Did you know that recent stats indicate that 450+ thousand books were self-published at last count? That’s a lot of books, garnering a lot of conversation about where the trend is headed and if it’s headed in the right direction.
A book site calledWomen Writers, Women[s] Books invited me to discuss what has become a compelling topic of debate not only in the book marketing world, but amongst the community of writers, some of whom view self-publishing less as a profession and more a hobby, while others fiercely fight to raise the bar.
My own view, excerpted from the article:
I sit somewhere in the middle. As one who’s chosen to self-publish for a variety of reasons, I believe the ability of quality writers to get their work out, despite exclusionary practices, has been a boon. I’ve read several self-published books that are so excellent it’s impossible to understand why they’re not being hawked by one of the Big 5 (particularly considering some of what is being hawked!). But I’m also someone who’s bemoaned the unwise and oddly entitled attitudes of far too many self-pubbers who eschew certain standards of professionalism. When you hear writers commenting that they can’t afford or don’t wish to budget for professional editors, formatters, or cover designers, you know there’s a conversation to be had.
Heard at a recent garage sale: “I always take free stuff even when I’m not sure I want it. I mean, it’s FREE; I can always throw it out!“
Contemporary culture seems to have a conflicted relationship with free. People will hip-check each other to get to a neighborhood “free box” first, then get suspicious when eager salesmen dangle promotional freebies to close a sale. We all love a free meal but will still wonder what’s wrong with business that the restaurant is offering it. We can rationalize downloading music without payment, yet barely blink when art is auctioned for millions on the basis of “perceived artistic value.”
Then there are books, given away by the boatload in “free book promotions” in hopes of snagging that ever-more desirable demographic: the e-book reader. As the format surpasses all others in global book sales, the seduction of this burgeoning audience has become the mission statement of all book sellers, including indie authors, making Amazon’s brainchild promotion the Holy Grail.
To the uninitiated, the “free book promotion” is a strategy whereby writers offer their e-books free-of-charge for a number of days during their Kindle Select enrollment period. The objective is to entice readers in hopes they’ll download your book, leave a review, stir up positive word-of-mouth, then come back to buy your other books that aren’t free. This presumes, of course, that you have other books; it also presumes those planned objectives are met.
Depends who you talk to. Some authors report getting thousands of free downloads, winning higher Amazon rankings and heightened name awareness as a result. Others tout similar stats but lament the cost of sites like BookBub and others that charge $200+ to promote those free promotions. Still others contend that the strategy’s value has peaked, as the sheer glut of free product has lowered incentive for readers to ever pay for books (despite e-books already being cheaper than other formats). Writers themselves are conflicted.
I asked indie author, Martin Crosbie, who’s had tremendous success with his books, particularly his novel, My Temporary Life, his view of the strategy:
“If I had not had the ability to offer my book for free I would not have found the readers I have. Reduced and free pricing has been the difference for me between connecting with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of readers each month as opposed to just a handful. Hopefully some of these tried and true methods will remain effective for a little while as we all scramble to increase our readership, because really, we’re not just selling books. We’re building our reader base; that’s where our real focus is.”
Most would agree, yet some believe the proliferation of freebies has permanently altered the landscape, both in the perceived value of writers and their work and the mindset of readers who’ve become habituated to not paying for books. Literary agent, Jill Corcoran, makes that point in her piece, The Devaluation of Writers, By Writers:
“I get it, we all want our books to be read… getting your foot in the door/getting your e-book on anyone and everyone’s e-reader is the first step to [hopefully] selling these buyers your second book. BUT, if your self-pubbed book is free, and, according to bookgorilla, John Green’s THE FAULT OF OUR STARS e-book is worth $3.99, then all of us in publishing will need to downsize our houses, our food bill, our lifestyles because unless you are selling a heck of a lot of books, at $3.99 or 1/8th of $0.99 or at the golden ‘price’ of FREE, we have all just devalued ourselves to a point of below the already pitiful American minimum wage.” [Emphasis added.]
To the creative soul awash in inspiration, artfulness, and flights of fancy, there is nothing more antithetical to the Muse than blowing one’s own damn horn. “Shameless self-promotion,” as a friend of mine puts it, which comes replete with discomfort and the awkwardness of braggadocio. But still… it seems we must.
Back in the day – or if you have the sort of career in which these characters appear – publicists, marketing and promotion specialists, managers, agents, handlers, etc., did the heavy lifting when it came to the strutting of stuff. The artist was protected from this crass commercial cacophony by virtue of having a team, a cadre, a crowd of enthusiasts who knew just what to say, when and to whom, to get that artist a front cover, a high-profile radio interview, the best book tour, all the right appearances at all the right places. Now? That cadre? That team? It’s you.
Well, it’s you if you are one of the growing number of independent artists who revel in the passion of creativity but wearied of shuffling behind velvet ropes held tight by the gatekeepers. Or, in simpler terms: damn, it’s hard these days to get an agent, publisher, manager, publicist, any of those folks!!
So what’s an artist to do; an artist who trusts their own voice and is willing to walk their own road even if those gate won’t open? Well, those artists are doing it for themselves. Just like the sisters.
Musicians made the leap first. When big labels tumbled into the swirling eddy of the digital revolution and no one understood how to proceed when all previously held paradigms blew into bits, musicians, bands, and singer/songwriters figured out how to transcend; how to get into those Pro-Tools studios and get the job done with a level of excellence that used to drain bank accounts but could now be covered by Mom, Dad and your freelance fees. And when they had their records recorded, mixed and mastered exactly as they wanted, without interference from bean-counters and suits with no idea of artistry, they got busy promoting the living hell out of those records, creating viable, accessible, impossible-to-pigeonhole careers as independent musicians. Which meant lots of teeth-gritting but ultimately necessary – and often quite effective – self-promotion. Entire careers have been built on that.
Now it’s the writers’ turn. The writing/publishing industry is/has been going through a similar upheaval and the pain is starting to show. While the Big Six publishing houses (some say it’s now the Big Five) have struggled against the turbulence of changing tastes, trends, and delivery systems for the written word, companies like Amazon have rewritten the book, so to speak, on how books are sold, writers are advanced, and readers are supplied. Money in traditional publishing has become unpredictable and unsustainable, which has led to gatekeepers selecting only a few who are predicted to fit the mold, meet the formulas, and overcome the changing tides. Which left out the other talented folk who, heretofore, would have been amongst the chosen. Have you seen the new Noah movie yet? Picture the bulk of writers as those left behind on terra firma as Russell Crowe battened down the hatches and floated off with his handpicked horde.
So those of us left outside have taken a cue from the indie musicians. Courtesy of Amazon and other sites, independent writers have been given the power to move forward despite closed door. The demand remains for excellent, extraordinary, really good work; for brilliant stories, goose-bumping prose, and unforgettable characters. But, lo and behold, it appears a great many writers who were not let in the gates can and do provide that standard of literature. How lovely that the industry has evolved to the point that these outliers now have a portal, a support system, a facility with which to publish their own work! It’s quite brilliant. But…
Back to self-promotion. Because even though Amazon and affiliates do quite a good job at the various and creative ways in which they promote their authors – clearly a win/win situation – there’s no getting around the fact that independent writers MUST blow their own horns. Which means a great many things, not least of which is asking readers who’ve read their books to leave their – hopefully – positive reviews on their Amazon page… or wherever else such things matter, like Goodreads or Shelfari or other book sites. Reviews are not requested for the sake of ego; they’re requested for the sake of algorithms that rank a book by many things, including the number of reviews those books elicit.
So when a writer asks you to leave a review, understand that they are being a good, independent artist, taking very seriously their commitment to do right by their work, their art; their business. And if you can, if you are so inclined, if you are interested in supporting that artist, and, in a bigger sense, the independent publishing industry, you will be happy to leave one.