Self-Publishing: Some advice for emerging writers.

The slushpile, Tor, the Flatiron Building, New York City, New York, USA.JPG
Creative Commons License photo credit: gruntzooki

I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation going on lately about self-publishing and how it relates to emerging writers. This is a topic that I’m quite interested in, having both considered the possibility of self-publishing and applied the term ’emerging’ to myself and my writing. So I thought I’d take a moment and explore my own thoughts surrounding the subject and give some advice on how to make the best of the current scene.

Broadly speaking, I’m in favour of self-publishing as a thing. As far as I’m concerned, the more options an artist has to distribute their art, the better. And writers have produced some of my most favouritest art ever. Print-on-demand services are great, in that they are putting the power to publish in the hands of people who have the willingness to do so. Not to mention the fact that they are more environmentally friendly, as there are no pallets full of returns to be pulped. The great advantage of the open-armed nature of the self-publishing market is that anyone with a bit of tech-savvy can release a book. This fact is also cited as its great disadvantage, in that there is no filter of taste to keep the good, solid examples in and let the slush flow through. And those that cite this disadvantage have a point: there is already a lot of slush out in the wild. I’m not going to argue the fact that there is, statistically, more crap writing than good writing in the self-publishing world. It’s self-evident. To prove it to yourself, just spend more than five seconds trawling the Kindle boards or Smashwords. Not only that, but the average self-published book would hardly be called profitable, and more often than not a self-published book does not even come close to earning out the number of loving hours poured into it. So what’s the reason behind this lack of quality? Why don’t good self-published books earn out? And what can emerging writers do to keep from falling into the same traps?

Quality assurance

When looking at the self-publishing industry, analysts often cite other indie industries as examples of how self-propelled creative arts can work. Industries such as the short film or music industries, where a self-funded project can often lead to big deals for indie darlings. But there’s a difference between these industries and self-publishing, and it has to do with skill. Any person with a basic education can successfully perform the physical act of writing. A person with a masters in literature can certainly do it, but primary school kids can too. There is no threshold of time spent practising to complete the physical, pen-to-paper (or fingertip-to-keyboard) act of writing. It’s not like the music industry, where you need to spend a lot of time getting to the point where you can play even one song properly. Or the film industry, where the price of access to quality equipment can mean that only those dedicated to the craft get allocated time to use it. The beauty of writing is that it doesn’t have any of those in-built thresholds. And of course, that’s one of the best things about writing and language; anyone can do it, using just about any material on hand that can make a mark on another. It’s much like the visual fine arts in that regard.

Of course, with fine arts, it’s very easy to identify talent. Often an artist can easily measure themselves against the physical world that they are trying to represent. And with the extremely high standard of visual literacy demanded by our modern world, even the average Jean can tell you whether they like your amateur efforts and how you might improve them. But with writing, it’s quite difficult to get the kind of feedback loop that might enable an emerging writer to grow. After all, how often have you seen writers posting work online with a preamble saying that their friend/family member had said it was really good? The combination of the ease with which writing can be physically performed and a lack of access to honest feedback means that quite often, pieces of writing are self-published without any kind of quality control; the kind of quality control that traditional publishing routes more or less represent. Of course, there is some quality control in self-publishing in the form of the hivemind of readers that rate titles they read (or which their friends tell them to rate), but it’s not exactly as precise as an editor with years of experience.

Earning out

So that’s my intepretation of the ‘why’ behind the lack of quality. The earning out part is a bit less complicated, but interesting to talk about. Intuitively, we all know why a lot of people won’t be making any more money on their self-published book  than their day job earns them in an hour, and it’s to do with signal-to-noise ratios. When you release your shiny new e-book , it drops into a huge reserve of similar books that haven’t sold any copies. And trying to lift it out of that reserve is a bloody difficult thing to do. It’s the reason why people hire and pay the wages for marketers and promoters–getting enough signal attached to your book to boost it out of the noise and into the public eye. But in self-publishing market, you haven’t got a salary to give a marketer, you’ve just got yourself. And not everyone can sell themselves. It’s a hard thing to do, both in a technical sense and a personal sense. Technically speaking, a writer has to have the Internet savvy to build a social network without coming off as a spammer. That takes care and patience, but I’d say it’s achievable by most who grew up with the Internet. But on a personal level, you have to have the confidence in your writing ability to see the whole thing through. You have to have faith that your book isn’t like the millions of other slush pile wannabes. Yours is the real deal, and here’s reasons a), b), and c) why the reader should buy it.

Achieving both of those things without skittering to the wayside is hard, and some players start with an advantage. In an interview talking about his successful experiment with self-publishing, Lee Goldberg (author of the Mr. Monk series of books) talks about a ‘gold rush mentality’ regarding e-books at the moment. The seductive narratives of the few fortunate people who have been able to make a living selling e-books have lead to ‘…thousands of authors who will be lucky if they can give away ten books-a-month at 99 cents each’. That’s because they don’t have the networking skills (read: publicist) or the core fan-base that an already-established author has. Getting those famed 1,000 true fans is an uphill battle, and it’s certainly not guaranteed. Garnering enough momentum and five-star reviews is very often a game of chance, and the conditions that a self-published writer needs to fulfil on any given day to become an Internet phenomenon are as difficult to predict as the Melbourne weather. But there are a few things that I believe are essential to giving at least a bit of weight to the die.

Emergent behaviour

So what can emerging writers do to avoid falling into a sea of anonymity? There have been quite a few articles discussing this lately, the reading of which prompted me to write this post. First up was Benjamin Solah’s post mourning a lack of sales of his self-published e-book, Sanity Juxtaposed. There were a few choice quotes from the comments, but the one that was picked up by Alan Baxter in his constructive post and which I think represents the first point that I want to make is this one made by Jason Fischer:

My two cents is this: trunk stories belong in your trunk. You either take them apart and make them good enough to sell, or you leave them there.

The problem with Ben’s e-book was that it was, as stated in its description, not his best work. It was bits and pieces that he had written but not polished, pieces that were unpublished and languishing on his hard-drive before they were put in the collection. The temptation for emerging writers to have something with their name on it out there for people to buy and read is one that is rooted in the issues of validation and insecurity (which I’ve covered in a previous post). But that yearning for validation sometimes ends up rushing the writer into releasing work that isn’t exemplary of their best ability. As Lee Goldberg puts it, just because you can publish for free with a mouse-click doesn’t mean that you should. There’s another angle to this argument, in that sometimes writers will reserve their best writing for querying traditional publishing avenues, and use the electronic route to release the stuff they aren’t as proud of. This is based on the misguided preconception that e-books and self-published works are inherently worth less than getting print on paper through a traditional publisher*. All of which brings me to my first recommendation for emerging writers looking to self-publish: if you are going to self-publish, make it your best work. This is also known in the programming community as ‘garbage in, garbage out’. If you release a piece of writing that isn’t up to standard, don’t be surprised when no-one wants to buy it. The definition of ‘up to standard’ may vary between groups, but I’d recommend at least a few redrafts and an edit by someone whose writing you respect.

So that’s the first thing, only release good writing. Not exactly rocket surgery. The second bit of advice comes from the desk of a guy named Chuck Wendig, whose to-the-point missive entitled ‘Why Your Self-Published Book May Suck A Bag Of Dicks‘ (and its follow-up) cuts very close to the bone. In it, he extols the virtues of good book cover design, well written book descriptions and synopses, getting someone (anyone) to edit your book, and making sure your sample excerpt gives the best possible hook to potential readers. In other words, professionalism in the presentation of your product to customers. That’s right, your piece of finely-wrought prose is a product. I’m going to say it again, in bold, just to be sure. Your writing is a product. If you are taking the self-publishing route, you absolutely cannot afford to kid yourself about this. There is no reason why your writing, no matter how amazing it is, should rise to the top of the slush pile. There is no buoyancy ascribed to it based on its artistic merit. A lamentable fact, but a fact nonetheless. So it makes sense to polish the presentation of your product as much, if not more, than the polishing of your writing. Anything less is shooting yourself in the foot before trying to run a marathon. Publishers know this, that’s why they spend millions of dollars on expensive ad campaigns to get booksellers on board with their latest best seller. It’s why they’ve started investing in book trailers, and why they invite managers of book stores to expensive, canapé-fuelled slide shows of their latest catalogues. So find yourself a designer who can create an eye-catching cover, a PR person who can find the best combination of wow-words to convince a stranger to click through to the sample, and polish that excerpt until it can’t stand its own glow. And if you can’t find family or friends who can fill those roles for a carton, be prepared to spend some money. People can, will, and do judge books by their cover.

Exception handling

Of course, there are exceptions to these bits of advice, just like there are exceptions to any rule. If you’re writing something because it’s fun and ridiculous and you just want a few of your friends to be amused by it, hell, don’t let me stop you throwing it out on the Interwoobles. That kind of writing can be awesome and light and breezy and completely separate from the writing you look to publish. Just take a peek at my ‘Unpublications‘ page. Seriously, go look at it, I finally figured out how to put up a recording there. Those are examples of passion projects. They were fun little pieces that I enjoyed writing, but would never, ever find a place in the current Australian journal landscape**. Alternatively, if you’re writing a cookbook for members of your family as a novel (hah) Christmas present, you probably don’t give a shit about sales ranks.

A final disclaimer, now that I’m done. I’ve never self-published anything of mine. But what I have done is watched a lot of people make the attempt, some successfully and some not successfully. And I think I’ve learned enough to be able to make a decent attempt if I ever decided to. I guess that means you should take everything I’ve said with a hearty pinch of salt, but it’s the Internet and you really should have been doing that anyway.

Anyway, that’s enough from me. If you have any comments or thoughts about stuff I’ve missed, please feel free to comment. I’d particularly like to hear the perspectives of people who have gone through with the whole thing and can tell me how applicable (or not) my advice is.

(cross-posted from Toothsoup)

*This is nonsense, you and I know that. Words are worth exactly how much they are worth, regardless of the medium they are presented through.

**The tragedy of which is a topic for another post, perhaps.

  • Phill, I believe your observations are correct. It was good to read what you have to say. Indie writing and selling, though, can be as amusing as anything else in life. Success in it is undeniably fun. Failure doesn’t necessarily preclude laughter — even at oneself.

  • Great article, every word worth the time to read and consider.