The Seriousness of Craft: Glories and Pitfalls of Self Publishing
This Writing Thing is Fun
Camp NaNoWriMo for July of 2016 wrapped up with its usual flourish of hearty congratulations for 50,000-word finish-line crossers, and comforting shoulder-pats for those of us who had to call it a month early, for whatever reason.
Camp NaNoWriMo (and the official National Novel Writing Month event in November) are great ways to grind out words. It's a straight shot to 50,000. Even though I didn't finish, I cranked out 27,000 words, more than halfway to the goal, in only three weeks. For anyone who writes, you know this is amazing. It is as deserving of congratulations for people who work full time or have children or stepchildren--people like me.
Writing is fun. Writing is freedom itself. For a time, the only things happening around you are the events of a fantastic place, a fictional setting, and those things are happening to characters of your own choosing. Handsome strangers whisk damsels off their feet. Heroes are born. Villains are forged. I've been writing since I was fourteen years old. I've trashed--or lost--thousands and thousands of words worth of my time, my effort, my knowledge, and my creative energy. Some of those losses or cuts were soul-sucking.
More than a fun distraction, writing is engrossing and healing. I've worked through everything from going penniless for weeks to my harrowing divorce in some form or another through my writing. I've not had the privilege to publish any of it, but that's okay. I'm not desperate for the public to see my knee jerk reactions to every little ebb and flow of my life.
And though writing is as fun as it's ever been, getting someone to notice your hard work is as difficult as it's ever been. To avoid the time-consuming task of finding an editor, an agent, beta readers, and someone who believes in you, and to avoid the self-loathing of rejection, many writers have turned to self-publishing. Self-publishing is attractive for many reasons. It is fruitful for us as authors looking to self-publish to examine the glamor, but also the pitfalls of the industry.
Self-Publishing A Novel: The Numbers
The affordability of e-readers, the prevalence of mobile devices, and the ease with which even the most un-technologically inclined can typset large files has paved the way for self-publishers across all genres, from self-help gurus, personal fitness trainers, literary artists, and genre writers down to middle-management guides to social media strategy. According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of adults owned a smart phone in 2015. Of those Adults, 86% are ages 18-29. 87% of adults who own smart phone earn an average of $75,000 a year, hinting at a fair amount of disposable income, and possibly a fair amount of free time to spend on consumable media.
For authors, this is good news because websites such as Overleaf offer a free version of an in-browser graphic user interface that allows you to edit LaTeX templates for everything from resumes to novels and books. There is the potential for a very low overhead cost for producing a novel for digital consumption with the perception of a very high potential for profit.
According to Publisher's Weekly, in 2014, 31% of e-book sales on Amazon represent the sales of self-published ebooks, beating out the Big Five Publishers for online sales by 15%. Two years later, the statistics for earnings from the Big Five are even more cause for joy. "The Big Five now account for less than a quarter of ebook earnings on Amazon," says the February 2016 Author's Earning Report. This may sound like a brilliant statistic that might have you firing up LaTeX, but wait a moment. Remember that neither of these reports include print novels.
Taking the statistics at face value may make Amazon appear to be the ulitmate vehicle for low-priced, self-published novels, finally allowing the little guy to get ahead against the Big Five in a glutted market. However, the market price of ebooks has not changed much in the last two years. The average price of an ebook in 2014 was $3.99 to $5.99 (not including sales, promotions, and free books). The average market price has dropped from the baseline $3.99 to $2.99, shaving a dollar per purchase off of the sale of your precious novel. Several ebook sales professionals, like Twitter marketing specialist Kelsye Nelson, say that the value of an ebook--especially a self-published one--cannot be priced higher than the market worth of the item, and that market value of ebooks has dropped. The Author Earnings report for February of 2016 reports that Uncategorized Single Author Publications (under no Indie label) made up 12% of Amazon Best Sellers on Kindle, beaten out by small Indie Publishing Houses by a whopping 35%. Though the trend towards the success of self-publishing is still on the rise (and spiked pretty well around Christmas time), it is by no means making anyone rich at a price of $2.99 per purchase--not without a substantial amount of work and PR.
The Seriousness of Craft
How many times have you picked up a self-published novel for which you paid a precious portion of your paycheck (no matter how small) only to discover spelling errors, typesetting errors, continuity errors, plot holes, or other examples of bad editing--or evidence the piece was never edited at all? Did you put it down? You should have.
Lack of attention paid to craft, among other things like visibility and attractiveness, is the reason most self-published authors will never prevail against their competitors. Bad writing and poor content was number two on the Writer's Digest's unprioritized list of reasons why self-published books fail in 2008. Mary Rosenblumlists "Needs Editing" as number four on a list of reasons books do not sell on The New Writer's Interface blog in May of 2016.
It may not just be about the spelling errors, though enough of those and Amazon will flag the work. Most spell-checkers and a little thing called Grammarly do an excllent job of finding spelling errors with the notable exception of speciality or technical errors. What Mary Rosenblum is talking about is editing for content, voice, character, and plot. That is where editors and beta readers come in.
Why We Hate Editors
When Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu, At The Mountains of Madness) was in his early twenties, he joined the United Amateur Press Association. He was lovingly criticized by biographers S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz as arguably surrounding himself with mediocre writers in order to hide his own insecurities (Joshi, S.T, Schultz, David E The Lord of a Visible World, Ohio University Press, 2000). As he got older and increased his skills, he still refused to edit much of his work. He had little doubt that the works he wrote would stand on their own in the right hands. He also despised editing. Writing was hard enough for him, and he wrote everything by hand. Typing for Lovecraft was a boring chore, and editing required a typewriter. Unless he was guaranteed to publish, he did not edit. Many of his stories contain weaknesses that other writers better qualified to edit Lovecraft than myself have pointed out. Some of his stories wander in many different directions, and with "Under the Pyramids" he interrupted the plot to reveal the outcome of the main character's survival, completely disrupting the immaculate tension he had spent whole pages building. An editor would have caught these things, and in an editor's capacity, Lovecraft was highly sought-after among his peers for being able to spot these things in others' works.
Writers tend to write with blinders on. Flaws become invisible, or perhaps endearing. Writers have their own reasons behind creative decisions that are not always apparent to the reader, and the only problem with that is that if it needs to be explained, it doesn't work. Editors are not attached to the work. To the writer, editors are a purposefully rude, unappreciative, even jealous.
Self-publishing is sort of glamorous in this respect. It's possible to write an entire novel-length story and publish it without ever consulting with an editor, and provided no one complains to Amazon, the author can have the satisfaction of publication without the heartache and downright terror that comes with traditional methods of publication, even on an Indie press. To many readers who want to enjoy self-published works, who delight in thwarting the Big Five, it can be difficult to find authors who have taken the time to learn their craft, to put themselves through the same rigors as traditionally published authors, and who produce content that is worth paying for. Readers rely on reviews to weed out the authors who do not do this, but digital marketing, ratings and reviews, and social media have gamified the process.
The Gamification of Reviews
Sites like Figment.com comport themselves as communities and social media networks dedicated to uniting writers from all over the world under the same banner, for the love of writing and the craft. However, sites like Figment promote gamification, in which authors are rewarded for wracking up "hearts" or "likes" by "swapping" reads. Readers give a very general review to the author, leave a "heart" (and optional emotional response) to--preferably--short works, and in return ask the author to do the same for their own works. This system rewards short fiction and punishes longer works, as authors and readers are more interested in the hearts than they are in reading other people's writing. This sort of system discourages serious craft, as the best writers are not rewarded if they cannot get enough attention for their work. The writers who market themselves better may not be the best writers. Sometimes Figment.com will run a contest--especially in summer when prolific writers of the high school and middle school grades are on break--in which other readers are the judges. The editors of the site do not choose the winners based on skill, but rather base the award on who has wracked up the most hearts by the end of the contest. This has the tendency to attract younger readers and writers, who, like Lovecraft, consider harsh edits to be rude and unnecessary nit-picking as opposed to the real, raw emotion of the written word.
Figment's other primary advantage is that it keeps young people interested in the craft at a time when many young people are turning to Youtubers and internet celebrities instead of authors as role models. The site promotes community, cooperation, and literacy, though there its usefulness as a learning platform ends.
Figment is not the only site to suffer from the gamification of reviews. For readers, leaving negative reviews could reflect more upon themselves than on an author or piece of writing. Self-published authors are not vetted by a traditional publisher, and so must find another way to market their work. One of those tools are Amazon Ratings and Reviews. All the reader has to do is jump onto Amazon, leave a five-star review and say a few kind words about the book. The author's rankings increase, along with their visibility, but sales soon stagnate as the excitement of the initial launch and (sale price) tapers off.
The first people an author asks to review their work tend to be family and friends and their social media network, people that can be relied on to be honest, who might actually read the work--and who also already think fondly of the author. Thus, family and friends are often afraid to leave negative reviews, lest they hurt their friend's feelings--or worse, ruin their chances of getting their friends to read their own work. Readers hoping to do a review usually have an ulterior motive. Manny times bloggers don't show true transparency in their reviews by failing to disclose when they receive free or author copies of the work, leading readers to believe they paid for the work, when in fact many bloggers would only really read works in exchange for compensation of some kind, even if it's just a swap--another way in which reader reviews have become cheapened. Everyone is a blogger or reviewer. If I reviewed every book shoved at me, I'd never have any time to read.
If negative reviews are how authors learn from their mistakes, then why does no one write negative reviews? Perhaps it's because these sorts of beginner lessons are usually learned before the work ever gets published. It all boils back down to editing. Editors and beta readers would ideally catch any persistent errors or flaws in the work, helping the author realize their mistakes and working through that together. This is rarely how it works. Hoping to avoid the pain of the process, burgeoning authors look to friends and family to go over their work first. It does not take too many setbacks from "friends" for an author to quickly become afraid of their own craft. A particularly harsh word from a begrudging reader--or a nit-picky review from an artist friend that is stuck and unhappy--can turn an author on themselves. At best the author is unwilling to go through that again; at worst the author gives up entirely.
Gamified reviews that do not help authors recognize mistakes do help the author bridge the fearful gap between publication and exposure, but it will not increase sales because at the heart of the issue is that amateur writing goes unchecked, even rewarded. Those reviewers that do decide to leave bad reviews can sometimes be downright belligerent with no interest in being helpful. It is easier to skip the process entirely, and can be far more emotionally rewarding--for the nonce. Writers I've worked with in past often lament that no one will read their books. There are lot of factors behind this, not just craft, but the traditional process, even going through an indie label, does have it's merits when it comes to exposure.
Cover art for Regime Change For Beginners
Indie Press vs Self-Publishing
Self-published is defined by Author Earnings as any uncategorized single publisher author whose name was not attached to any press, or whose whole name was not included in the name of the publication. That leaves a lot of "Indies in disguise" out of the mix, and a lot of failing big name off-shoots, but on the whole, it aptly describes an ebook publisher who publishes through the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).
To give you an idea of the difference between Indie Authors and self-publishers, allow me to list out two examples on Amazon that clearly represent both sides.
Author Jonathan Edward Ondrashek wrote and published Dark Intentions: The Human-Undead War Trilogy Book 1 this summer. He is listed on Amazon as available in print and on Kindle. Print price is $14.99, though a version is available on Kindle free for subscribers. Ondrashek is considered an Indie Author. He published the book in print and digitally for a small press that represents other names.
Conversely, author E V Hammond penned Regime Change For Beginners: Dictator's Edition last year and published it through the Kindle Direct Publishing portal as ebook only. He has no publishing label and is not being represented by a press. Though he is not publishing through a traditional means, he does not technically fall under the Indie Press heading. He is a self-published author. However, just by looking at the cover art, you wouldn't think so.
In 2016, the "Independent" title has become highly sought-after. It represents a separation from the mainstream and holds an underground appeal to those who wish to see themselves distinguished outside of traditional channels. So many self-published authors--and musicians--title themselves "Indie" so that they can operate outside of a large record label or press. Amanda Palmer, former singer-songwriter for the punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls and author of The Art of Asking, is a popular example of the success of this business model. She advocates "patron art" in which patrons give her money in exchange for her work. She manages her own finances and taxes and is held accountable only by her adoring fans through a platform called Patreon. Not everyone chooses the Patreon route. Some, like Loreena McKennett, set up Indie label management to--of course--separate herself from legal liability in the event things don't end well.
Self-publishers carry the same financial responsibility for taxes and liabilities as a sole proprietor does. Indie labels carry a similar legal and financial responsibility as a Limited Liability Corporation. There is potential for investment from outside with an Indie label or press, as well as networking options. Self-publishers front the expense for their work in hopes of turning a profit and reducing overhead by not having to account for staff editors, copywriters, marketers, artists and other salaried employees. However, their reach and potential network is vastly limited. Artwork has to be paid for out of pocket--unless the author happens to also be a graphic designer. Editors are usually friends and family instead of professionals. They must market not only as a brand but as an author who wants to build lasting relationships with fans--this latter usually gets buried under the former, resulting in stagnant sales despite high metrics, not to mention how time-consuming it is. The expense and effort of typesetting is also paid for out of pocket. Without independent wealth, it can be extremely costly for self-publishers to produce hard copies, and so digital media becomes the norm, Google rankings exchanging shelf-life for visibility. And there is still the subject of craft: self-publishers are not vetted by staff, therefore major issues and bad decisions go unnoticed--or ignored. Indie Authors must still go through the process of being published: editing, beta reading, marketing, and review.
Despite the differences, many self-publishers classify themselves under the heading of Indie Authors because there is a stigma attached to self-publishing. The idea of self-publishing sounds desperate and sad, while the idea of sticking it to the Man and beating the odds on our own sounds better. There is hope, though. Many good traditional authors, Indie Authors, and media moguls get their start self-publishing. Kelsye Nelson described one way to get an agent's attention in her webinar on gaining a Twitter audience is to publish a short story or selection of short stories. It is much easier for agents to skim through work they want to see as opposed to work on the slag pile. A pitfall there is that an author who publishes a full novel may never see that novel in print under a label name, as Indie and Big Five presses--like most companies--don't want to compete against themselves.
There is no law saying an author cannot self-publish and do well at it. However, it is useful to look at the craft of writing for income in a prudent light that acknowledges the pitfalls and glamor of self-publication. Self-publishers who wish to be taken seriously should put themselves through the rigors of traditional publication. I could site several authors of the top of my head (John Scalzi for one) who advocates for the process as a way to not only add value to the work that an author hopes someone will pay money for, but also to uphold the integrity of the craft. Up until the twenty-first century, authors hoping to publish had two options: the extreme expense and projected failure of self-publication in print, or the brutal, scathing, cold, cruel world of traditional publication and Big Five monopoly. Upheavals in digital media have made it possible for anyone to write a novel and publish it, and social media allows authors to bridge the gap between their fans and their art, increasing visibility without the need for representation by a large publisher. It's glorious, it's glamorous, but it's also incredibly difficult and requires hard work.
Knowing the possibilities and pitfalls is incredibly comforting. The process and the craft should not only be encouraged, but it should be encouraged among all forms of publication. Self-publishers who write should have marketing options available, and authors who can market but can't edit--I'm one of them--should have as many opportunities as those lucky individuals afforded the title of "published" under the Big Five. By encouraging real craft instead of gamified ratings and reviews, authors will be able to thrive under the self-publishing title. Only by studying the importance of craft will self-published authors receive the respect they deserve.
Should self-publishers be held to the same standards as traditionally and Indie published authors? Absolutely.