Commentary on a commentator
I came across an article on line and I wanted to respond to it. I doubt The Guardian would give me the time of day (I’m an indie author, after all), but I can do it here.
For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way
The original article (without my comments) is here (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way), but I’ve kept the whole article intact so as not to be accused of editing it to favour my own position.
Life as a professional writer is financially depressing, and I’ve often been advised to self-publish. Here’s why I won’t do it
by Ros Barber
A few days ago, I wrote a piece on my blog exploding the myth of the rich writer, and laying out (in terms the Royal Literary Fund described as “ruthlessly mathematical”) what authors actually receive when you buy their books. The simple answer for many of us is nothing at all, after that heady advance in the case of my most recent novel, which was £5,000 for two years’ work.
The blog was widely shared on social media, and viewed by nearly 10,000 people in its first week. The shock, agreement and commiserations were followed swiftly by people telling me what I really need to do is self-publish.
Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write). Here’s why.
You have to forget writing for a living
If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing. The self-published author who came to my blog to preach the virtues of his path, claiming to make five figures a month from Kindle sales of his 11 novels, puts his writing time percentage in single figures. If that sounds like fun to you, be my guest. But if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.
This is why I’m not making a fortune at the moment. I don’t WANT to ram my stuff down other people’s throats. I want my readers to love it so much they do the job for me. I DESPISE pressure advertising, and the instant I’m the target of it, I walk away (yep, polarity responder. I will deliberately buy something else, even if it isn’t as good, because I’m so honked off that I’ve been treated as though I’m a walking wallet. Entertain me, educate me, but please do NOT RAM your goods down my throat because not only will I spit them back up, I will hurl them back at you with great force AND tell everyone else what a bunch of a-holes you are to boot!) I will NOT use heavy promotion. I WILL tell you what I’m doing, how it’s going and, about once a week (or once every two weeks/a month, depending on how I’m feeling) put out a reminder to review because that’s the biggest problem for indie authors: people buy the books, which is great, but they don’t bother to review. Why do you think when you watch YT videos everyone’s reminding you to ‘like and subscribe’? It’s because they’re dependent on the YouTube algorithm which, in turn, determines whether to promote a video based on the number of people who say they like it (a thumbs up). They determine whether a youtuber is worth promoting based on the number of people who subscribe. If you’re promoted on their front page, you get MORE views, more advertisers wanting to promote their products in your videos, more money. Amazon works the same. If enough people like and review your book (I gather that’s 50 reviews, although whether that’s per book or for the series as a whole I’ve yet to determine), you get advertised by Amazon’s algorithm when someone buys a book from a similar genre. You get promoted to the front page where you are seen. THAT’S why people spend a fortune promoting their work. However, because I’m broke and I cannot stand that stuff (I wouldn’t do it even if I had the cash!), I will never do it. I will ask readers who’ve enjoyed the book to tell others via Amazon or just lending it to their friends, but this is a visceral hatred of the hard sell. Yes, I know advertising will help and I’m certainly not going to stop others from promoting my stuff, that would be stupid, but I won’t. It strikes me as immodest and, frankly, embarrassing. I don’t want it done to me so I won’t do it to others. Hence, I spend about 20% of my time writing and 80% trying to figure out WHAT to write!
Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool
Imagine we have just met. I invite you into my house and the first thing you do is show me the advertising blurb for your book and press me to check it out on Amazon. Then you read me the blurb for someone else whose book you’ve agreed to promote if they’ll do the same with yours. Then you tell me how many friends you’ve lost today, and that I can find out how many friends I’ve lost by using this app. Then you poke a reader review of your book under my nose. All within the first 10 minutes. Does this lead me to conclude you are a successful author, whose books I might like to buy? Or a desperate egomaniac with no thought for other people? One who may not be able to string a decent sentence together, since your sentences come out as semi-literate strings of hashtags:
I mute authors whose tweetstreams are 90% adverts in the same way I wouldn’t watch the shopping channel. The vast majority of indie authors have tweetstreams that are 90% adverts, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they must spend 90% of their time marketing. It certainly doesn’t make self-publishing look like the path to El Dorado. Why would I want to join this gang?
See above. Not gonna happen. Also, I don’t have a Twitter account (or Instagram or any of the others. Facebook is enough of a time-sink, thank you!)
Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego
Imagine you are a cabinet-maker. You look at a few cabinets, you read a few books about how to make a cabinet, you practice the technicalities of things like dovetail joints. Then, with hope in your heart and breakfast in your sawing arm, you grab some wood and set to work. But because you are new at this, your tools are a starter set. In your ignorance, you chose wood that wasn’t properly seasoned. Wow, those dovetail joints take some precision, don’t they? This cabinet-making thing is hard! Nevertheless, with persistence and effort you complete your cabinet. It wobbles a bit. The drawers stick. The finish isn’t perfect. Buy hey, it’s a cabinet! You try to sell it to several furniture shops and they all politely decline. So are you going to sell it yourself? Or heave a sigh, make another cabinet, and see if you can make a better one?
By the time I published Entrapment in Oestragar I had been writing for 40 years. I hadn’t published (outside academic papers, which are completely different) but I had been practising endlessly. If you think ‘Oslac’s Odyssey’ came out of a clear blue sky and was written by someone who hadn’t fallen into just about every pitfall it’s possible to fall into when you’re a writer, you’re out of your mind. I had stories I started and never finished, I had grammar, spelling and formatting errors, I had two-dimensional characters, plots with holes big enough to drive a truck through, unspeakable dialogue… The list is endless. I listened to those who told me I’d screwed up, grumbled (sometimes cried) and started again. ANYONE who goes into self-publishing without years of practice behind them is either a genius (the next Hemingway, perhaps? Or Shakespeare?) or, more likely, an idiot. I started writing stories (for my own pleasure and that of those who wanted to read them) when I was TEN YEARS OLD! I’m fifty-five now. Trust me, I’m not the dodgy cabinet maker. I’m not Hemingway, either. I have a long way to go and I will learn more and more lessons as I keep writing, but I am NOT a newbie to this. Just because you’ve not read my other stuff doesn’t mean it wasn’t written, critiqued and learned from.
Good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship. Serving your apprenticeship is important
My first novel was my fourth novel. It was accomplished on the back of three complete novels (plus two half novels) that didn’t quite make the grade (even though two of them were represented by well-respected agents). Yes, it can be frustrating, having your beloved book (months or years of hard work) rejected by traditional publishers. But if you are serious about writing, you will simply raise your game. You will put in another few thousand hours and complete your apprenticeship. And when you do, you will be very glad that the first novel you wrote was not the first novel you published, because it will now feel embarrassing and amateurish. You can only be a debutante once. First novels are all about making a splash. You’ll find it hard to make a good impression if the first thing anyone saw from you was that wonky cabinet with sticky drawers.
See above. I sometimes wish I could advertise my books to my thousands of readers who know and like me under other names, but I want to keep my past writing and my new approach separate. Those works were derivative while I was learning my trade. This is original. There’s a huge difference!
You can forget Hay festival and the Booker
Traditional publishing is the only way to go for someone who writes literary fiction. With genre fiction, self-publishing can turn you into a successful author (if you can build a platform, if you enjoy marketing and are good at it, if you are lucky). But an author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build their reputation and following. If genre fiction is chart music, literary fiction is opera: the audience is small, and there are limited ways to reach it. Self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like the Baileys, the Costa and the Man Booker, and getting shortlisted for major prizes is the only way a literary novel will become a bestseller. The chance of a self-published novelist getting their book reviewed in the mainstream press is the same as the chance of my dog not eating a sausage. The chance of an indie author being booked for a major literature festival? Donald Trump apologising to Mexico.
If the only reason you went into writing was to win prizes, I’m not convinced you’re a real author. You write (at least in my experience) because the characters in your head won’t shut up. You write because, if you don’t, you’ll go crazy. That is not to say the awards aren’t great if you can get them – who says no to cash and recognition for hard work? – but they are not the target or the reason. They are a nice boost to the ego and increase sales for those readers who care about those sorts of things. (Can’t say it’s ever swayed me. I read books because I like them, because friends or others I respect recommend them, because I read the first few pages and the back blurb in the bookshop and I wanted to know more. I don’t care whether the author’s won awards or not!) A writer writes because they have to. For that reason, indie publishing is as good an outlet at any other. I would point out Charles Dickens had to hawk his work around the newspapers to make a living, as did Arthur Conan Doyle. Victor Hugo self-published… In fact, up until the 20th C, EVERY WRITER outside the academic arena, and not a small number of those as well, self-published. The big publishing houses appeared when people saw a chance to make money off someone else’s work, and they do so at an outrageous mark-up. An indie author doing self-publishing gets between 60-70% of royalties once printing costs, postage and other costs are covered. That means I typically get around £1.80 from my paperbacks (less in some cases) and more on the e-books because there are no printing or postage costs (which is why the ebooks are half the price, in case you were wondering). An author working for a publishing house gets between 4-5% of royalties AFTER the initial advance payment has been paid off. That means they get around 7.4p per book once their advances have cleared for the LIFETIME of the book. That’s it. Once the publishing house has done the initial advertising, paid the staff and the author, every penny outside printing costs is theirs. That means THEY make massive profits on a best-seller while the author, without whom the work would not exist, is still on that paltry 4-5%. Even more once the author’s dead and even more once the 50 years is up if no one claims the estate rights! The author cannot take their book elsewhere, can’t publish themselves, and would need some very expensive lawyers to get out of their contracts if they’re being screwed. With Amazon, for example, I can take my books whenever I want, wherever I want. They remain MINE to do with as I please.
On that note, the publishing houses pay 1-2% (usually 1%) to the cover artists, some of whom have clearly never read the book, have absolutely no clue what it’s about and are totally unsuitable. The author has little to no say over the cover designs. In the case of the first three books of Oslac’s Odyssey, and especially the first one, the cover is one of the clues. Once you get to the end of Ystrian Dreams you will realise what you’ve been looking at all this time. I know there have been some who don’t like the covers, but they’re an integral part of the plot. What are the chances a publishing house would listen to me if I told them that? “Yeah… No! Doesn’t sell. We need… Titanic sinking with Ancient Greeks falling into the ocean while books flutter around them and someone gazes at it all on a laptop!” Ummm….NO!
You risk looking like an amateur
Good writers need even better editors. They need brilliant cover designers. They need imaginative marketers and well-connected publicists. All these things are provided by a traditional publisher, and what’s more, it doesn’t cost you a penny. They pay you! If a self-published author wants to avoid looking like an amateur, they’d better be prepared to shell out some serious dosh to get professional help in all the areas where they don’t excel. And I mean serious. Paying some poor bugger in the Philippines a fiver, or bunging £50 to your PhotoShopping nephew will not result in a distinctive, professional-looking cover. And don’t get me started on the value of good editors, copy-editors and proof-readers, and how many times they have saved me from looking like a twonk. Providing these services to indie authors is a lucrative business. Indeed, many indie authors keep themselves afloat financially by offering these services to other indie authors: the new “authorpreneur” pyramid scheme. Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business. But if you’d rather be an author, why not practice your skill until you’ve written something a publisher will pay for? And enjoy the fact they’ll also foot the bill for everything else.
I have, at the moment, 6 pairs of eyes that look over the books before they go into print (including my own, several times). On top of that, if my readers spot a screw up, I can fix it within 24 hours so no one else ever has to see it. Compare that to the mess made by some publishing houses who pressurise editors today to such an extent they miss obvious mistakes. They then publish 40,000 copies and, if the mistake is big enough, have to PULP THE LOT and start again. These guys are destroying trees because of a typo. Academic publishers are worse since a typo in their books could mean the difference between a student passing or failing an exam. But they don’t mind because they don’t pay their authors (academics, doing it for the kudos of having their name on a prescribed text) or their editors (ditto) and the cover designs are done by some guy in the back room good with Photoshop. They are making a fortune! They don’t have to advertise, don’t have to shell out and have a guaranteed audience!
Also, yes, they’ll do it for you, but then you, the author, pay for it for the REST OF YOUR LIFE!
70% of nothing is nothing
My final caveat is fiscal. You can put all of that effort in, do all that marketing, and still not make a living. Fiona Veitch Smith made the transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing.
I do not earn much as a traditionally published author but I earn more than I did as a self-publisher. I published 7 books in 4 years and in that time only one of them went into profit – and that less than £100. And before anyone says it’s because I didn’t work hard enough, my friends and family who barely saw me for 4 years will tell you that I worked my butt off. So hard in fact that I attracted the attention of two separate traditional publishers who took me on (one for my adult books, one for my children’s books).
I could no longer take the feeling of inadequacy every time I read an article by a self-publishing success story telling me if only I worked harder and smarter, did all the right social media promotions, spent 90% of my time marketing and only 10% writing – oh and subscribed to their blog or downloaded their latest how-to manual – I too could earn at least 5 figures a month. But the reality is, of dozens of self-publishers I knew, I was probably the most successful.”
She has just sold Korean translation rights to her children’s books, which illustrates another benefit of traditional publishing. Publishers and agents have reach. With access to proper distribution networks, they can get physical books into real bookshops. They can represent you at the major book fairs and sell your books to international markets.
Self-publishing? It generates a lot of noise on social media. It results in many flashy-looking websites from authorpreneurs keen to sell success secrets to other aspiring authorpreneurs. With Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace as the major outlets, it continues to put money in the coffers of the company largely responsible for destroying author incomes in the first place. But it isn’t a route to financial security. For those who prefer orchestrated backing to blowing their own trumpet, who’d privilege running a narrative scenario over running a small business, who’d rather write adventures than adverts, self-publishing is not the answer.
Clearly these guys don’t have the brilliant readers I do. I’ve published 4 books. No, I’m not making enough in total to go on holiday (not by a long chalk) but I’ve made more than £100. Actually, more than £300. Yes, it’s spread over 2 years so I’m not breaking the rules of my benefits (just in case anyone’s checking!) and I couldn’t live off it if we didn’t have a benefits system that recognises that people with mental and physical health problems need support. On the other hand, I’m disabled but I’m not lazing my time away watching TV and doing nothing. My books are a way of dealing with my health issues and feeling less like I’m a pariah. I’m hoping, one day, I will do well enough I can walk into the DWP and tell them I no longer need their help, and I will do so gladly. I don’t WANT to keep taking and not giving back, but I’m not physically or mentally capable or working in a normal, 9-5 job any more. I tried. I had three breakdowns and my physical health problems have grown steadily worse. For example, today it took five HOURS before I could see clearly enough to type this (it’s still blurry, but I can increase the image size enough to get through it). This is due to chronic corneal erosion. Any employers out there happy to take on someone who won’t be able to come to work for 5 hours some days because they can’t see well enough to drive (and I live on a hill, so unless you’re picking me up I HAVE to drive)? How about someone who needs well designed chairs with back support because of osteoarthritis in the lower back? Someone whose social anxiety is now at such a level they can’t bear their fellow human beings more than one or two at a time? Someone who freaks out over paperwork (so much I have to have a friend open formal letters from DWP because they terrify me?). Find an employer who, despite all this, will pay at least £25k a year so I can afford to live, pay my bills and get to work. Yeah, go on, find me THAT employer and I’ll go back to work tomorrow. In the meantime, I write. I write because I have to because the characters in my head won’t shut up. I write because I look at the world around me and I HATE IT! I hate it so much there are days I want to leave, permanently. The hatred, the anger, the abuse, the lack of courtesy or tolerance or forgiveness… I write worlds where people (or dragons, or giant rodents or whatever) treat each other better than we do. Worlds where talents are recognised and encouraged even if it doesn’t make anyone any money (there’s a novelty!), worlds where good guys may have to fight, but in the end they win and low-down, double-dealing greedy swine get their comeuppance. Yes, it’s fantasy, but it’s a darn sight nicer that the world we’re living in and my readers seem to agree because they keep coming back for more.
Don’t get me wrong. If a publishing house suddenly decided they wanted to take on my stuff and pay me handsomely for the privilege, or a film company said, “Hey, can we make a film out of Dragons of Mithgryr? We’ll pay you for it!” I would not say no. On the other hand, my niece was a very successful barrister and we know some damned good lawyers. I would NOT hand it all over hook, line and sinker for the rest of eternity without some very careful negotiation and detailed examination of contracts. I would expect to still have a say over the covers (no Ancient Greeks falling from Titanic, thank you!) because the covers are part of the fun! If they asked me to re-write characters to make them fit the modern narrative I’d no more do that than I’d tolerate someone doing the same to Charles Dickens’ original texts. Indie publishing allows me to be honest. I write the sort of books I want to read: books that are by turns exciting, thought provoking, imaginative, sometimes romantic (not overly so), sometimes scary and with characters I want to spend time with. Any re-write that means I no longer want to spend time with my characters isn’t worth the money, no matter how much they offer.
As for the translations… maybe one day. Maybe one day I’ll have a reader willing to take on the task for free or I’ll have enough to pay them, but the English speaking world is pretty big and I’m not greedy. I’m also not doing the ‘authorpreneur’ stuff, not do I subscribe to it. Again, it’s a hard sell and I’ve no interest in becoming part of their pyramid scheme but, in addition, I think authors need to find their own voice, not parrot what someone else is doing.
In conclusion, I can’t help feeling the author of the original article protesteth too much about indie authors and indie publishing. Could it be, perchance, that the traditional publishing houses are starting to feel the pinch? Maybe it’s time they were a little fairer with the financial distribution, upping the payments to authors once the initial outlay has been recouped (not that JK Rowling needs more, but she sure would get it!). Maybe the gatekeepers need to recognise we’re not sheep and we don’t all want to read the same things? My books are old fashioned because I am. Above all, they’re mine and they’re honest. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.