Part I – Nobody wants to read the great novel you wrote:
Without going into a whole history of digital self-publishing, let’s just admit the current situation sucks. Sure there are now self-published e-books regularly featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review combined e-book and paperback top 25 bestsellers. Yes, there was a write-up in Slate last week on the phenomenal success of Wool, but aside from a very few winners, most authors are losers, and readers aren’t too happy either. Continue reading The Service Savvy Authors Would Pay For (If It Existed)→
Answer: Some people resent the idea that self-published writers have taken the term “indie” which until recently was understood to designate authors published by “independent” (of the Big Six) publishing houses — an historically very well-known (though sometimes notorious) group of folks that included literary lions like DH Lawrence, William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade.
As the publishing industry became more corporatized and controlled by fewer and fewer people, some independent smaller publishers like Farrar, Strauss and Giroux were sold to bigger publishers, but never completely lost their independent identity. Yet, authors publishing through them, however innovative, would not be considered “independents.”
The term “legacy publisher” used in Perplexed Reader’s query, is a poorly understood neo-logism which according to “indie” author Joe Konrath (whose name must be mentioned by law in any blog related to indies) was coined by author Barry Eisler. It means any publisher which uses “outdated” methods and technologies. We should probably take this term out of the equation altogether because its meaning highly debatable, and many established small presses would reject it as being offensive.
I challenge anyone to find the exact origin of using “indie” to describe individuals who publish themselves independently of any publisher. (And I don’t mean “challenge’ in a bad way. I’d genuinely like to know.)
But it is used, and it’s accepted throughout the digiverse at least, to mean self-published. More importantly, it’s accepted by Amazon. (See Amazon’s Indie Bookstore, etc.). One could argue that Amazon’s use of the term is pandering to the multitudes who publish on its Kindle Digital Platform and through its print-on-demand company, Create Space. In any case, “the facts on the ground” for better or worse have been established.
I’m not sure where this leaves people who’ve been published by established small press houses. Today, in addition to big and small publishers being lumped together as “traditional publishing,” the waters are muddied even more by micro-presses set up to publish a very limited number of authors (beginning with the number one), e-book publishers who may use POD for print (and bear few of the risks or expenses of traditional small publishers), and other start up concerns that aren’t traditional “vanity” houses, in that they don’t ask for money up front from authors, but offer neither the services of traditional publishing or the respectability that comes with it. So there’s also the question of who is a publisher? Does it have to do with the size of the list? The services offered? Whether or not there are full time editors? Whether or not they can actually do print runs and/or get copies of books onto store shelves?
Often the only thing these tiny newcomers and retooled vanities offer writers is a chance to say “I’ve been published,” even though they might have done better self-publishing, and are unlikely to impress anyone, especially literary agents.
Vantage Publishers, probably the most infamous old-time vanity house, known for their tombstone newspaper ads offering titles ripe for parody, has more recently retooled itself as a “self-publishing” concern, although it still charges tons for its publishing packages. Historically, the vanities never called themselves vanities, at least not in public. They used the euphemism “subsidy.”
Meantime, because of the taint of self-publishing, firms like PublishAmerica have been able to con the vulnerable and desperate by insisting that they are a “traditional publisher” because they don’t charge writers upfront fees, and allegedly don’t charge to publish. They accept anything, don’t edit or proofread (unless you pay them), do incompetent formatting (and then charge for corrections), and they don’t actually get their books into stores or reviewed. They do print books and publish e-books for which they charge higher than standard prices. They get writers to contract to buy their overpriced books at a “discount”prior to print runs with the understanding that the writers will act as their own marketers and sell them to stores. Of course stores don’t overpriced, badly formatted, unedited books written by unknowns. PublishAmerica also holds on to the book rights, so authors are stuck even after they realize they’ve been conned.
Nowadays, most of the respectable and established independent publishers are swamped by manuscripts, and extremely unlikely to look at unsolicited work. If I was an author who through hard work and development of craft had had work accepted by one of those august houses, I’d probably be outraged that the good name of “indie” has been taken by anyone who can load a “book” onto the KDP. On the other hand, some of these houses have become risk-averse in these tough and uncertain times and are both dropping their mid-listers and rarely taking on newcomers, making self-publishing an attractive option for many.
On the Kindle forums, the folks who are most vehemently against what they term “vanity-writers,” “self-uploaders” or “scribblers” lump everyone in one boat. Those discerning readers aren’t buying into the “indie” designation even if Amazon and a zillion blogs are. They don’t really believe that anyone is self-publishing by choice, or that anything good can come from allowing anyone to publish. “Indie” is certainly a much nicer term than “driveler.”
Meantime, the writers themselves are often the first to shout, “I’m different! It’s a reprint of a previously published work!” or “I was this close to getting a deal.” or “Look at my sales numbers.” or they just babble something about Amanda Hocking. But whether you are an octogenarian self-publishing your memoirs of WWII, or a romance fan loading up years of secret attempts onto the Kindle Digital Platform, or a previously published legit author, or anything in-between, calling yourself an “indie” beats the alternatives.
So, my dear Perplexed Reader, the short answer to your question would be, independent authors published by established small presses may need to clarify their status. to the understandably perplexed, but they are still independent. However, the term “indie author” will be understood by many to be a synonym of “self-published.”
The New York Times Magazinehas 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:
God might not be calling his elect up today, but something truly extraordinary is taking place. The gray lady herself, the esteemed New York Times, has an essay in the BOOK REVIEW section extolling self-publishing.
Neal Pollack who describes himself as “midlist, midcareer” finds that for a writer in his position, “self-publishing seems to make a lot of sense.”
He plans to put out a novel that he doesn’t believe would be the “easiest proposition for mainstream publishers” as the theme doesn’t involve vampires, but Jews and basketball and the length is short. He plans to charge $4.99 and believes this will quickly earn him the equivalent of a pleasant advance.
He thinks there may be expenses including of course cover art and plane fare if he decides to do “readings and on-the-ground media in New York and Philadelphia where the book is set.” He mentions a “modest print run.” Good luck with that, Neal.
Neal references Amanda Hocking (of course). He writes of Stephen King’s e-book experiments, but he seems to have no real clue about what savvy self-publishers already know. He writes, for instance, that he wouldn’t recommend self-publishing to a “first time author.” Yet, several first time novelists who found the gates closed on traditional publishing have done quite well on their own.
I’m not an expert, nor am I Amanda Hocking for that matter. My own experiment with self-publishing has yielded only modest results, but I know enough to know that Neal might want to do a little more research before setting out. If you happen to have stumbled onto this, Neal, might I ask you to examine a few of your assumptions and assertions:
Price point: $4.99? Yes, that’s half what Amazon is charging on Kindle for your book, Never Mind the Pollacks, The Literary Music of Neal Pollack which is not exactly flying off the shelves, but $4.99 is still considered a lot for a self-published e-book even by a previously published author. Stephen Leather and JA Konrath have turned their back-lists into gold at 99 cents a piece, and even the New Yorker’s Susan Orlean who will be entering the fray with a short work to be published with some hoopla by Amazon, will be charging no more than $1.49. Yes, you have a following, but maybe not at the Kindle Store yet or for the type of book you are planning. Most of the bestsellers on Kindle are genre novels — mysteries, thrillers, and those “teen vampire” books you make fun of. Books like the one you are writing don’t appeal to publishers because the market is small, not non-existent, just modest and the gamble on a print run may be not be one publishers can afford. E-books cost less to produce. But there’s a glut of high quality, self-published books selling for less than $4.99, on Kindle. You may find your market there, but it won’t be huge and you’ll have to work for it. Your competition won’t be the $9.99 bestsellers from mainstream publishers, but the already known “independents” selling at 99 cents to $2.99 a pop.
Are you really in a position to give advice to first-time authors? You advise first-timers not to try self-publishing, lest they wind up in a “virtual slush pile.” Have you read anything about how difficult it is for someone, even someone with previous publishing credits to get a contract on a first novel these days, especially something like the one you’re publishing — a book with no vampires or zombies? The gates are shut. Yet, if you look at the top hundred Kindle sellers in the US and UK Kindle store, you’ll see many “indie” writers unknown to publishers. And if you take a peek at the genre lists, you’ll see even more. I’m no insider, but I am actual virtual friends with three “first-time” writers who are bestselling authors. Lexi Revellian’s book Remix, was in the top 100 in Amazon UK for months. It’s now down to around 126, but her new one Replica is holding at 50. Jake Barton’s Burn Baby Burn is #26 in the UK, and he has two others that aren’t doing badly. Dan Holloway’s first “indie” literary novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, got some good reviews but didn’t take off. His thriller, set in Oxford, The Company of Fellows is holding its own in the top 50 in the category of “mysteries and thrillers.”
Think about that “modest print run” you propose and find some alternative uses for the print books you don’t sell — doorstops, kindling, etc: Print runs cost money. Many successful independently published writers aren’t even bothering with them, especially for shorter books. Those that do, generally use print-on-demand. Traditional printing is less expensive for a run of a thousand books or more, but it’s still going to be both a huge risk and a substantial out-of-pocket expense. I hate to break this to you, but getting your independently published book into bookstores is going to be difficult. Prepare for rejection like you’ve never seen it. As for your plan to do “on the ground media” in New York and Philadelphia, there are tons of local authors trying to get readings at stores and to get their books onto shelves. It doesn’t sound like you’ve thought through the pitfalls, including the 55% discount and return policies that online and brick and mortar bookstores demand.
I’m not trying to be discouraging, Neal. This isn’t an exclusive club. Nobody needs an invitation. Granted, you have experience that many first-time self-publishers lack. You’ve done book publicity before, you have a name and a following, and you are a professional. But this is still a new game, and you’ll play better if you learn the rules before you jump in. Your essay in the Times implies an access to media that most new independent authors lack, but I hate to break this to you, the readers of The New York Times Book Review aren’t necessarily the biggest e-book buyers or purchasers of the self-published. Your potential readers are in places like Big Al’s Books and Pals, Kindle Boards, and RedAdept Reviews. Ever heard of them? If the answer is no, you have a lot to learn.
The conversation was about the “rules.” Mr. McGrumpypants insisted that he knew what agents and editors wanted, despite having never actually landed an agent, and having only been “edited” by a very, very small press publisher who went out of business shortly thereafter, and many years later by a one-man shop “e-book publisher.” In spite of his extremely dismal sales numbers, he was quite adamant that his ability to have “sold” to a “publisher” gave him special insight that all others lacked, and if we’d only read Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. we’d be enlightened and as successful as he.
The above took place on a forum in one my old haunts — an online writer’s community filled mostly with those desperate for publication. I found the same “debate” raging as when I left months before. Except it wasn’t exactly a debate, since all but one old sourpuss seemed to be in agreement.
I don’t claim to know what anyone wants. I’ve never landed an agent despite several “full manuscript requests” for Loisaida — A New York Story. I know a few people who found agents who were enthusiastic about their work, but failed to sell it to editors. So apparently even those gatekeepers don’t always know what editors want.
I should know more. I have one of those MFA’s, but I’ll tell you a dirty secret — at least back in the 1980’s when I got it, we almost never talked about publishing though we probably should have. That was at Sarah Lawrence. I’m pretty sure they were talking about publication at Columbia.
The truth is at this particular moment in publishing history, as I wrote months ago, “nobody knows anything.” Bookstores are closing, even the big chains that not so long ago devoured the independents. Some legitimately published writers like Stephen Leather are choosing Kindle to self-publish their old titles and the ones their agent couldn’t use. The success of a purely “indie” author like Amanda Hocking is a shock to the system. Yet, yesterday I read a story of a first novel being published by a major house. It read like a fairytale, and was enough of an anomaly to make it to the pages of The New York Times, but is it sign that good books will always find a way?
As a reader, I know what I like. What I like isn’t formulaic. It bends and breaks “the rules” and does so with such grace that the writer makes it look as natural as Fred Astaire’s dancing.
As a reader who’s also a writer, it gives me a thrill to see the risks great writers take in their storytelling especially around “point of view” and “backstory.” Think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with a man about to be shot by a firing squad, remembering an incident from his childhood. Then we go into the “backstory” including the lives of several characters besides the man in front of the firing squad, and we don’t get back to the firing squad for another 200 pages or so.
More recently, Jonathon Franzen, pulls off a similar trick with Freedom which starts off with a distant narrator telling a story about some neighbors who moved away long ago and were recently involved in a “scandal” which we don’t get any details about. We then go back twenty years or so to when they first moved into the neighborhood. Later we go further into the past and then up to the present with shifting points of view including a journal in which the first person narrator refers to herself in the third person. Neat trick, that. We don’t find out about the “scandal” till around the last quarter of the book.
Then there’s James Hynes, whose novel Nextalmost stopped my heart. It’s a close third-person tale. The story itself takes place over the span of a single day. A man travels from one city to another for a job interview. We are privy not only to what occurs in real time, but his thoughts and memories. You know the rule about avoiding “info dumps” or “too much backstory?” This is almost all “backstory” and it’s riveting. And while its ending is perfection, I can easily imagine an editor rejecting it for not being “upbeat.”
Warning: The following statements are purely the opinion of the blogger, and may not lead you to find an agent or write a bestseller. The following “advice” is meant for writers interested in honing their craft for non-commercial purposes:
I’m not advising that untested writers attempt the trickiest ways to tell a story, but I am suggesting to think more of guidelines than rules and not to be afraid to drive off road for a while. Even a failed experiment might teach you something, or yield unexpected results.
Writing guidelines can be simple and should be aimed at keeping the story moving. As Elmore Leonard helpfully suggests, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” I would humbly add that most of us may need readers to tell us what those parts are, so its a good idea to have some workshop buddies, or others whose reading skills we respect, who are willing to be honest with us, and it’s a good idea for all of us to be open to critique.
This brings me back to Sarah Lawrence, and one day in a writing workshop taught by the late great Grace Paley. There was a conversation about the short-hand “rules,” like “show don’t tell,” which Paley joked she sometimes turned around. Someone brought up, “write what you know.” Paley replied that if you only wrote what you already knew, it would be boring, and then she stated the one rule that I always attempt to follow, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”