There are 7 billion people on planet Earth. 7,000,000,000. That’s a vast audience that in the digital age is only really limited by language and literacy barriers. But let’s be really tight, and say that the operational potential upper audience for your book is 1 billion people. 1,000,000,000.
“Your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity.”
The best selling novels of all time like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter top out at between 100-200 million copies sold. That’s 10-20% of our arbitrary 1 billion. Sell 10 million books and you’ll easily enter the ranks of all time bestselling authors. But that’s far more than you’ll need to get on the New York Times bestseller list, which are often around 10,000 sales in a week. And a writer can penetrate the Amazon top 100 with only 1000 books sold. That’s right, you can become a bestselling author by reaching only 0.0001% of your potential audience.
If your goal is to be a bestseller, lack of people is not the problem.
“Your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity.” It doesn’t seem to matter how often this famous statement by Tim O’Reilly is quoted, authors and the publishing industry that represents them don’t seem to take it on board. That’s partly a matter of emotion – success as a writer is hard fought and for anyone who doesn’t find it, piracy is a convenient lightning rod for negative emotions. But I suspect the wider cause is that many writers have miscast the basic nature of their problem.
Obscurity is your problem. Obscurity of the kind a snowflake faces in a snowstorm, or a scream faces in hell. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are selling something on the internet. And so, as a writer with the goal of becoming a bestseller, are you. Engineers use a term called “signal to noise” to talk about the challenge of getting a desired signal through the background noise around it. The signal to noise ratio of the internet is immeasurably huge.
But the irony is that you may be better off penetrating it as a indie published writer than with the backing of a major publisher. Because in the unfolding era of digital publishing, major publishers aren’t demonstrating a single clue about how to overcome that staggering signal to noise challenge. I’m watching hundreds of mainstream published debut authors plunge in to the abyss, while all the new names I see establishing themselves in the imaginations of readers are either indie publishing or building their own marketing platforms on blogs and podcasts. Why is this?
Could it be that the hysterical response of publishers to piracy is emblematic of why? Faced with the titanic struggle to penetrate the signal of a new writer through the noise of the internet marketing apocalypse, what do publishers do when they identify small pockets of people who are actually interested in reading that author’s book? They waste their time issuing DMCA take down notices (because legal threats are always a great way to solidify a reader / writer relationship) when they should be taking a leaf out of the indie writer playbook and doing everything they can to befriend the book pirates. Because while pirates aren’t your best friends, as a debut author they may well be your only friends.