indie authors

The New Garden Gate

The New Gatekeepers

I guess it had to happen. Technology opened the gate to all those writers who couldn’t get published the traditional way. Huzzah! But there are so many of us, cranking out books by the millions, that readers are overwhelmed. Most indie-published books join the blur and go unnoticed.

Except maybe the ones that get lots of reviews. Trouble is, it’s hard to get reviews, or at least the right kinds of reviews. No friends or family members. No “I’ll review yours if you review mine” arrangements. Brief comments by readers are fine; but thoughtful, thorough reviews by “official” reviewers are best of all — and almost impossible to get. Reviewers are the new gatekeepers. (As are a few advertisers, notably BookBub, which is pretty selective about which books it will promote. You need to pay them a non-trivial sum — but first you need a non-trivial number of good reviews).

You don’t have to look hard to find lists of rules and other admonishments directed at hopeful review-seeking authors. They look a lot like the submission guidelines and how-to-approach-publishers advice of the trad pub years. Some of these lists are lengthy and detailed, and a few verge on the offensive. Reading them conjures up a caricature of a desperate author approaching the enthroned reviewer, crawling on hands and knees while pushing a copy of their book along the floor with their nose. (And if your book is taken up by the reviewer, don’t even think about emailing to ask when the review might appear. Just. Don’t. Do it. Ever).

This is part of a bigger phenomenon associated with the self-pub revolution — the author as pest. It seems we’re a pretty annoying bunch: spewing out books full of typos and grammar no-nos, issuing endless “Check out my book!” tweets, approaching acquaintances with book in hand and big salesman’s grin on face, and bothering beleaguered book bloggers just like we did the beleaguered acquisitions editors of days gone by. (Remember all those tales of mail rooms crammed with unsolicited mss?) Maybe creativity generates a ferocious hunger for attention that overrides good manners. Book bloggers and reviewers have reacted predictably to the deluge of review requests by hedging themselves about with rules, just like publishers did.

But hey — at least now we writers are free to throw our books into the public arena. That’s way better than slinking back to our writing rooms to entomb the rejected manuscript in a cardboard box that once held dog food. The toughest gate has been breached. So what if there’s no sure-fire path to success? (There never was, actually). And a few of us have managed to get our books noticed, clearing the gates like so many hurdlers.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Junk Mail

Advertising, Hypocrisy and Other Offenses

I just finished processing today’s load of solicitations for funds masquerading as personal letters, full of smarmy sentences such as, “We know you’re passionate about [their cause] and want to be a part of making the world a better place,” followed by several more paragraphs of similar verbiage and a separate sheet with suggested dollar amounts to donate. Then there are the employees of call centres who, after interrupting your supper, writing or blog-reading session, inevitably start off their spiel by asking, “How are you?” As if they care.

This kind of hypocrisy is extremely irritating — dressing up appeals for funds to make them look like friendly, personal attempts to reach out and befriend. While I’m scribbling out my name and address on the paper junk mail before chucking it in the recycle bin, I can’t help but recall the advice I’ve read in countless blog posts about how authors should present themselves on the internet. Never say, “Buy my book.” Not even, “Please buy my book.” Don’t be annoying — instead, create content readers find so fascinating, they will rush to seek out your books without any appeals from you.

Isn’t this a kind of hypocrisy, though? Let’s face it — most of us indie authors started blogging for one reason:  to create an “author platform” from which we could launch our book marketing strategies. After a while some of us figure out that almost all the folks who follow and read our blogs are other authors, and selling books to them works about as well as selling sand to desert dwellers. By that time we may also have found other reasons for blogging — making connections with fellow authors, creating a body of writing in the form of our blog posts, and so on. But in the background is the refrain, even if faint, “Look at my books, check out my books, please buy my books.” Otherwise, why do we display our books’ cover images in our sidebars, complete with links to where they can be bought?

I admit it — I hate advertising of all kinds. That’s one reason I kissed television goodbye decades ago. I’m an expert at avoiding click-bait on websites, and if the first or second thing I see on a website or blog (yes, even fellow writers’ blogs) is a pop-up plea to sign up for a newsletter, I’m gone. When it comes to advertising my own books, I put myself in the place of the recipient of such appeals and imagine them doing what I do when I recognize a sales pitch.

Writing — creating good quality prose or poetry — is a demanding art, with perfection always receding into the distance. Some writers manage to turn themselves into marketers as well. Good for them. I don’t happen to have a natural inclination for that aspect of the book business, so am walking the indie author path in my own fashion.


Rose coloured specs


Arrows 2

Up, Down, Sideways, Out?

A while ago, I read a pretty intense post by another indie author, answering the question, “Why do I do it?” (Write, that is). I think every one of us asks this question sometimes, usually on days when the sales graph goes flat, there are no page or post views, no reviews, comments, or any other indicators that our written creations are being noticed and appreciated.

A Milestone

I have finally finished publishing the Herbert West Series. All four books are available in print (through Amazon) and as ebooks (in Amazon’s Kindle store and through Smashwords in all the ebook stores it works with).

Publishing in print meant going through each text thoroughly, correcting all the remaining errors I could find. The books are now if not 100% error-free, at least 99%. Paying attention to details like missing quotation marks, or reversed quotation marks (“99” instead of “66” or vice versa — it does happen in Word, folks!), missing spaces, italicized question marks that should not have been italicized — stuff like this almost drove me crazy. And diacritics! Why on earth did I sprinkle French phrases all over the place? Okay, one of my narrators is Acadian, so it makes sense for him to throw in the odd bit of French, but all my narrators (the books are all in first person) do it — tete-a-tete, pied-a-terre, fin de siecle, expose, menage and more. You don’t see any acute or grave accents or circumflexes here, do you? That’s the way all these words were in my Word docs and therefore in my ebooks, until this recent overhaul. (Note to self — in future drafts, if you’re going to use a word that needs a diacritic, just put the darn thing in right at the start. None of this “Oh, I’ll deal with all that when I’m copy-editing” stuff. No — you’ll be too busy keeping track of spaces and quotation marks).


Report Card

Now that the texts are as good as they’re going to get, and a couple of the cover images have been adjusted, it feels right to step back and ask a few questions:

  1. How good are the books?
  2. How am I doing as an indie author?
  3. Do I want to write more books? (And what about that as-yet-unpublished novel?)

So I guess this is a kind of report card. But instead of grading myself with the A through F system associated with school reports, I’ll use the 5-star system applied to books.

All right, how does Audrey Driscoll rate as an indie author?

  1. The Books: 4 stars for the writing, 5 stars for the presentation (covers and interior design — especially the print versions, which are comparable to any trad-pubbed book. In my opinion).
  2. Book sales: at most 2 stars.
  3. Marketing efforts: 1 star.
  4. Internet presence (“author platform”): 3 stars.
  5. Social media presence: 1 star, due to absence from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest et al. This blog and a minimal presence on LinkedIn are it for me.

Overall rating: 3 stars.

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A Crossroads

So what does this mean? It depends on what I want to accomplish by writing and publishing. When I started writing in November 2000, my only goal was to complete that first novel and get it published. The traditional way. I worked on that (and wrote four other novels) until 2010, when I decided to self-publish. Ebooks only at first, and only on Smashwords, with (rather lame) homemade cover images. In 2014 I commissioned good cover images and published through KDP as well. (I’ve never yet tried KDP Select, however). Since then, I have published all four books of the Herbert West Series in print as well, through CreateSpace. Strictly speaking, I have more than attained that original goal.

But I can’t pretend my books have sold well or gained much attention. Enough that I haven’t branded myself a failure and slunk into the shrubbery (which needs pruning, incidentally), but the best word I can apply to my degree of success is “modest.” Modest! Not one of your power words.

From the blogosphere, I have certainly discovered the many ways to fail as a writer:  dull plot, flat characters, limping story arcs, bad grammar, multiple typos and other technical errors. Then the marketing part, my bête noire. (Note the circumflex!) I admit I’m allergic to marketing. But I’ll bet most people who manage to complete and even publish one or more books didn’t do it to have something to sell. Most of us discover the marketing part after the glow of getting published fades. This, of course, is the most important difference between indie and trad publishing. Unless we hire people to do the things we can’t (or won’t), we indies don’t have a team working with us.

Some writers must find marketing at least somewhat congenial. Certainly if one’s goal is to make money from selling books, it’s absolutely necessary to acquire the necessary skills. There is a wealth of resources available, and a constant stream of advice. I could even buy marketing services, just like I bought good cover images. But just now I’m not planning to do that.

Fire adj2

Spark and Flame

In the 15+ years since I began writing, I have realized that the impulse to write and the inner resources to do it are fuelled by reading, unhurried observation and open-ended mulling. And listening to music, which is a catalyst. This wealth of input combines in some mysterious way (like alchemy!) and produces an urge to write. The spark lights a fire of creation that inevitably produces something new. Not always an excellent something, but certainly a leavened lump. Creation at fever-pitch is an intoxicating, exhilarating phenomenon. For me, that’s almost the whole point. Putting the work out into the public arena is a necessary part of the whole, and any kind of appreciation is a bonus. I don’t deny that. But how much time, effort and treasure do I want to sacrifice to the (for me) less-than-congenial business of attracting that attention? Not much.

If I immerse myself in learning how to market well, I may never write anything else worth marketing.

Since I entered the self-publishing arena six years ago, I haven’t had much time for the unhurried, open-ended reading, noticing, thinking and listening that feeds the desire to write. And that’s even with the feeble stabs I’ve made at anything resembling self-promotion — writing posts for this blog, reading other blogs and commenting.

So now I’m going to turn the Herbert West Series over to its own devices. The books are out there to be acquired by the (fortunate) few who manage to find them. Like a mother sending her children out into the world, I kiss them goodbye and wish them well.

A Manifesto

In less than a month, I’ll retire from my day job. That means I’ll have a lot more time at my disposal. I intend to devote a good part of that to my garden, which I’ve neglected in the past couple of years (that’s why the garden blog posts have dwindled). I may decide to publish Winter Journeys, the novel I wrote in 2007-2008. I may write at least one more novel, possibly two or three. Maybe short stories. Maybe poetry. But all that depends on igniting the creative spark. I do plan to keep the blog going, because I value the connections I’ve made with bloggers all over the world.

It’s even possible that in this new phase of life I will discover some configuration of marketing-type activities that are not uncongenial (how’s that for tentative?), but right now that’s a road not taken.

Mozart never heard his four last and greatest symphonies performed. J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos sat on a shelf somewhere, unplayed and unpublished for more than a hundred years. Most of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems were not published until years after his death. My four books are not in the same league as the works of these individuals, but they are available for purchase (one of them for free download), have been read and even reviewed. I’m OK with that.

Something else I’ve learned: managing my expectations is crucial. (Now where did I put those rose-coloured specs?)


Rose coloured specs





What Word Describes Your Writing Habit?

Now that almost anyone can become a Writer by writing something and publishing it through the internet, there are many of degrees of “writerliness” (to coin a rather lumpy word).

Writers may select from a wide array of words to describe their writing activity, depending on how large a space it occupies in their lives.

Here are a few, in no particular order…

Job. Meaning you write a lot as part of your paid employment and not at all otherwise.

Profession. Meaning you make enough money from your writing to live on. Mostly. Well, maybe supplemented by a few other activities.

Passion. Meaning you spend some time writing and a lot of time talking about it.

Avocation. Meaning you juggle writing and your day job.

Obsession. Meaning you work on your writing at your day job.

Hobby. Meaning you write for fun, without any expectation of making money.

Therapy. Meaning you write as a way of dealing with difficulties.

Vice. Meaning writing gives you grief but you can’t stop doing it.

Me? Back in my submissive days (when I was sending out chunks of writing to the Gatekeepers), there were times when I regarded it as a grief-producing vice. Now I tend to think of writing as my avocation. With a touch of obsession. And now that I’m approaching retirement, I’m almost OK with the possibility that it might be a hobby. Well, maybe a bit more than that. Call it a Creative Outlet.

Then there’s what writers call themselves. Professional? Dilettante? Hobbyist? How about indie author? I think that term covers most of us, and can be modified by any adjective as needed.


Writerly Pursuits


Looking at my current Things To Do list — specifically Writerly Things To Do (I also have such lists for the house, the garden and my day job) — got me thinking about activities that characterize the writing life. In no particular order, here is the list:

  1. Read and review the three books from the Emerging Local Authors Collection that are sitting on my bedside table.
  2. Finish writing a story (provisionally) called “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell.” Then post the story to my blog.
  3. Look through my file of stories that have never seen the light of day and select a couple to post on the blog. Then post them.
  4. Read closely and comment on three contributions to my critique group in preparation for a meeting on October 20th.
  5. Format for print publication within the next 3 months the second and third books of the Herbert West Series.
  6. Write some other stories that have been incubating way too long, before the ideas that inspired them wither and die.
  7. Prepare to write another novel — a sequel to the Herbert West Series — set in Egypt, specifically at an archaeological excavation in the 1960s. “Prepare to write?” You know — research, brooding, making notes, visualizing scenes, making more notes, etc.
  8. Read and occasionally comment on the daily stream of posts from the blogs I follow.
  9. Post to my blog at least once a week.
  10. Come to grips with the idea of marketing.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is the real stuff of Being A Writer (except the marketing bit, maybe). It’s the 21st century analogue of what writers used to do in pre-computer days — getting together in cafes and bars, gossiping and arguing about the meaning of it all, writing letters, taking walks in the country and thinking about what to write next, mingling in literary salons, scraping away with their quill pens or pounding their typewriters. Nowadays much of the connection and exchange of ideas is done through social media, of course, but the dynamic is the same.

And, of course, there’s #10 on my list — marketing. Now as in the past, there are businesslike writers and those to whom that is an alien notion. Today’s indie authors don’t have to look far for reminders that to succeed, they must regard their writing and publishing as a business. Any who do not do this must resign themselves to failure.

As with the writing rules that also abound on the internet, the real situation is more complex — a compound of financial realities, creative impulses, expectations and motivations. Many self-published writers display a truly businesslike attitude, with (I assume) varying degrees of financial success and personal satisfaction. Many others do not. (Guess which of these groups I belong to. Just guess).

That’s really a side issue, though, the “marketing” aspect of being a writer. The core of it is whatever leads to new creations — writing. Whether the ferment of ideas and inspiration comes from face-to-face conversations with fellow writers, or electronically around the world, it must lead to sitting down and stringing words together. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Dancing in a Minefield: Writers Reviewing Each Other

Book reviews have been on my mind lately — more than usual, that is, because book reviews are always a preoccupation of us indie authors. I’ve been thinking about reviews and reviewing because most of the books at the top of my TBR pile are actually TBR&R, meaning “to be read and reviewed.” I’ve decided this year to give priority to books by authors from my local area, which narrows the field considerably. Even so, the pile keeps growing.

It occurred to me a while ago that I rarely read books just for fun, with no intention to review or even rate them. I think that’s an occupational hazard for us authors, now more than ever.

In the Olden Days (the previous millennium), books were reviewed by special people called literary critics. Back then, writers wrote and readers read. They might talk about books with friends and recommend ones they thought particularly good, but that was just talk.

Then came ebooks, self-publishing and social media. Now everyone can be a critic of sorts. For indie authors, this has created a perilous situation. First, of course, there are Too Many Books. Then there’s the fact that some of them are by fellow writers — people we know from critique groups, writing courses, writers’ conferences or the blogosphere. People we trade jokes with, whose posts we “like” and comment on. How many of us have obtained books from these online colleagues in exchange for “an honest review?”

So what do you do when you read one of these books and can’t write an honestly positive review?

Many just don’t write the review. Some contact the writer privately to express their concerns. Others grit their teeth and try to walk the tightrope, carefully making a case for their less-than-positive comments. Critical remarks may not be too damaging, but throwing a three-or-fewer-stars rating onto a pile of four and five stars, thus lowering a book’s overall score, is guaranteed to make its author unhappy.

No one wants to be a party-pooper, but I, for one, refuse to modify my honest opinion of a piece of writing just because the writer is known to me. That kind of thing perpetuates the negative views some people still have about self-published books and their authors. It may also be why Amazon has decided to remove reviews that appear to be written by people who know the author. This is a rather crude approach, but behind it is the principle that reviews should reflect readers’ true impressions of a piece of writing, unmodified by considerations such as, “Well, it’s not the best, but hey, the author is a nice guy and writes those funny blog posts, so how about 4 stars instead of 3.”

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful critical review and a mean-spirited condemnation of a book accompanied by a one-star rating. We writers can be of help to one another by carefully reading each other’s books and writing sincere (honest) reviews, both positive and negative.

One thing that’s hard to avoid (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is to slip into the role of editor-after-the-fact, suggesting that the author should have deleted this scene or that character, or written more description, or less. I think this kind of thing comes from participating in critique groups or being a beta reader. In those situations we are dealing with works in progress, where such suggestions are welcomed. Reviews, on the other hand, must deal with a book as published and complete.

We writers owe it to one another to hold ourselves to a high standard when we write reviews. We know both sides of the page, as it were: we both create and consume writing. We are insiders and as such must play the reviewer’s role consciously and with care.

Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson


The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.