Over the last few weeks the planets have lined up and made some changes. I’ve suddenly gotten more time to write my novels due to other commitments coming to a halt (don’t you just love it when someone else’s “cashflow problems” become yours?), I’ve embarked on writing a new series on crime thriller novels called The Lukas Boston Stories that I’ll self-publish, and we’ve had some guests staying who are IT and web design experts – so they took on the role of giving my website a new look and migrating it across to my domain, too.
All this equated to a spring clean of what we all call our Authors Platform and it’s been a real eye-opener. Most of us know about doing Facebook, maybe blogging regularly, contributing to forums… and you tend to approach these things piecemeal as you discover the benefits. But when you’re looking at this stuff altogether like I did during the revamp you get a much better idea of what’s involved – and it’s a hell of a lot. I know there are some writers who simply whack a book onto Amazon and it sells without any promotion, but the general rule-of-thumb is that if you want to be successful at this writing bizzo and self-publishing, you need all kinds of extra skills to make sure the world knows your novels and ebooks exist. Even if you have a free ebook or a 99 cent ebook published you need to let readers know. How you let them know is obviously important, but the devil is seriously in the detail too and it can be time-consuming and daunting.
However, I’m so very glad we can do it. Back in the good ol’ days of traditional publishing (I’m sure that one day we’ll consider them “good ol’ days” just like many Russians today still believe the era of Josef Stalin’s rule was the best of times) when a book was published you promised to be available for two weeks of promotions. I even managed a couple of TV talk show appearances, but mostly it was radio interviews over the phone. Some things don’t change – it was vital that you instantly sounded interesting or the producer would be cutting the line. Like the first sentence of a blog or facebook post now needs to be attention-grabbing. After that two weeks, life returned to normal and your book sales were again at the whim of bookstore browsers. It didn’t occur to many of us that continuing some kind of promotional campaign would be beneficial. That wasn’t our job. We were supposed to write. To be fair, I don’t recall any publisher suggesting I get out there and promote myself either. It’s not how things worked.
You might even say it was a mixture of apathy and ignorance that invented the mid-list author. After all, if you were good enough to be published, surely you were good enough to be a best seller? Plenty of authors have complained that a lack of advertising dollars were the only thing between them and super-stardom. Someone else was supposed to make us really famous.
What we should have done is throw ourselves at the task of self-promotion with all the application required today – except can you imagine doing it without the modern internet? Writing endless snail-mail letters to book clubs and libraries, cold-calling radio stations to convince them you’re worth an interview, creating “author profiles” in prominent bookstores by… hmm, standing in the corner and shouting about yourself?
So for those writers today who think the grindstone of self-promotion is something new, and maybe an onerous task, it really isn’t and you should be grateful that it’s a job that can be done these days so easily online. Sure, a lot of us hoary old trad-published authors didn’t have to do it, but we should have, and it would definitely have been a nightmarish task. Nowadays we’ve got so much more influence on how successful we can be – assuming, of course, that at the end of all things considered you’re actually a good writer. Blog about yourself, brag about your writing and blag a bunch of awesome reviews. It doesn’t sound like much of a business plan, but it is.
Sorry for not blogging awhile. I’ve been attending a friend’s wedding on the other side of the country and it’s taken weeks to catch up. So… what better a writing subject after a longish break than discussing toilets? More specifically, what we do in them and when. Which, according to 99.99% of fiction is nothing – and never.
You see, I was reading a Neville DeMille novel. I’ve been a fan of DeMille for years. In this particular book it’s a fairly typical “chase” story with our hero and a somewhat reluctant heroine racing across the country either fleeing from, or madly pursuing, some villainous dude and, of course, they regularly find themselves holed up in hotels taking stock of the situation. It’s during these occasions that our hero manages to slip into a nearby store and buy some clean shorts and a shirt. DeMille’s slight obsession with our hero’s personal hygiene was intriguing.
To be honest, I’m quite happy to assume my heroes somehow deal with the sticky issue of soiled undies and even taking a dump somewhere without drawing my attention to the realities. I mean, during the God-knows-how-long trek by Frodo to Mordor to ditch the One Ring, was it mentioned at any time that he needed to nip behind the nearest Ent for a noisy Number Two’s? Nope, of course not.
Fictional heroes don’t do a lot of things. Like fart, scratch unseemly places, discreetly pick their nose when no one’s looking… which is a good thing, since most of this stuff comes under the “Too much information” category. Of course, there are exceptions to the unwritten, writing rule and some authors use such moments to advantage, but generally even our most flawed characters don’t require toilet breaks.
They don’t need a shower unless someone plans to stab them through the curtain. They eat about two meals per book. Many of them don’t have to call their mother. They rarely go shopping for normal stuff.
Wouldn’t it be a challenge to write a novel and include all the mundane, everyday things for the sake of authenticity? It’d probably get some kind of major, literary prize.
But no one would read it.
A week or so ago a chap called Hugh Howey, a successful novelist who also decided to self-publish with great effect, published a report that analysed the top 7000 ebooks on Amazon (or something like that- sorry if I’m not quite correct). The trick was – or is – that Amazon doesn’t make public any sales figures, only rankings, so it’s always been a bit of a mystery whether or not these top-sellers actually came with high sales. Like, how many books do you need to sell to be within the top 7000? Only Amazon knows.
Except Hugh had a mate, who wrote some software that crunched all the data, and it came back with some unexpected results. Mainly that self-published authors own a lion’s share of the ebook sales, rather than the “Big Five” publishers they’re supposedly, futilely competing against. It’s all being greeted as a bit of an epiphany – a watershed moment in publishing that proves so-called traditional publishing is dead, or at least dying, and dedicated writers no longer really need a “real” publisher to be successful themselves. A lot of high-profile, self-published writers are crowing a kind of “I told you so,” line and flipping a finger at the big publishing house. They’re saying that new writers should consider self-publishing first, before approaching established publishers and agents. It’s the true path to literary riches. The publishing revolution hasn’t just started – the battle is apparently already won according to some of these guys. I doubt the big publishers would agree. They were slow off the blocks when ebooks began getting serious, but they’ve already adapted very, very quickly and can only get better at it.
Among all the debate and rhetoric it’s rarely mentioned that you still need to write a really good book to find success either way. A really good book. The best thing you’ve ever read, let alone written. Ever.
But okay, for the record here’s my brief summary of the argument and you can make up your own mind.
First of all, there is no argument.
Aiming to self-publish a novel means you don’t have to feel obliged to conform to current, popular genres. You can write and publish anything you like, whereas traditional publishing is always trying to stick to the latest formula (e.g. Harry Potter or Twilight-like stories in recent times). You’re increasing the risk no one will ever read your book, but you’ll be writing with a passion and heart that doesn’t really happen when you’re trying to satisfy a market. That’s a good thing. Heaps of established writers – myself included – are self-publishing works that were originally rejected due to considerations of the market at the time, and even the whim of an editor in a commissioning meeting. However, writing the novel is just the start. You need it professionally edited or at least “read” by a pro editor who can give you objective feedback. A very good cover needs designing – standing out from the crowd on Amazon or Smashwords isn’t easy. Then you’ll need to promote the hell out of your book on social media, websites and such, because among many, many other problems you have to solve, your book will be pushed off the front page of the “latest releases” in about ten minutes flat. Here’s a warning, by the way. A lot of writer’s forums and blog sites are run and patronised by other “writers” who couldn’t string a decent sentence together to save their lives, and as soon as they get a whiff that you’re publicising a new, completed book your post will be deleted and your user name blocked. Pathetic, but true. This social media self-promotion bizzo is a lot more difficult than you’ll ever imagine.
If a traditional publisher makes you an offer (or even a smaller publisher or digital publisher like my own Momentum Books) just about all the above isn’t your problem, except for the promotional thing. You still have to promote yourself. In exchange for dealing with the difficult logistics of your novel (editing, cover design, etc) , the publisher exercises most of the control over your book and pays you a royalty less than you can give yourself as a self-publisher, depending on the self-published price structure you might have set and the distributors you sell through.
The truth is there isn’t any choice to be made. It’s not a case of one or the other. As a writer trying to successfully publish a book (anybody can whack it up on Amazon and say they’re “published”) you need a business strategy that looks at both forms of publishing. If your novel is a bit “out there” and would struggle to fit into popular genres, then maybe self-publish and see if you can build a readership before showing the results to a publisher. If you’ve written a formulaic crime novel (with your own brilliant twist, of course) it may be worth approaching an agent or publisher straight away – these people are looking for new writers and books, don’t forget. That’s the business they’re in. They just might write you a big, fat cheque.
That’s if you’ve written a really, really good book, don’t forget. Did you forget that bit? Need I mention it again?
Yes, the publishing revolution has started and, according to Hugh Howey, we may be a lot further down that track than we’d realised prior to his clever mate and number-crunching report. My best advice is, don’t be sucked in by the vitriolic and sometimes petty spats you’ll find on the net. When you’ve finally written “The End” under your treasured manuscript (actually, haven’t seen that for years!) and start looking at publishing options, keep an open mind. You can investigate a lot of different possibilities without drawing a line in the sand between self-publishing and traditional publishers.
Ebooks and ebook publishing have certainly been rocking the boat a lot harder lately. We’re still all in that same boat, though.