Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Extra Notes: Why I No Longer Publish My Books at Amazon, Smashwords, or Any Other Large Publishing Platform

I'll never forget the day I completed the final edit of Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever. How amazing it felt. It was beyond amazing, actually; I felt transported, or perhaps transcended, to a better place, a higher plane, something like that. Seven hard years of hard, hard work were finally coming to fruition.

It took months to format it for publication. It was 2010; I had just joined this brand new e-publishing site called Smashwords; and the world, at least from my writing point of view, couldn't look rosier. I uploaded the manuscript, and something like two weeks later it was approved for their "Premium Catalog," which meant that it was eligible to be uploaded by Smashwords to a variety of other platforms--Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and so on.

Not long after that, I joined Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, and published Melody there, too. The approval process there was much quicker--something like a day, maybe two.

I was a published author!

Today that title means nothing. Actually, it means less than nothing. Independent authors like myself are a dime a dozen. No: we are a dime for a dozen-dozen. A gross. Which is how far too often in the past decade I have felt being associated with far too many of them.

Independent publishing blew up in the late aughts and early teens--just as I was getting started. I was part of that blow-up. For a while I entertained the notion that I might be able to make a living writing my books, so stupidly giddy was I over the times and my prospects.
Silly me.

The house of cards began crumbling not long after 2015. Today, independent publishing is in a state of collapse. And a huge part of the problem are these enormous publishing platforms and their policies. I'm going to focus on only two: Smashwords and Amazon. But what I say here applies equally around the board--with Apple, with Barnes & Noble, with all of them. When I'm finished, I hope you'll understand why today I only publish my works through this blog and my Payhip storefront.


First, let's start with  the soul-crushing grand total of:


That is the total amount of money that I, as an indie publisher, made from 2010 through 2019. I think it's important to rip the bandage off and pour peroxide on the wound and get the shrieking and the stinging over with as fast as possible, don't you? So I have. There's that total. It's for all of you to look at and marvel over, or, as I'm sure some of you will do, laugh derisively at. That's okay. Have a good toxic guffaw.

The bottom line is this: fewer than a thousand novelists on this entire Earth make enough money to live off their hard work. The odds that I'd ever be one of them was vanishingly small. Today it's even smaller. But here's the most salient point about that bottom line: luck plays a dominant role--almost a total one, actually--in determining who makes it to the top. Not talent. Luck. It took me a long, long time to come to grips with that.

Smashwords and Amazon and the rest of them sell authors a bill of goods. They work at hiding the overwhelming odds luck plays while advertising that they are huge and so hugely visible, that readers are always perusing their sites, that--who knows? Maybe if you produce a ton of "content" and the stars align, you too can become a famous author! Who knows? It could be you!

But it's all bullshit, top to bottom.

To be a successful author, the following three things are necessary. There isn't a fourth thing, or a fifth, or a tenth or twentieth. Just these, and these alone.

This isn't a scientifically researched pie graph (obviously). It's here to make a very strong point: talent has nothing whatsoever to do with "making it" as an author, whether you are indie (self-published) or not.

The truth is, this is a very optimistic graph when it comes to connections and cash. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's complete bullshit. The slices I've denoted for both need to be much, much smaller, just tiny slivers, actually. The reason they are the size they are is that I couldn't size my text down more.

Luck is almost everything when it comes to "making it" as a writer, that is, being able to make a living as one. I'm not even talking about being a bestseller. Not at all. I'm talking about raking in enough to pay your rent and eat reasonably and have a roof over your head and pay your bills.

Connections: these are vital as well. Required. Essential. You acquire those with tons of cash; and so this graph is false in another way because connections depend on cash. As in entirely. It is literally the only way EL James parlayed the abortion that was the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy onto an unsuspecting planet and forevermore destroying the last shreds of literary decency left in the world.

Cash: without it you as an indie author are totally fucked. And not just cash: like I said above, tons of it. As in seven figures to start. And no, I'm not kidding; I'm not exaggerating. Anything less than at least a million clams is a waste of time.

Social media? Forget it. Posting flyers at bookstores and libraries? Don't make me laugh. Hiring editors and cover designers and putting yourself in hock forever? What, are you fucking stupid? Stop. Just stop. There are only three things that work, if they work at all. Luck. Connections. Cash. With luck taking up at least ninety-five percent of the pie graph.


Google, Facebook, and Amazon have introduced another malicious element into this shitshow by their intense and hugely successful efforts to centralize and commoditize "content." As a result, what was once a bell curve has since been pushed against the vertical axis into a vicious power curve, meaning that only a tiny, tiny, tiny select few can now actually be heard, can now actually grab enough attention to get paid, can now even marginally successfully shout over the noise. It isn't a thousand writers who can make a living today; it's dwindled down to just a few hundred. And the number is growing smaller by the day.

Let's forget about Google (switch to Ecosia) and Facebook (switch to MeWe) and focus on Amazon for a moment.

I'll keep this short. I know most of you are readers, not writers, and couldn't give a shit about the technical crap regarding publishing. Bottom line is this: Amazon is almost singlehandedly destroying the publishing industry, especially for indies like me. If you're buying books through them, you need to be aware of this. You're supporting that destruction and the dwindling livelihoods of thousands, even millions, of writers.

Among other critical issues, if I as an indie writer don't publish exclusively with them, what Amazon does is disappear my hard work in their search results. If I go exclusively with them, they require that I cheapen my labor to the point where each page I produce in my manuscript is literally priced down to just a few hundredths of a penny. I wish I were exaggerating, but I'm not.

So I refused to be exclusive with them. I insisted on publishing through Smashwords and their associated retailers, as well as Amazon's, and as a result was punished. My earnings after 2015 plummeted. Then plummeted more. In 2018, I made just a few pennies over $21.

Going exclusively with Amazon by no means suggests that you'll find an audience. There is so much dross out there now, both self-published and legacy published (through a publishing house), that readers simply refuse to browse anymore. And who can blame them? Most of it is dross. It's garbage. It's absolute shit. Squared.

There are other critical issues as well, as I mentioned. If you'd like it boiled down, it comes down to this: if you as an author have a huge bankroll and can afford to advertise your books on Amazon, you can dick those of us who can't, and can literally disappear a competing author from the platform, even if their entire library is there. Amazon's Wild Wild West digital ecosystem encourages authors to game against each other, even going so far as giving 1-star reviews on a competitor's work, which, if enough are given for a book, results in Amazon taking that publication down "for further review."

Now you know why I don't publish at Amazon anymore.


On to Smashwords.

It was a new website in 2010 with a ton of potential that has never been realized. I strongly doubt it ever will be.

I was with them ten years. That by itself should have made me a priority in their eyes, but it never did. In fact, nobody at Smashwords ever bothered learning who I was. That's a real problem as far as I'm concerned. There was a time when loyalty meant something to businesses; when a long-standing client or customer was treated with deference and with a little more awesomeness than others. Long-term customers, as it has been shown time and again in countless studies, are far more valuable than short-termers, no matter how much temporary value short-termers add to your bottom line.

That is no longer true save for those few extraordinary businesses out there who truly strive to value those of us who have stuck with them over the long haul--especially on the Internet.

For me, that was reason enough to quit Smashwords. Businesses are too large if they don't bother learning who their repeat long-term clients or customers are. Period. Full stop. Either that, or they are just too capitalistically dysfunctional. Either way, I was, and am still, deeply offended that after ten years, Mark Coker and his "team" never bothered learning who I was.

That's Issue No. 1. Issue No. 2 with Smashwords comes down to the fact that Mark Coker and his "team" are really no better than Amazon in the way they treat the vast majority of authors who publish to the site. The reason why comes down to--you guessed it--money.

Let's revisit that brutal power curve I talked about earlier, the one that makes it virtually impossible for authors to make even $21 and change over the course of a calendar year. Smashwords doesn't disappear authors who don't go exclusively with them, that is true. But what they do instead isn't any better, because it leads to the exact same results.

Coker and his "team" saw a cash cow in one particular genre, and have sucked onto it like a five-dollar hooker at the Republican National Convention. That cash cow is "romance." I quote it because, let's be honest, the word "romance" is a euphemism for "porn for women," or PFW, as I refer to it. PFW currently dominates the literary market--to the tune, so go some estimates, of 75% of all retail sales. In other words, three out of every four books bought, be they ebooks or paper ones, be they authored by indies or legacy-published writers, are PFW.

I just went to Smashwords' home page. I haven't been there in months. Of the 60 titles displayed there right now, 46 of them are romance. Do the math. That's 77%.

I've written one PFW book. It was my first attempt at writing a full story back in the day, way before ebooks became a thing, something like 2003. It has never earned me money, probably because it's a different kind of read, a PFW that focuses on characters instead of pumping and grinding, one that also offers a moral at the end that doesn't sit too well with suburbans and their stale, consumptive, thoughtless lives.

There are literally teams of people who write PFW today and upload it to platforms like Smashwords and Amazon. These "novels" are rarely more than 5K words, are written in a day, edited in another, formatted in a third, and published on the fourth. On and on and on.

The thing is, this vile tactic works. And Coker and his "team" damn well know it works: it brings them cash, and so the rest of us, who don't write PFW, are literally buried under this shit.

I complained to him on his blog probably half a dozen times over the course of a decade. None of my complaints were ever addressed. Finally, late last year, I'd had enough. I unpublished my entire library and asked that they delete my account. Typically, when I published a new title there, I'd not get confirmation that it was accepted for at least a day. My request to delete my account got an answer back from a "team member" inside 25 minutes. It was quite clear: they were more than happy to see me go.

If you want a lesson on how not to treat your clients or customers, there it fucking is.


I'm never going to be a bestselling author. I have little to no luck, no cash, and no connections. And so my work is going to remain invisible to 99.9999% of the world--forever. It has been a hellacious road coming to grips with that. I can't even begin to describe it. My boyhood teachers, including my beloved mother, used to say to me: "Give the world your best, Shawn, and you'll be rewarded." But that's total bullshit, and believing it has scarred me. Permanently.

Payhip is a great site to host my work. It's small; the site management know me through our occasional interactions; and they work at being great every day. If you are a reader wondering if you can trust them with your money, the answer is absolutely, yes. They are consummate professionals.

If I'm to build a readership of any kind, it will come down to this blog and my books at Payhip. That relationship comes down to trust, that I will treat you like the valuable reader and human being that you are. Not like Amazon treated me as a "content provider"; and certainly not like Smashwords treated me either. I've gone through far too much of my life being treated indifferently, or used and abused and tossed aside. To the degree I can fight back, I will. This is one of those ways. I hope you support me in that endeavor.

Thank you for reading this. If you have any questions or comments, please email me: ThePiertoForever[-at-]gmail.com. I'll get back to you right away.

Every dollar you spend is a vote for what you value, for what you want to see more of in this world. Please keep that in mind. Your votes are more important today than ever before.