The Real Question is – Who’s Going to Pay?

dollar signsI attended elementary school in the seventies. As a kid, I knew what hippies were and one of our teachers even explained communes to us too, or more specifically, her opinion on the breakdown of communes. The teacher told us that the ideology behind communes – everyone contributing and helping each other – was a unique concept but ultimately the system would always break down. According to her, problems always arose and the lifestyle built on humility and benevolence would fall apart. They didn’t all fall apart though. One of the more famous is Farm Community Commune in Tennessee. It’s sometimes referred to as the Mundo sister’s commune. It’s still active, but they had to make changes too.

Those old hippies were paying it forward, just like many of us do today. Fortunately, in our ever-interesting world of self-publishing we don’t have to live in a communal setting. Many of the authors who have excelled and managed to connect with thousands of readers have indeed paid it forward though, and they’ve passed along their time and knowledge to others. Their motivation varies. For some it’s because they were helped themselves and want to pay back, and for others their mandate is to help professionalize our industry and raise the quality of presentation and content higher and higher. Both are noble intentions and I like to think I do my little bit to help achieve both aims. As authors we’ll ultimately gain followers and perhaps readers by adhering to this philosophy. We’re not the only ones paying it forward though.

There are many websites and blogs devoted to helping Indie authors. Some are review sites, some post information only, and some are co-operatives of industry participants. The mandate for many of these sites is simple – they want to help authors and readers connect. They want to ensure that self-published literature continues to grow, and again, that it’s presented in a professional manner. The owners of the sites receive a meagre amount of revenue from their Amazon Associate links but often it’s not enough to cover their expenses. Many of them have operated at a deficit and that’s not fair. Even the hippies couldn’t make that work.

We’ve seen tremendous growth in self-publishing over the past few years. We’ve gone from being the weird cousin who nobody wanted to sit beside at the family gathering to the cousin who might actually know what she or he is talking about. And now in some sectors we’ve reached the tipping point. We’re pointing fingers and looking for skeletons in each other’s closets. The commune is having problems. Fortunately this can be resolved.

The Mundo sisters were born into the Farm Commune as were many others. They didn’t originate the commune, but they’re well known because they made a film documenting their return home. Over the years their commune experienced similar challenges. After a while it became apparent that you can’t just give everything away. There’s always a breaking point. The commune members recognized this and made an important adjustment. They monetized some of their services. They had to. Good intentions may warm your heart but they won’t fill your soup bowl. Today their commune offers paid services. The pricing is very reasonable but you still have to pay, and you can’t pay with a hand-made macramé bag filled with homegrown turnips. They want money.

Some websites have recognized this and while attempting to remain true to their altruism, they are selling ads, or charging membership fees, or charging a premium to have an author’s book jump to the top of the queue and be reviewed or featured in a more expeditious manner. That’s where the finger pointing is happening. These sites, many of which are run by other authors, need to find a way to at least break even, or perhaps even produce some income while continuing to support the Indie community. And, they’re doing what they can to accomplish this. The finger-pointers are accusing them of abandoning their principles. This isn’t what’s happening. It’s reality staring us in the face. We cannot expect people to support us and our work and help further our industry without being compensated. There are two questions that need to be asked.

Firstly, does an online site that purports to be a resource for the self-publishing community have a right to make a profit; in fact does it have the right to reap a significant profit?

The short answer is that if you have a business you can run it any way you please. It’s not up to the community or industry to decide how you operate, even if that business has a charter of ethics that is often criticized by the collective conscience of the self-publishing community. Yes, we’re back in the commune.

So, yes, sites that are here to help us and our industry have a right to monetize their services. They can sell ads on their pages or do whatever they need to in order to pay the domain renewal bills and perhaps even earn themselves a few shekels. Many of the finger-pointers may even agree with me on this point and those who don’t should talk to the Mundo sisters.

The second question is, where, oh where is the line in the sand? How do they determine which services to monetize and how can this be monitored in order to ensure that authors aren’t being taken advantage of? The last thing we want is for authors to dole out for services that are useless or that they can accomplish by themselves quite easily.

Recently I’ve read convoluted descriptions on a couple of sites on how to have your book moved to the head of the line and have it reviewed within a set period of time. The descriptions emit more than a faint whiff of justification. After jumping through a couple or four hoops, and paying a fee, your book will be reviewed faster. The sites tell us that this is not purchasing reviews, it’s purchasing a service. And, sites have promoted books on their pages for a fee since we all got here. In terms of who gets to choose which books are featured – the site owners control that. Not only is this going to happen – it has to happen. Many sites that we enjoy and rely on cannot continue to operate without finding a way to cover their expenses. And, they cannot increase the level of service they offer without generating revenue.

Is this monetization sometimes motivated solely by the quest for dollars? Yes.

And, this industry that has appeared for helping writers – are their intentions always honorable? No, sometimes they are not. There are some real skunks out there.

I believe in positive energy. I truly believe that good will prevail and if your motivations are genuine and you believe in paying it forward you will excel and succeed. The businesses (you better believe that’s what these are), that have our best interests at heart will be the businesses that prosper. And, the finger-pointers are necessary. The Mike Wallaces of the world will keep us in check and sometimes the hypothetical questions they ask yield answers that result in unmasking less than ethical motivations. We need them. And, the sites that are recognized as having Indie authors’ best interests at heart such as Indies Unlimited will continue to become more and more important.

We also need to develop a degree of trust. As I’ve mentioned many times, in addition to relying on sites like Indies Unlimited, Preditors and Editors, and Writer Beware, I also rely on my support group to guide me in terms of where and how to showcase my wares. We share information and determine which site is working and which is not (again, we’re back in the commune). And, we talk about our experiences with the folks who run the sites we deal with. Books have taken off based on word of mouth (with no promotion), and the businesses that prosper will be the businesses that show us a return on our investment and run their companies in an ethical manner, and in many cases this growth will be because of you and I when we spread the word. And, the good will prevail and prosper. I know, I know; Kumbaya to you too. Now, I need to get back to the campfire, it’s my turn to stir the soup pot tonight.

Author: Martin Crosbie

Martin Crosbie is the administrator of and writer of seven published novels. His self-publishing journey has been mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes Online Magazine, and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. You can learn more about Martin on his Amazon author page.

35 thoughts on “The Real Question is – Who’s Going to Pay?”

  1. Excellent post, Martin! In general, I think it’s fairly easy to distinguish the helpful, legitimate sites from the scammers and we need to be careful, when pointing fingers, not to get overzealous. As an aside, I grew up in TN and visited “The Farm,” as we called it, several times. It was a really neat place, and I’m glad to hear it still exists.

    1. I agree, for most of us it’s easy to recognize who’s legit, but as you know, there are still authors out there who are being duped. If you and I keep doing what we’re doing I know it’ll help.
      And, I’d love to talk to you about “The Farm” sometime. I find it fascinating that they managed to hold on.
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Great piece, Martin, making a number of great points. It’s interesting to not only be involved in the self-publishing world as a writer, but to watch it objectively as it grows and evolves over time and new experiences. It’s come a long way since the days when indie authors were considered the losers of literary set, but there’s still a very long way to go, both in how we authors create and present our work, and in how the outside world embraces and accepts it. The sites that make contributions to that evolution are essential and I completely agree with your core thesis of giving, sharing, but continuing to raise the bar (and — sometimes — money!). Your perspective, as always, is wise…but, of course, you happen to be one of the most giving members of the community so why would we expect anything less? 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lorraine. And yes, it’s so interesting to watch the industry evolve, isn’t it. And, although some would disagree with me, I think it’s almost impossible to predict where we’re going next, or more importantly, what things are going to look like in the future.
      Always good to hear your thoughts.

      1. Thanks, Martin… and I agree: no telling where we’re headed. All we can do is continue to do the best possible work, stay positive, and reach out to help each other as we go along, as you do so well! More as we go!

  3. I’m with you all the way on this one Martin. But finding that line is the sand – both as a business and as a consumer, can be daunting. That’s why I am so happy that we have sites like those you mentioned to do some of the sleuthing for us.
    I believe that most people are both ethical and generous. Yet it’s the ones that aren’t that seem to get the most attention. That’s why we need help finding the good guys sometimes. And when we do, we need to band together, just as we do here at IU.

    1. Totally. I always go back to the fact that having a strong support team, with everyone on the same page, is crucial. Sharing information is so important. I’ve had attendees at my workshops tell me that the information I’ve given them on the mistakes I’ve made was more important than the information I present on what works.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Great post and complicated issue, Martin. The evolution of these businesses has been interesting. There are decent people trying to make a buck (and it’s often hard to sell that concept to people when we’ve been trained to expect some things for free at the beginning of this commune) and those out to make a buck off of us and our insecurities. I’m all for paying it forward, and it just seems right for me in my own playground. I do get concerned, though, about any appearance of a conflict of interest in some companies. So it’s great to have that support network where we can share our experiences and make up our own minds. Thank you, Martin, for all that you continue to share.

    1. You’re right, Laurie, it is complicated. It’s like chronicling the evolution of a bunch of moving targets. Imagine if we didn’t have the internet!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Right on, Martin. (There’s a little hippie slang for you. 😀 ) I don’t mind paying for some services — we’ve all got to make a living — but when it’s a jump-the-review-queue situation, I start to get the heebie-jeebies when the cost has three digits or more to the left of the decimal point.

    1. Yes Lynne, there are some scary prices out there. Thanks for sharing your very groovy thoughts.
      (Did I really just type in “groovy”. Wow, that has to be a first).

  6. This is a great piece and a lot to think about. I don’t have the answers, but I have been doing a lot of thinking. And I am super grateful for the small community that I can rely on. We’ll always be guessing and grasping at understanding as writing and reading change, but if we keep asking questions and listening to smart folks like Martin, I think things will work out well. Enough patchouli for everyone and all that. 😉

    Bad joke, great article.

    1. Thank you, JD. It’s interesting that we rely on our smaller, trusted communities to decipher the large world-wide community. I know there’s an epiphany in there somewhere but I just can’t seem to grasp it right now.
      Thanks for commenting.

  7. Martin, this is an excellent post and speaks to issues far beyond writers and writing. You’ve nailed the main point–no pure system works perfectly in the long term. The altruism is commendable, but people are variable and their imperfections always warp the system. We’ve seen that around the world over the last however many hundreds of years. Pure capitalism never works; pure communism never works. There needs to be a blending of systems to take in the reality of human beings, an adjustment for the unforeseen variables. Businesses and services can still hang on to their beneficial beliefs (and should), but those beliefs often must be tempered with reality. You’ve given us a good dose of reality here, Martin.

      1. I agree – well said, Melissa. I would vote for you, by the way. You said in a paragraph what took me over 1,000 words.
        Maybe the balance of different ideaologies is what we’re seeing created right in front of us. That would be nice, wouldn’t it.
        Thanks for your very sensible summary, much appreciated.

  8. Speaking from the other side of the coin, as it were, still a great article! As an editor who charges for my services, as well as design, formatting and in some instances, promotional help, I’m also constantly searching for that line in the sand. I work hard for my authors and hard for my clients. I want to see their books succeed. I always researching, checking out other services, helping them to evaluate what’s worth the investment and what isn’t, writing reviews etc. Most of the time I don’t get paid for any of that. There are authors who are grateful and authors who think it’s never enough. In the end, publishing books and mentoring authors is kinda like my mom’s advice about child rearing: “Love them unconditionally, teach them to think for themselves and make their own decisions. After that? It’s pretty much a crap shoot.”

    1. I know exactly what you’re talking about, Teresa. Although I don’t offer paid services I occassionally (when I have time and believe in the project), try to assist authors. It puzzles me when some vary from the formulas that are effective. The answers are right in front of us. And, as you say, staying on top of the bubble requires research and being tuned in to what’s working. And, sometimes you have to pay to play. Just ask the hippies.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. I checked this out this morning, but have just read it in detail. I often wonder how the lovely blog/site owners who spend an enormous amount of time supporting indies do it and still have time for their other interests. Or maybe there comes a time when their other interests suffer. So I understand if they need to utilise ads etc on their site.

    Paying it forward and back is fun. 🙂

  10. Interesting questions, Martin. Like you, I get nervous when I see anything about money changing hands as part of the process to get a book reviewed. They can say the money isn’t for the review, it is to jump the queue, but I don’t buy that. Any review site gets far more requests to review than they’d ever be able to do. Paying takes a book from the “might get reviewed, probably won’t” category to a sure thing to get reviewed. That’s paying to review in my book.

    Charging for services (as Teresa does), definitely aren’t a problem. I don’t see an issue with most other ways of monetizing (advertising or affiliate income being the most common). We should all keep in mind that one way we can all support sites we like is whenever we’re going to buy something from Amazon to click through to Amazon through one of those sites. They get credit for whatever we guy for a period of time, not just the item they’ve linked.

    1. Thanks Al. That’s a good idea. If enough of us purchased through the site’s affiliate links or encouraged others to it would certainly make a difference to them.
      I appreciate your comments.

  11. Sometimes you find exactly the right blog post at exactly the right moment – that’s where I find myself right now. As I struggle to find honest and ethical ways to monetize my indie author website, I’m encountering exactly — exactly — the questions you’ve raised.

    For sure I don’t want to be one of those leeches who attaches itself to the indie author-as-ATM, but I would also like to earn back my expenses. For now, it’s ads-and-affiliations.

    1. Wow, thank you, Bill. I’m glad you found it too. You’re not alone in wondering where the line in the sand is. And, the fact that you’re giving it some thought means you’re intentions are honorable. You’re allowed to stay in the commune.
      Thanks for commenting.

  12. Martin, I love that you take the time to share what you learn along the way. If it wasn’t for meeting you and a few other authors who’ve taken the plunge into the self-publishing world, I would still be twirling my thumbs trying yet another agent.

    I’m about to launch my book and of course, I’ve been seeking readers who will publish reviews. I understand the need to monetize sites, but somehow, the whole world of reviews and reviewers shouldn’t be bought. I say “should” only because the idea of paying for a review taints the whole business. How honest can that reviewer be when they’re collecting money for their opinion? I’d rather take my chances and earn whatever stars I get from readers who don’t charge for their services.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.

    1. I heard there was a book about to be released by Diana Stevan! I’m very much looking forward to it. I saw your cover and love it.
      Again, like Bill in his comment above, you’re on the right road too, Diana. I really think if we approach and run our career in an honest manner we can’t go wrong.
      Thanks for commenting.

  13. I’ve run sites for writers for the better part of a decade, and last year I merged a few (for indie authors, freelance writers, and bloggers) into a single more comprehensive site. I’ve been fortunate in that I don’t get much pushback over running ads. I give away more free resources than most folks in my niche, don’t even require email sign-ups for access to those resources, and my sites have always made money.

    I wouldn’t do it if they didn’t. Frankly, I couldn’t. Many readers don’t understand how much time it really takes to build (and continually grow) a resource-oriented site. Writing fresh blog posts, managing forums, preparing webinars and courses, creating free tools, writing e-books that go into more detail… that all takes time. It can also cost more than you’d think. Once a site becomes even moderately popular, costs can skyrocket, especially if there are a lot of downloadable resources and interactive features. It all has to come from somewhere.

    So on one hand, authors need to understand how much goes into the resources they love and not hold it against the creators when they have to find ways to cover their expenses and pay for their time (or even be profitable). The more we make, the more we can invest in resources that help you.

    1. Hi Jennifer. Yes, there is a total misunderstanding about how much work and cost is required to keep a site up to date, and there’s a misconception about any revenue that it may (or may not) produce. Thank you for your explanation and for commenting!

    1. For what it’s worth, I ran a free promo in mid July. Got a heck of a good run of paid sales afterward and so far I’ve picked up over 50 new reviews across 5 books. Most were on the featured book that I gave away but some were on the others.
      This is the best return I’ve ever had in terms of receiving reviews, after any kind of promo. Before the promo, I had 284 reviews on the book I gave away and today, just over a month later, I have 332.

  14. Hey Martin…

    Great article!

    How many of those doing the finger-pointing would completely scoff at the suggestion that they give all of their books away for free, not make any money at all? Most of them. Yet, they want sites to do just that, for them? Makes no sense to me.

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