Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

Self-Flagellation and The Flesh Remembers

April 14, 2006 by Richard Wright in Journal, Writing

Again, with apologies to those who have heard this before, the new journal deserves some entries about what I’ve done in the past, some of which will clue readers into how I’m going to set about building a readership for my fiction. As such, I’ll today be talking about The Flesh Remembers. I’ll also be talking about the logic of giving things away for free, and looking at that most heinous of literary crimes, self-flagellation… erm… self-publication. It’s easy to get the two mixed up, as you’ll see.

Oh, this entry is long. Grab yourself a coffee and a biscuit to see you through.

The Bit About The Flesh Remembers

Finding your readership is no small task for a new writer. The reasons are obvious enough. Even if the novel I’m editing at the moment is picked up by a decent paperback house, gets decent distribution to bookstores, and so on, it faces an uphill struggle. My competitors on the shelf include massive back catalogs and new work from writers such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, James Herbert, Peter Straub, and more. These are the giants of the field. There’s a growing mid-list of horror too, particularly in America. You may be familiar with the work of Douglas Clegg, Kelly Armstrong, Simon Clark, Brian Keene, Laurell K Hamilton, Michael Laimo, Tim Lebbon, Edward Lee, Gary A Braunbeck, and many more. All are authors a reader may already have on their shelves, and all are more likely to be familiar than I am.

So, picture it. A reader wanders into a store, seeking some dark fiction to appease their current mood. They have enough cash in hand to buy one book. They’re not planning to be back in the bookstore for a month or two (perhaps they live out in the sticks), so whatever they choose had better be good. They see the names on the shelf, the pretty covers and raised lettering. Which novel do they pick up?

One of the big names? You bet. Chances are very good indeed, given the media coverage they get. The reader has probably read reviews of their work, and has a damn good idea whether it’s the sort of thing they’re looking for. My novel thusly sits untouched, gathering dust.

Let’s go further. Perhaps the reader’s home library already features all the titles they see by the big names, or perhaps they’ve had a bad experience with their fiction in the past, and know they won’t like the rest of their writing. It could happen. Are they going to reach for my book?

The chances are better, but not by much. When they see three novels by Brian Keene, and one by Richard Wright, they’re much more likely to ask themselves “Hey, who’s this Keene guy? Maybe I’m missing something?”

But okay, we’re now in the realms where it’s just feasible that, if my novel has reviewed well and there is some public awareness of it, it might get picked up.

Pessimistic? Sure, but realistic. That novel has to do well, to secure a deal for a novel after that. I’m in it for the long haul, so finding ways to boost my readership is a must. Sales give publishers motivation to keep you on their list.

Of course, when my novel is released to critical acclaim, I shall be promoting my backside off trying to drive sales for it. However, I think I can do more than that. Why wait until the novel is released before I push for a readership? If I can build a readership of people who enjoy my work before the product is even in the shops, surely that’s going to help?

This is where The Flesh Remembers comes in. I wrote The Flesh Remembers back in 2004, with the purpose of releasing it free, via my website. It has a Creative Commons licence on it, which means that the reader can do what they want with it. The only restrictions are that they can’t profit from it (sell it on in some form), they canâ’t alter it (it should remain as written), and they can’t take my name off it.

Other than that, they can print it off, pass it friends, offer it as a download from their own sites, tattoo it in microprint across their buttocks… anything at all, really. At the time, I actively encouraged them to do this, and still do. The more people who read and enjoy it, the better for me. Perhaps when my next novel is released, some of those readers will remember my name, that I entertained them, and feel a bit more confident putting their money on the counter. Perhaps my sales will reflect this, and my publisher will be happy.

That’s the theory, anyway. The novella remains available as a free download. Check out my website, or right click here and ‘Save As’ to your computer. If you enjoy it, please pass it on to anybody you know who might similarly enjoy it. I promise to do my best to entertain them, and not waste their time.

The Self-Publishing Bit

Having released The Flesh Remembers as a free download, I then committed the most heinous sin known to literature, and self-published it.

Oh, dear me, the reaction that got… I became to some the equivalent of literary pond scum.

Most professional writers consider self-publishing a hideous crime, for several reasons. Here are the most common.

  1. Self-published books are rubbish. Because there’s no editor, they’re riddled with typos, inaccuracies, and ropy covers. Most of them are unreadable. They’re an offence against the very concept of reading.
  1. Self-published authors won’t get readers. Because there’s no quality control, readers won’t invest their cash, with good reason. At least if a publisher paid money for the rights to publish the book, it’s gone through some sort of filtering process. Self-published authors are putting their hopes in a pipe dream, and won’t sell a single copy except to friends and family. Whose brains will likely melt at the sheer awfulness of the book.
  1. Self-published authors are being ripped off. Companies offering self-publishing packages and false hopes, with no chance of making that money back, are exploiting them. Of course, as they’re self-published, they deserve everything they get. If they all line up on a bridge, and throw themselves to certain death, the publishing industry will be a better place.
  1. Nobody makes a career from self-publishing. It’s a lazy attempt to take a short cut past all we Proper Authors, and our years of sweat and learning.

I’ll answer some of these in a moment, because despite my sarcasm there is some validity behind the often reactionary hyperbole that’s spat at the humble self-publisher. Before I do that, I want to make clear the two commonly understood reasons that people self-publish.

  1. They wish to be a professional writer. If they self-publish their manuscript, thousands of readers will read it, and they will be on their way to literary superstardom.
  2. They just want their manuscript bound like proper book, and maybe give a few copies to friends and family.

The first reason is a nonsense. The examples of individual self-publishers who were then recruited by major publishing houses will amount to less than a fraction of a percent of the hundreds of thousands of people putting their own book into the world. It’s a terrible route to professional writing, and you’re better investing the time in going the traditional route, submitting to publishers, trying to get a contract, and so forth. If the book is good, there’s actually more chance you’ll secure a publishing deal this way than through your self-publishing efforts.

The second reason, whereby people publish their own book for fun, is untouchable, and folks should get off their high horse about it. Effectively, they’re putting their manuscript in a more attractive binding. I doubt anybody is going to actually have a problem with this, even from the most condemnatory corners.

Okay, to the our points above. I’ll answer them generally, and then I’ll get back to The Flesh Remembers.

  • Self-published books are rubbish.

Unquestionably, the above argument regarding typos, formatting problems, etc, are valid. I don’t know a writer in the world who is capable of turning in spotless manuscripts without an outside eye being applied to them. However, there are still writers self-publishing who actually understand the need for a decent editor, and seek one out. If you’re considering self-publishing yourself, make sure you become one of these writers. You need more than a friend’s eye cast over the manuscript. You need a good proofreader who will point out flaws in the plot’s logic, catch glaring errors, and give critical feedback that you don’t want to hear, but have to make yourself listen to. Ideally, find two or more such readers, to get a balanced opinion. If they both say the same thing, they’re probably right, and you’re probably wrong. Back to the editing process for you, m’boy. It’s worth noting that most professional authors have a stable of such individuals, who check over a manuscript with a critical eye before it ever touches a publisher’s desk. There is a reason why such writers are professional, and taking some basic clues from how they do their business will benefit you.

  • Self-published authors won’t get readers.

True, under most circumstances. However, if you know your audience, have a really good book, and work ceaselessly to market to that audience, you might sell a few thousand copies. Sell that, and you’ll be doing about as well as it’s possible to do without a publisher’s access to distribution channels. And when I say work ceaselessly? Kiss goodbye to your life. Hell, you probably won’t even have time to write that second novel.

  • Self-published authors are being ripped off.

True. Or at least, there is huge potential for this to be true. There are lots, and lots, and lots, of disreputable self-publishing companies out there, making vain promises, and providing minimal results. However, there are also some decent, straightforward services. I used Lulu.com for The Flesh Remembers. They charge me no money all up front. The final selling price of the book is where they take their cut. Firstly, the per unit cost goes to them – that’s what they estimate they’re spending printing the book in the first place. Secondly, they take a small royalty on top. The Flesh Remembers has a retail price of $10.99. The Lulu commission is 75 cents.

I don’t want to oversell the benefits here, and should point out the downside. Because Lulu are printing the book on demand, the per unit cost is far higher than traditional publishers (who print in bulk, lowering prices significantly). In the end, my take home royalty on books sold directly through Lulu is about a quarter of the cover price, and far less if sold through a third party such as Amazon. Still, while I’m not making a fortune here, I’m not out of pocket either. It’s perfectly possible, if you have your head screwed on, to avoid the many self-publishing firms who want you to put down large lump sums of cash for the privilege of being printed by them. Professionally speaking, money should flow to the author, not from the author. If I’d had to pay a cent up front to put The Flesh Remembers in print, I would have backed away like nobody’s business.

  • Nobody makes a career from self-publishing.

I’ll come to this in more detail in a moment, because I obviously disagree in part. Where I agree entirely is that if you wish to become a professional writer, and think you can do it by self-publishing your work until somebody notices you, think again. There’s almost no getting away from the fact that you’re just wrong.

So there.

The Bit Where’s There’s An Interval

Bloody hell, this is a longer entry than I had intended. Bear with me, while I go and make a coffee.

There we are.

Another Bit About The Flesh Remembers

Okay, back to The Flesh Remembers. My own reasoning for taking the self-publishing route for this book was simple – having given it away for free online, I had next to no chance of selling it to a publisher. Rightly or wrongly, a publisher is going to wonder why anybody will buy it, when they can get it for free. If nobody buys it, then how is the publisher going to make any money?

That said, the fact that I had written the book purely to give away did not mean that I had done an inferior job on it. Quite the opposite. Remember why the download exists? To encourage readers to look out for my work when it does emerge on the shelves. As such, I worked hard to ensure that this freebie can stand comfortably next to everything I’ve written (including a published novel, stories in award winning anthologies, and so on). I’m still happy that I succeeded. It’s a good example of what I can do. I’m delighted whenever I hear of somebody downloading it. If they don’t enjoy it, it won’t be because it’s substandard Wright, but because they just don’t enjoy my writing, full stop. Given that it’s a good bit of work, I wanted to see the story in book form, just like Cuckoo before it. That’s reason one for self-publishing under the circumstances.

Secondly, I have readers who enjoy my work, but simply won’t read a novella from their computer screen, and don’t want to waste paper and ink printing it off. Several of these readers complained that they would be missing out on the novella. Now they have a second option. They know they like my writing, and they’re happy to pay for the novella in book form (in the spirit of the thing, I’d ideally give this away too, but I just can’t afford to).

Thirdly, some people who read the novella on screen subsequently wanted a copy for their own bookshelves, just like I did. Now they can get one.

For me, self-publishing isn’t a route to fame and fortune, nor a direct route to writing for a living. Rather, it’s as tool I can use to supplement this particular experiment. Nothing more, nothing less.

To answer the previously raised points as they apply to The Flesh Remembers

  • Self-published books are rubbish.

Perhaps The Flesh Remembers is, but it won’t be because of editing problems. I had two editors for the project, one of whom has proofread for professionally published manuscripts and gave me the same attention to detail as he gave those, and the second of whom makes a living as an editor. I also have the reassurance of knowing that readers don’t have to buy the book blind. If somebody wanted to be sure of the quality before parting with their cash, there’s a download sitting waiting for them, that they can read as much of as they wish.

  • Self-published authors won’t get readers.

Very much off the point. The paperback of The Flesh Remembers doesn’t exist to find readers. The download does. The paperback is supplemental, for those who want it, rather than being the main product. That said, quite a few people have wanted it since it was first published.

  • Self-published authors are being ripped off.

I covered this already. I don’t think I am, though if I had not done my research then I could perhaps have fallen into the trap of paying lots and lots of money for the privilege of having the book printed. I did my research. Make sure you do yours.

  • Nobody makes a career from self-publishing.

That’s not what I’m trying to do. The Flesh Remembers is a promotional item that I want to be able to put in people’s hands as a real book, if that’s what they wanted. My novel Cuckoo went the traditional route to the bookshelves. My next novel, Thy Fearful Symmetry, will do the same. I’ll be building my career, if all goes well, based on professional advances and royalties, not self-publishing.

That said, the download and informal distribution of The Flesh Remembers was (and still is) so successful that I intend to repeat it, with two further books being put together for that purpose as we speak. When I send those downloads into the world, I will very likely self-publish them as well, and give readers the option of owning a hard copy if they wish.

Ultimately, self-publishing is a tool, that can be useful depending on your plans for it. Where it fails, and will forever fail, is as an alternative career route for those seeking to be professional authors.

And that, you’ll be glad to hear, is all I have to say about that.

Go and read the download of The Flesh Remembers. When you’re finished, if you enjoyed it, pass it to your friends and family. Ask them to do the same. It all helps in the long term. Hopefully the swap is fair. I entertain you over the course of a book, and instead of giving me money, you give me a couple of readers. Got to love the free market.

And if you’re intrigued enough to want a paperback, pop into Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, and grab a copy there. If you read and enjoy it, think about leaving a quick review. It can only help.

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you stick around. I’m going forward.

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