Everything has changed in publishing over the last few years. And nothing has changed. That is the only conclusion I can extract from all the discussion that has been filling newspapers, magazines and the blogosphere. It’s hard to make much sense out of any of it. So I’ve pretty much decided to stop trying and just do what I want.
The argument between traditional and self-publishers has become slightly less vociferous. Hugh Howey, the ultimate hybrid author who benefits equally from both forms of publishing but is generally seen as one of the great promoters of the latter, has even gone so far as to say that maybe gatekeepers – of the proper sort – have a role to play. That role is not to exclude creative authors but to help readers find good books.
Obviously if you write good books, you have an interest in having readers find them – not easy to do when as many 1,000,000 books are published each year world-wide. Particularly not easy to do when it turns out that social media is not a particularly useful way to sell books. Depending on who you talk to, social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, can generate 0 book sales or a few hundred.
You might also have an interest in having people not be exposed to bad books. It’s why no-one really gives away their books for free anymore. People got so many free books that were frankly not worth what they paid for them, no-one believes that a free book is worth having.
Readers are the real issue. With current technology, anyone, quite literally anyone with access to a word processor and in internet connection, can publish a book. Writers and the opportunity to be published is not the issue – getting people (other than friends and family) to read your book is the problem. And it always has been. The reality is that the number of readers is not increasing and the number of books they each read is fairly stagnant. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve consistently read 35-50 books a year. All the extra books in the world is not likely to change that.
It turns out that word of mouth remains the primary way to sell books – and word of mouth doesn’t work on social media for several reasons. The first is filtering – no matter how many friends you have on Facebook or followers on Twitter, the algorithms that determine your news feed pretty much ensure that you only see a small portion of them and they, you. So when you tell people over and over to buy your book – you are actually telling the same people (30 or 80 of them) to buy it. It kind of gets embarrassing. The only people who seem to believe in the efficacy of social media are the people who own the companies and the consultants who want to sell you advice on how to do it.
The second is commitment. Just as many people will sign an on-line petition but would never go to a protest march, lots of people might like your post or your book page but never buy your book. The former is easy; the latter is hard.
The other tried and tested and still effective way of selling books is having people see them. Getting that to happen on Amazon is a mug’s game; it’s not even clear that Amazon understands how it works – though there are people who think they know and, who knows, they could be right. Still, there is nothing like having you book prominently displayed in a bookstore to get people interested. The best thing of all is to have the book on those carousels or racks by the front entrance. But of course, that only happens if you are prepared to pay for the privilege. Didn’t know that? (The same is true of banner promotions with on-line bookstores.) Thought it was based solely on merit? So did I – when I thought about it at all – until I became a publisher and lost my innocence (what was left of it).
What is an author to do? Well, it never hurts to go to bookstores and see if you book it is there. If it is, make sure you turn it so the cover, rather than the spine, is showing. It probably won’t help but it can’t hurt. But don’t bother secretly autographing them – it won’t stop the bookstore from returning the book to the publisher, it just means it can’t be sold to another books store. Do ask them if you can sign it and put a ‘signed by author’ sticker on the book. If they say yes, it means they are committed to keeping and selling your book a little longer – and may even lead to an invite to have a signing or event. Though don’t get your hopes up too high.
Probably the best thing you can do as a writer is figure out why you want to write. If it is to get rich or even make a living, you are almost certainly bound to be disappointed, even if you follow the advice of the super promoters and write four books a year or spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time promoting. Despite the success stories of the 1%, writers’ incomes are not only low, they are falling. That’s true of traditionally published writers and even more so of self-publishers. The way the pie is divided is less important than how big the pie is in the first place and number of slices it is being cut into.
There are other reasons to write a book. Some people quite literally treat it as a bucket list event. They write one book and then they are done with the process. In some case, like my day job boss, it’s a legitimate thing. At 72, his memoir is being published and he has no intention of writing another book but I’ve also had fiction writing friends who, after their first book was published and in their hands, said, been there, done that and have a book on my shelf for posterity.
Others want to produce art (yes we are all artists and should insist on being recognized as such – but there is art and then there is ART) – their goal may be to produce great literature, whatever that is, and don’t really care if they make a living or even if they are really recognized except by select panels of people (i.e. juries of major awards). If it takes ten years to write that great novel, so be it; I can teach creative writing to make ends meet in the meantime. Don’t get me wrong – some of my favorite books as a reader took years or even decades to write. There is nothing wrong with it; it is simply a choice. (On a personal note – I recently took five months to write a 9000 word story and I think it may be the best thing I ever wrote, but I may be in the honeymoon stage. I’m also fond of the novel I wrote in 3 days some 23 years ago).
Then there are people who write because, as they say, they have to. Without writing they feel unfulfilled or even ill. Or on a more positive note, they write because they love to write, they love to tell stories, they love to be a writer and to hang around with other writers. They write because it defines how who they are, in ways that other things don’t. Writers are not alone in this – lots of people feel that way about the law or medicine or carpentry or farming – but they do tend to be more vocal about it. They are always using their words – even when we might wish them to shut up.
It is pretty much why I continue to publish. It’s not like we at Bundoran Press are setting the world on fire. Frankly, most people have never and will never hear of us. We are getting some accolades and building a positive reputation among those who do know us. And we’re getting to publish some books that we are very proud of producing. Like most people in the business we are not getting rich – quite the opposite. As I like to say – how do you make a small fortune in publishing? You start with a large fortune and…
But I love the process. The work can be onerous at times but it definitely has its rewards. And there are far worse things to spend time and money on. And who knows, maybe right now in the slush pile is the next great science fiction writer waiting to be discovered.
So I guess I better go read it.