Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Indie Publishing: Boom and Bust

Kris Rusch wrote a few weeks ago that the gold rush is over in indie publishing; in fact, it’s been over for some time now.

There’s no surprise to many of us. Neither is it cause for panic (or jubilation, if you’ve thought the indie revolution was a bad thing). Busts follow booms. It’s the nature of things.

For a long, long time, I’ve made my home in Alaska, the state that has the most volatile economy in the nation, dependent as it is on the boom-bust development of resources like oil and gold. For a forthcoming book, I’ve also done a huge amount of research on the granddaddy of all booms, the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. So it’s impossible to resist probing what the metaphor illustrates for authors, whether they’ve been publishing independently or watching from the sidelines:

·         When the boom begins, the attraction is as much—maybe more—about independence and reward for hard work as it is about wealth. As with would-be and midlist authors who felt squeezed out of traditional publishing, most of the prospectors who came North felt squeezed out of opportunities within the dysfunctional economy of the 1890s.
·         Statistically speaking, by the time you hear about it, the so-called “easy money” is gone. For the most part, those who were already milling around in the vicinity of the Klondike when the first nuggets were found were the ones who made out well. By the time word reached everyone else, the best claims were all taken. The same has happened in indie publishing, where authors who jumped in early (2009-2011) found the biggest followings among readers. As with the miners, not all who did well were skilled; some were just lucky.
·         The volume of interest causes big problems. When a boom begins, there’s never enough infrastructure in place to deal with the influx. The sheer numbers complicate the situation for everyone. Confusion reigns. Sound familiar?
·         The resource has limits. No matter how many miners, there’s only so much gold. For books, there are only so many readers, and those readers have only so much time to read.
·         When the reality hits, most quit. With a lot of grumbling and excuses over what went wrong, some move on to the next big rush—from the Klondike, it was Nome; from indie e-books, who knows? Others will give up completely.
·         Aside from those who arrived early on, the ones who do best are those who “mine the miners.” Though the good Klondike claims were gone early, the entrepreneurs who set up shop to feed and house the miners (and keep them in liquor) did just fine. Some even hung around after the rush was over. In indie publishing, those who market services to authors trying to figure out how to promote their books will in many cases do better than the authors themselves.
·         When the rush ends, nothing’s as it once was. Klondikers tore through the landscape and created havoc among indigenous cultures. Post-boom, publishing has also changed in ways we’re still trying to figure out.
·         Despite the hardships and challenges, a certain percentage of those who came for the opportunities will stay because they like this new way of life. As with those who settled in the north, indie authors are here to stay—wiser for their troubles, better focused than they might have been, and content with the new landscape.