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It was the best of times, it was the worst…

People 3995Traditional publishing versus self-publishing used to be a simple question of whether an author frustrated with barriers to traditional publishing would spend a considerable amount of money to get his cherished story into print. Works published through vanity presses might subsequently gain legitimacy if reviewers found merit in the work. But the vast majority of reviews were solicited by publishers whose process in selecting which works to publish assured reviewers that whatever landed on their desks would at least have a coherent plot and few if any dangling participles.

Then along came Amazon and the proliferation of Internet outlets which allowed authors to upload a manuscript and cover image and place their cherished stories instantly on the market, kicking the estimated annual count of new books to the 300,000 mark. Within a short period of time, the avalanche of not-ready-for-primetime books became more than any erudite reviewer could withstand. “We do not accept self-published books” became emblazoned across the reviewing sky. Indies were left to grope in the dark.

Which is understandable considering the poor quality of many self-published works. Many wanna-be authors rush to publish without a grasp of proper grammar, composition, or plot. This creates a big problem for worthy self-pub authors whose work consequently goes unnoticed.

Some might claim the obvious solution for authors is to embrace the traditional process. Join writers’ groups. Enroll in writing classes and workshops. Submit short stories to literary journals in hopes of winning a prize or being published, which can then be touted as credentials. Find an agent who believes in the work (if not the author). Wade through the agent’s editing process. Wait through the agent’s marketing process. If the agent successfully finds a publisher, wade through the publisher’s editing process. After a couple of years and the best of all possible outcomes, the book hits the market complete with professionally-produced cover, solicited mainstream reviews, and a bit of marketing.

Please note that even when accepted by mainstream publishers, authors are expected to build their own ‘platform’ for getting the word out. To develop such a platform, authors must become a presence in social media, develop promotional materials, blog and host a website, and make public appearances, most if not all at the author’s expense.

All of which ensures that the hopeful author remains broke and left with little time to do the only thing he wants to do: write.

One wonders exactly what authors gain from landing a traditional publishing contract. There’s the affirmation, of course, something writers need more than air. The money can be good if the book takes off, which is what the publisher counts on to justify its interest. But once the publisher skims the lion’s share (you know, expenses) and the agent pulls out his fifteen percent, the author earns precious little for all his hard labor. There’s the argument that the traditional route produces a better quality product. But one might justifiably ask what is left of the author’s original concept once various editors have woven their interpretation into the story.

Indie authors don’t have to compromise their vision or wait two years (or centuries) to present their work to the public. In theory, Indies with authentic writing skill produce well-written, innovative stories that extend and enrich the literary frontier. In practice, many Indies may have an innovative idea behind the urge to write/publish but next to zero skills with which to accomplish this goal. It is this open door to lousy writing which has soured reviewers to Indie work.

None of this is new information. I state it as a starting point: now what? Should a writer plunge into writing short stories and spend $20 a pop entering literary contests? Join writer groups and spend days reading and critiquing other author’s works in exchange for bi-annual scrutiny of her own work? Wait perhaps forever to win a nod from the publishing industry? Self-publish in hopes of modest success with higher profit margins than traditional paths offer and then languish in anonymity?

What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?

Aside from the obvious benefits of professional editing, formatting, and cover design which come with a publishing contract, one enormous con for the Indie is the barrier to gaining reviews from mainstream reviewers like the Washington Post or the New York Times. Let’s take a moment to examine that world.

The romance market dominates book sales, Indie or not. According to one source, romance claims “16.7 percent of the U.S. consumer market in books, the single largest slice for any segment – a third larger than the inspirational book market and roughly equivalent to sci-fi and mystery sales combined, according to Valerie Peterson at About.com.” In 2012, romance sales topped $1.4 billion.

Despite strong standing in book sales, romance novels earn little respect from reviewers (or, in fact, just about anyone in the literary publishing world). One possible explanation for this is the disproportionate number of men within the ranks of reviewers. As noted in a Salon article, “Women read more books than men. Yet every year, according to counts conducted by VIDA, most major publications run more book reviews by men than by women, and review more books by men than by women. In 2013, for example, the London Review of Books had 195 male book reviewers to 43 women reviewers: a ratio of almost 4-to-1. The New York Review of Books was in the same ballpark, with 212 male reviewers to 52 female ones.” http://www.salon.com/2014/02/25/highbrow_medias_sexist_blind_spot_romance_novels/

Taking up the slack in this torrid genre, an industry of amateur, largely female reviewer/bloggers has grown to massive proportions. Many such reviewers begin in the thrill of free books and social community only to quickly sink under the same avalanche that buried traditional reviewers. Countless blog sites languish unattended with a notice “Not accepting submissions.” Requests for reviews often number in the hundreds in just one day.

Amateur reviewers aren’t a perfect solution to the review problem. Many fail to actually review the work. Instead, the reviewer falls back on secondary school experiences of writing book reports which summarize the story. Consequently, these reviews compromise the book for any potential reader. Reviews should give a brief overview of the story concept, a bit about the author, and focus on whether the story was well executed in terms of presentation, plot, character development, and writing craft. Without any certifying agency or criteria by which reviewers might be verified as adept at their work, Indies have no method by which to select worthy reviewers.

Websites exist which purport to connect books with reviewers. But like overwhelmed blogs, such sites can’t promise reviews and an author may list the book and wait. Forever. The well-trafficked Goodreads site hosts author giveaways where books are given to winners in a process that draws attention to the book. Relatively few reviews are generated in the process which costs authors not only hard copies of their books but also the expense of packaging and postage. Groups formed within Goodreads, focused on a particular genre or on read/review offers, devolve into countless posts pleading for reviews and virtually none offering them.

An ugly microcosm of this arena features authors retaliating against reviewers for unfavorable reviews and reviewers dissing authors in endless snarky commentary.

Please.

For authors of fiction works other than romance, the field of blogger/reviewers drops to near zero. In nonfiction, forgetaboutit.

Does one—gasp—pay for reviews?

Writing/publishing advisers recommend strongly against paying for reviews. Yet one of the biggest names in the publishing world, Kirkus Reviews, smoothly promotes itself to prospective customers by offering “the most authoritative book reviews” for the modest price of $425 (7-9 weeks). Or, for authors in a hurry, $575 (4-6 weeks). Into this confusion come  authors exchanging reviews in an implicit quid pro quo of ‘you give me five stars, I’ll give you five stars’ which benefits no one in the long run. Lousy works with five star ratings only discourage readers.

I know of no effort made by Kirkus or anyone else in the ‘legitimate’ publishing industry to develop a free, comprehensive vetting and review system for Indie books. Predictably, book sales slumped in 2014 and are likely to slump even further as free books undermine the industry. It’s not enough that other media and an attention-deficit population have driven book readership to record lows. Publishers aren’t exactly weeping that Indies struggle for a market share.

Aside from reviews, what are an Indie author’s options for attracting readers?

Well, there’s social media. This has become the primary avenue by which authors become acquainted with other authors as well as readers. Writers are advised to interact within this community in order to become ‘known’ and therefore, theoretically, generate more sales for their books. Facebook pages may be author pages, interest group pages (for example, domination/submission groups within the romance genre), and marketing pages which become a blur of post after post of book cover/blurbs generated by hopeful (increasingly frantic) authors trying to generate sales. Unfortunately, this is largely authors trying to sell books to other authors.

There are Facebook pages exclusively for posting notice of books that are available free or for .99, pricing strategies meant to introduce readers to an author in the expectation that once someone reads that person’s work, they’ll purchase more of it. I have no research to support my opinion that this is effective less than 5% of the time. Maybe 1%.

Amazon and other online retailers offer authors a variety of ways to promote as well. If an author grants Amazon exclusive rights to market her work for 90 days, they’ll tout the book to its list of customers who sign up for the benefits. Predictably, the benefits largely accrue to Amazon rather than the author. For example, Amazon can ‘lend’ a book to readers at no charge, theoretically benefiting the author by increasing exposure and potentially the number of reviews. The downside is that most readers don’t bother to review and instead see this Amazon service as a way to get free books. This benefits neither the author nor the industry.

There are strategies for how to categorize the book into a less heavily populated sub-genre and thereby increase the chances for a higher ranking. It’s ranking, after all, which determines which books appear first in searches. Romantic suspense is a smaller field, for example, than simply ‘romance.’ Another ploy with Amazon’s ebook platform is to use word groups in categorizing a new release, thus gaining more potential exposure in Amazon’s algorithmic toying with sales rank. The words ‘domination-submission-menage’, for example, create a narrower field than the word ‘erotic.’

Perhaps the strategy that makes most sense is to heed advice to write more books. Not only does an author continue to improve by writing more, she also gains more credibility by placing more of her work before the public. Variations on this theme would be to (a) schedule a set amount of time to build one’s platform in social media et al while reserving the bulk of available time to writing itself; (b) read the genre one is writing, but also other quality works; and (c) enter contests sponsored by literary journals and universities. Chances are you won’t win the $1000 first place prize, but your entry fee in most cases subscribes you to a year of that journal’s issues which in turn exposes you to the academic side of this seething snake pit of an industry you’re so anxious to join.

 

 

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