This week, two publishing deals made big news, each for very different reasons.
Early this week, in an interview with Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler revealed he’d declined a six-figure deal from a major publisher. Instead, he will publish his books independently, on Kindle.
On the other end of the spectrum, Amanda Hocking scored a seven-figure deal with Saint Martin’s Press. Hocking made a well-recognized name for herself by publishing low-priced Kindle-exclusive novellas and novels. Recently, she’s mostly known for having sold more than one hundred thousand books in January, which isn’t surprising given that she published eleven books since, like, April of last year.
I’m sure many of them were in a trunk somewhere, and she didn’t write them all in eight months.
Actually, considering their quality, I’m not sure of that.
This particular pair of writers has created a total binary in terms of discussion with regard to so-called “self-publishing.” It’s an easy black and white to paint.
The problem is not that it’s more complicated but the consequences of such binaries.
In her post acknowledging her deal, which I caught when a friend shared it on Facebook, Ms. Hocking notes that one of her primary reasons for taking the deal was because she needs an editor. So I’m not going to take pot-shots at her writing, which she obviously knows she needs to improve. She knows her writing needs to be better because, apparently, a lot of her readers have written to her to let her know she really needs an editor (which I find interesting in itself; the general proposition agents put forward is that books submitted for representation should be “perfect,” “as good as possible,” etc., and certainly free of errors of grammar and usage).
But let’s be candid: Saint Martin’s didn’t offer Amanda Hocking $2 million for four books because she pitched a ground-breaking YA series and writes well.
Saint Martin’s offered her $2 million because she sold 100,000 books in January. Somewhere in that neighborhood. She’s sold a whole lot of books. Probably 10k copies of each book she’s selling.
One the other hand, we have Barry Eisler, who can write. I mean, have you read the John Rain series? Cracking thrillers. I don’t really have a negative word to say about the guy, and not just because if you look at his Wikipedia bio, he’s a former CIA agent with a black belt. He’s like the writer version of Jason Bourne.
That’s, like, sick.
And he declined half a million dollars to try independence. I think that’s ballsy, but I also think he knew what he’s doing, and he’s going to do pretty damned well.
Lately, and not just because of these two deals this past week, there’s been a lot of discussion of so-called “self-publishing.” The most recent post I’ve seen was this one, by Roxane Gay, at HTML Giant, which claims to be “some new thoughts on self-publishing” but really, ain’t nothing really new said. The main title is “Taking No for an Answer,” which seems to allude to the idea that writers should accept the decisions of agents and editors when they decline manuscripts as a sign that manuscripts may not be ready. I think.
There were usual claims made. One early one:
The argument can certainly be made that there is very little distinction between self-publishing and publishing with a micropress, for example, save that you don’t have to spend your own money. There is, however, even with a micropress, a certain level of vetting or curation that takes place. A manuscript is chosen and someone believes in that manuscript enough to put some money behind it and do their best to get that book out into the world.
But “vetting” and “curation”?
The problem, I think, is that in the same breath many people claim that publishing is a business and selling a manuscript to a publisher is about commercial viability and what publishers think will sell, in the marketplace, there is also some “certain level of vetting or curation that takes place.” So that when publishers buy the rights to books that are, by most standards, not very good in terms of writing or style, as books, the decision is excused as one of business. The most egregious example being Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s A Shore Thing, but I’ve seen the same claims made with regard to James Franco’s Palo Alto.
The argument wants to have it both ways. I can’t make the claim that the two arguments are mutually exclusive, because they aren’t, but I think it’s a lazy argument.
Gay goes on to note:
I recently bought a few self-published books via Amazon and other means because I have always been curious about the quality of self-published writing, particularly the writing of writers who claim they are forging this new path because their writing is simply unable to be appreciated or understood by mainstream publishing, because their writing is falling through the cracks. Only one of these books, No Shelter, by Z. Constance Frost, was excellent—memorable and something I’ll read more than once.
To which I’d respond that I recently bought a few books published by major corporations for my Kindle, because I’ve been curious about the manuscripts to which those major corporations have bought the rights, claiming that they are vetting or curating literature for culture, and only one of these books, Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain, was excellent–memorable and something I’ll read more than once.
To dismiss independent publishing based on a few books . . . well. I don’t think I really need to point out how silly that is.
Really, though, it comes down to marketing. Doesn’t it always, asks the marketer?
The thing is that one must be aware of what one is producing, creating, distributing, and selling. One must needs know now only the product one represents but also the services one provides and the benefits users will expect.
Business is not about products. Consumers don’t buy products.
People buy benefits. People buy what they need, and what they need are services.
People don’t buy cellular phones, for example. They buy communications. They buy messaging with their friends instantly to coordinate meeting up. They buy a mobile means to access information. They buy a means to listen to music and play games.
People don’t buy sneakers. They buy athletic performance. They buy better cushioning for longer runs. They buy weight loss facilitated by more comfortable exercise for longer periods of time. When they buy Nike+ (the iPod connected sneaker thing), they’re not buying technology-enhanced sneakers; they’re buying distraction from the monotony of long exercise sessions as well as a means to track exercise performed.
People don’t buy books. They buy reading experiences. They buy stories which don’t distract but rather connect them, more deeply, to people around them. They buy the feeling that someone else knows how they feel, even if that person is a fictional character, and through that empathy they connect socially to others who have also identified with those characters. They buy community that comes by way of discussion of things people care about.
And maybe publishers are right, then. Maybe people want sparkly vampires and more zombies and young-adult paranormal fantasy and political pundits and bedwetting because people want connection with trivial things right now because deeper contemplation of the bigger issues facing our world right now is daunting.
I’m not sure.
What I do know is simple: when one has one’s product, one must look at both the market and other products and approach it accordingly. As a for example, one major aspect is figuring out who needs the service you’re providing and what other services they use. So, for example, I wager that readers who want to read Exciting Books are burnt out on sparkly vampires and zombies. People who want Exciting Books would call them “shiny” as a reference, not because there’s foil on the cover; they probably favored The King’s Speech and The Social Network in the Oscars; they . . .
When really considering what I’m doing, I filled out a huge spreadsheet full of this sort of information. What magazines would people who want the books I write read? What movies would they watch? What television? What music would they listen to? What car would they drive? What sort of education would they have.
I’d wonder what Saint Martin’s was thinking in buying Hocking’s series, but it’s sort of easy to see: it’s a four-book, young-adult, paranormal fantasy romance series.
So it’s basically Twilight. And at one point, one in every eight books sold in the United States was by Stephenie Meyer. From whom we’ve really only seen a novella since.
Smart business move? Could well be. I do hope that Saint Martin’s kept in mind that the reason Hocking sold so many books was that she sold them for less than three bucks (so far as I can see, with a perfunctory glance, most of the books Saint Martin’s offers on Kindle are north of seven bucks), but it probably won’t matter in the long run, especially if Hocking keeps up her prolific pace. She could easily have twenty books available for a buck or two each by the time the first series installment launches.
Thing is this: for me, personally, I look at the marketplace and see its limitations. Barnes & Noble is the only big-box retailer thriving right now, but it is doing so by focusing on its nook; Borders declared bankruptcy and Books-A-Million is reporting problems. Who knows if we’ll even have any bookstores besides indie ones in another few years?
I look at the books still on those shelves, and, like in Sesame Street, realize my books are not like those. What I want to do, what I want to write, is not like Snooki’s or James Franco’s or Sarah Palin’s, and the more deals I see, the more deeply that feeling is confirmed. Once upon a time, I wanted to sell out every copy of every book every time; now, there’s really no such thing as selling out, because how does one sell out when one is dealing in digital files.
Which is the other thing I notice. I put a lot of effort into figuring out who my my potential readers might be, and then the latest Kindle came out, and it came as a revelation.
When I read these deals lately, I keep seeing who got them and thinking, yeah, that’s not my team. I know a lot of people have bought Amanda Hocking’s books, but I also know she’s not my team, and it made sense when she signed a contract with the other side. Corporate publishing first divided the world into Team Edward and Team Jacob, but now I realize it’s also creating Team Indie, and for now, I like being part of that team.
It’s a different game. It’s a different business model. It’s a different market, and it requires different strategies, different thought, and different play.