self-publishing

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

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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).

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Being My Own Publisher

Here is my current writing-related to-do list:

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Nothing in there about writing anything, or even revising. It’s all publishing, all the time. I suppose this is the best reason for having someone else do the publishing stuff.

I passed a major milestone on December 10th, when Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey and Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure officially became available in print versions, joining The Friendship of Mortals.

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But because I made all kinds of small changes to the texts of those two books before publishing in print, it only makes sense to transmit those changes to the ebook versions as well. Unfortunately, “transmit” means “go through the lists of edits and make them in both the Smashwords and Amazon KDP documents.” Tedious stuff, transmitting.

Then I can get on with the final book of the Herbert West Series — Hunting the Phoenix — correcting errors I have noted in my e-reader, formatting, writing the back cover description, arranging for the full print cover, etc. And finally, uploading the corrected ebook documents. The whole series will then be fully available in both ebook and print versions. Then I can finally get on with something new.

Now I begin to understand why it can take months or even years between signing a contract with a publisher and actually seeing a published book. And as my own publisher, I can’t even blame anyone else for the slowness of the process.

Time is Treasure

This evening, while I was at a Jazz Vespers service (a real treasure, only a few minutes’ walk from my home) a light bulb came on, about the new phenomenon of self-publishing.

This has probably been said by many, but it felt like a new insight to me, so I decided to write it down.

At one time, when “publishing” meant rendering prose into print, gatekeepers were necessary because it was an expensive process, involving printing machines, warehouses, trucks and heavy boxes of books, in addition to the talents of editors, book designers and publicists. Time and treasure. Traditional publishers had to be selective. Hence the submissions process and all those rejection letters.

Things are different now. Novels and stories may be presented to potential readers in electronic form. No more paper, ink or machines. No more warehouses full of books. Why should anyone be surprised that the gates have been thrown open? Not only have the mechanics of publishing changed, but the fundamental criteria as to what is publishable are completely different.

No longer must every book justify its existence by making a profit for the publisher, or at least breaking even. Self-publishers are free to apply their own criteria of success. Maybe it’s a couple of hundred sales a year, or a few thousand free downloads. Some writers choose to make their self-publishing effort a business; to others, it’s primarily a means of creative expression.

Profit motives aside, all of us authors must remember that our readers’ time is the real treasure. If we want to catch and keep their attention (and thus the few dollars we charge for our ebooks), we absolutely must present polished work, competently packaged. But our books are offerings, not submissions. That’s a radical departure from the world of Trad.

The closing tune of tonight’s Jazz Vespers was “This Little Light.”

Fellow writers, let it shine.

Imminent Danger Cover Reveal!

Michelle Proulx is reissuing her novel Imminent Danger and How to Fly Straight into It with a gorgeous new cover. Which is being revealed — right here and now!

First, the story behind the new cover:

In the far-gone year of two thousand and twelve, a naive young authoress with a trusting heart gave unto a company called iUniverse thousands of dollars with which to publish her novel. But alas! For this foolish young authoress did not realize the assisted-publishing path was fraught with peril, and the thousands paid were not in value received. Control was relinquished, prices did skyrocket, and the young authoress cried out to the heavens, “Woe is me! Would that I had done this publishing business myself!” And the young authoress did take it upon herself to publish the novel, commissioning a talented artist to provide her with a new cover that doth more accurately capture the spirit of her novel. And lo! The new cover is revealed!

Imminent Danger Cover Reveal

Now that you’ve seen the cover, here’s something about the book:

High school junior Eris Miller thinks she’s having a bad day when her roommate’s boyfriend catches her stepping out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel. Then she gets abducted by scaly six-armed aliens with a strange fondness for the color blue, and her day suddenly gets a whole lot worse.
 
Trapped on a spaceship bound for the slave markets of Sirius B, Eris fears she’ll never see her home again. But then fate whisks her away from her reptilian captors and into the arms of Varrin, a fast-talking space pirate who promises to deliver her safely back to Earth. He claims to have her best interests at heart, but Eris soon discovers that her charming rescuer has a hidden agenda.
 
As they race across the galaxy, outrunning a villainous figure from Varrin’s past, Eris begins to realize that their relationship is putting her planet, her life, and her heart in imminent danger. She knows that trusting Varrin could prove deadly … but what other choice does she have?
And here’s something about Michelle. See if you can guess which parts are true…
 Michelle Proulx was born on the market moon of Vega Minor where she spent her formative years reading, writing, and gambling at illegal underground jsgarn fighting rings. While en route to Alpha Centauri, Michelle crash-landed her space yacht on the planet Earth. She now lives in Canada and divides her time between observing the local fauna and repairing her star ship.
MP Author Photo
It’s absolutely true that Michelle will be doing a giveaway on her blog, so crank yourself up to warp speed and go check it out!

Wishes and Horses: The Phenomenon of Self-Publishing

Last week I attended a book launch by a writer from one of my critique groups. It was a pretty splashy event, complete with an Elvis impersonator who arrived in a vintage Ford Mustang.

That got me thinking again about the whole self-publishing thing. It’s a remarkable phenomenon, the result, I think, of three things: thwarted creative ambitions, market forces and technological developments.

“Everyone has a book in them,” and when it became easy to create manuscripts, everyone wrote their book. With all the touting of books and featuring of authors in the media, wannabes began submitting their creations to publishers. To serve this market, how-to-get-published books and courses proliferated.

Publishers could not cope with the flood of queries and submissions. The big ones fenced themselves off behind agents. Smaller publishers insisted on print submissions, hoping that exacting submission guidelines and the cost of postage would act as a deterrent — to no avail. Who hasn’t heard of five-foot stacks of “slush” plugging up publishers’ mail rooms?

Rejections flooded out from agents and publishers to hopeful writers, many of whom (despite advice to develop thick skins) got seriously pissed off and started looking for other ways to get their creations out there. By this time the internet was available to all and creation and sharing of “content” was the name of the game. In the best tradition of the free market, alternatives opened up to meet the pent-up demands of writers. Self-publishing went from suspect (the vanity press) to last-resort (POD and “subsidy” publishers) to normal (today’s new world of ebooks, Smashwords and Amazon).

When you think about it, this progression is logical. Why wouldn’t people start to write memoirs, novels and how-I-did-it books, when all through school they were told to be creative, follow their bliss and take chances? Especially when the personal computer and Microsoft Word made whiteout and carbon paper obsolete.

Having poured one’s passion into a literary creation, why wouldn’t one hope to share it with others, receive admiration and make money? Most famous authors aren’t beautiful, athletic or talented at anything besides sitting behind a computer and stringing words together. Oprah’s Book Club, here we come!

Publishing has always been a business with narrow profit margins, in which a few wildly successful books subsidize the less-than-best-sellers. In the traditional situation, a book has a short time to prove itself before it’s taken out of print and remaindered. With the best will in the world, there was no way publishers could hope to publish all the wannabe authors flooding them with submissions.

And there was no way that the writers, full of newly-discovered creative joy and the self-esteem that had been introduced to them from childhood, would accept their multiple rejections and settle for bridge, bingo and birdwatching. Entrepreneurial types recognized a huge and eager market, and hastened to serve it. Editors, book and cover designers, advertising and publicity providers rushed to fill the gap. Writers, no longer thwarted by the gatekeepers, became published authors eager to market their books.

I am a self-published author, and I can say without hesitation that I much prefer that to being an unpublished writer, full of self-doubt, resentment and frustration. I decided to publish my works, and it was up to me how much and what kind of editing to do, what cover images to use and what sort of marketing to do. Several years have passed since I published my first novel. It’s still in “print” (as an ebook) and selling steadily. Instead of sending out submissions I am writing new material.

You could say that the slush pile has been liberated from publishers’ mail rooms and made available to readers. Some bemoan the flood of crap, but let’s face it — there’s always been a flood of crap. The internet has made it possible to create and share more of everything, “crap” and good stuff both. The best indie authors are producing books as good as anything by the traditional publishers. What can possibly be wrong with writers and readers having more choices? It’s an exciting time.

Writers — Don’t Submit, Publish!

I am not a big fan of the word “submit” when it refers to sending one’s writing to publishers with the hope of getting published. In fact, I wrote a blog post all about this antipathy.

Which is why I was happy to see this blog post by author Hugh Howey and this comment on it in Publisher’s Weekly by Smashwords founder Mark Coker.

These gentlemen cover the topic more than adequately, so I will add only that this is another reason for indie authors and those with the temerity and courage to bring forth their works to the world to take heart. Write! Publish!

Preparing To Re-Launch

It’s coming on to four years since I published the first book of the Herbert West Series. Two years after that, in 2012, I published the other three. Now I am planning to upload revised texts with added content and professionally designed cover images to replace my homemade and, to be truthful, rather lame creations. As I write, I am awaiting what I hope will be the final draft of the cover images. It’s been a thrill to see what a graphic designer has created from my descriptions of the works.

And the trilogy is now a series. I decided the whole “trilogy in four volumes” thing didn’t work. The middle two books of the series are still Islands of the Gulf Volume 1 and Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, but Volume 1 is now The Journey and Volume 2 is The Treasure. You wouldn’t believe the amount of brooding and fretting I did before deciding on those words, but I’m satisfied with them.

And only cataloguer-librarians would be able to appreciate my reservations about introducing all this complexity. Instead of simple titles and a series, those two books now have volume numbers, series numbers and part-titles. Once all this is done I will have to create catalogue records for them, coded in MARC format, just for fun. Then there’s the whole question of edition. If I were reissuing these books in print, they would be new editions. But ebooks are different. I think. Sort of. (Non-cataloguers may safely ignore this paragraph).

I have also rewritten the descriptions of the books — brief ones of fewer than 400 characters (60 words), and longer ones in the neighbourhood of 2,000 characters (about 400 words). The short descriptions are the sort of thing you see in a publisher’s catalogue; the longer ones are more like jacket blurbs (interesting word, “blurb;” check Wikipedia for its origin). For the blurbs, I started with texts of short synopses I’ve written over the years, but swiftly realized the fundamental difference between a synopsis, which is intended to encapsulate a novel for presentation to a publisher, and the tantalizing jacket blurb that tells the potential reader just enough to make them want to buy the book. You definitely don’t want to create “spoilers” for your own books!

Right now I am working with my Word documents, adding extras such as Afterwords and excerpts from the sequels to each book, as well as creating hyperlinked tables of contents. Once all that’s done and my new cover images are ready, I will re-launch all four books. That may happen as early as next weekend if all goes well.

What with work and all this activity, I have neither time nor mental capacity for other blog topics. The garden (which isn’t doing much) and further thoughts on hypocrisy (which is everywhere) will just have to wait.

Publish and Punish

Why do so many people think they can write? I’m not talking about text messages here, but novels, poetry or memoirs. My own theory is that writing is one of the few areas where lack of talent isn’t immediately obvious, as it is in singing, dancing and sports. If you don’t have the looks to be a model or the coordination and musculature for sports, there isn’t much you can do about it. But writing — anyone can string words together in the privacy of their own home. Successful writers can become celebrities, or at least rich. And now that self-publishing is so easy, almost everyone has found the writer within and is busy cranking out stuff.

But by what standard should success be judged, especially by the writer him- or herself? Right now it seems there is only one standard — number of copies sold. Million-copy sellers are unquestionably successful. Every other situation has a “but,” as in, “Yes, my sales are small, but I’ve had some really good reviews.” Or, “I’ve sold hardly any books, but as soon as readers discover them, that will change.”

How many of us self-published authors are willing to reveal our sales figures?

Maybe we need a different standard: the amateur writer, like the beer-league hockey player or community theater actor. Instead of judging all writers by one standard, which makes 99.999% of us abject failures, some of us can be respectable amateurs.

I don’t expect this to happen soon, if at all. It’s that magical, delicious word “publish.” To most, it means acceptance by the established league of experts, who will take you under their wing, polish your work and promote your brand to stardom (never mind that this is rarely the case  with most first-time authors). Any other kind of publication is qualified (the big BUT) — it’s self-publishing, or vanity publishing or print-on-demand publishing. Not the real thing. If a self-published author manages to sell large numbers of copies, the  big door may open, but only then. The rest of us come to realize that the real challenge is self-promotion, to which most of us gave no thought while in the throes of creation.

So here’s the question I’ve lived with for the past three years, while watching my less-than-stellar sales numbers:  Is my writing deficient, or my ability to sell it? I can live with the latter, but may also have to live with the uncertainty.