The other week, I wrote a post about things I don’t want to do to sell a book. It was intended to vent some frustration, but ended up being one of the most read things I’ve ever posted here. It was nice, to say the least, to hear so many people in agreement with the basic idea that beating people in the face with the existence of your book on Twitter, Facebook, and more, is unlikely to generate the feelings of excitement in a potential reader that would cause them to actually buy it. This is despite the poorly conceived advice that the social media marketing model is the only game in town for writers these days. It has a small part to play, sure, but it’s not the thing that makes people want to invest several hours in reading a story. What makes them do that?
It’s the book, stupid.
As part of the blog post, I also touched on the fraudulent activities some very well known authors had engaged in to trick you into buying their book over somebody else’s. It’s behaviour that made me sad, and still does. I find it loathsome. Since I wrote that blog, this is an issue that has blown up, in that curious online way, and there have been countless other people chipping in to condemn, dismiss, or otherwise comment on the practice of creating false Amazon accounts in order to positively review your own books, or negatively review the books of your rivals. There has been some intelligent comment, but this being the internet, there’s also been some unseemly wailing, a great deal of pitchfork waving, and rumours of the sacrifice of family pets in certain regions, to bring death and disease on the practitioners of such black promotional arts.
Most of the contributors to the Great Purge are themselves writers and publishers. I can understand why they want to be part of the backlash. The instant need to disassociate from such practices, and protect their own reputations, is perfectly natural – especially when a witch-hunt is brewing. Some authors have put together a sort of manifesto. It says ‘not me guv, I wouldn’t do such a thing‘, slams the three authors who have been caught out, and encourages the like-minded to sign up.
I haven’t signed up. While I’m sure the intention is good, it’s an instantly worthless document. If I were an author determined to defraud readers at every opportunity, the first thing I would do is sign a document promising not to, and in doing so link my name to some worthier and more trustworthy people. This sort of fraudulent behaviour can’t be policed by others. It’s right to acknowledge and condemn it, and point out to people who are just starting off that this isn’t a reasonable way to behave, but that’s about the extent of it. A code of conduct that isn’t actually policed (and this issue, as I say, really can’t be) is just a bunch of words.
Readers have also been vocal on the issue, and I understand that too. A book is an intimate thing to own – one of the few private aspects of the entertainment industry that still exists. A story starts with the author’s words, and finishes with the pictures the reader creates in their own head. It’s a sort of telepathic collaboration between two people, and readers can feel an unusually powerful sense of connection with writers they’ve never met. With that, comes a level of trust. When the reader finds out the author they shared that strange telepathy with isn’t as honest as they’d like to imagine, it can lead to a lot of hurt. The backlash is fuelled by quite a lot of this hurt.
The issue isn’t going to go away. There will be more writers, who are probably standing in the corner at the moment and trying not to draw attention to themselves, who will get outed for having done this sort of thing for years. Fair enough. A bit of perspective is still called for though.
However, those arguments progress, what has seriously annoyed me in following all this in various media is the number of otherwise perfectly sensible authors, reviewers, and commentators who have made the whole thing a self-publishing debate. Self-publishing is bad because of sock-puppets, and cheats, and liars. I’m seeing it everywhere, thrown in to otherwise well-informed discussions.
This, despite the fact that two of the three authors ‘outed’ are traditionally published. That’s, you know, the majority.
It doesn’t actually matter though, because this argument is nothing to do with how a book is published. It’s to do with how an author conducts himself, and the relationship he or she wants to have with their readers (author, or shyster?).
There are a lot of arguments that get twisted, perverted, and crammed into an anti self-publishing agenda. Most spouters of such drivel tend to let themselves forget one important thing.
It’s the book, stupid.
A book is good, or it is bad (or, of course, it’s somewhere on a sliding scale between the two). How a book is published does not make a good book bad, a bad book good, or anything else. Outside the publishing industry, such as it is these days, most readers consider the self-publishing ‘debate’ to be little more than a footnote, where they care at all. They have a book in their hands, and it is a good book or it is bad book. Nothing else really matters. Pretending it does, going to lengths to make a publishing process the root of all evil, is a flawed position that does little but expose personal prejudice.
Of course, a good book is composed of several things – good writing, a good story, good editing, a good cover – it’s more than just the words, and I encourage new self-publishers to really get to grips with that. Pay for good covers, pay for good editors. If you can’t afford it, save up until you can. What’s the rush? Remember the books you’ve loved. They have identities beyond the story they contain. Respect that, and give your reader the best book it is possible to.
Because it’s the book, stupid, self-publishers do readers enormous disservice where they don’t make sure the one they’re publishing is everything a reader could want it to be. There is a lot of shoddy garbage in print now, because self-publishers rush poor material to Amazon. At the same time though, there’s some great fiction being self-published, in multiple genres. It’s really not that hard to find, either. I don’t suggest specifically looking for it though. ‘Self-published’ isn’t a genre that will help you find titles you enjoy, any more than ‘traditional publishing’ is. They describe a process not a product, a means to produce a book not a statement of quality. Readers, generally, seem to get this. I wish the people producing books did too. Look for books that you want to read. The rest will take care of itself.
At the moment, a lot of traditionally published authors are pointing at self-publishing with self-righteous indignation, claiming it to be evil because of… well, stuff that doesn’t matter. Increasingly, authors who are using self-publishing to stay independent of the traditional publishing houses are pointing back, trying to find higher horses to sit on, and claiming that traditional publishing is Satan’s own printing process because of… well, other stuff, that also doesn’t matter. Both sides often make themselves look silly, because…
Oh, go on, you know this bit. It’s the book, stupid.
For what it’s worth, my advice to people looking at self-publishing is wait. Publishing a book to a high standard isn’t easy, even if the self-publishing process makes it look so. Start with traditional publishing and learn your craft that way. When you get to the stage of being published by other people, who will pay you something, you can have a bit more confidence that you’re not producing work only you and your friends will like. Along the way, learn from your publishers how a good book is built. Armed with craft and knowledge, it’s easier to filter the hype around self-publishing through common sense and experience. Then, if you choose to, give it a go.
Personally, I’ll continue to walk both paths. the photo at the top of this too long blog post shows various books I’ve been in down the years. Some are self-published, some have been put together by small independent publishing houses. A couple have been produced by major publishers. In the next couple of months, I’ll be able to add the traditionally published Dark Faith: Invocations to that shelf, alongside the self-published paperback of Thy Fearful Symmetry. It doesn’t matter how they ended up on the shelf.
Because it’s the book, stupid.