Thursday, May 12, 2011

Guest Post by Stephen Leather

I became aware of Stephen Leather after hearing about his huge Kindle success on Amazon.co.uk. Naturally, I asked him to guest post and share his perspective on self-pubbing.

Here's Leather:

I stand in awe of Joe and his success selling eBooks. And I’m no slouch myself – I’ve sold more than 250,000 eBooks on Kindle alone since Christmas, almost all of them in the UK. (I’m sure you remember the UK – we’re the guys whose nuts you pulled out of the fire sixty-six years ago, for which many thanks!)

Joe is at the vanguard of ePublishing, shouting from the rooftops that traditional publishing is dead and the self-publishing is the way to go. Long live the revolution!

Is he right? You know, deep down I think he probably is, but I’ve just signed a new three-book deal with my UK publisher for close to $500,000. Could I make more money doing it myself? Yes, probably. So why don’t I? Here’s the thing. I love books. Real books. I always have. And one of the biggest kicks I get is to walk into a bookstore and see a shelf-full of my books. I’ve got more than twenty ‘real’ books in print so often I get a shelf to myself. And I get an even bigger kick if my 12-year-old daughter is with me and she can see for herself the results of Dad locking himself away on the laptop for hours on end. I never get the same kick when I see someone reading a Kindle. It’s just not the same. So I’ll be sticking with real books, for a while longer at least!

But for most writers, a traditional publishing deal just isn’t possible. It used to be that a writer could send his work off to pretty much any publishing house and someone there would read it. I came up through the ‘slush pile’ and so did most of the writers of my generation. But one by one the publishers stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts and agents became the new gatekeepers.

Literary agents in the UK are actually quite nice people, but they are a totally different animal in the US and I do understand the frustrations writers face when trying to get an agent in America. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve only met one decent human being working as a literary agent in the States – the rest have been horrible, self-centered, arrogant shits. Pardon my French. They seem to take pleasure in denying writers access to publishers and I for one hope take pleasure in the fact that the new ePublishing route cuts them out of the loop. Good riddance, hopefully.

So I do understand why so many writers are embracing Joe’s philosophy and turning to self-publishing eBooks. But there is one cold hard fact that I don’t seem to see anywhere on the blogs and forums devoted to ePublishing. You probably won’t like hearing it, especially if you are one of the new wave of “Indie” writers. But I’m going to say it anyway. Here goes. The vast majority of self-published eBooks are bad. Worse than bad. Awful. There, I’ve said it.

By “bad” I don’t just been badly formatted or lacking originality. I mean badly written. Bad punctuation. Clichéd descriptions. Clunky dialogue. And here’s the thing. When I hear “Indie” writers talking about their books, all they seem to talk about is how they go about marketing their work. How they blog, how they work their Facebook contacts, how they post on the forums. I never hear them talking about how they want to improve their craft. For most of the ones I come across it’s all about the selling. I get emails all the time from “Indie” writers asking me what the secret is to selling a lot of eBooks. I don’t get any asking how they can become better writers.

Here’s another home truth that I always used to tell wannabe writers. A good book will be published, eventually, by a traditional publishing house. A bad book almost certainly won’t be. The fact that Amazon and Smashwords have no quality controls in place mean that home truth no longer applies. Any book can be published. The floodgates have opened. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I think of writing a book as being akin to running a marathon. Anyone who finishes a marathon deserves kudos. It’s a long haul. It’s hard work. But just because you’ve run a marathon doesn’t mean you should be running at the Olympics.

If you have written a book then you deserve a pat on the back. Well done you. But just because you’ve written a book doesn’t mean it’s good enough to be published. And just because you’ve been published doesn’t mean that people will buy it. It seems to me that the rush to embrace self-publishing means that the quality of the work has become secondary to the marketing of it.

Every “Indie” writer now has a blog, mostly pale imitations of Joe’s, they have a Facebook presence which they use to constantly push their work, (a quarter of my Facebook “friends” are writers who do nothing other than post about their books) and they spend hours on the various eBook forums. It’s all about the marketing. They ask for other writers to tag their books, they get friends and family to post favorable reviews (it’s amazing how many self-published eBooks start of with half a dozen five-star reviews on Amazon, mostly from readers who have only ever reviewed the one book) and they share Tweets with other writers. Every “Indie” writer is following the same formula. Sell, sell, sell. The quality of the work seems to have got lost in the process.

A very wise friend once told me about the Rule Of Ten Thousand. Basically he took the view that it takes ten thousand hours to acquire any skill. That’s about how long it takes to learn a foreign language, or play the piano proficiently, or play pool expertly, or become a good poker player. It applies to almost everything (except maybe free-fall parachuting).

My first book was published, by Harper Collins, but by the time I had written it I had been working as a journalist for more than ten years and so had been writing for at last 10,000 hours. To be honest, I didn’t hit my stride until my fourth book.

Let’s say you write for two hours a day. That means you hit the 10,000 hours after 5,000 days, which is what, thirteen years? And yes, that’s probably how long it has taken most writers to reach the stage where they get published. Writing for the most part is a craft. A skill that has to be learned. Very few writers published the traditional way see their first book in print. It’s often their fifth or sixth that is good enough to be published. Jack Higgins famously wasn’t published until after he’d written more than a dozen novels and he didn’t achieve any real success until his 36th – The Eagle Has Landed.

EPublishing has removed that learning curve. Now any book can be published, no matter how awful. And I think that’s bad for writers. The one or two times I have suggested that a writer spend some time improving their craft I’ve had abuse heaped on me so these days I don’t bother saying anything. Yes, “Indie” writers need to sell their work, yes marketing is important, maybe vital, but let’s not let the medium become the message. My advice to any writer who has finished their first book is to relax, take a deep breath, and start the next one. Send your first novel out to every agent there is, and see what happens. You will probably be ignored, you might get a one-line rejection, but the fact is that if the book is good then it will be picked up. Eventually. And if you can’t get an agent, maybe consider that the book isn’t very good and make the next one better. And make the one after that even better.

Once you’ve done your ten thousand hours you can consider yourself a real writer and at that point you can go back and examine your early work. You’ll probably realize how much it can be improved, or maybe that it’s simply not publishable. And if after you’ve done your ten thousand hours you still haven’t got an agent or a publishing deal, then maybe you should think about self-publishing.

Even as I write this I can feel Joe at my shoulder saying ‘What about the money?’ Yes, I know that as a self-published writer you get to keep a bigger chunk of the profits. Yes I know that it’s ridiculous that the traditional publishers keep up to 85 per cent of the money they make from selling eBooks. Yes, it is a fact that you can get an eBook up within hours but a real books takes up to a year from delivery to being on the shelves. But for me at least, being a writer is about producing quality work. Work that I can be proud of. And that takes time and effort. I’m a better writer now than when I started because I have been traditionally published for more than twenty years. I really believe that if the Kindle had been around twenty years ago and I had rushed into self-publishing I would probably have made a lot of money but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good a writer as I am. And for me, it’s the writing that matters.

Okay, that’s my ten cents worth. Now here’s the sales pitch. I’ve just put my book Nightfall up on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZCIN0I

Nightfall is an interesting one. It’s a real book, published by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK. I don’t have a US deal so I have the US eBook rights and am free to sell it myself. That means that an eBook that costs about ten bucks in the UK can be sold in the US for the Amazon minimum – 99 cents.

The hero is Jack Nightingale, a former cop turned private eye who discovers that he was adopted at birth and that his real father was a Satanist and that Nightingale’s soul has been sold to a devil, a devil who will come to claim it on his thirty-third birthday, just three weeks away. Think Angel Heart crossed with The Dresden Files with a bit of Constantine thrown in and you won’t go far wrong

Oh, don’t give me any grief about the cover – my daughter designed it for me and I love it!

Joe sez: I've said it time and again: Don't Write Shit.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know if you've written shit or not, because you're too close to the material.

In the past, the gatekeepers (agents, editors) vetted manuscripts and screened out the majority of the shit. Up until last year, I believed this was a necessary part of the process.

Then I realized that the self-publishing revolution has gatekeepers in place. They're called readers.

Most readers don't have the experience of industry pros, and may not be very helpful in their critiques. But they do vote with their dollars, and a wise author should pay attention to reviews that say similar things (I hated the hero, the writing is repetitive, this needs an editor, etc.).

Writers like me and Stephen have spent years honing our craft. Many indie writers self-pub their first novel, and it's doubtful they spent 10,000 hours on it. As unfair as the old gatekeeping system was, it did force writers to improve, and those who were accepted were battle-tested and reached a minimum quality standard. If the Kindle had been around when I wrote my first book back in 1988, I would have self-pubbed it, and it would have been a big mistake. That book simply wasn't good enough.

But that legacy system also rejected some good books I'd written--books that I've gone on to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars on.

So my overall opinion of the legacy gatekeeping system is that it can blow me. Those traditional gatekeepers aren't almighty differentiators between good and bad. They're ordinary people, and they make a lot of mistakes.

We're better off without them. But that isn't an excuse to write shit.

I've said for years that all writers need to have goals. One of Leather's goals is to see his books in bookstores. He places more value on this than higher profits, and that's fine.

Personally, I've had my fill of seeing my books on the shelf (especially since I know 50% or more will likely be returned), and I feel that the majority of bookstores will be gone in a few years, so those who pursue this goal had better be quick about it.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same thing it always has: write good books.

Once you do that, you can decide which path to publication to pursue. The fact that we have a choice, for the first time ever, is a wonderful thing. Don't take it lightly.