The Digital Gold Rush

Thoughts on Digital Self-Publishing (DSP), Series Nine


Hey, remember the California Gold Rush?

Hundreds of thousands of people relocated to Califorinia between 1848 and 1855 from all over the world. Many came seeking gold, finding billions of today’s dollars’ worth within the first five years. Many others came and set up shops, selling supplies and services to the prospectors.

Who do you think made more money?

Well, about half the miners made a modest profit; a very few of them actually struck it rich. The other half made little money or actually lost money – spending more to support themselves than they recovered in gold.

On average, the merchants made far more than the miners. The first millionaire of the rush was Samuel Brannan – a shopkeeper and newspaper man. The name we most remember from the Rush – though I bet you didn’t know the connection – is that of Levi Strauss, who began selling denim overalls in San Francisco in 1853.

Odds are, you don’t know anyone whose family made money mining gold in California. But I bet you have at least one pair of Levi’s in your closet.

Okay, Jack, but what’s your point? And what does this have to do with DSP?

Sometimes, digital self-publishing is marketed to us writers a bit like the California gold discovery – especially by those who stand to profit the most from our work, the big distributors / online book sellers. Amazon’s monthly KDP newsletter is particularly full of it: each month is a new success story from someone who’s seen their book become a bestseller, followed with an article on how to write & market better for the rest of us.

I’m not saying the newsletter, or similar publications, are a pack of lies. Often they offer useful tips, valuable information, or at the very least inspirational stories. What I am saying is: beware their implications. Beware the philosophy that underlies the advice. Think about who’s offering you marketing tips and why they’re doing it for free (or are they?).

In the wake of the financial success of a few, high-profile DSP authors, has come a slew of companies and freelancers selling services to would-be DSP writers. You can hire people to produce book trailers, arrange blog tours, format & publish your manuscript so you don’t have to. You can even buy reviews.

You can also enter into all kinds of profit-sharing enterprises with major companies. It costs Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble a fraction of a penny to add your book to their stores; even if just your mom and your best friend buy it, they make 10,000% profit on that transaction. They may make only half of what you do per sale, but they make it on every sale of every DSP author’s books. The more authors they convince to publish through them, the better – even if most authors only sell a few copies.

From their perspective, it’s kind of like the Gold Rush.

We writers can spend hours and days and years mining for ideas, staking out plots, sifting out words until just the right ones remain. To be able to do that, we need supplies and services provided by others.

But we’ve gotta be careful: the merchants don’t take on the same risks we do. It’s not just our money and our time at risk, but our art, our hearts, our lives.

Find a way to assess what is and what isn’t worth paying for. When deciding where to invest your scarce resources, know before you commit how this service or information or technique fits into your comprehensive marketing strategy for your book.

For us, digital self-publishing isn’t a gold rush.

Readers of good books aren’t a scarce resource that will eventually be all mined up. DSP isn’t going to get shut down by a not-so-secret cabal of traditional publishing companies.

You aren’t going to suddenly strike it rich, either. You won’t stumble upon the mother lode by buying into a different marketing technique or purchasing access to a new market.

If you do become a bestselling author, it will be from a combination of writing quality books that excite word-of-mouth recommendations from readers, from having a coherent, cost-effective marketing strategy, and from a set of market conditions and circumstances entirely beyond your control.

Remember: you’re in this for the long haul. Don’t let wily service providers turn your career into an all-or-nothing gold rush.

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