help you promote your tasty wares.  The author and the supplicant share trade skills and interests, but the published author does not have an obligation or an entitlement relationship with the supplicant because of this.  If they should choose to give advice or help you in some way, that is their prerogative; be respectful and appreciative when it happens.  If they do not, that does not mean they are evil incarnate.  It just means their priorities are different from yours.

5 Responses to “Nobody’s Job but Yours”

  1. Christopher Wright April 17, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    I’ve also noticed this similarities–a lot of the discussions I see (or comments I get when they discover what I’m doing) are eerily similar to what I heard in 2000, 2001, 2002, etc. But every time I bring that up people say “it’s not the same thing! You’re comparing apples and oranges!”

    Well, yeah. They’re both *fruit*.

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