Pronoun is dead: this is why the best self-publishing services go out of business

 

What’s Pronoun and what does it matter?

Today was supposed to be the day I share testimonials from students and start wrapping up my course launch – but instead it’s important to comment on what’s going on with Pronoun. If you haven’t heard of Pronoun yet, it’s an ebook distribution platform like Smashwords and Draft2Digital. It’s not perfect, but it had some great features – specifically a 70% cut on a $0.99 book – and a lot of authors like it.

Yesterday we got word that it’s shutting down.
I was thinking maybe I should write an article on it, when Mateja Klaric beat me to it. Read it here:

 “Self-Publishing Breaking News — Macmillan Shuts Down Pronoun”

The article is a little dark, and affirms that self-publishing is not a business for most authors, just an expensive hobby.
And that’s true, but it’s not the point.

The point is that self-publishing authors often expect it not to be about the money.

In a Facebook group of successful authors recently we were asked what makes the culture of the group different. 

My response:

Writing books that matter and that readers enjoy = $.
As opposed to writing books from the heart that nobody reads = ART

There’s a reason when people ask “why do you write” I say “for the money.”

Treating my writing as business means I have to put the reader-experience first. It doesn’t mean I can’t love writing and write what I love; but I also need to think enough about the reader to make sure my story satisfies them.

Most authors don’t think about selling the book until after the book is written, and by then it’s too late.
But most authors will deliberately avoid talking about sales or marketing and say things like “it’s not about the money, I’m happy if just one reader enjoys my book!”

Here’s the problem – you may be willing to work for free, but nobody else is.

So whenever a good, cheap or free service pops up like Pronoun, that isn’t charging too much and ripping off authors with shoddy services, they are disrupting the major players who are making billions of dollars. It’s only a matter of time until they get bought out and shut down, because there’s money to be made.

In self-publishing, as Mateja’s article points out, most of the big money is going to publishing services, not to the content producers (authors). However, this is at least partially because the majority of authors are NOT writing books that sell (and have no intention to).

A few authors are doing pretty well, because they hustle and work and write amazing books that readers love and learn enough about marketing and book design and launching for their books to be successful. All of that isn’t easy, and nobody else is going to do it for you.

Authors have been asking me for years if I want to take over their publishing and marketing efforts and split profits with them, which led to this post: Why you can’t pay me to market your books for you.

Another discussion I had yesterday with scifi author David Bernstein went over the same ground.

David: “People need to innovate. Just being a middleman is not enough. Someone needs to create a To Market service for authors. Professional formatting, covers, to market analysis, product setup (on all chosen platforms), sales description/product page optimization, etc. A la carte service with no royalty share. A service which maximizes the potential of what they have.. no guarantees, just get the best foot forward. Cover, blurb, product setup on amazon, etc. Basically give your book the best starting point it can have.”

Derek: “The problem is, you’d have to have someone awesome at everything, or a big team – in which case after hiring the team there’s no profit for the organizer. They can either provide shoddy workmanship by DIYing the stuff they aren’t good at, or hire cheap. There’s not an easy way to give all that stuff (and actually know what you’re doing so it works) and still make a profit, at a price authors are willing to pay.”

PS. I can offer all of that, but I have to charge $3K for the amount of time that goes into it, and I still can’t guarantee anything if the book isn’t going to satisfy a broad audience. There are others who charge less, but many of them can’t actually create a winning cover, which is the most important part. As for royalty shares, I would have to sift through hundreds of books, read them for commercial viability, and then work for free hoping a book takes off – that puts far too much risk on me, takes far too much time, and there are easier ways to make money… like writing my own books.

A lot of authors expect, since they’re not focused on the money, that nobody else is either – so they imagine a service that helps authors without overcharging them. And there are some great services that start out with good intentions… but it’s a mistake to assume that publishing doesn’t operate by the very basic business principles of supply and demand. Most authors fail, sure, but there are plenty that are making a living with their writing.

Source:  Megan Louise Linski | Jennetta Penner

When I started making content a few years ago, I felt like the Harbinger of Doom.

I kept saying “negative” stuff like hoping and dreaming to become a bestseller aren’t enough – you have to have a product readers love and package it to sell. Most authors still don’t want to hear the practical stuff, they just want to keep the dream alive. And that’s why self-publishing is such a bizarre and perverse industry; fueled on the tears and desperation of frustrated authors, who are spending thousands of dollars to publish books nobody wants to read. Lots of people will take your money anyway even if they don’t believe in your project (I’m not one of them – I hate accepting money unless I can provide results).

I’m not saying don’t publish…

Everyone deserves to tell their story, and publishing a book is a huge achievement – even if it’s not perfect, even if nobody buys it except your friends and family. If you have a book in you and getting it out into the world will make you happy, go for it. There are worse ways to spend time and money than on chasing a creative dream with a challenging project.

This is why I got #amwriting tattooed on my hand – I enjoy the Faustian struggle of changing what is into what can be. Ambition is seeing something you want to change in the world and making it a reality through the strength of your own will.

It’s a noble goal and worthy pursuit.

On the one hand, it doesn’t matter if you “make it.”

On the other hand, if you want to make a living with your writing, there is a practical, systematic and reliable way to sell books – it’s too pragmatic to appeal to the majority of writers, which is why most fail and those who succeed are accused of “selling out” or “writing crap for the lowest common denominator.”

But it isn’t an impossible dream. I have at least two dozen friends who make over 10K a month with their books – and hundreds more that make at least a few grand a month in extra income. You just have to decide which master you want to serve.

Rarely do authors focus on the art and accidentally make a living, but these are the stories we latch on to as role models. In actuality, most authors – even the greatest literary writers in history – were writing for the money. There shouldn’t be anything inherently disingenuous or vile about working for a living or being great at what you do… and yet that’s the way publishing is treated, almost like it’s a civil service. 

Also recently, a few authors who actually dared to fight back against piracy have been told to “be grateful they even have readers.” While other creative careers, like designers, are notoriously cautious about working for free, writers are told they must… because of the assumption that sharing stories with the world is a gift that readers are giving them.

And this toxic culture is not only about the big businesses who must make a profit to sustain their systems; it’s not about readers being trained to expect free books; it’s not about a handful of authors scamming the system – the root of the problem is authors not valuing their own work enough to treat it like a business and expect to be paid for their labor.

 

Takeaway: writing can be a hobby or a business. Only you can decide.

 

 

What does it mean for authors?

There is speculation that Macmillan acquired Pronoun as a data grab, so they could have sales info on indie authors that Amazon wouldn’t give them. There is also speculation that Macmillan was always behind Pronoun, and set it up just for this reason. They can use the sales data to find high-performing authors, see what categories and genres are most competitive/lucrative, and/or build a huge email list of potential authors (if they’re thinking of moving into the vanity press space and offering publishing services).

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me
  • MZ Lowe

    Well written. Always appreciate your tempered and balanced take. Makes me wonder what Draft2Digital does that Pronoun didn’t. Or was it unrealistic expectations by MacMillan (that is, Pronoun was profitable, but not profitable enough)?

    • Cheryl Wright

      Supposedly Pronoun was not making any profit at all, which makes no sense. Why would anyone go into business and not set themselves some profit at least?

      • It’s a move I’ve seen done a lot recently, “FREE book promotion for authors” to get lots of signups, then upsells or services.

        • Cheryl Wright

          Except there were no upsells for other services.

          • Arial Burnz

            Right! And many authors were waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering when the upsells and services were coming. I think perhaps why they did it was two-fold: data gathering and the upsells and services, but perhaps the data they gathered showed them it wouldn’t be profitable enough to pursue the latter.

          • Cheryl Wright

            You are probably right. It’s a shame though. Many of us thought we’d found our safe place for selling our books.

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