Dream Weavers – or peddling the self-publishing myth

Not sure if you folks have read Hugh Howey’s article about self-publishing on Salon yet? It’s interesting in many ways, and well written, but it again trades on the much-peddled myth that if you’re good enough, that if you market yourself well enough, you will succeed at this self-publishing malarkey and make a living wage. He does qualify some of his points, but the overall tone does give the impression that just about anybody can make it big. And while this is of course true, anybody can make it big, it doesn’t take into account the much bigger picture.

There are plenty of authors (excellent authors – I might add), particularly in the noir and hardboiled backwater, whose work doesn’t earn thousands of pounds in royalties a year, whose work doesn’t regularly earn $100 – $500 a month, whose work doesn’t earn enough to pay the odd monthly bill. And these guys and gals are the majority of the self-published, I should add for emphasis. Personally, I think it’s dangerous to think you can enter into the career of a writer in the belief that you’ll be able to turn it into a full-time profession.

My last royalty payment was enough to pay for a large Costa mocha (without cream) and a muffin. Make of that what you will (it was a very tasty muffin, mind you).

I was very happy that my royalties were able to stretch to that kind of extravagance, especially as this month’s royalties look like they’ll be just about enough to buy me a tasty slice of fresh air (air is still free, right?).

What I’m trying to say is this: please do self-publish your magnum opus if that is how you wish to proceed, but don’t expect people to buy it and, more importantly, don’t get all bent out of shape when they don’t. Considering that there will be tens of thousands of self-published titles published in 2013 to add to the hundreds of thousands that already exist, the odds are vastly higher that you won’t be discovered, you won’t be the next big thing. But, in all honesty, if you’re writing solely for money or recognition then you’re probably fucked anyway.

If you’re going to write then do it for love: do it because you want to write something you want to read; do it because you’ve had a brilliant idea, one that keeps you writing even when your prose reads like shit (because you can always refine and edit that later); do it because you want to see how it all turns out for the characters you’ve created; do it because you want to do it, fucking need to do it, because you’ll probably go insane otherwise.

And if your first book doesn’t sell, don’t give up, write a second, better, book and see how that fares. And if that doesn’t sell, write a third and a fourth and so on, until you’re a master of your craft.

And be aware that you might be writing the kind of stuff that has a limited audience (too violent, too gory, too sweary, too much sex, too controversial, too literary/experimental). I noticed that many of the authors listed in Howey’s article were from very popular genres: fantasy, vampires, YA, rom-coms etc.. If your work doesn’t fit neatly within genres it might take you a long time to be discovered, or Amazon might change their recommendation algorithms to favour Big Publishing and you might never be discovered at all. Who knows what the future holds?

Trust me, if you have realistic goals (a handful of sales a month, to start with) you’ll end up being a lot happier. Since I’ve stopped trying to peddle my work incessantly, since I’ve accepted my very tiny readership, since I’ve stopped checking my sales figures, I’ve been a lot happier. If I sell books, then great. If I don’t sell books, it doesn’t matter.

And despite my lack of sales I’m still writing. You know why?

Love, my friends. Love.

Advertisements

There’s no reason for you to read my books

The title above is neither a bitter statement nor a request for you to stay away, more a suggestion of a problem that I think affects ninety-nine per cent of writers out there using KDP or some other self-publishing system.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole self-publishing experience recently. I’ve learned a few things during my two-plus years on this merry-go-round; enough to know that my books will never be anything more than a sideline for me, much as I’d like them to be something more, because maybe I’m missing some kind of X-factor, because year-on-year my sales haven’t improved but declined. When fanciful dreams get a bucketful of cold, wet reality thrown in their face they often harden into ice. And although my heart isn’t icy-cold yet, there is a certain cooling of interest in the whole self-publishing rigmarole (from a business perspective, at least). I’m not sure if other writers are feeling it yet, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but I’ve come to realise that the reason Big Publishing has survived as long as it has is because it knows a few things about its audience – a damn sight more than many of us do.

They know that there’s no reason for anybody to buy their books (you see, there was a reason for that title), but they make an audience want to read the damn things anyway and they do it time and time again. In all honesty, how many self-publishers (or even small presses) can say they’ve done anything even remotely similar. Building a brand takes time, money, good contacts, good luck, and most importantly (although not necessarily the case) good material. Big Publishing generally has the best covers, the best marketing brains, the best contacts, can sometimes make their own damn luck and, most importantly, they have that big fucking cachet – most of the best writers want to be published by them. If you are published by Big Publishing you automatically have something that no self-publisher has – reputation. Before you start harrumphing and disagreeing, think about it.

I’m not saying that going through the whole gate-keeping process of agent selection, editing, publisher, more editing routine necessarily means that the books are better but, let’s face it, in the mind of the book buying public at large this is nearly always the case. Instant reputation. What writer wouldn’t want that for their work?

Self-publishers have to deal with an inbuilt prejudice amongst the reading public – their work is automatically inferior because they aren’t well edited, have shite covers, can’t spell, don’t have, like, good grammar, and stuff, like what those proper authors have – in short, we have no reputation. And it remains this way until we can prove otherwise – meaning it is already harder for us.

If you are really persistent, write the kind of novels the public loves well, and have a certain amount of luck, too, you might be able to succeed at this self-publishing lark (Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Joe Konrath, Stephen Leather, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, Saffina Desforges’ Sugar and Spice, and Bella Andre spring immediately to mind), but, for most of us, this kind of click with the public in order to create some kind of zeitgeist probably won’t happen.

If, like me, you write stuff that might be considered marginal (too violent, too downbeat, too much swearing, too many unpleasant characters etc.) then you’re screwed from the get-go – and unscrewing yourself is a major job in itself. It’s at this point that you’ll realise that the reason that Big Publishing doesn’t want to know is because your stuff just doesn’t have audience appeal. It comes back to the title – there’s no reason for you to read my books. I have to make you want to read them.

I’ve changed covers, thrown money at advertising, tried guerilla advertising techniques (flyers dropped in public places etc.), put up posters, joined forums (communicated with fellow readers and writers), joined social media outlets, given my books away, asked for reviews, slashed prices, and still every tiny sale feels like it has to be hewn out of a large rock of indifference. I’m doing more for less. And it is getting worse all the time.

Does it mean I’m giving up? No. I love writing, I love creating the kind of stuff that I want to read. But what it does mean is that I can’t be bothered trying to force or coerce people to buy my stuff any more. I loathe advertising all the time. I’m not a salesman, have no real feeling for it, and always feel somewhat embarrassed when sending out please buy my book requests. The only way I’m going to sell more than a handful of sales in a year is through the kind of effort I just can’t afford to do, literally. I’m a freelancer. My time is money. If I don’t work I don’t get paid. Every hour I spend trying to get one sale is an hour I spend not getting paid for my profession – and I get paid a helluva lot more for my profession than I do for my writing. So, from this moment on, I am giving up any kind of concerted marketing effort for my books.

When I eventually get round to releasing something in 2013 I will give it an initial push on Facebook, Twitter, my blog (two to three weeks, at most – because that’s when most sales and interest come in, anyway) but after that I’m going to let my books rise or fall on their own merits (or lack of them). There will be no more Kindle freebies, nor any please buy my book tweets several months after release, and I won’t be doing blog tours or anything of that nature. From now on, I’ll be solely about getting on with the business of writing (books, short stories, reviews, the occasional other blog post), but the sales pitches are a thing of the past.

I have found out that there’s no reason for the public to read my books, and I simply don’t have the time or the money at the moment to change that fact. And, do you know something, I’m actually cool with it.

Self-publishing blues – or digital noise

Bloody hell, this self publishing malarkey’s time-consuming. If you’re in the same line of business you know what I mean, right?

First you write your novel. It may not be a masterpiece, it probably won’t set the world alight, it probably won’t even dent the lower reaches of the Amazon top 1,000, but you’ve worked hard at it and made sure it’s readable enough that your readers won’t want to commit suicide by the end of the first chapter. Fine, there you are with your work all double-spaced in Word.

Now you want to get the thing on Lulu or CreateSpace or some other paperback POD company, because you like the idea of releasing it in paperback first (hey, you’re a traditionalist). You either do the layout yourself (in Quark or Indesign or Scribus, whatever) or get somebody else to do it. Style-sheets, page-sizes, font styles, font sizes, H&Js, the whole bloody shebang takes a lot of time whichever way you do it. Great, now you have a book, but you need a cover. You get an illustrator and makes sure the cover looks right.

Then you do an ebook. You can either do it yourself using software or get somebody else to do it for you. You look at the text of your book again for the 1,000 time. You’re sick of the sight of it by now. When you’re happy, you release the book on Kindle. You may also release it on Smashwords, although you worry about the shitty formatting of many Smashwords books.

You think it’s over, but it isn’t. It’s just starting. You get a blog/website and realise you have to fill it all the bloody time if you are to stand even a chance of a handful of people noticing you. You get a Twitter account. You realise you are just one of a million voices doing the same bloody thing. You holler like the rest of them – usually hawking your fucking book (which you are now sick of the sight of), occasionally making a banal comment and occasionally finding a gem of an article, which you pass on. You may also get a Facebook page with fans and do the same thing there.

Then you realise it’s all digital noise, interference that gets in the way of the one thing you wanted to do in the first place – write. You realise that time you could have spent on your second novel (you know, the one that determines whether you might be, you know, at least passable at this writing lark) is being spent on marketing and shouting and trying to sell. You realise it’s not easy to do both at the moment, you’re not a great multi-tasker – it’s either/or.

You choose either. You choose to finish what you started. You decide Twitter’s for the birds (for now at least) and your blog’s going to have to wait a while. A few bits and pieces now and then on both, but no more than that. The actual business of finishing your next novel is more important.

So, that’s me done for a while. An occasional best of crime novel update (’cause that feels like fun), an occasional Twitter update, but nothing on a daily or even a weekly basis.

I will be back from time to time, but don’t expect any 500+ word pieces for a while, because my second novel needs the words more.

Adios, folks!