We’re all familiar I’m sure with the truism/cliche that the first casualty of war is truth and now I’m here to tell you that I think the first casualty of indie epublishing may be self-confidence.
A couple of months ago I got hold of a copy of Neil Fraser Addison’s The Contenders, reviewed yesterday. At the time he was trying NOT to sell out to Amazon and doing something that had appealed to me (but I’d finally discarded as yet another of my hopelessly romantic/naive thoughts which would only fail and end up in renewed cynicism and hatred of all ‘systems’ and the mighty though perhaps fictional ‘them’) which was distributing through a kind of honesty box shop front where the reader pays what they think the book is worth. Needless to say, it wasn’t a success for him. Why? (Are you falling around laughing at this question?) Do I need to ask it? Well maybe not ask, but certainly I feel some exploration of the question is important.
As it turns out, a couple of months is a long time in e-publishing. Neil has now ‘pulled’ The Contenders from distribution so you can’t read it even if you want to. That’s his prerogative as an indie publisher. But why did he do it?
I believe we are in a sort of wild west land grab situation in e-publishing at the moment. Many describe it as ‘anarchy’ but I don’t think it is. Not under a strict definition of anarchy which is not as popularly misconceived ‘chaos’ but rather ‘lack of government’ (and not just political government). Sorry, as a philosophical anarchist I get somewhat pedantic about it (but don’t worry, I save these rants for my personal blog HERE.) No, I think a land grab is a more appropriate analogy because what’s behind most of what is ‘going on’ in epublishing is to do with corporations and economics and money and business models and the like – and for those of us who are primarily ‘creative’ writers this may be an uncomfortable truth but it’s the way things are for now. Which doesn’t mean we have to play by these rules. But it means that if you don’t, you can’t (at the moment) expect ‘success’ in market (or financial) terms. Anarchy, independence and chaos all seem to feature highly as buzzwords in current debates of the epublishing world. Interesting times. Infuriating times. Unsettling times. Times when confidence and the lack of it can be crucial.
For seasoned writers like myself who’ve seen things come and go and have a healthy cynicism for business models and a healthy respect for our own creative principles, on one level what’s happening doesn’t matter a damn. Of course I have to ‘dance with the devil’ from time to time and keep my eye on the ‘marketplace’ to see what new, improved way of relieving money from readers (and writers) ‘they’ have come up with. But all it changes is my terms of engagement. Sometimes. In the last year I’ve engaged with independent distributors and Kindle Direct and Kindle Select and free giveaways and ratings and forums and all that malarky. But I’ve done it as an ‘independent’ publisher to enhance my awareness and knowledge of the way things are. To learn my trade. As a publisher. I’m learning how best to adapt my publishing strategy to current trends and predict future trends without compromising my principles. Note that this is all about publishing. And all about being an independent publisher. Not about my writing.
And here is where a dichotomy rears its ugly head I fear. For newer (I won’t say younger writers because many of the ‘new’ indie ebook publishers are in fact quite OLD by industry standards – see post by Catherine Czerkawska (and many other good blogposts) -there are many pitfalls in indie (or self) e-publishing of which the foremost I perceive is dented self-confidence. In the ‘good’? old days you had people to tell you whether your work was ready and a saleable ‘commodity’ and you either took their word for it or went off hunting someone with a vision closer to yours. Or took their constructive criticism to heart and tried to ‘improve’ your work. But if you were having these conversations you were already in the ‘professional’ sphere. If you were not ‘professional’ (and I simply mean earning a living by working in ‘the industry’) you just got rejections (if they were polite it was a positive sign) if you got any response at all. The problem is, work being ‘ready’ to a publisher means being ‘saleable’ in their terms, not just being well written. The smoke and mirrors that suggests that publishers have as much power as they’d like you to think has more or less faded and the genie is out of the bottle as regards their ‘special’ status. They are running businesses. They have budgets and financial restrictions and constraints and they are selling ‘product.’ That’s what they do. They are not the omniscient, omnipotent arbiters of quality or taste. They are part of a multi million pound industry. They are not there to tell you if your work is ‘good enough’ just to tell you if they think they can sell it.
Now,in my opinion to say something needs to be well written is as basic a concept as breathing…
(we’ll ignore all the badly written tripe that gets published for the sake of this argument; that gets by because A LOT of people will buy what they are told to buy when they are told they want to buy it. In books as with soap powder, mortgages, holidays and ‘products’ ad infinitum. I’ll assume my readership here sees the folly of that position, but if you bought and read or even didn’t read but still downloaded them ’50′ things then you might need to reassess your personal relationship with epublishing and maybe you should have stopped reading this by now!)
…and after you have written something well, to the best of your ability, edited and proof read it, then what you are doing is getting involved in ‘publishing.’ This is where the line is drawn between writing and publishing for me. That’s not the conventional way, but we are no longer in the traditional model. The indie writer is responsible for the quality of their own work. They can hire in editors/proof readers and the like but it’s their own responsibility to make sure their work is finished and ‘good enough’ before they start publishing.
I fear that at least as many self/indie published writers ‘correct’ or ‘adapt’ or ‘change’ their work when they don’t get sales or a positive marketplace response as put their work out there in need of ‘corrections’ or improvement. I’d hate to be a new writer today. How can you tell the difference between whether the advice you get or the responses you get are actually valid or not? You can’t. It’s something that comes from years of experience. And for the ‘old pro’s’ like me it’s something we learned in years of meetings and rejection letters and the odd eureka moment when someone ‘got’ what you were trying to do or you ‘got’ what they were suggesting wasn’t working. But work never ‘went out’ before it was of a standard. (Rare enough for it to go out when it was of a standard if your content didn’t match the socio-political and economic/financial aims of your publisher/broadcaster). Note that we didn’t learn it in a ‘classroom’ but in the workplace. ‘Professional’ creative writing was fundamentally vocational rather than academic. The world has changed, I know that.
I would still advocate that what ‘new’ writers thinking of epublishing along an indie/self route should do is make sure that they KNOW what the strengths of their work is BEFORE they let it loose on the world. If that requires academic study fine. If only a rigorous course of self study also fine but you do need to learn things about writing. ‘Talent’ is not enough. Technique is important too. I am a great believer in the importance of internal consistency and creative coherence and intentionality.
But most of all ‘new’ indie writer/publishers need to understand that there’s two parts to the process. The writing part requires skill, understanding and creative ability. The publishing part requires different and additional skillsets.. If you don’t find a way of marrying these two together you will end up unhappy. And out of pocket. The self/indie distinction may be subtle but it exists. Ask yourself: Are you primarily a self-publisher (interested only in getting your words out there and presumably making money or getting acclaim for it) or are you an independent publisher who happens to be publishing your own work? It’s self publishing which has to defend itself against those juju words ‘vanity’ and ‘unprofessional’.. And to watch out for the ‘self publishing’ companies. (Vanity press reimagined?! because surely if you are SELF publishing you DO IT yourself, not just pass it on to someone else who charges you for them to publish without any proper editorial input. And if you are paying for editorial input/marketing from a self publishing company how do you know of their credibility? Not by the number of self published works they have put out. Beware never mind the quality feel the width!)
True indie publishing (in my opinion) requires that you use the same standards for your own work as you would for anyone else’s and the same standard you require as a consumer/reader. ‘Professional’ standards. And that you know or learn what these are.
Being an indie author isn’t the same as being an indie publisher to my mind. It’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. As I understand it, Neil Addison has ‘pulled’ The Contenders because he didn’t sell many copies. And I think that’s led to a loss of self-confidence in his work. I think he thinks he needs to adapt or improve it somehow. I’m not so sure. If I were his editor in a paid capacity I would give him a few pointers of course, changes he might effect to make the ‘story’ more ‘fulfilling’ to a type of reader. Change the ending. Add more to ‘conclude’ the story. Give us a clearer ‘resolution.’ This advice would be based on my ‘experience’ but also perhaps on my ‘personal preferences.’ And I’m not his editor and I’m NOT suggesting this to him. Because, I gave him the respect of reading what I believed was a finished work. And I had an email correspondence with him at the point at which I finished the novel to CHECK whether his ending was ‘intentional’ or not. He suggested to me it was. I was happy with that and reviewed it on that basis. If it was ‘unfinished’ or ‘not good enough’ we are talking about a whole different kettle of fish. The salient question seems to be: Is it an issue of confidence of completeness?
Reflecting back now, I wonder if either my comment or someone else’s has made him think twice about his work. Yes if he wants to be a ‘commercial’ success he’ll need to write to the sort of formula that doesn’t just ‘finish’ because the writer has had enough of his characters, but takes the readers expectations into consideration. But he doesn’t HAVE to do that. I’m sure a traditional publisher would advise him to do it in order to make his work more ‘saleable’ but I think this argument is weak. I think his work is not not selling primarily because of how it’s written. (And now it’s not selling at all, because he’s pulled it.) In my opinion his work isn’t selling because of the land grab mentality and the fact that he’s an inexperienced publisher in a marketplace that will chew you up and spit you out soon as look at you. Any indie writer/publisher who believes that the epublishing ‘market’ is sympathetic or favours the individual is living in a fantasy world. The conditions exist that the individual can engage with ‘the market’ but being part of a hierarchical system or buying into a pyramid scheme doesn’t mean you are king or take home the money! Think on the words: free market economy. And the difference between this and Fair Trade. Wake up and smell the virtual coffee!
My suggestion to any writer would be ‘Know what you are doing and don’t compromise on your intentions.’ It’s up to you if you want to confound reader expectations. And for The Contenders, a novel which is a searing commentary on the commercialisation and general de-humanising of our modern society, I think that making it more ‘commercial’ would be going against the spirit and integrity of the work. I have a feeling Neil might work this out for himself . What he’s experiencing is part of the gig of being a true creative ‘indie’. I have a feeling his indie writer may be in conflict with his indie publisher. Not a pretty sight. Quite enough to dent his self confidence and for him to pull his work from publication. Normally this action would incur my wrath for the reasons already mentioned about work being ‘good enough’ or ‘finished’ before it is published. I’m giving Neil the benefit of the doubt. And suggesting it’s a debate we are all involved in as readers and as writers in this emerging publishing environment.
Advice to those new to the whole self/indie writer/publisher process #1: Don’t publish till you are ready. Yes it is ‘easy’ to pull it down, tweak it, work on it and put it up again but you will lose all credibility in the process. Amazon don’t care, they are selling PRODUCT and they have millions of products to sell. One more or less is no skin off their nose. No cost to them. Readers will care because people don’t want to buy something and then find it’s not the finished article. If they are paying money (and investing time to read) they want to have something you have made as good as you can and you believe in wholeheartedly.
There’s enough problems in the whole formatting/conversion technical area of epublishing at the moment (often the writer/publisher gets the blame for things which are actually the distributor or ereaders issue) to keep us aggravated, and I think we all need to become a bit more accepting of the odd line out of place or indent or misplaced heading and the like. Don’t always look to blame the indie writer/publisher for this. But if an indie publisher has a slapdash approach to publishing it reflects badly on the whole sector. As I say repeatedly, I’ve never read ANY book without a typo. Poorly edited, poorly written, poorly marketed books are not the province of indie writing/publishing, they are part of the whole industry.
As a reader (or even consumer) of ebooks it is easy to read samples and make informed judgements BEFORE you part with any money and if you don’t research what you are about to purchase but simply rely on a freebie-fest or a ‘I like the title, I like the cover, everyone else says it’s good’ mentality then you need to stop complaining. The readers’ expectations are important but the writer cannot intuit every single reader’s own personal expectations and live up to them. Reading a book is a symbiotic relationship.
Advice to new writer #2: If you have written something you believe in, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not ‘good enough’ or ‘needs changing’ or whatever. If you know what you set out to achieve and have confidence that you have achieved this then it’s a good idea not to fall into the trap of listening to advice from people who have an ulterior motive. It’s up to you to learn enough to have confidence in your own ability. Which is not the same as putting your work out there to be hung out to dry by anyone with basic keyboard skills and an attitude. You probably need to find people whose judgement you respect in the first instance to help you gain this confidence. But you need to look at why people give you the advice they give you as well. The good thing about epublishing is that anyone can publish whatever they like. But people buy what they want to buy (or what they are told to buy.) As an indie writer/publisher you need to become savvy about what you are doing and why. What your goals and ambitions are. Be honest. Be realistic. Don’t buy the bull, learn about the ‘industry’ and the reality of the emergent publishing world. And don’t EVER pay someone to tell you you or your work is great. That IS vanity my friends. Hire professionals if you like but make sure it’s YOU who is hiring and firing and develop a relationship of equals, don’t fall into the trap of being gulled by snakeoil salesmen in any of their modern guises.
For me, The Contenders is unusual and its ‘unresolved’ aspect offers some interesting space for me as a reader to engage with Addison’s ideas. Of course the easy, comfortable thing would be to stick a conventional ending on it – and if Addison feels it lacks that then he should of course do so. If not, not. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about reading indie ebooks over the last four months has been the unique voices and styles which I’ve encountered. Those who are taking ‘the road less travelled.’ I’m not a fan of badly written work, it annoys me because I hate wasting my time and/or money. But I am a fan of interesting work that makes you think. I don’t need my books to be homogenised, I’m happy if they are ‘homemade.’ But for me, cheap mass produced crap is as bad as cheap homemade crap. Yet high quality hand finished artisan products can hold their own with the finest designer product can’t they?
I’ve written before about the ‘free’ nature of ebook consumption and its associated problems.
http://wp.me/p261oC-dC / Be careful what you wish for
http://wp.me/p261oC-a4 What price ebook fame
It seems to me that at the moment, in land grab mode people just want to cram their ereaders like pigs in a trough. Not even reading most of what they download. It’s not that unusual is it when ebooks are being handed out for nothing and the aspiration culture we embrace revels in ‘getting something for nothing’. My opinions on this are to be found in novel form in Brand Loyalty.
Like The Contenders, Brand Loyalty looks at our contemporary world from a non-mainstream stance. I know exactly what I was trying to say. I believe I’ve said it. I know it’s a view that will not appeal to everyone (or even most) and that people tend to fear what they don’t understand and not like what doesn’t accord with their world view. Apart from the people who read to be challenged. Those are the people I’m trying to find (and those are the ones Neil Addison should be looking for) They are not the majority of the ebook buying public. They are not the majority of anything. But they are perhaps more likely to pay for an ebook than simply download everything for free because you can.
I have to believe that some people are able to work out that there are ‘real’ people behind this ‘virtual’ world. Real people with bills to pay and shaky self-confidence who can be upset by helpful comments as much as by rude and unhelpful criticism from people who have downloaded something for free with the expectation that the writer is some sort of puppet whose job is to provide them with EXACTLY the kind of story they want. I have no respect for the latter kind of people or interest in their opinions of my work. That’s because I have the confidence built out of 20 years working professionally in the writing ‘industry.’ I know my ‘job’ is to write to the best of my ability, something I believe in and believe to be worthy of publication. I’ve put in many more than my 10,000 hours and I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’ve taken my writing ‘career’ seriously whether or not I was being ‘successful’ in market terms. I’m newer as a publisher, but I take that job seriously too. Much more seriously than simply paste and click publishing. I have a dual career now – writer and publisher. I will always remain independent. That’s part of who I am. Self doesn’t really come into it for me.
For me the issue with The Contenders now is: is the work unfinished or is the writer suffering a crisis in self-confidence. I don’t know him so I can’t say. He may want The Contenders to be a different book from that which it is. Which is different from saying he thinks it ‘needs’ to be different in order to succeed. I can (fairly) confidently predict that, in the short term at least, WHATEVER he does to change The Contenders will not make it a financial success and that this has nothing whatever to do with the critical success it may or could be. It’s to do with the nature of the land-grab culture of the times we live in. But readers or potential readers should consider that if we all keep adhering to the free market economy model then a lot of really good creative writers will turn their back on epublishing and we as readers will be left with 50 degrees of what we deserve!
So if you think you might be interested in The Contenders – as it has been reviewed or how he may change it in the future – contact Neil and beg him to sell you a copy.
Thus endeth the editors secular sermon. Thank you for reading! I appreciate this was long (and longwinded at times) but I think it’s an important issue – and you have the whole weekend to read and reflect on it. And unlike much advice to self/indie writers/publishers IT’S FREE.