The Middleman Syndrome

Someone asked me the other day why it was that I don’t sell books directly off of my website, when the tools make it so easy to do these days. According to them, I was losing money because I could sell my books directly to my superfans for less than they could buy them from places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. At the same time, I would be able to make more per sale when I wasn’t losing thirty percent to the middleman handling the transaction.

Money is lovely, don’t get me wrong.

But this is a business. And one that I intend to be in for a long time. It requires planning.

I can write entertaining books. My existing fans tell me that. I get occasional complaints from folks that stayed up way past their normal bedtime when “just one more chapter” turned into two in the morning when they weren’t looking.

The problem is that I want a bigger fan base.

Entropy guarantees me that over the next twenty years, I’m going to lose fans because maybe their life or tastes will change. Or folks will stop reading for whatever personal reasons (new parents can testify). Hell, some folks are statistically going to die of old age over that time.

If I am selling to a small, rabid, personal fan base, I can service them quite well, giving the those sorts of touches. On my Patreon, I recently included an urban fantasy short story I wrote years ago and have left in the trunk for now. It was a pretty good story, but it was obviously really just the first part of a much longer novel. Plus, it was in a genre I don’t normally read all that much or write in. Seriously. Urban Fantasy (depending on how you want to classify it. It is not the sorts of paranormal romance that are currently dominating the market, but more like old school paranormal detective, if you will).

One of my patrons wrote back and asked when I was going to write the novel. Considering the speed at which I’m writing now, I decided to slot it in and wrote it over the summer. You can do that when you are at Pulp Speed Two+ consistently.

But I want more fans. I have a comfortable writing career now, making good money, but I want to own an island somewhere with an ultratech supervillain fortress on it. Or a castle that I can rent out as an AirB&B when I’m traveling Europe, Africa, and other interesting places.

Stupid money. So much money that it represents a moral hazard to the rest of the world. </insert maniacal laughter here>

Not there yet. Not going to get there in the next year.

However, I want to grow to that level.

To do that, I need more fans, not just to extract more money from the ones I have.

Discoverability is the ogre that threatens all writers. We can write great material, but until you can put it into someone’s hands to read, we can’t make a living.

You can attempt all sorts of gimmicks to build your audience, but most of them are just that. Gimmicks. They’ll work for a month or a season or even a year, but one day you’ll get up and they don’t. You can do all sorts of mailing list builders, but those emails eventually melt off and recede like a tide. Things like that.

Some people are forever chasing those gimmicks instead of focusing on the writing. We refer to it as “The Magic Handshake” because it is a syndrome that takes over people. They hustle, convinced that there really exists a magic handshake, and once they learn it, they will be Made Women. Like a mafia crime family or something.

“One more class. One more book to read. One more workshop to take. Something…”

[there is a magic handshake, by the way: Sit down. Shut Up. Write.]

I’m building my career organically, because that’s the best way to get to where I want to be. To have a lot of loyal fans who will follow me when I suddenly write an Urban Fantasy novel series (book one is going to my patrons at the end of August if you want to read it. Best sign up now.)

But we need to be discovered. In the past, maybe you walked into Waldenbooks and wandered through the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves looking for something new, and accidentally found a new author to fall in love with. That’s how I found David Drake, originally, reading a Hammer’s Slammers book when I was a kid.

More often, however, someone you know hands you a book and says “Read this.” because they know your tastes and it’s amazing. How many of you found your favorite author because your best friend or weird aunt recommended them? Yeah, I thought so.

But it doesn’t work that way anymore. B.Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Borders are gone. Barnes & Noble struggles gamely on, but they only have a small selection of books to pick from.

There is this behemoth that had slain them all and conquered the kingdom of readers. We call it Amazon.

Jeff Bezos didn’t invent the ebook. Those existed back in the 90’s. (Hell, Sony had a chance to dominate ebooks in the early days, and betamaxxed it instead. But everybody knows about the idiots that run Sony’s commercial electronics divisions, so I don’t need to say more.)

What Jeff and Amazon did was to make it easy to find, buy, and read books. He gave you the Kindle device, and then let you download ebooks onto it. You could suddenly read any book almost instantly, not even having to go to the bookstore to find it, or order it for delivering in the next 7-10 business days.

Now. In your hands. Reading.

How many of you have stayed up late because you finished one book and then went and got the next one in the series immediately and kept reading?

So let’s talk about the middleman. Middlemen, plural, actually.

You can buy ebooks from Amazon, B&N, Kobo/Walmart, iTunes/Apple, and dozens of other places, depending on where you live.

As an author, you don’t have to pay anything to have your books on those shelves, like you would if you wanted to get into Barnes & Noble with paper. (Serious amounts of payola are involved on those tables and endcaps in the stores.) Or going to a show and having a booth with your books on the table for browsers.

Instead, each of those places is a distributor (a middleman) that will take your book and make it available for readers interested in a genre. Free. What they take is a cut of your sales at the end of the month. But only a cut. You aren’t renting space up front.

If you don’t make any money, Amazon doesn’t make any money from you. As a result, it is in their best interest to help you sell books. And there will be a million new titles published this year, so you need to compete.

For me, I could sell my ebooks to the thousand or so hard-core fans that would rush to my website to buy it, especially because I could also charge $5.99 and keep most of that money, instead of the $4.07 I normally make.

But it is not worth it to me.

By having over one thousand people buy a new release when it comes out, I’m coming to the attention of the automated robots at Amazon that serve up “You might also like” books, because suddenly there is a big new book out there and the robots know you like these sorts of books.

They want you to see this book, because if lots of people are buying it, it must be good, and they want you to buy it. Like I mentioned above, at $5.99, they are making about $1.92 themselves. Money.

Because I have those fans buying the book from Amazon, I have the chance to be put in front of tens of thousands of other potential fans who see an interesting cover, open the page, read the blurb, and then download the sample to read. (I know it works like that, because The Science Officer has exploded twice now in ways unexplainable any other way.)

I’m good enough to hook you at that point.

But if I don’t get that surge, driving me up the category list into the top 100 or even top 10, then random strangers don’t get shown my books. Lots of people bandwagon by looking at what is in the top 100 and using that as a filter.

How many of my sales emerged as a result of cracking one of those lists and coming to someone’s attention that might have otherwise missed me?

Or you?

If I make money, Amazon makes money, because there are readers out there who want new stuff to keep them up at night.

I’m not interested in you and your Amazon Derangement Syndrome about how Amazon is destroying traditional publishing. That happened long before Jeff Bezos got involved.

More readers are buying more books now than at any point in human history.

Read that again, because it is a simple truth.

They are out there, credit card burning a hole in their pocket for more things to read. If it is not you, it will be someone else, but Amazon constantly tracks down all those gimmicks and makes some tweak to make them not work anymore. (I have friends who smile and nod knowingly, but can’t say anything, because of what they know and where they work.)

If you look at Amazon as a service, an honest broker middleman who is trying to make as much money as possible by building the single biggest marketplace in history, then you will begin to understand why I want to leverage all their tools to my advantage.

  • Wide instead of narrow, because folks after subscriptions for books won’t buy.
  • Passive advertising, because I make about $2.50 for every dollar I spend (and we’re not talking many dollars, either way), but I also don’t have to spend a lot of time paying attention.
  • Dropping new titles every 30 days. (You can drop a short story on the same day every month, or maybe you should ask yourself if you are really a writer.)

I’m not working the system for a gimmicky edge. I’m using the tools that exist to maximize my own income over the incredibly long horizon of seventy years after I die of old age in another fifty.

My grandson is going off to college next week. I want his grandkids to be earning money from my books.

That’s the power of the middleman.

1 thought on “The Middleman Syndrome

  1. Larry Vaughn

    Nailed it. You just described me……found you, Glynn Stewart, and others thru a Recommendation, spent the next few weeks reading everything….each of you created….then pine for weeks waiting for the next “thing”. As a voracious reader I used to visit the book stores weekly then wife bought me the first Kindle because we were running out of space for hardcopy……..haven’t bought a hardcopy since. I love Amazon and what they have done by expanding opportunities to “indies”.

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