Paying It Forward vs Letting in the Wolves

That sounds horrible, doesn’t? Letting in the wolves. But it’s accurate.

A few years back when I first started getting serious about self-publishing the entire industry was much much more open about what was working. If someone went from making nothing a month to thousands, they immediately jumped on a public forum or raced to their blog to shout it to the world.

“Look! Here! These books, these ones right here. They’re flying off the shelves. I might be able to quit my day job!”

I was always a little surprised by how open people were about what was working for them and how well they were selling their different titles. And often when this was discussed it came down to a combination of “I wouldn’t be where I am if others hadn’t shared their stories first so I want to pay it forward”, “We’re all in this together helping make indie publishing legit”, and “There is no competition among writers. One writer’s success creates more readers that the rest of us can sell to.”

And I always wondered about parts of that. I’ve posted here before that there is something to be said for all of us working together to create respectability and a market for books. But that top 100 list only has 100 slots. And Bookbub only runs so many books a day. And AMS is a bid system. The more people who participate the more likely you’re going to get priced out of using them.

Now, when you see everyone as a friend who shares the same way you do, a little setback in one area is more than made up for by that same person helping you out elsewhere. I tell you about the Kobo promo tab, you tell me about how to use AMS in the UK. What goes around comes around and we all benefit.


There are wolves in this industry. And even when people don’t mean to be wolves I sometimes picture the way self-publishing works as a swarm of locusts that come along and destroy a field full of grain.

You write a book to a hungry market and people notice and suddenly there are so many books in that market that are underpricing yours that you’re done. And the readers are sometimes done, too. Maybe you luck out and you established name recognition with those readers before the others arrived and they stay with you at your higher price. But more often they say, “Ooh, I’ll try Book B over here for 99 cents and see if it’s as good as Book A at $5.99 was.” It isn’t. But enough readers do that and you’re done.

Or you discover a method of advertising that works for you. Hallelujah! And then everyone else discovers it too and you’re sunk. You’re priced out by the folks with a hundred books under their name. Doesn’t take much sellthrough to make back your ad costs when there are a hundred books for someone to go through if they like what you write. Or you’re just out-classed by better covers and blurbs.

All of this has brought me to an interesting point. Because I still want to help people. It’s my default instinct. To say, “Hey, have you tried X?” Or, “No, actually, you can do well at Y.” Or to say, “Holy hell! Look at this book, it’s actually selling.”

But after having people basically copy my best-selling title and then use AMS to advertise the copy, and after having seen how whole genres overwhelmed by people looking for a quick buck no matter what it takes, I hesitate to share as openly as I did before.

My best AMS ad is over $12K in estimated sales at this point. I didn’t post when it hit $10K. Because when I did at $5K is about when that look-alike title came along. Thanks for sharing, f you.

So when someone wrote me today and said, “Hey, can you share your numbers on X because people don’t seem to realize you can do well at X,” rather than run right over and share, I wrote this blog post instead.

Because it’s tiring to be open about the little things that work and then have them taken away or destroyed. I know, it’s a competition. That’s what happens. But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t have to open the door to the wolves and tell them to help themselves.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to stop sharing altogether. Like I said, not my nature to hold back. But I’m getting a little more leery these days. And I’m glad that writing is not life for me. That if I have to eventually walk away in disgust I can. (Turns out what matters to me is doing something where I have control, autonomy, authority, and visible accomplishment. And earn enough to pay the bills. For now that’s writing. Five years from now? We’ll see.)

Anyway. Something to keep in mind.




I’m hip-deep in producing the videos for the Excel for Self-Publishers video course. (Two and a half hours of video done, probably half an hour worth to go. Woot!) And it has me thinking about competition a lot. Partially because it’s such a business-focused class/book.

When I first started self-publishing, the indie mantra was “we’re all in this together”. And everyone talked about sharing everything and how there was room for everyone. People were encouraged to self-publish and you’d see authors openly share the genres where they were finding success. It was an all-for-one environment.

I’ve seen it on the trade publishing side, too. This idea that there’s room for everyone. That authors don’t compete with one another. That we’re all just one big happy family of writers who will conquer the world together.

Now, you may have noticed that I’m a bit of a cynic. If you hadn’t, I am.

So this message never sat well with me.

(One of the lessons I learned in business school was that there are some people out there who’d stab their own mother in the back to get ahead and they won’t hesitate to lie, manipulate, or cheat to get what they want. Not taught in class, by the way. More a matter of observation and listening to what some people chose to brag about. Suffice it to say, I have some classmates I would never, ever do business with.)

Anyway. Over the years I have tried to reconcile this message of “help everyone and we’ll be better off” and the fact that we don’t live in a limitless world.

And here’s where I’ve come out on this whole issue:

When it comes to growing a genre so that it’s recognizable and people can ask for it by name, we’re in this together.

When it comes to growing a sales platform so that readers go to that platform to find a new book, we’re also in this together.

By working together to drive discoverability of what we write and where it can be found, we all benefit. When people read a Twilight or a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games or a 50 Shades and want more, all authors who write that type of book benefit from that new reader hunger.

Anything that expands the potential number of readers is good for all of us. And so early on having quality writers self-publish and raise the respectability of self-publishing benefited all self-publishers.


There are only so many spots at the top of the lists. And there are only so many hours a reader has to devote to reading per day. And only so many dollars they have to spend on new books.

And there are only so many advertising slots available. We’d all love a Bookbub on all of our titles, but that’s not an option. They only have so many spaces available to run ads and more than enough books to choose from.

And with pay-per-click advertising (like AMS), the more people who are using them, the more it costs everyone to use them.

So it’s sort of a love-hate thing.

We need our fellow authors to keep readers engaged with books as a form of entertainment between our own releases. No one author (unless they’re insanely prolific) can meet the reading needs of their readers. And it’s in all of our interests for people to read instead of turn to tv shows or movies or laser tag or what have you.

But when there is enough product out there to keep readers engaged, and I’d argue there is, then we all start competing with one another for what is now a limited resource — reader time and money, as well as visibility.

(And if that competition then leads to people releasing subpar product or taking shortcuts that damage the reader experience…well, that damages us all, too, right? Readers throw up their hands in disgust and either go re-read their favorites or turn to tv and movies for their fix.)

Anyway. A few thoughts for a Friday afternoon, partially based on something I see going down right now but don’t want to post about, because, ya know.

Time to get back to producing a product only about a dozen people will want. Because that’s how I roll…