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Looking for Truth in Time of Hype

Image - iStockphoto: JimmyMc81 [1]
Image – iStockphoto: JimmyMc81

‘There’s Never Been a Better Time To Be A Writer’

You’ve read that line, of course, we all have. Sometimes here at Writer Unboxed.

I’ve seen this mantra frequently over the past few years in blog posts, conference reports and news items. And I don’t disagree there’s been a lot to celebrate.

This is the author Roz Morris [2], based in London. She teaches courses in writing and editing for The Guardian, as well as in Zurich, later this month in Venice.

But from what I see right now, this time is also tougher for authors than ever.

Wait, what?

Indie authors feel it in their book sales. Hands up, who is in a forum where the chief discussion is “what can I do about my dwindling sales?” “Anybody else had a dismal month?” “Should I drop my book’s price, put it on Kindle Unlimited, write something more popular, send out more emails, spend $$$ on a marketing course?”

Roz Morris [3]
Roz Morris

Morris is not just talking about independent writers, either:

The traditionally published authors I know are faring little better, with shrinking advances, ill-supported launches – even the authors who have awards to prove their worth.

I used a bit of this material from Morris as we announced this week an all-new, issues-oriented conference for writers in London: Author Day from The Bookseller and The FutureBook [4] is on the 30th of November and we’re programming it for both traditionally published and independent writers as well as industry players. We want that mix.

One reason that the amalgam of voices is so important to us as we put together Author Day—and as we talk about writers’ and their business every day—is that a strong current of promotion runs through almost any position someone takes these days on the question of publishing and authors.

This is not anyone’s fault.

[pullquote]The market for ebooks has pretty much gone flat. And so we have a problem here…. There’s a glut of high-quality, low-cost books, more books than readers will ever possibly be able to read. —Mark Coker[/pullquote]

We are deeply commercialized cultures now. We are programmed to produce and promulgate hype. We get it early. A few decades ago, that lemonade stand you and your siblings threw together just said “Lemonade” on it, right? This summer’s lemonade stands proclaimed they offered “The World’s Best Lemonade.” I saw this in a small town on Long Island. Cute kids. Scary branding.

And as we move around the Internet, our communications prairie, we’re pretty much forced to engage in self-branding. Once the province only of marketing mavens, now simply to be effective on Twitter, you need a practical bio, not a joke; a good picture, not a greasy-faced party shot; a professional handle, not that silly thing you did in college. Particularly as the various social media become key vehicles of author branding, you have to think about messaging.

And soon, so soon…hype.

Merriam-Webster describes “hype” as “promotional publicity of an extravagant or contrived kind.”

Provocations image by Liam Walsh [5]
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

That’s pretty useful for my provocation for you today. But I’d like to hype that description itself, blow some more colored smoke up an asterisk right beside it, soft-shoe my way around some late-summer garden maze with you to a place safe enough—is there such a place anymore?—for us quietly, secretly to concede that the way we talk about pathways to publication nowadays?—are thorny with hype.

The Drive to Persuade

Somehow, it has become all but impossible for us to declare an affinity for anything without feeling that we must back the car over all disagreement.

Morris’ column is a case in point on this because she, in her own commentary, doesn’t demand that others align themselves with her opinion.

In fact, what she reveals are cracks in the frequent boosterism (hype) we hear in favor of self-publishing. She writes:

Last week I was having an email conversation with a wise author friend. As we confided our worries and frustrations, I felt we were describing the state of the author 2015, and were probably echoing many other conversations going on behind closed doors.

So I thought I would open those doors. Come in. Come and see how authors are thinking about their careers right now. And see why, in spite of the rotten state of the book market, we keep the faith and stay true to our standards.

See what she’s doing there? She’s offering us something a bit less bombastic than “The World’s Best Lemonade,” isn’t she? She’s saying that all is not happy in the state of independent publishing (and how could it be? this is still life on Earth) and she’s not giving up her regard for the effort and the concept.

This is far more valuable than happy-talk group-think, an especially cruel and misleading form of hype.

Not Oscar Wilde

Image - iStockphoto: Snowshill [6]
Image – iStockphoto: Snowshill

Morris engages in a conversation with a fellow author she refers to as “Oscar.” At my request, she has revealed to me who this writer is, and I can verify for you that this is an author of whom I’m aware. I went through that bit of arcane journo-gymnastics only because the use of an “unnamed source” is not what one wants in most instances, and the journalist’s compunction in such occasions is to be sure that he or she can verify for you that a real person stands behind the faux name.

“Oscar” shows wonderfully honest signs, with Morris, of doubt. And how noble is that? Rich, sensible, understandable doubt. Like this:

I’m beginning to think the biggest part of the indie movement is to smack the big machines [traditional publishing] into better behaviour. They have the money and power to do what we cannot do…I have an agent friend. In 2014 he was flying high, making sales, getting high-profile assignments, negotiating foreign rights. He said all of that is over now. It’s hard to sell *anything* to a trad house because we’ve lost our attention span for long form. Everybody is on Twitter. No one has the time to read…I check in on Kindleboards now and again. Yesterday I saw an author who started out making $13,000 a month on four poorly written books say she’s now ghosting for other indies to make ends meet. Another author posted about the publication of his new ‘novel’, which is 117 pages long with lots of white space (probably 15K words) and selling for $2.99. Everyone was fawning over him and his swift production…As for craft and quality, in one forum I saw people asking others to stop putting out junk. The remarks degraded, as they always do, to people defending the ‘raw’ writing their fans demanded. Many admitted to using no editors at all, claiming it took the edge off.

Together, Morris and “Oscar” find their way to an agreement that authors (especially in literary work, sorely tested by the digital dynamic) need to accept that a slower fate is theirs. They may have to wear down the barriers to their success over time, like water working up a good canyon.

‘A Horribly Tough Time for Me’

Image - iStockphoto: Chris Nolan [7]
Image – iStockphoto: Chris Nolan

Below the post, though, you see comments [8] coming in that don’t replicate the hype of self-publishing at all. Morris and “Oscar” have triggered a release of sorts, and you hear real pain in some of these notes left by their readers. I’ll just excerpt a few phrases here.

It has been a horribly tough time for me. Two years ago, I thought I was possibly going to *make it*. Now I am afraid I may go under…No, I won’t be tossing off a series in a genre that sells…It’s incredibly hard to get noticed because there are [an] incredible number of new books coming out every month…I find that when I’m not on social media, I make no sales. It’s as simple as that. However, it doesn’t really matter what I post. It can be a blog that has taken me hours to write, an interview that has taken 7 hours to respond to, or a cat photo…To date, selling paperbacks has cost me dearly. Now that my ebook sales have plummetted by 80%, I really have to address the fact that I have made an average loss of £5 on every book….I ‘try’ not to, but can’t help feeling depressed at the lack of sales. I suppose there are just too many new books coming out all the time…One of the fundamental problems we have as writers is our reluctance to allocate a time and means to promote and market our writings…

It would be wrong to think from the selections I’ve made here that everything said in the comments on Morris’ column are about failure, fear of it, experience of it. In fact, in several cases, Morris and her author-readers discuss various ideas for approaching marketing, and the exercise has a spirit much more about earnest sharing than about gloom and doom.

[pullquote]I’m beginning to think the biggest part of the indie movement is to smack the big machines into better behaviour. They have the money and power to do what we cannot do. —”Oscar”[/pullquote]

Nevertheless, the gift here is that it is not something scored to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s not Indie, Right or Wrong! It’s not particularly friendly to traditional publishing, God knows. But it’s also not pompoms and lettered sweatshirts, the Big I of Indie!, the frequently heard verbiage about “so many authors making a good living today on their self-published writing.” We never hear how many of those well-off indie writers there are, do we? Just “so many.” And because so many don’t use ISBNs, we can’t count them, either, which might be seen either as convenient or unfortunate, depending on your viewpoint.

Traditionally published authors are surely having their trials, Morris is absolutely right. There’s no need to minimize that, either, is there? What good does it do to act as if it’s all cakes and candlelight at the Big Five?

So densely packed a market under the relentless buzzing competition of so many other media means there may be fewer contracts; books headed into badly challenged bookstores (and one steadily declining bookstore chain). And certainly advances aren’t what they were, while the contractual bases on which authors work [9] with publishers are under serious criticism, just as P&L statements allow less budget for marketing, and getting your rights back on something classified as “out of print” appears to be getting harder, not easier in many cases.

Mark Coker [10]
Mark Coker

The Overwhelm of Titles: The Just and the Unjust

The sheer volume of content is a challenge the industry has yet to face well. Maybe there is no authentic response. After all, this is strictly, historically unprecedented.

And this impacts both the traditional side and the indie. No less vested a figure than Mark Coker, the founding CEO of Smashwords, tells Joanna Penn [11] this week:

The market for ebooks has pretty much gone flat. And so we have a problem here…. There’s a glut of high-quality, low-cost books, more books than readers will ever possibly be able to read.

That’s something, coming from a man who says his company is:

Publishing 360,000 books working with over a hundred thousand authors in small independent presses around the world.

That, by the way, he contrasts to 2010, when he says Smashwords was “doing about 5,000 books…maybe 10,000 at that time.” That’s the glut we’re talking about. Hype-sters wish we’d not talk about it. I think it’s good that Coker speaks of it, we all should.

Our exercise at The Bookseller this summer (about the time of that lemonade stand, I was working on it in the Hamptons) gave us a high end of 600,000 as the number of self-published titles the States may be producing in 2015. Lower estimates tended to come in at around 400,000, one as low as 300,000. Our exercise focused more on valuation than on title counts, but one guess went as high as 700,000 titles. I want to stress these are estimates. No one, and I mean no one, has the actual numbers. Certain offices in Seattle could come closest because they have sales figures the rest of us don’t have. But no one has a way to track much if not most of the material independently produced today. So we don’t know. The experts we polled, when taken together, came in at something around half-a-million indie titles per year.

[pullquote]The traditionally published authors I know are faring little better, with shrinking advances, ill-supported launches – even the authors who have awards to prove their worth. —Roz Morris[/pullquote]

The truth behind those closed doors Morris mentions, then, cannot possibly be all inspi-vational (I made it up) cheers and podcast-y enthusiasm. The truth must be more nuanced than the hype. And the truth is what we need to hear.

Publishing a book was never a contest. Presenting one path or another as a cause or a movement has never panned out as anything but…hype. The real goal, by whatever means you pursue it, is to get your work in front of the right audience and, we must hope, find some decent remuneration for all you’ve gone through to do that.

Image - iStockphoto: Voitus [12]
Image – iStockphoto: Voitus

And as we approach the autumn’s discussions about writers and their lives, I hope that we can all get a bit closer to the tone set by Morris and her associates this week. We need this willingness to just be frank. Many, many things are not working for many, many people in this industry at this point. And to say so, honestly, is not to demean the effort. You’re no traitor to the ideal of a publishing success if you speak candidly about the struggle. We all need to hear this much more than we need to see great phalanxes of grinning indies, sunglasses flashing as they pull down those “good livings” off their books.

The lemonade was awful, by the way. Hype didn’t save those kids from the truth, either.

How frequently do you think authors feel they can share their experiences honestly? Do you feel the pressure to make it seem you’re doing better than you are? If you tend to sugarcoat your own experience for others, do you find that it’s helping your sales? —or your outlook?

About Porter Anderson [13]

@Porter_Anderson [14] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [15], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [16] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [17]