Part I – Nobody wants to read the great novel you wrote:
Without going into a whole history of digital self-publishing, let’s just admit the current situation sucks. Sure there are now self-published e-books regularly featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review combined e-book and paperback top 25 bestsellers. Yes, there was a write-up in Slate last week on the phenomenal success of Wool, but aside from a very few winners, most authors are losers, and readers aren’t too happy either.
More than two-years ago, when I digitally published my novel, Loisaida, things looked much better. Through social networking I became “acquainted” with several writers who had written authentic “bestsellers.” They weren’t hitting The New York Times‘ list (I’m not even sure they were counting e-books back then), but they were in the top 100, sometimes top 20 at the Kindle Store in the United Kingdom, even if they were going for around 77 pence a pop. (Readers on the US Kindle site weren’t quite as open then.)
Thrillers were doing well. My novel, which was nominally a thriller (and more accurately over-complicated, slow-moving, literary fiction) was also selling, not well enough to attract the interest of an agent or traditional publisher, but at least a few hundred copies a month for a few months in late 2010, early 2011. Then I raised the price back up to $2.99 and it sunk. When I lowered it again, it never recovered.
Somehow between that book and a speculative fiction novella I’d put out that had gotten thousands of “free” downloads and less than half as many paid ones, I thought maybe I had some “followers” and so expected my new novella, Schrodinger’s Telephone to do well. It was certainly more “accessible” than the other two, and would appeal to a wider audience.
Despite some excellent customer reviews on Amazon, and a five-star rating from Big Al’s Books and Pals (a site that went viral a couple of years ago), sales of the new novella have been abysmal. And I’m not the only one in a slump. Even writers with traditional publishing credits, past sales, and good social networking skills aren’t doing as well as they were a couple of years ago.
Many indie writers won’t admit that the situation is as dire as it is. Some will boast bestseller status when their books hit the top 100 in a particular category, but this is fallacious. Very few actual sales are required for a book to jump up on one or more of Amazon’s various sub-categories. Just one sale on Amazon UK, will shoot my novella up onto lists for “Crime – Thrillers and Mysteries – Medical” or “Thrillers – Techno-thrillers – Medical”, etc. A hundred sales over a short time when a book may be offered at a special promotional price, can briefly bring it up to the top 50-sellers in Kindle, but at 99 cents book, those 100 yield the author only $35, and the numbers will come back down quickly.
Part II – WHY Nobody Wants to Read the Great Novel You Wrote:
So why aren’t “quality” cheap Kindle books selling as well as they used to? There are a list of factors. At one point, self-published books had a huge advantage, in that authors could charge as little as 99 cents a piece. Many readers who previously loaded up on them are burnt out, and won’t even bother with these cheapies, as so many are ultra-short, and/or terribly written. But going up to $2.99, there’s now much more electronic competition, not only from other self-published authors, but now from Amazon itself. Amazon has several new publishing lines of its own. Their mystery and thriller “brand,” Thomas and Mercer, offers e-books that have been vetted, at prices competitive with self-published books. Amazon seems to being winning its pricing war on with publishers, so they are bringing prices down as well. There’s a lot more quality e-books being offered at a relatively low price.
Quality or the perception of a lack of it, is a big issue.. The stigma of self-publishing has never lifted, and with Amazon’s policy of free access to its kindle-digital-platform (kdp) it never will. Readers want filters, and who can blame them?
Many who have self-published or are considering it, have taken desperate measures to get their books noticed. I’m not talking about the few who have resorted to shills, sock-puppets and fake reviews. While some forumites on Amazon are convinced that most self-published writers are guilty of these “techniques,” which hurt all writers, I’m certain the vast majority aren’t, and those who are, aren’t helped by them.
I’m talking about writers willing to part with cash they probably won’t make back, on various author and/or marketing services that promise, or at least imply, access to “real” readers, and what is still looked at as the Holy Grail by some – literary agents and publishers. The writers are doing nothing unethical here, unless one counts wasting money as unethical, but the purveyors of these schemes scams services may be. They include: editors with no actual editing experience preying on the truly desperate and naive; online publicists with no actual public relations or marketing experience, who will for a fee set up “blog-tours” allowing writers to be interviewed and or reviewed on numerous blogs that almost nobody reads (some of which may be set up by the “tour guides” themselves); placing ads on blogs and other sites that nobody will pay attention to; paying to be “featured” on “newsletters” that go out to readers (This actually worked for a friend of mine, but the results were temporary, and there’s no guarantee of making back what you spend); and then there’s my personal favorite – “respectable,” “objective” paid reviews from Clarion, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Of course, the above referenced established review sites like PW, don’t actually list most of their paid indie reviews with their real ones. These “special” reviews for special authors go into their own special place. But the companies imply they will be seen by readers, agents, librarians, and publishers, and will carry some kind of weight with readers. They are allegedly non-biased. The writer pays in advance and the review may be good, bad or indifferent. The writer has the option, in either case, of using it or not on his/her website and in other publicity. Newsflash – even a good review by any of these places is unlikely to get your book noticed on Amazon — the place where it is most likely to be sold. Paid reviews are not trusted, no matter who writes them, and won’t sway many readers. Think about it: When was the last time you bought a book because Kirkus liked it? Some writers may think a good review will at least help them to get their paperbacks into brick-and-mortar bookstores, but bookstores avoid print-on-demand books, and “selling” to them is extremely difficult.
Part III. Why SOME Readers Want to Read Novels SOMEBODY ELSE Wrote (but not yours)
But the question remains: What did the “successful” self-published authors do to get there?
Most of the e-books that have sold well, have come from certain genres – romance, thrillers and science fiction. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Most fiction sold fall into those categories. Because there are many avid readers in these genres who may go through multiple books in a week, they are always hungry for inexpensive content. While some of the big six publishers are now looking for ways to break in with their own straight-to-Kindle lines, even with no author advances and lowered standards, it’s harder for them to go as low price-wise as independent authors can.
Another factor that has helped at least a few self-published writers to rise has been the support of their genre communities. Recently, several self-published romance books appeared on the Times top 25 list. All of them were written by writers that participated in forums and blogs within their communities. They knew their market because they are their market. For thrillers it may work a little differently. Writers like Stephen Leather and JA Konrath came in with experience and already had followers. Both have cleverly used social networking to increase their fan base, but not to create one from scratch. Beyond that, both also write the kinds of books their readers love to read.
In brief, the writers that do well are generally writing within certain genres where people are more open to self-publishing. In the case of romance especially, the lines between reader and writer are more amorphous than in other genres. Don’t forget, Fifty Shades of Grey began its life as fan fiction. The few who succeed, write the kinds of books their readers crave, and are also very good at marketing them directly to their target audience. Social networking is important – but only if your followers are the people likely to read and enjoy your book in the first place, and if it will have an appeal to a larger audience. In many cases, the target readers themselves act as gatekeepers for the wider reading community.
Outside of these genres, self-published books haven’t been embraced. Readers of literary fiction are few, and books for them are many. They are more likely to find out about good books through sources like The New York Review of Books, NPR, the New York Times, etc. These are places that will never review your self-published book. These readers also tend to be late adapters to reading online, so if you don’t have a print version or can’t get it into stores, they’ll never see it. If they do read e-books, they may still find out about them by browsing in brick-and-mortar stores that will never carry your book.
Part IV. Some things that won’t happen, but would help you sell your lousy book if they did:
When the digital self-publishing revolution started, it held out real hope to many writers who couldn’t get their books published traditionally, not because the books weren’t “good,” but simply because agents and publishers weren’t convinced they’d sell well enough in a tight market to be worth the risk. Self-publishing could allows writers to have more control and take more chances. They could sustain a more direct relationship with readers. To some extent this has happened, but mostly for a few authors, and within certain genres.
Except for $12.50 that I shelled out for a probably worthless “campaign” on Goodreads, I’ve never paid for advertizing. I’ve certainly never paid for reviews. But I could imagine a service I would pay for. It wouldn’t have to “promise” me sales. It would only have to promise access to my target readers. The problem is that the people whom I believe would like my book if I could only get them to read it, are those people least likely to find it, or even read a self-published book. I’m not going to find them on a blog-tour, and a review from Kirkus Indies isn’t going to impress them.
But there is one company that is very, very good at targeting consumers, that could help me market my book – Amazon. You may be asking yourself: . “Hasn’t Amazon already done enough for self-publishing? And besides it’s not their job to sell your books. They just put them up. Selling them is your problem. Amazon’s only mission is to make lots of money for Amazon.”
But isn’t capitalism about opening up new markets? Amanda Hocking self-published because traditional publishers didn’t recognize how huge the market for paranormal romance was, and how hungry readers were. What if there are other markets out there? Not as big maybe, but big enough to be worth pursuing.
My proposal is a simple one, and one where Amazon makes money (or at least doesn’t lose any) no matter what:
Amazon will cultivate (literally that is – help grow) reader communities in a number of “boutique” genres and sub-genres – noir, transgressive, literary, etc. and market books that are likely to appeal to very specific readers, even if they’ve never before read self-published books, and are just warming up to the idea of e-books.
Part V. What this would look like:
Amazon sets up a voluntary program for writers who want to participate. Participants pay a “reading fee” to Amazon. (Whatever the fee is, it will be less than a Kirkus review, and Amazon being Amazon, they’ll try to keep it low and go for volume).
The writer will supply a “blind” submission – no author, no working title, just a manuscript (in a formatted Mobi file) and a synopsis. These can be uploaded of course, with a questionnaire that will be designed to help hone in on the “ideal” reader.
The book will then be sent to an “Amazon Target Reader” who likes the kind of book the author believes he or she has written, based on the questionnaire. Amazon will work to make sure the reader most likely to like a book (if it’s good) will get that book. For example, a detective novel might be brilliant, but if it also contains lots of profanity and an explicit sex scene, it may not be for all readers of the genre. Targeting would need to account for stuff like that. Target readers will get a fee and/or free or discounted stuff from Amazon. They have to get enough to make it worth their while to actually read the books assigned to them. The reader will assess the book based on a rubric. If a book fails, he or she will have to write an additional short explanation of why. If a book passes, he or she will need to write a review of 150-300 words. There could even be a “provisional pass” where the reader spots just a few too many distracting errors, and the writer can fix them and resubmit (maybe for a small fee.) The standard for target reader approval doesn’t have to be very high. Amazon still isn’t going to pay any of the costs of traditional publishing, nor are they necessarily going to put one of their publishing brands behind the book. They can take chances. The standard only needs to be that the book is indeed being targeted correctly, and that the formatting, editing, and writing is of a publishable standard for the book’s audience.
Publishable is a relative term. The standard varies in different genres. Certain genres have formulaic requirements, while others will reject anything remotely formulaic. Writing styles differ, with some readers loving simple short sentences, and others craving variety. Fans of novels like Fifty Shades of Grey don’t seem to be bothered by writing quirks that would drive other readers insane. The point of having real readers do the reading, is that they know what they like.
Every system can be rigged, but there are some safeguards Amazon could take. If a book is rejected without a full read because of grammar and formatting errors (a legitimate reason), the reader would have to document a specified number of them in case an author challenges that assessment. Readers would not have access to a synopsis or book description, but would have to write one that could be compared to the one sent in by the writer. This could be used randomly to make sure readers are reading, or if a writer challenged the reader’s assessment on the grounds that he or she didn’t actually finish the book, but claimed to. Target readers would be pseudonymous, so they couldn’t be approached directly by writers, but they might develop a following for their reviews, so that readers might feel they could “trust” particular reviewers’ assessments.
If the target reader approves, there’s a “seal” placed on the book. This shows up in recommendations and readers can browse “approved” books. Amazon will send the recommendation out to readers who are in the target audience. The writer has the option of using the target reader’s review in his or her product reviews. If a reader is especially enthusiastic, and Amazon has an imprint that publishes that type of book, the target reader can recommend it to the editors of that imprint. Amazon could also do something within its own forums to publicize target reader approved books. The program can be used by small publishers and even the major ones if they want to pay the fee.
People would still be able to upload to the KDP and sell print books through Amazon if they didn’t participate. Lots of established self-published writers don’t need the seals. Others may not be able to afford to participate, or just not might not want to.
Part VI. Everybody wins:
So here’s what different constituencies get:
Amazon gets money upfront to cover the cost of administering the program and paying readers. It also gets more money if the approved books reach wider audiences, and it may more easily identify good books for its own imprints. It gains new markets for self-published e-books (and print versions if they exist).
Writers get the “seal of approval,” and maybe god-willing, if they don’t get it, they will either abandon the idea of self-publishing or they will take the critique to heart and do something to actually improve their book. The seal will give them more access to real readers who are likely to like their book. They even get a shot at having their book seen by editors for Amazon’s imprints, and they may get a good legit review to place in their “editorial reviews,” by a reviewer who may be known to the target audience.
Readers also benefit from the deal. They get to discover new books by new authors. They get a filter that helps them find inexpensive books that have been vetted by readers like them and are decently edited and formatted. In short, they get access to the inexpensive content that Amazon wants to sell to them.
Win, win, win.
It would also be nice if Amazon would just filter out all the self-published e-books under 15,000 words and keep them by genre in a separate “shorts” section. They’re part of the flood of e-books that’s drowning all of us. Under 50 print pages is a pamphlet, not a book, even if it’s electronic and under two bucks. But that’s a rant for another day.