Sunday, 29 September 2013

Rise of the Guerrilla Writer

Most people happily believe that they have a novel in them, but getting a publishing deal has always been the impossible dream; even success stories generally include multiple early rejections, time-consuming back-and-forth and then a tiny trickle of royalties if you're lucky enough to earn out your advance. In short, a tough life.

Amazon has led the way in changing the fortunes of those who are hoping to hit the bestselller list. With the advent of the Kindle they introduced direct publishing back in 2007. The payments have remained the same since 2009: any writer who uploads a book earns 70% of the takingsa generous slice of cash considering that you can't get a bigger platform for your offerings.

E-books have been overtaking paperbacks for several years now, and Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple and Kobo all have their own e-readers AND offer writers the opportunity to self-publish. If your readers don't own a kindle, they can still find a format that suits them (hell, they could even download the kindle for PC if they were really keen).

This new freedom has revolutionised the publishing business. It's a slow process, but it seems the "big six"  are losing their grip and independent publishing is the way to go. Just as the music business was transformed by Myspace and Youtube, artists and writers no longer have to wait around for someone in power to notice them or hand them the keys to success. These days they can simply release their work online, publicise it on twitter / tumblr / facebook etc and reap all the financial benefits themselves.

So, the good news is: anyone can publish a book if they want to. The bad news is, anyone can publish a book if they want to. "Indie" authors hate it if you mention this, but there is a huge amount of crap out there. Scan the "free" and 99p range of books at Amazon and among the old classics you'll find hand-drawn covers, blurbs riddled with typos and the proud claim "this was written when the writer was only sixteen years old." (I think it's best if we all just burn those old notebooks, isn't it?)

Of course, on Kindle nobody knows you're a dog.

The flood of books which wouldn't even have made it as far as the slush pile is astonishing. (Some of them are even selling quite well.) But let's face it, amid all the 5-star reviews from the writers' friends and family, there are an awful lot of notes about misspellings and the staggering need for an editor.

However, there's a dedicated group of authors who take their professionalism very seriously and are working hard to get away from the "all self-published books are crap" stigma. They spend money on editors and copy editors and employ professionals to design their covers. Some create their own publishing companies to avoid the giveaway "Published by Amazon" moniker. (There are some unscrupulous establishments which offer to do the quick work of formatting and uploading the book, in exchange for a large percentage of the royalties. This dubious deal only works for those who would rather have books released under an umbrella name than put up with the shame of going it alone. Talk about vanity publishing...)

Bestsellers such as The Shack and 50 Shades of Grey* started life as indie novels (with the latter perhaps not really helping to erase the expectation of terrible writing) and even Jackie Collins is doing it. So with all these new developments, I wonder why on earth anyone would still choose to be traditionally published?
  1. I want the validation of having someone in the biz tell me that I'm good enough.
  2. I want professional help with the editing and cover design.
  3. I want to sell paperbacks because I don't think much of these new-fangled e-books.
  4. I want to do fancy book signings and have long boozy lunches with publishers.
  5. I want to be eligible for awards. 
  6. I don't want to have to do all the marketing myself.
  7. I want to see my books on the shelves in book shops.
To which I would answer:
  1. You don't need a publishing gatekeeper sell directly to readers and they'll let you know that you're "good enough" by buying your book and leaving you nice reviews. Besides, think of all those stories about classic novels which were turned down a million times prior to publication. Publishers are guessing as much as the next man; if they weren't, every book they signed would be a bestseller.
  2. You can get professional help with editing, cover design and whatever else you desire you just hire freelancers. (And help out a small business too. How cool is that?) You might end up spending cash on editing even if you sign with an agent –- apparently they often recommend a "book doctor" they know for polishing the manuscript before they take it to publishers.
  3. You CAN sell paperbacks. Amazon has a program called Createspace and there are a few other indie printers springing up.
  4. You can organise your own book signings. The same goes for publicity interviews with book bloggers, tours of cities and anything else a publisher can organise for you (but probably won't). Many indie writers do all of these. (The boozy lunches will probably have to be solo, though. At least you'll be following a grand tradition of literary greats.)
  5. Ah, here's where things get tricky. There has been some snobbery about self-published books although they are now recognised by the NY times bestseller list (and yes, some of them have made it). This may or may not improve but there are also steps you could take to make your "independent publishing business" look more legit. 
  6. Tough luck, because you're probably going to have to do 99% of it even if you do get a traditional publishing deal. Agents now look out for writers with a strong online presence if you have 5,000 twitter followers awaiting your novel because they know it's going to be right up their street, you're in a stronger position than someone who doesn't know how to work Facebook. It may not make or break your book, but if there are only so many deals to be handed out that year, why wouldn't the publishers go with someone who is a sure-fire money maker, rather than risking it on the total unknown? Duh!
  7. What's a bookshop?
Ha ha. I jest of course. Except it's not really funny. I may not be entirely responsible for the demise of the bookshop, but I'm a pretty good example of why they've failed, as I haven't bought a book in one since 2002, when I discovered Amazon. (To be fair, it's only huge chain stores like Borders that I have forced closure upon, because Watford doesn't really do "cute independent" shops.) I do still buy from second hand bookshops, obviously, and I love book swapping sites like greenmetropolis and readitswapit.

Here's a shameless plug for some of my artwork depicting my love of the written word:

The trouble is, Amazon is just better. (And this is why it's the biggest freaking bookshop in the world). Not only are books (and everything else) likely to be at their cheapest at Amazon, but it's so much more fun (and informative) to browse when you know that you're accessing a list of pretty much all the books there are, instead of the tiny fraction represented by Waterstones. I can find a book I'm interested in, read reviews about it, and discover what else was bought by fans of it (this has been an invaluable tool, and I hereby thank every Amazon reviewer who has led me to new and fantastic books and music).

The only way that bookshops had the internet beaten was the ability to flick through the pages and get an idea of the writer's voice but now that Amazon boasts a "look inside" feature, they've got the market cornered. Bookshops can't compete with the ease of online window-shopping, so even though Amazon are a big giant evil corporation which is taking over the world, they are very clever at what they do. And thanks to them, writers have more publishing freedom than past generations could ever dream of.

If making your self-published book available worldwide through the miracle of the internet isn't enough, you can actually get those paperbacks you printed into bookstores. Pick the marginally more expensive option of "expanded distribution" at Createspace (or use the slightly less writer-friendly printers at Lightning Source) and you can walk into a bookshop and order your book. You can even offer it to libraries.

Don't you want to be the reason for this kind of happiness?

Waterstones themselves actually accept submissions from independent publishers, so get yourself a website and a PO Box and you're sorted! There's no guarantee that they'll choose to stock your book, but there's no guarantee it will happen for a first time traditionally-published writer either not while the shelves are packed with diet guides and celebrity autobiographies.

What else can a big publisher do that you can't? Well, they do have the power to publicise your book with far greater reach than you could do yourself. However, that doesn't mean that they WILL. How many books do you think get published per year? Hundreds of thousands, right? And how many do you see reviewed in newspapers, touted in posters on the tube or given pride of place in bookshops? A mere handful. (And at least half of those will be established authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who would only need to upload a book to kindle for the news of the new release to whizz around the world within minutes.) 

And the money? There is no publisher on earth who could offer you a 70% share of the profits. Advances for first time writers tend to be fairly modest, and it's decidedly short-sighted to get all excited about a lump sum when you could earn far more over thirty years (and beyond) by opting for a higher percentage of cash. Also, some aspiring authors have this odd quirk where they see the advance as a wonderful, magical gift from the gods. Let's make one thing clear: an advance is not *extra* money. It's literally an advance of the money that you're expected to make. So let's say that your publishers are guessing they'll make £100,000 out of your novel. Your contract is 12% of those profits, so your advance is £12,000. If you end up making more than your publishers expected you to, that's when you'll start getting those dribs and drabs of royalty cheques. Again, not extra money still part of your 12% share of the profits.

While you may think that you don't want to be bothered with the details of editing and cover design, you might change your tune when it becomes apparent that you have absolutely NO SAY in them. There are horror stories about agents or publishers who ask for extensive rewrites and then end up passing on the finished product. Writers such as Isobel Losada (who has been vocal about her frustration with traditional publishing) have openly said that they hate the covers chosen for their books. (Try googling "writer hates book cover" for entertainingly horrific stories of Kafka-esque conversations with editors).

Another advantage of self-publishing is that you can make changes instantaneously on Kindle editions, and Print on demand (or POD) arrangements mean that there will be no print runs of 50,000 books before finding a typo. Although indie writers get a bad rap, mistakes occur in books which have passed through the hands of several professional editors / agents / publishers. Who could forget Susan Anderson's infamous love scene in which her hero "shitted on the ground"?

Many disillusioned traditionally published writers tell war stories on Amazon's messageboards for writers (a fantastic resource, by the way). Evidently getting an agent (the holy grail for the aspiring author) may be only the beginning of the battle.

As one contributor puts it; "Here's another thing that I've learned over the years and my most recent agent confirmed – each agent has a limited number of contacts with editors. They might know 10-15 editors that they have lunch with, and these are the editors they have a legitimate shot of selling books to. If they send out a submission to an editor they don't have a relationship with, it's very low probability that the book will be taken seriously."

And worse; "Agents have super short attention spans.  If your book gets turned down 3 or 4 times, they lose interest and spend their time on the next hot chick on the block. If another agent has tried and failed, your book's not a virgin so you can basically fuggedaboutit even if you get another agent."

(N.B. Obviously, I have no guarantee that a random person on a forum is a reliable source. But you have to admit, it sounds true.)

Another member described a depressingly pessimistic "best case scenario" for getting a publishing deal:

"Immediately after reading my post, you get an email from an agent you queried six months ago. She loves the sample chapters you sent her and wants to read the whole thing.

One month later (October 2013), she writes you, saying she loved your book and wants you as a client. You sign.

Six months later (April 2014), she tells you she has a publisher interested in your book. Negotiations begin.

Three months later (July 2014), negotiations are complete. You sign with the publisher for a £5,000 advance (although it's much more likely to be £2,500, but this is the best case scenario). You don't know it at the time, but this is all the money you will ever see from this book. Your book enters the publishing world's deep freeze.

Eighteen months later (January 2016), following cover design, edits, and pricing, which you have no control over and are told by your 25-year-old editor to take it or leave it, your book appears in the stores.

Six weeks later (March 2016), your book is pulled for lack of sales, during which time the publisher has done nothing whatsoever to promote you or your book, telling you they "don't have the staff like they used to" to do all the stuff you say you don't want to do. They advise you instead to "set up a few signings in your area" to boost your profile, at your own expense, of course. Meanwhile, after your book is pulled, all remaining copies are ground up into pulp.

And that's the best case scenario. It would likely take longer. Oh and the publisher now owns the rights to your book. Good luck getting them back." 

As Cheever could tell you, there's a reason why writers drink.

Of course, there are the exceptional cases; Twilight was Stephenie Meyer's debut but it bought her a $750,000 three-book deal. (On the other hand, J.K. Rowling only got £2,500 as an advance for the first Harry Potter story. Luckily she went on to make a few bob anyway.) Publishing via Kindle is a similar crapshoot; Amanda Hocking famously made $2 million in her first year of releasing vampire fiction; but half of the self-published writers earn only $500. Yikes. (To put this in perspective, check out this traditionally published author's glee at earning out her advance I calculated that she made less than $1.25 per book sale.)

Even the established authors getting nice lump sums claim the numbers are not all they seem; Barry Eisler famously turned down half a million dollars in favour of publishing independently and explained his decision thus:"My tendency has been to focus too much on that big, seductive number. But to understand what the number really represents, you have to break it down. Start by taking out your agent's commission: your $500,000 is now $425,000. Then divide that $425,000 over the anticipated life of the contract, which is three years (execution, first hardback publication, second hardback publication, second paperback publication). That's about $142,000 a year.  This is a more realistic way of looking at that $500,000."

There are plenty of articles and blogs by traditionally-published writers who have turned to self-publishing in order to regain control over their books and the income they generate: James Altucher tells of the sneaky way that publishers claim credit for publicity you've created yourself, and Michael A. Stackpole likens trad-published writers to ignorant slaves (vs the "Spartacus" indie who has seen the benefits of jumping ship). Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez points out that when it comes to giving the readers what they want, the writer's instincts are far better than the "but we've never tried that before" publisher's. (And no, I've never heard of any of these authors either, yet they're selling enough books on Kindle to make a living. Interesting....)

There's also a particularly terrifying description of publishing loopholes which are akin to selling your soul to the devil; if you do want to pursue a traditional deal please get a great lawyer first! It seems that writers who are determined to concentrate on the art and not worry their pretty little heads about the business side of selling books are in for a rude awakening: as it turns out, agents are not the warm-hearted mother hens we've been led to believe! One might even say they're in it for the fast buck (a quick sell to any publisher) because they get 15% of every deal they close and they have plenty more writers standing in line behind you. Who'da thunk it? (And don't assume that your publisher won't try to lay claim to the books you release by yourself, either.)

So what advantages do agents and publishers really offer? Basically, film rights and foreign rights. That's it. Oh, and respectability.

Really, who cares about who published a book? If it's any good, readers will like it. Life's too short to put up with glacier-speed progress, contracts in which the person who does the least amount of work makes the most money, and being told what to do by people who have even less of a clue than you do.

Of course, you might sign with the best agent in the world, but it's unlikely that a first time writer will get anything more than a push out the door and a flurry of sales before the publishers have to move on to their next project they simply can't put a huge amount of energy into publicising every book when they have hundreds more in the system.

From the number of  indie writers who are offered deals, it seems that publishers now use Amazon as the slush pile and cherry-pick the books which are guaranteed sellers. But if you self-publish and sell lots of books, why would you want to randomly divide up the pie and hand someone else money for what you've created?

Self-publishing isn't for everyone; you'll need a flair for business and marketing as well as the ability to actually write good books (not to mention nerves of steel). But hasn't that always been the case for anyone publishing a book? The worst case scenario is that you upload your book and it never sells a single copy. The worst case in traditional publishing is that you tout it to agents for years and years without ever getting a deal. The end result (nobody reading your book) is the same, but the first option sounds like a lot less soul-destroying hassle to me. 

Viva la revolution!

ETA: Whoops, I fell for the media hype. 50 Shades of Grey was in fact NOT self-published. Truth really is stranger than fiction...

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