The First And Only Law of Independent Publishing

Last post I wrote about The Three Laws of Editing Lou Anders created many years ago, and touched on how the (and particularly the First Law) created the environment for Independent publishing to grow. Today I’m going to talk mostly about the Second Law.

First, let me restate those Three Laws:

  1. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will make the most money for his/her publisher.
  2. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will provide the most entertainment value for his/her readership, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First Law.
  3. An editor shall select those books which best serve the evolution and growth of his/her genre, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In a just world, the Second Law would be the one Law to Rule Them All. And ultimately, from a pragmatic view, it always is. Even to publishers, who I occasionally hear disgruntled industry insiders say “do not care about the reader.”

Publishers often take readers for granted, after all. Or they misread their readers. But they do care that their readers are at least interested enough to buy their products. That’s to say they care about readers in the same way they care about writers. By the gross, not by the individual. This fact is actually embedded in that super-dangerous phrase “his/her readership,” shiceh as I noted last time, is the publisher’s readership, not the writer’s.

This is a problem for writers.

There are obvious correlations between a publisher’s readership and a writer’s readership, but in the world of traditional publishing, the publisher is the only one who actually knows who the readers are. And it is the publisher who can choose to turn on and off the spigot of readers. By that, I mean that unless a writer takes action to find a way to keep a list of readers (which independently published writers have learned is a life-giving thing), if the publisher chooses not to publish a book, the writer loses access to their readers.


(or, Just Who is This Editor, Anyway?)

Here’s the secret that’s not so much a secret.  A writer’s career—whether traditionally published or independently published—is dependent upon the writer’s ability to attract a readership. That’s the end of the story. That’s the arrangement that a writer is working toward, a very intimate connection between the words we write and the brain of the person who reads them. All the rest of the process—the editing, the book design, the creation of a cover, and the marketing, placement, purchase, and delivery of the book. And all the other things that happen, are all there in service of this final moment when the reader connects up to the writer, and the transfer of a story occurs.

If that connection happens enough times, a writer has a career.

This is why I suggested the right phrasing of Anders’ Second Law of Editing should be: An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will provide the most entertainment value for his/her readership.

At question here is how big of a readership does a writer need to create a career?

The answer depends on how big of a career one wants.

There are lots of people just happy to write steadily and make a small trickle of cash that feeds their souls and gives them a little spending cash to go with their day jobs. For them, ten or twenty (or fifty) readers is amazing. You don’t need to be an insider to see how the Three Laws of Editing pretty much kill this kind of career path as a traditionally published writer.

Most people trying to break into the profession, though, are focused on larger numbers. They dream of numbers that are at least enough to scrounge out a middling living. So, the question above—how big of a readership does a writer need—is the crux of the question. Given that writers make mostly pennies on the dollar of a book sold via traditional publishing deals, they need a pretty large readership just to make their way. And, if you recall The First Law, they need an even larger readership than that because they have to feed the publisher.

As noted earlier, nowhere in the Three Laws of Editing does the idea of feeding writers raise its head.

In this world, is 5,000 copies of a book sold enough? Probably not. At least not if you want to satisfy the First Law over a long career. Is it 10,000? 50,000? As time goes on, that number rises, right? Grow or die, as the saying kind of goes.

The equation is different in the world of independent publishing, where margins are better—even as prices to the reader are lower. The overhead is lower, too. While not really advisable, independently published writers can deliver their product (their story) for literally zero dollars if they need to. And depending on who you listen to, and how often you can publish, and many other elements, you’ll hear that an independently published writer needs maybe only five hundred hardcore fans. Or a thousand. Or whatever.

It’s considerably less than the number of books writers need to sell in the traditional world, that much is certain.

And that makes all the difference.

I can say this because Anders’ Second Law of Editing in the world of traditional publishing—when altered properly is the First And Only Law of independent publishing.

An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will provide the most entertainment value for his/her readership.

When you look at it this way, you get to ask an interesting question. That is “What does the term ‘editor’ mean in that set of Anders Laws?”

We’re not talking about people who mark up manuscripts and fix typos and whatnot. No. Not really. While these editors, I’m sure, do some of that work, that’s not the context of the Laws. The answer to this question is buried in the controversial phrase “his/her readership.” Anders does not use that phrase poorly. Because these editors we’re talking about, who live by these Laws of Editing are Acquiring Editors. In context of the Second Law, these editors are the Taste Police. They are the film critics giving thumbs up or down, but they are more powerful than film critics because they have their fingers on their publisher’s checkbook.

So, yeah.

Therein lies the problem.

Since it is the editor’s (publisher’s) readership, the editor (publisher) gets a final say on whether a readership is worth investing in. The writer’s opinion does not matter. At all. This means that, regardless of profitability, the publisher is in complete control of whether the writer’s career will exist. They get to say whether the book is “successful” or not. They get to say if the profits are large enough or not. If the book sells well enough to make a 5% return on investment when the publisher wanted 10%, they get to make that call.

But worse, they get to define the quality and value of their readership.

Last post I said that the First Law of Editing that drives the world of traditional publishing simply does not exist in the world of independent publishing. Today I’m here to say that the Second Law does exist for independently published writers, but not in the form it takes for traditionally published writers (or as I like to call them “dependently published writers”).

For us independently published writers, the First and Only Law of independent Publishing is:

A writer shall create those books which they deem will provide the most entertainment value for their readership.

Full stop.

And that, too, is a beautiful thing.

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  1. Pingback: The Three Laws of Editing and the Coming of the AI Horde – Typosphere

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