The Venture Capital Theory of Publishing

I mentioned the other day that this had come up during the DOJ trial related to the PRH/S&S merger. This idea that a publisher invests in 10 debut authors, maybe two do really well, two or three completely bomb, and the other five or six do alright but not amazing.

This is the approach VCs use to investing as well. (At least that’s what I was told during our MBA program by some VCs that came to talk to us.) They hope for the home run, but they know that only a small percentage of their investments are going to be home runs and that they’ll lose or be disappointed or meh about the others.

Well, it occurred to me this morning that this can also apply to self-publishing, too. And maybe this is more an example of the 80/20 rule in effect. (Where 80% of performance comes from 20% of the pool, in this case, of authors.)

Let me walk you through it.

About five years ago I joined a group of authors that occasionally touch base with one another and share information or commiserate or cheer one another on.

At the time we all wrote in a common genre or at least had written in that genre. And we all had a baseline level of sales. (It was a low baseline IMO but still I barely managed to qualify at the time.)

The idea behind the original group was that we had all done well enough with self-publishing that we took it seriously and had seen some traction with our writing and that we could benefit from sharing our experiences.

The group did not turn out to be what the founder wanted it to be, but a core group of about six of us hung in there. We now write in very different genres, but we’re still there to lend support and commiserate and just touch base.

And…

Our little core group that’s left sort of follows this same VC pattern.

Two of the members are killing it in KU in two completely different genres. One has had a history of success but is at a pivot point. One went through one of those phases where you can’t seem to write anything new but really wants to get back to it and is maybe starting to do so after a couple years of struggle. One got frustrated enough with the whole thing that they’ve focused in on their day job for now with maybe the occasional promo or work on a new book. And then there’s me who is doing okay enough to be full-time for now but not killing it.

I think our group is pretty typical for what you’d see if you took a cohort of say ten serious about it self-publishers and tracked them for five years. Some would start high or go up and stay there. Some would find their way up but not be able to sustain it. Some would putz along in the middle never going up but never dropping to nothing. Some would never quite get off the ground. And some would leave for other opportunities no matter where they were performance-wise.

And what’s really challenging is finding a way to keep going when you’re one of the 8 out of 10 that aren’t at the top.

We have this myth in self-pub that if you just work hard enough or smart enough that you can be that 2 out of 10. Anyone can do it, right? I had someone say that in another group I’m in just the other day. That anyone can be a six-figure author if they just write a well-targeted, well-branded six-book series.

Oh, right. Okay, let me just go knock that out. Be right back in…two years? When the market has shifted again and now it’s ten books I need in a series to be a six-figure author. And maybe my series is no longer well-targeted. Oh, and somewhere in there I need to either figure out what “well-branded” means or somehow find someone who knows that even though it’s hard to judge someone’s credibility when you don’t know something yourself.

Sure. Okay. Let me get right on that.

And, to be clear, that person probably wasn’t wrong. An author who can write a well-branded six-book series in six months and get it out there has a good shot at building an audience.

But most authors can’t do that.

Some absolutely can. One of the two members of my group who is killing it in KU puts out a well-written full-length novel every six weeks or so. It can be done and is done. Just not by most authors.

And not by most new authors. That friend of mine has published something like 80 novels at this point under various pen names.

So, knowing this, what do you do? If you’re one of those authors who isn’t at the top, what does knowing this do you? (Other than make you want to cry.)

It very much depends on you and what matters to you and what you want.

If you must be at the top, you must win, you either floor it and give it everything you’ve got or you go and find something that’s easier to win at. There are absolutely corporate careers where if you put your head down and do the work for a decade you will move up and be making a very good salary.

But what if you don’t have to be the winner, you just want to keep going?

For me, I have to repeatedly accept that I personally don’t want to give what it takes to be at the top (and might not even be able to if I tried) and that while some will see me as a failure because of that, that I’m getting what I need out of this and that’s what counts.

Every single time I look at a friend’s life and think, “Oh no, I would not want that life” I have to remind myself that the only person allowed to judge someone’s life is that person. They are the one who has to get up every morning and live their life and if they’re happy in that choice then it’s no business of mine that I wouldn’t want to live like them.

I also turn that around and I remind myself that I am the one that has to live my life for the next 24 hours, 7 days, 52 weeks, however many years. And it doesn’t matter what others think of the path I’ve taken, it matters how I feel about the path I’ve taken.

It’s not easy to shut out those outside voices and judgements. Society exists to make us conform to a set of standards that benefit the whole over the individual and we are wired to hear those messages.

But it’s essential to do that if you’re going to walk a path that isn’t the norm. Especially if you could walk a path that’s the norm and you’ve just chosen not to.

Anyway. Just some more random writing thoughts. I’m off to record more audio. I think I finally have things dialed in on the non-fiction side at least so will be getting two of those books out in audio soon. They’ll probably sell five copies, but you never know. And I get to learn something new while doing it, which is the part I enjoy the most. So…Onward.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

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