Tuesday

The collapsing feeling of self-publishing

[Note: I tried giving this article away. One particular place, the *blog* of the Queensland Writer's Centre —  that is, a centre supporting writers — passed on it. Now, if you can't get a blog to accept your work, then you've been insulted. I present it below for you instead.]

The publishing industry has changed, but very little has changed. Maybe I should be more specific and say the publishing process has changed, that the overall model of what's possible has opened up so that it's both more accessible and cheaper to produce books — especially outside of the regular old channels — in digital or print. Anyone can get into the magic of books; which is a minor revolution, I'd say.

But what hasn't changed? Look at the bookshop window displays: lots of colourful books; lots of diversity. If you think about it, the books on display and reviewed in newspapers, journals and magazines are still largely, or rather almost all, representative of the standard publishing model. By which I mean the large (consolidated, international) publishing houses and the medium trade presses, the industry players.

The window display — our window on publishing — says the industry is healthy because there's so much great stuff being produced. There's familiar and prize-winning authors, authors who can't not get published; there's non-fiction and biographies by the dozen, profile-leveraging tie-ins, young adult and bright fantasy. Now and then a renegade success story, a blockbuster everyone reads on planes or whenever they're not looking at their phone, because everyone else is.
Just because the display is so colourful, you mightn't notice the picture is incomplete, or not up to date and reflective of publishing currently.

Like what about this pesky little thing called self-publishing.

Let me start by saying I love self-publishing. In terms of the speed, control and the sheer realism of being able to produce, publish and distribute a book — this wonderfully aesthetic and portable powerhouse of idea and story — this is accessible right now. None of the digital technologies can take away from the sheer magic of holding a book in your hands. Which, if you're of the generation that came of age before the internet, is still tangibly wonderful and real.

Of course, this rosy positivity has a dark backing — in the sheer bilge, crud and dross that's published by anyone and everyone with access to a computer. Which no one will ever read. Which will never be picked up or fought over. Which is forgettable, unartistic or strictly for hobbyists. Which, like so much of the internet, is just banal chatter about nothing. And badly written: riddled with typos and dicky typesetting or just looking cheap.

Self-publishing — despite being equally colourful — hasn't changed anything in the industry. And so I mean to offer some insight for those interested in this avenue.

YOUR AUDIENCE

The big difficulty, (beyond having to pay for everything) is that a self-publisher is responsible for creating an audience. That is, after the long and involved slog of writing and editing a book, you have to distribute, promote and market it. You have to get reviewed, noticed, talked about; you have to create your readers.

The success stories of mega-popular Kindle authors get trotted out way too often, but they represent a random statistical pipe-dream. Writers know grand success isn't attainable for all — especially when you're competing with literally millions of other authors in an over-abundant market. Realistically, your audience might be in the tens.

And for those, you have to hustle and stand out and get noticed. You have to harass people, almost bludgeon them into reading. Which means you'll need to consider hype, controversy, any and all buzz-worthy marketing tactics. You need to blog, tweet and reddit your heart out. You have to enter (mostly paid) competitions in the hope of gaining something blurbable. You have to cadge Amazon reviews. Coverage, people! Raise your profile and raise your ranking! You need to give away freebies (digital and print), you need to ask favours (because marketing isn't cheap) and you'll need to schlepp your book to shops, libraries, cafes, anywhere. You need to get people talking — and this is incredibly hard to do in a digital age without sounding desperate or crass or barkingly un-savvy. You might as well go door to door, while you're at it.

You need to establish and then prove your readership for any of the regular avenues of publishing & display to open up to you.Without press or reviews, a bookstore won't even take a sniff.

REVIEWS, REVIEWS

Every self-publishing how-to article tells you to get reviewed, get coverage — in any form — because reviews equals links which equal Google ranking which equal eyeballs, ultimately. Dozens of online review sites offer a professional, fee-based review service that exploit this specific digital desperation: will read novel for cash.

The big question is how to get reviewed, seriously, without seeming like a self-published desperado hungry for eyeball-coverage. Because as self-publisher, you're tarred with the brush of random yahoodom. Who are you again, where are you from? 

And this question of desperation is totally removed from anything to do with literary value or worth, the saleability or aesthetic pleasure of your book. A lot of crap is still marketed, and a lot of quality will always be ignored — this is not a meritocracy. It's the breaking in, the entering the attention-market, that's the real brass ring.

How do you convince an editor of a print journal (or even a bookstore manager) that your book is worthy and robust enough for critique and notice — especially when they only review regular-model books? Subtle rhetorical appeals of support for local authors? All-round niceness? As a noob, you can't guarantee the level of saleability the industry relies on so hard; you can't guarantee return on risk. You can see the bind of it all.

Now of course, there's a question of resourcing: literary journals and local bookstores are usually run on an oily rag, not big budgets and power lunches. They can't (on top of all the other editorial & business work) spend time sorting and sifting through potentially thousands of self-made works, hungry for coverage. Attention is sacred; sales are holy — so we'll stick with our Wintons and Flanagans, thanks.

But surely, to invert the statistics of abundance, somewhere in that rich and dense digital slush pile, there's a genuine nugget worth reading and promoting. Surely — just one. Isn't it possible there's something they're missing out on? If only on an occasional, toeing-the-water basis?

The problem boils down to a dual combination of attention (how to get it) and expectation (what to expect from publishing). Let's be realistic, or rather, let's get real about what the paradigm shift in publishing really means. 

DOWNGRADE YOUR EXPECTATIONS

The numbers don't lie: the potential is there — but realistically your audience is minimal. Microscopic. So get real about both who your target audience is, and be satisfied with their smallness. Don't worry about unlikely success stories and the talking-up of random fame; focus instead on the readers that matter, the achievable readers. It's not about generating 10,000 rabid fans who'll follow your every word and whim: it might realistically be 100 only mildly interested people — but within that five score might be five who care about what you say, and of those, maybe one reader who's actually changed by what you wrote. Who will tell someone else out of genuine excitement.

Remember it might take years to find that meaningful handful — that this is a long game. You're tossing a seed into the wind. The prevailing winds, the seasons of taste, the random soils where it lands… all need to connect and be fertile.  If there's a significant idea or story in your book, then it might take root. If there is an audience for your style, your angle, then people might take note. This requires a degree of trust and stoicism multiplied by ample good faith in time. The long time of the long tail. Call it a strategic faith you can prepare and lay the groundwork for. Here are some tenets:
  • Do it to meet your own good taste.
  • You are most likely not going to be the subject of a bidding war involving six-figure advances.
  • Don't let the indifference of the world deflate you — it's just the normal, resting state of the world.
  • Don't let your audience-marketing hat depress the creative-brain-hat — that is, don't stop working. Onto the next book, the next idea: always be producing.
  • All aspects of the quality of the work rest with you. Cover image, editing, typesetting — these must be done professionally or look totally professional. Do not skimp on any factors of quality, on top of the quality of the text; that is, the meat of your book.
  • Send friendly and honest letters to all potentially helpful people, with a sample or taster — but not the whole work. There's a fine line (ask any advertising guru) between bludgeoning and cultivating interest. Work on the knowledge that people's attention span is precious and small, and that most forms of marketing-bark are a turn-off.
  • Don't give away too many freebies. Even a book gifted in the spirit of giving confuses people (except for libraries — be generous with libraries). There is a wonky balance of free and freemium that's almost expected now, which you'll have to work out on your website/blog/feed. But don't expect anything — just be surprised and thankful for what does come back. 
That seems to be about the base line of expectation and realisation here.

It's only a matter of time before bookstores make nodding, belated movements to the electronic and self-published factor. If the shopfront of culture — or rather the model of how we access culture — has shifted largely online, then the old-school, analogue distribute-and-display stores will have to make some shifts too, and get creative about how to work with the ideas and lateral opportunities offered by books. To take small risks again.

I have some ideas about how this could work.

3 comments:

Joe V said...

This is realistic and yet encouraging for the fledgling writer. Well done. And I do wish you future luck.

rino breebaart said...

Thanks Joe!

writelephant.com said...

The Queensland Writers' Centre seem a bit too "centred" for their own good! Good advice to always have that next project on the go. :)