January 15, 2013 by James Calbraith
I’ve been following the internet conversation about writing and publishing books for several years now, and one thing I notice sorely lacking is originality. The discussion is mostly made of endlessly repeating clichés and fallacies; common sense is a rare quality, and understanding of the basics of the business even rarer.
The following is the list of the five most annoying, and most common, of such clichés. There are more, but these stand out. The annoying part is that they sound right, and propagate easily, even though they are often meaningless or, worse, harmful for anyone who truly believes them.
You know how these narratives go: “Amazon used the indies to get where it is today, and is now dropping them like unwanted ballast. Beware the big guys, their only purpose is to exploit us and throw away. They will destroy traditional publishing and leave a monopoly that will squeeze every ounce of our money. Etc. etc.”
Rubbish. First thing: yes, every business is about making money. Amazon is a very successful business, and they will do their utmost to remain so. They are not a charity. What they are not, though, is evil.
Nobody did as much for indie writers as Amazon. Nobody paid the authors as much as they did – at least, nobody important. Nobody offered so many promotional avenues. The company led the self-pub revolution pretty much single-handedly. They owe us nothing; we owe them a great deal.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re supposed to let them off the hook if they do something wrong. We can’t get into the same Stockholm-syndrome situation the traditional authors have with their publishers. But neither should we be crying “foul” whenever Amazon makes a perfectly reasonable business decision that may be perceived as harmful to indies (they rarely actually are).
If your target is to take over the great swathes of market in utilities, or retail, the mantras of “customer is always right” and “every customer is important” may be of use to you. If you’re going for the mass, you can’t afford to antagonize anyone. The risks are just too great.
If you’re an artist, or a start-up entrepreneur – and self-published authors must be necessarily both – this is bollocks. One of the commandments of disruptive business is “take a stand”. Be prepared to make decisions that will be unpopular; go against the grain.
In my case, this meant, for example, going exclusive with Amazon with my main book, instead of spreading myself throughout as many providers as possible. Did I lose some readers? Maybe. Did I anger some anti-Amazon activists in the process? Definitely. Was it a bad business decision? The numbers say otherwise.
But the “take a stand” position goes further. Keeping your target audience straight in your sights will mean that, as your reader base expands beyond those immediately interested in the subject, you will start getting some bad press. Pay no heed to those; even Tolkien gets one-star reviews. Even Kurosawa. Someone, somewhere, will not like you and what you’re doing. Tough. As long as you’re reaching the right people in good numbers, the wrong people can stuff it.
When I see the rubbish the traditional publishers spew onto the bookstore shelves, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the above statement. Yes, there are still good Gatekeepers in certain genres or publishing houses – decreasingly so. And yes, there is a vastly greater chance to find a rubbish indie book; the staggering amount of bad indies out there is often cited by readers as the main cause they still stick to traditional publishing.
But consider what are the main best sellers, and who’s pushing that drivel through the door: celebrity memoirs; celebrity cook books; clones of clones of that one book that sold (the Black Swan effect) – which, these days, more often than not started out as a self-published book. Top that with never-ending series of decreasing quality.
Traditional publishing is no longer the guarantor of quality; if the search of profits and high margins continues, it will stop caring about quality altogether. If you don’t want to be left without anything decent to read in the near future, it’s time to embrace the indies and start learning how to find the diamonds among coal by yourself.
It will. In fact, it already has. There’s a generation growing up which will know books – proper books, not pop-ups or book-like toys – only in the electronic form. Hopefully none of them will have the unhealthy addiction of the previous generations.
Because you know, that smell you’re so enamoured with? I have bad news for you: that’s the thinner in the ink and adhesive in the binding. You’re basically a glue junkie. There’s nothing poetic, cool or literary about it.
There will, most probably, always be some printed books being made. Just like there are vinyl records and horse tack. But a paper book, especially a hardcover, is just such a terribly cumbersome and inconvenient media-consumption method, it’s bound to disappear from mainstream use within our lifetime.
Let me set one thing straight:
Writing a book is not about the money. It’s a labour of love. You can write anything you want, show it to your friends (or not), and be happy about it (or not).
But publishing is about money. If you put a price – any price – on your book, it means you want to make money from it. There’s no point denying it. There are plenty of ways to distribute your work for free: Figment, Wattpad, forums, your own website. Don’t put the book out there with a $2.99 sticker and say you don’t care about money.
I’ve spent a good few monthly wages to make sure my books were ready for publishing. I’m not even half-way to making even. This is money I could’ve spent on any number of other, less painful hobbies. This is money that, if I had children, would have been taken away literally from my children’s mouths. I want – no, I need those money back, with profit.
What you’re probably trying to say is “it’s not just about the money.” Of course it isn’t. I earn more in my office job than I will ever earn from publishing. My books are bound for niche markets, instead of being naked torso vampire romances or pseudo-mystical thrillers that would probably sell much better than what I prefer to write. So yes, there must be the element of fun, engagement, satisfaction for both reader and writer.
But also, there must be money, or we’ll all end up like poor old Vincent Van Gogh.