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Why Indie is good for Fiction

BookstoreThe traditional publishing business is, above all else, a business. Like every business, its primary purpose is to make money for its owners and investors. It does this by selling books.

In the past, a large publisher’s most profitable strategy was to publish a relatively small number of different books with wide appeal, those for which they believed there was a large market. The large volume offset the cost of editing, cover design, printing, and promotion. This made perfectly good business sense. There were a few predefined genres, and books that fit the currently popular trends in each of those were what ended up being published and displayed on the limited shelf space in bookstores. This model worked well for the publishing business, but it didn’t provide much variety for readers.

When I was a kid, I read mostly space operas and sword and sorcery epic fantasies. That’s what the stores sold, and for speculative fiction, that was about all they sold because that is all the traditional publishers were publishing, which they did because they sold…

These books were often very much alike. If you tore out the title page, there is a good chance you would not be able to guess who wrote the story. They were as generic as fast food hamburgers and for the same reason—mass appeal, low cost, predictable content, and reasonable quality.

It seems that traditional publishers are still working to this model, and if you really want to read a new post-apocalyptic, dystopian, paranormal, vampire romance with demons, zombies and a teenage wizard, they’ll have one for you.* They’ll probably have dozens, in fact. That kind of stuff sells. They know this because they’ve already sold a bunch much like them. This doesn’t mean any of these books are good, nor does it mean all of them are bad, but it does mean that readers who want something completely different are going to have a hard time finding it.

Fortunately, the constraints of limited shelf space and mass appeal no longer apply, although I don’t think traditional publishers know this. Many authors and readers may not, either. Things are changing, though, and the change is good.

Online retailers do not need to be concerned about shelf space. This allows them to follow a different model. They can offer a wide variety of items to suit different needs and tastes rather than focusing on a relatively small number of currently popular items. Amazon may have been one of the first to adapt this idea to books, and they quickly came to dominate the book market because of it.

Then they went a step further by creating the Kindle, which made them the leader in digital books as well. They further expanded their eBook selection by encouraging writers to bypass traditional publishers and sell their books directly to readers (who had Kindles). I’m sure this wasn’t out of some altruistic concern or even due to some sense of duty to rescue the art of fiction from the doldrums. They are a business after all, and the primary business of business is, as we know, to make money, and I suspect Amazon is making a respectable profit from digital book sales. I have no idea how many eBook titles they now have available, but I imagine it’s a lot. They probably don’t sell many copies of most of these, but a few here and a few there can add a very large pile of nickels and dimes to their bottom line.

I did not realize how truly limited my book selection had been until I received a Kindle as a gift two years ago. In the years BK (Before Kindle), I got books from the library, brick and mortar bookstores, and online, but all of those books were published on paper through the gateway of a traditional publisher. I had no idea what I was missing. In the years AK (After Kindle), I have found many books that were fresh, different, that defied genre and convention, and, because of this, they were great reads. But they didn’t come from traditional publishers, which are still working to the old model of formulaic fiction for mass audiences. Many of the most enjoyable books I read last year came from small, independent publishers or were self-published by the authors.

The rise of indie publishing makes more books available to readers. But quantity is not what makes indie revolutionary. If all it did was increase the number of new vampire romances or zombie apocalypse stories released each year from a hundred to ten thousand, it would hardly be important. The greatest contribution of indie publishing is that it makes many different kinds of stories available to readers.

For a publishing business, the purpose of producing books is to make money. For many (but not all) indie writers, the purpose is simply because they have a need to create and share stories that are not like those coming out of the big publishing houses. Sure, indie writers would love to make piles of money, but few expect to, and I don’t think it’s why most of them write, especially those who are consciously not following the mass-market book trends. What this means for fiction readers is greater variety, more books, lower prices, and a better chance of finding a book that is fresh and wonderfully different.

I used to read about twenty new books a year. Now I read about seventy or eighty. The main reason for the increase is that I can now find more books that appeal to me. And, if this wasn’t enough, ‘indie’ eBooks tend to be much cheaper than their traditionally published counterparts. Many indie books are free. Not all of them are good of course, but not all the books published by traditional publishers are, either.

I have come to view traditional publishers as something akin to fast food chain restaurants. They offer items with wide appeal and consistent quality. I’ve found that some traditional publishers of speculative fiction tend to do this better than others do, but their variety remains limited and the difference between them is like that between Burger King and McDonalds. Indie publishers are more along the lines of local mom and pop diners. Some are good and some are not, but a few offer great things you cannot find anywhere else.

This is a good time for fiction writers. They can write stories they believe in and offer them directly to readers. It is a good time for readers whose tastes do not match those of the crowd. It is still difficult to find great books that match our individual tastes, but, because of the rise of indie publishing, those books are far more likely to be out there. What is now desperately needed is a way to sort through the many thousands of indie books available to find those that we’ll absolutely love. Variety is great, but it can be overwhelming.

 

*This is a slight exaggeration. Most popular books won’t have all of these elements. There is only so much, um, ‘stuff’ that will fit in any one bucket.

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My Self-Publishing Adventure – Episode Eight – Self-Publishing is Too Easy

The most recent thing I have discovered on my self-publishing adventure is that it is too easy.

“What?” I hear all the other writers shout. “It is most certainly not easy! Not only do you have to write, you also have to edit, revise, work with the cover artist and editor, maintain a web presence, build a platform, get reviews, market… Then, there is the cost! You have to fund everything. After all, if you have chosen the self-publishing path, you probably do not have an agent or traditional publisher to help with any of this. You have to do it yourself.”

Yes. This is all true. My point is that it is too easy to publish your book before you have adequately done these things. I know. I did.

My primary motivation for writing is to create books I would like to read. My main qualification for doing so when I began was limited to having read many books and believing I had a good idea of what I liked about them. If you find yourself in the same situation, let me warn you. This is not enough. Thinking you can write a great novel simply because you read a lot of them is like thinking you can build a car because you have done a lot of driving. It does not work that way.

Writing is something you have to learn, just like any other skill. There are tools and processes, procedures and steps you have to take to produce a novel. Unfortunately, these vary from writer to writer. You can learn from the experiences of others but creating a novel is not a science. It is an art. I do not mean to sound pretentious about this, but writing is a very individual experience. What works for one person may not for another. It is not as simple as being a “plotter” or a “pantser.” The only way to find out what works for you is to write, and then write some more.

This takes time. It takes practice. The first novel you complete will not be ready to publish. Nor will the second, if your experience is like mine. The problem is that you will probably think they are and, because it is so easy to self-publish an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords, you will. Your first two books may be great stories but they will not be the best you can produce.

I am about to sound pretentious again, but if you read a lot, you are most likely a fairly intelligent and well-informed person. If you are motivated to write, chances are you are creative. If you act on that desire and actually create the first draft of a novel, you are definitely someone who can remain focused and see a difficult and complicated task to completion. This may make you think your book is ready. After all, you wrote it and we have already established how exceptional you are.

Compared to many, this is true, at least as far as novels go. It does not make you a potential surgeon or plumber, but it does make you a potential novelist. Keep in mind that there are tens of thousands of us and we all share the same attributes that qualify you as a member of this group. Pat yourself on the back but do not think this means your first book is ready. When you think it is, my advice is to put it aside and write the next. When you are done with that, write another. Now go back to your first book. Edit and revise it again using all of the experience you have gained since. It may be ready to show to others at this point but it is still not ready to publish. It is time to get professional help. (Take that any way you want.)

What I think I have learned is that my own judgment is not enough. I mistakenly thought that knowing a good book when I saw it made me qualified to create one on my own. I was not. My artistic abilities to create covers are inadequate so I need a cover artist. I need an editor. I need beta readers. I need proofreaders. In short, I need all of the things a traditional publisher provides if I want my books to be as good as they can be.

I am basing the advice I offer here on my own experience, of course. Feel free to ignore it. As I said, writing is an art. You may be a quicker study than I am. You may have stronger qualifications. Personally, I do not feel I became minimally qualified to produce a book ready for publication until after I completed the first draft of my third novel. Something clicked at that point and I realized how many things I could have done better with the first two, things that would have improved the stories and made the process easier. This does not make me an expert but it does make me more confident that I am ready to take the next step on my self-publishing adventure.

 

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My Self Publishing Adventure

The Stigma of Self Publishing – Et Tu Writers?

  I went to an Orlando Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group meeting last night. It was our first get together in a few months because our organizer (Sarah Fisk) had to abdicate for job reasons and it took a while to replace her, although she has since moved back to Orlando and rejoined the group.

We held it at the food court of a local mall, an ideal place I thought because it easily accommodated our group without any expectation that we should be quiet or buy anything. Of the seven people at the table that night, one is a traditionally published author (Owl Goingback), one is a self published author (me), and the others are either writing speculative fiction books or have written some and are currently exploring their publication options.

Because we had a new organizer and a few new members, this was more of a chat session than our normal meetings, which focus on review and critique of members’ work. One topic that came up was self publishing. I suppose I was guilty of raising it because when publishing options came up, the implication seemed to be that the preferred option was traditional publishing. I wanted to point out that in the digital age there is another option and that it was my first option rather than a fallback position.

I was surprised that the other members seemed to either not consider this or thought of self publishing as the last, desperate act a writer would take and that books were only self published if they couldn’t meet the exacting standards necessary for traditional publication.

Obviously I don’t believe this to be true but the incredulous stares around the table made it clear just how pervasive this belief is, not just among readers, agents, and publishers, but among writers as well. Unfortunately this is not without cause.

Self publishing has some great advantages. For writers, these include retention of all rights to their work. They control everything from content to distribution. They control the cost of their books and they receive higher royalties as a percentage of sales.

For readers, self publishing means that there are more books in more subgenres than ever before. Books don’t need to fall into mainstream categories or follow whatever may be popular in their genre at the time in order to be published. A publisher’s impression of profitability does not enter into the equation. Self published books, especially ebooks, are almost always much cheaper than traditionally published books as well so readers have greater selection at lower cost. What could be better?

Well, there is the quality issue. The problem with anyone being able to publish is that anyone is able to publish anything. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to be coherent or readable or, in the case of nonfiction, even accurate. Now I won’t say this is an exclusive problem with self publishing because we have all seen traditionally published books that had these same flaws but if a major publisher’s logo was on the cover, a reader could be assured that it had at least gone through some editing process.

With self published books, there is no such guarantee and books can be released before they are ready. Some people, dishonest, scummy, and disreputable people who should be publicly flogged, tarred, feathered, and sent to their rooms without supper, have been known to scam this new openness by plagiarizing the work of others or intentionally throwing out dozens or even hundreds of short, poor quality books. There is currently no way to prevent this and it helps perpetuate the myth that all self published books are bad. I have seen other self published authors claim that readers can still tell quality books from reader reviews on sites such as Amazon. These certainly help and I don’t discount them but reviews and ‘likes’ are not necessarily a guarantee of quality either. Just as anyone can publish a book, anyone can write a review and writers can swap positive reviews and ‘likes’ with other authors as part of their promotion efforts, often with honest intent simply to help their peers.

There are a few disadvantages to self publishing for writers as well. They have to cover all of the up front costs themselves including editing, cover design, and formatting. Self published books are difficult to get into brick and mortar bookstores and the authors have to do all of their own marketing and promotion, which can be extremely difficult without the resources of an agent or traditional publisher to support them. Writers need to be willing to take on these challenges before they decide to self publish but their biggest hurdle may be the continuing stigma hovering over self published books.

I think there may be a fairly simple solution to this although it means readers will need to do a little research themselves. But since they are receiving the benefit of more options and lower costs, I don’t think this is asking too much. Actually my suggestion would apply to any author whose work you have not read before.

Before you decide to buy a book by an author unknown to you, read the sample pages first. If it still looks good, go to the author’s website. All legitimate self published authors should have one. There is probably even a link to it on the author’s page on Amazon or whatever online retailer sells their book. Look at the content. Keep in mind that self published authors may not be expert at web design but if the layout is logical and the content is good, chances are their books will be as well. If the book description looks like the type of book you would enjoy and the author’s website suggests that he or she is a competent writer, there is a good chance you’ve found something that will appeal to you. I know this is more work for readers but I think this inconvenience may be outweighed by the benefits readers receive in price and selection.

As always, if you have thoughts on this subject you would like to share, please leave a comment.

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My Self Publishing Adventure

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