The Precarious Portentious Perils Of Self-Publishing

(Warning: unexpectedly long-ass post incoming.)

(Turn away now.)

(No, seriously, you were warned.)

I like self-publishing. I like having my hands in it. I like knowing what’s going on. I like owning the work from snout to tail, and owning the results of my work in the same way.

Further, I’ve read some incredible self-published work. Work that may never have reached my eyes were it not for the option for the author to circumvent the pomp and circumstance and reach me semi-directly.

So, count me as a fan of the option. In fact, let me say this to all writers: you should be self-publishing. Not all your work. But some of it. Take the option. Try it out. Diversification is good.

Okay? Okay.

Now, all that being said:

Self-publishing ain’t an easy road to walk. Oh, it’s sold that way. A lot of the self-publishing advice out there amounts to all the fucking wisdom of a Nike slogan: JUST DO IT, they say.

But doing the DIY-slash-indie-slash-micropub-slash-selfpub route is a path fraught with perils all its own — perils different from those encountered by the writer going the “other” way. And I’d like to talk about some of those perils here and now, both in order to make new writers aware of them and, further, to ideate some solutions for the aforementioned perils. I say, “Here there be gators,” and you say, “I will now show you my bonafide gator-whomping shock-bat.” And then we both turn toward the camera and show off our Mentos-twinkling minty-fresh smiles. Right? Right.

Maybe some of this will lend itself toward an eventual “best practices” of self-publishing. I dunno.

So. Self-publishing perils. Let’s have it.

The 800-Pound Cuddly Gorilla Named “Amazon”

This past week, Amazon said: “Hey, we’re starting this lending library, which is kind of like a Netflix for books available to Prime members, and that’s pretty cool. Self-published authors can be included in this and they’ll gain access to some part of the total money, but to gain that access they must choose to be exclusive to Amazon for 90 days.” That, of course, is the KDP Select program.

First, you’re probably going to want to check out David Gaughran’s post on this subject: “How Much Do You Want To Get Paid Tomorrow?” He says smart things. So, go there. I’ll wait.

Back? Good. I’ll say up front I’m not a fan of KDP Select at present: I sell 30% of my e-book wares directly to folks via this site and using Paypal. The money granted to me from KDP Select is mysterious: nobody’s had any experience with it yet and they’re asking for a lot given the utter lack of results. Further, I, as a bonafide paranoid, see glimpses of a Spotify future here for writers: suddenly for us to be making any money at all we have to make sure that 1.4 million people “check out” our books year after year. Overly fearful? Probably.

Just the same, KDP Select (which isn’t really what I’m here to talk about) is emblematic of a larger issue:

Amazon is a fucking megalodon shark in these self-publishing waters.

I know, I know, blah blah blah Smashwords, blah blah blah Barnes & Noble Nook. Your mileage may vary, but Smashwords to me is a non-option: it’s as ugly and obtrusive as a broken thumb. And B&N, I sell maybe 10% of my total to them. Maybe, on a good month. For the most part, my e-book revenue comes in as 70% Amazon, 30% direct sales. (Direct sales are up these days, though, from around 23%.)

Now, I like Amazon.

I don’t have any grave issue with them as a company and I’ve heard that working for them is a delight. Just the same, as much as you hear the self-publishing acolytes screaming about the mythic non-existent traditional publishing monopoly you rarely hear them issue concern over how Amazon is slowly reaching out with its big shark-gorilla arms and sweeping all the pieces toward its open slavering maw.

Say what you will about Apple (and you could): at least on my iPad I can read all kinds of e-books. On a Kindle Fire? I can read… well, Kindle books. Then you’ve got Amazon mobilizing its own publishing arms and swooping up authors under an NDA, and then you’ve got KDP Select and whatever else lurks in the wings. You start to see one possible future, which is when Amazon finally finishes carving its own proper kingdom out of the mountain and can suddenly exile authors once more to the caverns and chasms at the mountain’s base: they can say, “Hey, we’re revoking that 70/30 split and demanding exclusivity and we also want you to email us pictures of your genitals. Just so we have them. It’s in the terms of service. We own your pink parts. Thanks!”

Now, again: paranoid, I know. Just the same, companies aren’t people. Companies are beholden to a bottom line above an ethical proving ground, and once Amazon gains and retains all the pieces, they’ve no reason to be author-friendly. Because the ecosystem will have been redesigned and rebranded with the Amazon logo.

So. That’s the challenge. What’s the solution?

For me, it’s selling directly. Having that 30% margin proves I could, if need be, abandon the larger sites and switch entirely over to my own distribution (where the split is, by the way, better than 70/30) — and that may be the future for self-published authors: becoming our own distribution centers.

Shaking Your Can-Cans In The Whore’s Parade

We’re fucked for good promotion. Just fucked. Twitter has turned into a near-ceaseless whore’s parade of authors showing a little a lot of tit and advertising their self-published books over and over again. And I say that as an offender dancing in that very parade. I try to do right with it — try to be funny and engaging and equal out my self-promo whore-tweets with just as many non-whore tweets to water down the acrid bite of my whorishness, but just the same, it’s hard. And here’s the rub: it totally fucking works. If I advertise one of my books directly, you know what happens? I get sales. The more promo I do, the more sales I get.

Which means, being a trashy sloppy self-promo slut-bot is rewarding.

At least, it’s rewarding to my sales. I can’t say it’s particularly rewarding to my self-worth or my likability or my, I dunno, street cred. Do I have street cred? I probably have no street cred. My beard might. Alas: that’s a conversation for another time. Point being, promotional efforts on my part translate into sales.

This isn’t to say traditionally-published authors don’t do the same thing and don’t experience the same sense of gloomy shame — but I will say that, having publishers for both DOUBLE DEAD and BLACKBIRDS means I can lay off the stick a little bit. And it works: more people have reviewed and are talking about DOUBLE DEAD than any of my self-published work and in a very short time.

So — self-published writers have to be (put nicely) self-aggrandizing salesmen. And that’s no fun, not really. Thus I ask: what’s the solution? How else can we spread the word (and I mean, spread the words beyond our own social circles and beyond the self-publishing echo chamber, which is a very real and very troubling phenomenon)? Buying ads? Earning reviews in major publications? Wuzza? Wooza?

Discoverability And Filter Are Fucking Goofy

Related to the former challenge:

Discoverability and filter of self-published books are both crap. A giant, trembling termite’s mound of crap. Wandering a bookstore, I have a high quotient of browsing and I often find books I’d never have expected to find. Wandering Amazon just makes my eyeballs bleed. You’re practically browsing and filtering an infinity, and when you factor in the majority of self-published books, that means you’re going to browse a lot of covers that look like someone just ingested a rod of uranium and threw up in a clown’s shoe. (Meaning: revolting in the deepest, Lovecraftian sense.)

How do we change this? Do we need some kind of app that helps you discover books the same way an app helps you discover new music? How do we encourage the discoverability of our books? And us as writers?

Anecdotes And Edge-Cases Over Hard Data

Publishers have access to big data. Self-publishers have access to little data. Now, on a personal level, the little data matters and we need it — duh, we should know how much we’re selling. But what we don’t know is what’s going on outside our door. Yes, we hear the success stories, and we occasionally get numbers, but that doesn’t add up to meaningful data (though many of the zealots and cult leaders would have you believe that it does, but that’s how most Get Rich Quick schemes work).

We don’t know how successful self-publishers really are as a whole. Or why they’re successful, or what genres definitively work over ones that don’t, or how much contributes to sales. Big publishers have data that helps answer some of this: they have a much bigger picture (though an admittedly flawed picture at times) of the industry as a whole. Self-publishers learn only of their own little plots of land.

We operate in isolation.

Is anybody curating big data? And if they are, are they sharing it? How can we be more transparent with our numbers? Is it valuable to escape solitary and join the gen-pop in order to share bigger chunks of data?

Absolutely Zero Quality Control

All right, self-publishers, let’s get real for a minute.

Even after all that’s gone on in the last year, a lot of self-published books are still… well. Let’s just say they still suck a bag of dicks and then we all nod and frown and make sagely “mm, mm” noises.

Self-publishing has zero quality control. Zip, nada, nichts, bupkiss. Any goofy dillhole with a text file and a dream can punt his poorly-put-together-whatever into the marketplace to stink it up.

Now, I hear you, you have two retorts to this:

One: cream floats. To which I say: ennnh. Any browsing of the Kindle charts will show you that some truly execrable, objectively bad story-products find their way into the rankings.

Cream may float. But so does crap.

Two: traditional publishing has its equivalent share of stinkers. Yyyyeaaaaah-no. Not so much. If I take 10 randomly-selected books from the bookstore and then I choose 10 random self-published books, I genuinely believe that the bookstore books will at least meet the standards for being well-put-together and, to boot, will be books I don’t like based on subjective definitions. But I’ll bet you that at least half of the self-published books fail based on errors that any C-grade writer or publisher should’ve caught and fixed.

Let me just take a moment to share a post I saw on Authonomy:

“Virginia Woolfe – regarded as one of the most important women writers in history. — Self published

Mark Twain- The adventures of Huckleberry Fin- Originally self published.

A Time To Kill- John Grisham – self published.

Hmmm. You never know who else may be on that list.

I wonder what would have happened if that ONE agency hadn’t accidentally took home JK Rowlings Harry Potter. Do you think it would not have become what it is today if she had self published after so many rejections? I think it would have. The story people. That is what is most important to a 90% of your readers. I have read the perfectly edited MS of several writers and you know what, It’s so damn correct that it has become a basic cookie cutter pile of crap. But hey its perfect other wise. Writers are artists who do it for the pure joy of it and all I got to say about those who treat it like a buisness, following all the rules and etc just to make a dollar, you are not writers. You are not storytellers and you can self publish all day long and it wont matter. There’s no heart in it and the readers will know. What they won’t care about: oops. This sentence is missing a period. Oh no, they forgot the comma. Look, the dialog’s not indented. if the story is good enough, no one’s going to notice the small stuff. I’m not saying not to put effort into edting your work and making it the best possible, I’m just saying make sure your story is good because perfection is worthless to a reader.”

That’s all a little nutty. Isn’t it?

Writers can’t be businesspeople? Commas and periods and indentations are somehow too perfect? (And I keep seeing the myth that all these famous writers were self-published and so that means it’s totally cool, kay, thanks, bye. They usually miss that many of these writers were also traditionally-published and published in a very different ecosystem. And many were broke.)

Thing is, this attitude is pervasive in the self-publishing community — and nobody’s playing police officer and saying, “Wow, holy crap, that’s crazy. And, by the way, this is why we get less respect than we deserve.” Instead, you get the cheerleaders shaking their limp pom-poms, encouraging all the worst possible practices.

(For the record, that Authonomy thread was based on one of my self-publishing posts, apparently.)

This attitude is great for writers. “Who cares? Poop out a book!”

This attitude sucks for readers. “I just bought this book. And I think it’s made of poop?”

Why is this a challenge for all self-publishers? Because this is the stigma. Because this is what’s out there. This is your competition. What’s the solution? I really don’t know.

On one hand, it’d be great if Amazon and other sites had some kind of quality assessment, some objective scan of books to make sure that the covers don’t make me throw up and that sentences all have periods. But that’s never going to happen and, to boot, only puts more power in Amazon’s hands — and that gorilla doesn’t need to be jacked up any more than he already is.

If anything, it feels like this needs to come down to the community. Self-publishing no longer needs cheerleaders. It needs a dose of deep honestly and realism. It needs data above anecdotes, it needs new avenues instead of all of us being lumped into the same big sweaty room trying to hawk our flea market wares as if they were creepy dream-catchers we made out of tin cans and cat hair.

Your turn. Assess these challenges. Offer solutions. (Or debate the merit of their inclusion if so inclined — I’m just ranting over here, and will cop to that.) Offer your own challenges, if need be.

But let’s talk, yeah?

74 comments

  • I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.

  • Your narrative, your choice of words: I am enthralled. You have inspired me to purchase your work and to try and be more than a fraction of your genius.

    Unfortunately I don’t have any money, so I’ll just have to read this blog and imagine it’s your novels.

  • I agree with another commenter here: curating is key. It’s fine to have, in terms of quality, the .99 cent bin that is Amazon and other e-book mills, but there should be some consortium or union of authors that can put a seal on a book and say “Hey, this is Good Books Union approved.” It doesn’t have to be the traditional publisher scheme or anything, just something that carries the weight of credibility.

    Editing is, of course, also important but I also sympathize with the argument that seemingly over-editing the book and making it pristine can kill some of the magic. Indeed, I’d say it could kill innovation in literature and writing. Most great modernist writers wouldn’t have even gotten out of the gate if we were totalitarian in editing terms. With that said, a good writer argues with their editor. They present their case if they’re vehement that their editorial decision was right the first time — and that means backing up your argument and maybe having the courage to alter old ideas. I’ve combed through some author’s letters back-and-forth from their editors, and it’s some of the most illuminating discussion I’ve seen over editorial practices, and it’s made me realize that writing a novel is quite a team effort and the editor is almost as an important part of the process as the author is. From what I’ve seen, anyone who claims they don’t need an editor is lying or they’re delusional. Jack Kerouac was able to pull that shit for decades and say he never goes back and re-writes his stuff and didn’t let an editor touch it. Of course, we found decades later, that was crap. “On The Road” was heavily edited cause the original MS was crap. Hemingway’s maxim holds true with everyone; “The first draft of anything is shit.”

    So, tl;dr: an editor is key, also. If nothing else, they serve as a sounding board and a well of best-practices. The author should probably have a good relationship with their editor, or, at least, a productively adversarial relationship. Which means you need good editors, not just any editor. Still, most of us are novelists and short-story writers… not journalists, at least not primarily. The urgency to get everything grammatically pitch-perfect isn’t the same. There needs to be room for art, invention and, sometimes, revolution.

    I think authors — authors who care about the quality of their story, getting the message or characters or situations right, readable and relatable — should perhaps start forming cooperatives. If you have a unifying topic, or if you just have some friends who want to be published along with you, then get everyone together and start a collective money pot for marketing, PR, art, editing, or, better yet, DIY! Take some hints from the old punk scene or the new underground rock scene:

    Crass started their own record lable: they had a unified image, so while the art could be different, it had to be similar in style; they had one or two producers they collaborated with; they all went in on touring and getting their music out there, etc. There are modern rock collectives that have done the same, like Neurot Recordings and Hydrahead Records. Not only does this have the benefit of propagating good, challenging, artful music (IMO) but it allows for a lot of good experimental cross-pollination between the musicians. I think an author collective could do the same, and there are some distant examples of where that’s true… look at Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and the circle of authors they published.

    More than anything, authors need to be a circle of friends and admirers. It’s fine that so many people want to get into it, but I don’t like that it’s kind of devolved into individuals, taking on all the monetary and artistic stresses of writing a book and then — seemingly — washing their hands of it in the marketplace, when the end-product needs refining… much more refining. We used to have close or somewhat close circles of authors, little movements, and they would talk to each other. Or you’d have authors who avoided other writers but associated, still, with another massive group of people, like what Cormac McCarthy does. He doesn’t like hanging around writers… he spends his time with mathematicians and scientists.

    Anyway, this is getting too rambling and off the point. I think my main point can be rounded out as this: curation, editing (having occassional fights with your editor), collective support. There’s so much more that goes into a good book than people realize, and while it’s a solitary making for the author, those influences are also what make a good novel. Just some other things to consider, I guess.

  • Again, why should anyone waste time listening to anything a self-pub says? There’s nothing backing them up. I’ve never seen a selfie even list their educational background. Hell, even a credit as yearbook editor would be better than “I uploaded a file! Praise me! Give me money! Pretend I’m real smart!” The whole thing is nauseating for readers, and a major, major waste of our time. I just want the selfies to go away. I keep a list of approved publishers from the ITW and MWA handy so I can check “marketing.” I haven’t even begun to make it through the books I want to read from publishers I trust. No one, anywhere, has given me a good reason to spend one second on a selfie book. Not. One.

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