Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Follow the yellow brick road to self-publishing success!


Right on the heels of my introduction of Yesterday Road to the WordPress universe comes this item, via Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing. (I love Boing Boing, btw): “Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now.

I admire the writer’s bluntness.

Tobias Buckell is an “author – blogger – futurist,” according to his web site, who has been selling his work as ebooks for a long time now, and with the help of data from Smashwords walks us through the reality of self-publishing risks and rewards. The heart of the matter is that, because we hear much more about success stories than about the complete failures, we tend to ignore the bad news and believe we can succeed like the best of the bunch. What we’re overlooking is the enormous swamp of disappointment that, statistically, our work is likely to get mired in. Instead we see only the mountaintop.

When you look at the charts Bucknell provides, you can see that the median book on Smashwords falls way way down on the far right of the x/y chart, which represents, let’s say, negligible sales. The “average,” on the other hand, is skewed to the left by the relatively small number of books that sell a lot of copies. An eager beaver is probably going to assume that his/her brilliant opus is at least going to be “average,” right? So — what the hell! Might as well take the plunge.

Bucknell quotes from David McRaney’s article on the subject of “survivorship bias” in his blog, You Are Not So Smart:

Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.

All of this is just a way of staying in close touch with my skeptical side as I tiptoe into that big swamp. I’d rather go in with some idea of the real danger instead of thinking some yellow brick road will get me to the other side. Yet, by the same token, if we don’t believe in ourselves to a possibly unreasonable degree, we’re better off making birdhouses in the basement than writing and trying to sell novels.

Of course, then we’d have the problem of where to sell all those goddamn birdhouses.

(Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli.)


5 comments on “Follow the yellow brick road to self-publishing success!

  1. 1WriteWay
    May 30, 2013

    Good points by Bucknell and Raney, but you are right … We have to believe in ourselves if we are to succeed at all. Otherwise, what’s the point?

  2. margaretjeanlangstaff
    May 31, 2013

    Kevin, Is your book available elsewhere? Pay attention: get out there everywhere. Yours truly.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 31, 2013

      Hi, Margaret. Thanks for the input. If you mean Parts Unknown, it is available on Amazon and B&N for next to nothing (since it’s out of print), but I don’t get a dime from sales there. Someone could leave a review, I guess, and that would be nice.

      If you mean Yesterday Road, I plan to publish it in the fall, knock wood, and will make sure it appears at all the usual outlets. I’m not sure about a print edition at this point. More research to be done vis-a-vis cost/benefit.

  3. Kevin Brennan
    May 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    I thought I’d reblog this post from just about a year ago, in which I raise cautionary flags about expectations in self-publishing. Now, having been at it a while, I think it’s more important than ever to understand that “average results” are much more likely to be on the low end of the scale and that, if you’re serious about publishing your own work, you have to have the long view.

    Nobody ever said this would be easy!

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