Self-Published At the Book Club

The New York Times Magazine has a story, which is only slightly condescending, about Amanda Hocking, the twenty-something self-publishing phenom whose paranormal romance/fantasies have earned her over $2 million.  Ms. Hocking recently signed a seven-figure deal with St. Martin’s Press. While stories like hers should do something to lift the stigma of self-publishing in the digital age, they are countered by other reports, such as the recent Reuter’s piece about counterfeit books being sold cheap on Kindle.

The truth is there probably never was a stigma for the mostly young readers of Ms. Hocking’s work.  They saw stories they were interested in and tried her books.  They didn’t avoid her work because it lacked a familiar imprint or because it wasn’t pre-certified by Publisher’s Weekly.

Within some genres, self-published books are selling well.  In thrillers, two of the top ten books at the Kindle Store US are self-published.  Both have the advantage of selling cheap — 99 cents compared to up to $12.99 for some of their competitors, which may be even more expensive than paperback versions. Romance, mystery and other genres have all been invaded by these upstarts.   While the Kindle Store is only one store, its scope is huge with e-books now outselling paperbacks on Amazon, which through its Kindle app, controls 75% of the e-book market.

Things are different when it comes to literary fiction.  Or perhaps I shouldn’t use the term “literary fiction.” Writers can classify their own works as “literary,” and a couple of self-published 99 cent novels identified as such have slipped into the top 20 on Kindle.  Both, however, also fall into other categories with wider appeal.  Maybe the term I’m looking for is “serious fiction.” The kind of books read by people who take reading seriously. You know who I mean — people who LOVE books,  pride themselves on actually having made their way through at least some of Joyce and Woolf, fans of all the Jonathans (Letham, Franzen, and Safron Foer), Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace, and anyone published in The New Yorker with the exception of Stephen King.  Those readers may read books from respectable independent houses or even obscure zines put out by writers and editors they’ve heard of, but 99.9% won’t even look at self-published work from the Kindleverse.

Months ago I suggested to a friend, a serious intellectual type and avid reader, that she look at a book I thought was not only good, but might even be important.  It was a historical novel, set mostly in London in 1963, with some back-story in the war and post-war years, references to mods and teddy-boys, jazz and The Beatles, as well as to the Cuban missile crisis and the Profumo scandal.  Her reply when she realized that the work did not have the approbation of a publishing house major or even minor was, “I don’t have enough time to read published books.”

I didn’t buy this explanation.  My theory is that while readers of genre fiction are simply looking for stories that keep them turning pages, “serious readers,” have another agenda. Heaven forbid they should like something that hasn’t been vetted by publishers and critics, only to be told later that it’s derivative or not as good as they thought.  It would be like buying a blank canvas, and then finding out it was just a blank canvas and not an accepted example of minimalism.  It’s not that they lack the time to read self-published books, they don’t even want to be seen with them.

The book, I was recommending was Larry Harrison’s Glimpses of a Floating World. Although I never convinced my friend, I’m pleased to say I got my book club to look at it.

This was only our third club meeting.  The previous selections were Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany.  I was thrilled that the club had taken my suggestion of Glimpses.. (Full disclosure: The author is fellow member of the Year 0 Writers group, and a facebook friend.  We first “met” on a writer’s site, where we admired each other’s work. We have never met in the non-virtual world.)

I didn’t take a poll, but I don’t believe anyone in the club had ever purchased or read a self-published book before.

So, how did it go?

As with previous selections, opinions varied. One reader complained that she didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic and didn’t see much change or growth in the protagonist, Ronnie.  It was also clear that she was not predisposed to read a book about a seventeen-year-old heroin addict.   Others pointed out that as long as he remained a junkie, showing growth would have been unrealistic,   but there were “glimpses” of his capacity to care for others and  by the end his thinking had evolved at least to the point where he understood his addiction to be a dead-end.   There was general agreement that the character was well drawn.  He acted like the adolescent he was — intelligent, but immature, in some ways even gullible.  Everyone thought that Ronnie’s father, Freddy was just an awful human being. A couple questioned the idea of his professional rise with the police. This led to discussion about “successful” people whose lives were a mess, and the nature of corruption and who rises to power within a corrupt system.    A few weren’t satisfied with the ending — finding it “contrived” or “overkill,” but I was not the only voice in the room who had a different take.

The point is, the book was taken as seriously as any other book.  Everyone thought the writing was high quality and professional. . No one complained about proofreading, formatting, editing inconsistencies or any of the other issues often associated with self-published books. All found it a gripping read.

As with any discussion on any good book, there were disagreements and tangents. We veered off into talking about British films set in that period that also dealt with social taboos, A Taste of Honey, Victim, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

So back to the question I asked before: How did it go? The short answer is: It was “normal.” We were able to discuss the book and not the fact that it wasn’t traditionally published. It was not unlike going to a same-sex wedding and realizing it isn’t that different from any other wedding.

There was no pre or post-club survey, but maybe the members of the club will now be more inclined to read untraditionally published works. I hope so.

And just to encourage any “serious readers” who have not yet taken the plunge, here’s a trailer for Glimpses:

15 thoughts on “Self-Published At the Book Club

  1. That’s really interesting Marion. You know already I’ve read and really liked Glimpses…, but it’s good to hear readers are willing to try self-published literary work (I will call it literary, just for wont of a better term I guess) and willing to discuss it in terms of its merit, and not just in terms of its ISBN. It often feels like the only people willing to give these things a go are other people self-publishing in the same area. My sales figures tell me SOME non-writers must be reading it, but in the main it’s the writers I seem to be hearing from and interacting with.

    You’re absolutely right about genre fiction. Dan is a case in point I think – put some great ‘literary’ stuff out and achieve minimum sales; put out a thriller and suddenly it all takes off. And I have been pondering about why that is. On the one hand, it’s hardly suprising as the kindle market is really just a reflection of the paperback market. The people who bought a kindle first up are prolific readers – most prolific readers consume a lot of genre fiction – if you consume a lot of genre fiction you inevitably get drawn to thrillers because of the enormous catalogue. But I think you have something in your assessment. Genre readers are more willing to try unknowns as they’ll have been trying unknowns and lesser knowns for years. Literary fiction readers tend to like to have the greats pointed out to them. They do look for consensus, something that won’t disrupt the kudos of being well read. Obviously I’m generalising, but having spent some time in academia for instance, you wouldn’t believe the trouble I have in convincing some that Bukowski and Brautigan and Kesey are literary fiction, never mind Larry or Dan or yourself. Get onto a prize shortlist or a review show and you might find yourself in the club, otherwise you’re howling at a locked gate in some ways.

    1. Ha! Funny you mentioned, Dan (Holloway — author of the UK bestseller, The Company of Fellows as well as a couple of more “literary” works that haven’t taken off and the founder of Year 0) I was definitely thinking of him when I wrote about thrillers above and was planning to do a blog post looking at the success of his book and what sells in general on Kindle. I haven’t actually read The Company of Fellows Yet, and it doesn’t look formulaic to me from what I’ve skimmed so far, but a lot of the successful Kindle thrillers do seem to share some common elements. I am half tempted to quit my day job and start writing short thrillers with a lot cliff hanging suspense, serial killers, hero in danger at every turn, etc. Except for one thing. I’m sure I’d screw it up with some point of view shifts, literary or other cultural references, etc. etc.

  2. OK Full disclosure, I am Mr. Marion Stein.
    I loved Glimpses of a Floating World, thought it was one of the best books about drugs and addiction I’ve read. Beats Burroughs.
    Glad to see that self-publishing is getting respect.

    It is an interesting paradox. As a layperson, not a writer, what do I want from the publishing industry? Well, I suppose I want them to do the work of sorting the wheat from the chaff on the slushpile, and then present that wheat to me in freshly baked literary bread. But that gives the industry an enormous amount of power.

    If the industry thinks of me, the customer, with contempt, then they will assume that all I want is crappy white bread chock-a-block with high fructose corn syrup. So that is what they’ll give me. It is Tom Clancy vs. the Vampires, Skinny Nanny Shops for the Da Vinci Code, or something similar, and I turn to my library or seek out from overseas or from “little” publishers my bread that I so want.

    Now with self-publishing, I am no longer obligated to just accept the wonder bread that is pushed at me. It is true though, that I no longer have people to rely on that will make sure the literary bread I do eat is not adulterated with sawdust or something.

    So it is like food, people who need a healthy dose of literature are both repelled by McBook and yet, are a little wary of entrusting their literary digestive systems to who knows what?

    With the rise of electronic publishing and e-readers, this trend will continue. The cost of both consuming and publishing is low, so the bar to both is low. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

    The self-same rise of e-books, e-publishing, intelligent platforms that will respond to my “likes” by showing me related content, and social networking has fostered the rise of, let’s say, social criticism. It almost becomes some self-organizing cellular automaton where my artisanal wheat, or quinoa, or whatever – my personal wheat-Jesus, is easier to find and to select from the slushpile, and the cost of making a mistake is less.

    Eli Pariser writes on the filter bubble that this process will wall us all off into worlds where what we see on-line no longer challenges us and we are like narcissus gazing at our own reflection. True, and this is certainly dangerous in the realm of public policy, human relations, economics, and politics, but frankly, in terms of art – it has *always* been like this, only now it is easier. This is going to happen anyway, but at least with self-publishing it is more democratic, the little guy can get a chance to sell his or her artisanal bread and the only place to sell it is no longer the huge supermarket.

    1. Nicely put, sir!
      I think there’s also a big lesson learned for publishing around Amanda Hocking. They really are CLUELESS. Her work very clearly resonates with a lot of readers that literary agents couldn’t even imagine existed. For the most, agents are people choosing books that interest them or books that they know their editor friends are interested in. I don’t know what actual market research is being done by publishers or agents, but they are missing huge groups of people. It’s not just niche groups that may find their needs satisfied, but sometimes huge groups.

  3. Maybe I’m just completely naive but as a lay person who just genuinely loves reading, I have absolutely no qualms about how a book is published – if I stumble across it in a second-hand bookstore or online and it sounds interesting, I’ll give it a go! Hard to believe the snobbery that exists.

    1. Interesting, Kerry. I’m wondering how you even found this site? But I don’t know that the snobbery extends to what one finds at a second-hand bookstore. The books there, after all, were “published.” While Larry’s book, for instance is available in paperback. It’s unlikely to wind up at too many bookstores — second hand or otherwise, because it’s a print-on-demand book from Lulu and most stores won’t stock them new. With so few in circulation, it’s unlikely you’d find them used either. I don’t have stats to go on, only conversations with people I know and what I see people saying online. It just seems to me that a lot of “serious fiction” may not use e-readers (understandable), wouldn’t consider ordering a self-published book online, and would be very skeptical about the quality of any self-published book unless they’d read the author before.

      I’m very curious: What kind of books do you love to read? Do you own an e-book reading device? Do you buy self-published books with it? If not, do you buy paperbacks online, and have you ever bought a self-published book (or one you suspected was self-published_)?

      1. I’m the reader of Loisaida who recently contacted you to offer my praise of the novel! You pointed me in the direction of this blog, and also made several reading recommendations to me, several of which I’ve purchased on my Kindle (so yes, I do own an e-reader, to answer that question!).
        I read all types of books, anything that catches my attention, sometimes by authors well-known by the general public, from friend or online recommendations, or sometimes (as was the case with Loisaida) books that I stumble across completely by accident. To be completely honest, I did not even realise Loisaida was self-published until I finished it and subsequently contacted you. I am probably quite ignorant on this subject, but such details do not interest me – I read books that capture my interest for whatever reason, and regardless of author or method of publishment!

  4. Marion I hope I’ve arrived in time to take part in the discussion. I’ll be back for the literary part, but first Amanda Hocking. I reviewed Hollowland at the start of the month for Words With Jam magazine. I absolutely loved it. I also think Amanda is a 24-carat lovely AND brilliant person.

    The publishing industry has got itself into an inevitable piece of bad logic. They want books with a proven market. But this excludes new markets altogether because books that would appeal to them will never get published – because there’s no proven market. So the fight remains about how to divvy up the existing market and there will never be seismic shifts. One thing digital self-publishing will be invaluable for is proving new markets.

    1. Dan,

      It’s never too late (especially for you). Feel free to comment on even older posts!

      It’s funny, I never read Amanda Hocking’s work. My assumption was that even if well-written, it was too much into Twilight territory, but your opinion counts with me. I may be forced to give it a look.

      But I think we’re in agreement, that the publishing industry continues to be out of step. They remain reactive (to what’s sold in the past) and not proactive.

      The good news of course is that people are still reading, still buying books (even if they are electronic), talking about books, and still finding new authors to love.

  5. Oy! Love your writing… at least your editorial style of writing. Just found you so I haven’t bought anything. (Yeah, I know – 🙁 for you!)

    I’ve been reading some of your blog posts to my 28 yr old daughter who also finds them amusing. She suspects that you might drink a lot of coffee? ;-D

    Re: the dying bookstores… Actually this has been going on for a long time. I had several hall-way discussions with publishers at a WorldCon (SF) in Toronno after the publication of my first commercially published short SF story. (SPACE Inc, DAW Books 2002, edited by Julie Czerneda – my story was “Riggers” – yes – the antho won a Canadian Aurora Award. :-D)

    The story from the publishers and editors was “It’s a Tough World Out There!” I suggested that it didn’t have to be if they’d just change their business model. (I’m a former Accountant)

    See – the way things work is the story/book gets accepted by the publisher, who spends a boat load of money hiring the cover art, editing the book, printing the book, promoting the book, which they then send out to book stores for FREE!!! The book store’s account at the publisher gets debited for the order – but no money is paid.

    The book stores get the box of books from the publisher, and they do or don’t put the books on the shelves. After a specified period of time, the unsold books get “stripped” (they RIP the covers off of them) and the covers get sent back to the publishers for “CREDIT” – EVEN THOUGH THEY MAY NOT HAVE PAID FOR THE BOOKS!!! So with all that money having been paid out, and not ONE DIME coming in yet.

    Was it “Chapters” or Books-a-Million maybe, that via this process stayed in business over a year on the publishers’ dimes AFTER they went bankrupt? One former clerk told me that they’d get the books in and not even open the boxes until it was time to strip the books. They just recycled their credits over and over.

    So if you’re a book store – what penalty is there for ordering books that you don’t think will sell? If you’re a publisher, you run up HUGE costs of doing business – and may not sell a single book, AND you don’t get the merchandise back either! So the editors have to be VERY CAREFUL that EVERY TITLE they approve and promote to management SELLS BIG and does so FAST!!! (So they’ve become timid as church mice on Sunday.)

    I asked a publisher why they did “business” in this insane way and he said, “Well… we’ve kind of always done it that way.” When I suggested that it was maybe time to change – he said, “We’d get killed by the other publishers when the book stores refused to order from us.”

    So you have a dysfunctional industry where no one has the intestinal fortitude to make NEEDED changes – which points up (finally) WHY your books don’t get bought by the publishers. They are afraid to take a chance on an “unknown” writer. So no matter HOW good the book is, they’ll instead order 25,000 more copies of Star Wars V I in 17 different covers because that’s SAFE!

    So As Jeff Bezos pauses to sharpen his headsman’s ax to continue the process of beheading the print publishing industry – I sit here shaking my head in wonder. Facing certain death, the dead tree industry STILL can’t bring itself to make needed changes to their industry – and it is literally killing them.

    Meanwhile – back at the keyboard – I’m getting ready to figure out how to submit a couple of novellas to Amazon – since it seems no one else wants them.


    1. Thanks for reviving the discussion, Michael. Love your line about “it doesn’t have to be.” Glad you and your daughter are enjoying the posts. I do drink a lot of coffee, but mostly when I wind up taking an all-nighter working on deadline for my “real” grantwriting gig. This happens frequently because I waste too much of every day in cyberspace. And congrats on the prize for the anthology!

      1. Just to be clear – *I* didn’t win the prize – the ANTHOLOGY did, and being totally honest here I’m pretty sure that my little story wasn’t what put it over the top. (There wee some FIRST RATE stories in it by top of the line authors… and I mean that as in they are really GOOD!!!) My favorite story in the book was “I Knew A Guy Once” by Tanya Huff. 🙂

        As to owning an e-reader – I used to have a PDA, back in the cave days of e-reading. I picked up a few books from Project Guttenberg, but a PDA in the pocket says I’m out and about and don’t have time to read.

        My Boss, aka The Empress, has a Kindle that I bought her for her birthday and she uses it a LOT! My beef with Kindle and amazon is that she buys an e-book, and downloads it, and if I had a Kindle I’d have to pay for the same book again if I wanted to read it on my Kindle – which fact has kept me from buying a 2nd Kindle and a LOT of e-books. I’m sure the reason they don’t allow that is to control pirating – but if the book is downloaded to an account, it should be able to be re-downloaded through the same account – with a maximum of say 3 or 5 downloads. Bet they’d sell a LOT more Kindles that way!

        1. I think the issue is they don’t make that much money from the Kindle devices. They make money from selling massive amounts of content. Kindle did recently start a lending program where you can lend to another account. But the publishers have to agree that the books are loanable and they are not always willing to do that, especially with new releases. There’s also a more awkward way of transferring the registration or sharing an account. When I first got my Kindle I took the trial NY TImes subscription. I liked reading it on the Kindle, but there was no way to share it with my better-half — not on a kindle, not even on the computer with Kindle app. As we had a long-standing discount subscription, it made more sense for us to continue getting the dead tree version. Besides the dog is getting is old…

          1. Roger on the old dog… we have an ooooold border collie named Nellie – she was a hard working dog in her prime!!! (Sheep, cattle, one time 28 deer, and us and the kids. ;-D) She sometimes loses “control” and so sometimes she leaves us “presents” which we refer to as “Nellie Nuggets” ;-D

            She can barely get around, but continues to try to “herd” us. She was a stitch to watch when hunters would stop to ask permission to hunt. I’d go outside to talk to them, and Nellie would come over, and at first just hang around, and then she’d start a slow circle around the “herd” of people. Then she’d slowly cut between me and the hunters… just a leetle bit close to the hunters – and they’d be talking and just absently step back a half step. And Nellie would be slowly circling, and cut in again… When she had us separated by about 3 or 4 feet, she’d start putting the herd back together – cutting just a weee bit close to the back of the hunter’s legs and he’d move forward just a bit… etc… until he was back to where he’d started – and would have NO clue he’d just been cut out and put back. The kids would sit in the house watching through the windows and laughing at the whole thing. ;-D

            BTW – My wife has a Kindle – and I suggested that she download your book/story “The Death Trip”. I read the “sample” and it sounds interesting – and at the moment it’s FREE!!!

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