Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 10: Will self-publishing break the mold?


One thing that has developed over the last few years that could be an elemental game changer is self-publishing.
In its present form, it doesn’t quite answer the call, but I think that’s mainly because writers of literary fiction are, for the most part, steering clear. Instead, it has become the go-to platform for writers of almost every popular genre, from sci-fi to romance to YA to Bigfoot Erotica. In a way, it’s something of a cross between the old vanity press and fanfic, attracting authors — and readers — who are into their genres in a big way. But in the vanity press days, authors had to pay a huge sum of money to produce their books, and there was no convenient distribution channel. You ordered five hundred copies and stored them in your garage, schlepping them around wherever you went to sell on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Now, with Amazon for Kindle books and Barnes & Noble for Nook titles (along with Apple and a number of other outlets), writers can, in theory at least, reach readers directly without the middle man of the traditional publisher getting between them and without paying a vanity press for the privilege.

The advantages are clear and have been outlined over and over. They include, perhaps most significantly, authorial control. From conception of the story to cover design, the author makes all of the decisions, for better or worse, and answers to no one but her readers. It’s possible to experiment, to change text or cover image, to manipulate pricing to accommodate market conditions, and to risk failure. The readership is so large and diverse that there’s almost no fear of alienating a significant portion of it, which means that writers can be bold if they have the inclination.

So far, though, as this essay has suggested, it seems as if most writers are playing it torpefyingly safe.

It’s the perfect time, then, for literary writers — or writers of any stripe — to use self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing to try the things that traditional publishers are afraid of.

Unfortunately, there remains a stigma on self-publishing, and to a lesser extent on the ebook format, that is making literary authors reluctant to use it. There’s also the sense that traditional publishing, in its role as gatekeeper, serves to brand a writer with something like a badge of quality or seriousness that’s missing from self-published books. When FS&G publishes a novel, it means the book is art and potential readers can trust that it meets certain high standards. A self-published novel, maybe even one by the same FS&G writer, carries in the reader’s mind a risk that it doesn’t rise to those standards — otherwise it would have been published by a big house.

In the last couple of years, writers like David Mamet have dabbled in self-publishing as a way of retaining more control over their work and keeping more of the money as well. Traditional publishers are famously stingy with advances and royalty rates, especially for unknown or mid-list writers, so going “selfie” is a way of circumventing the old system. On top of that, as in indie music where artists often form their own labels and release their work on the internet, the author becomes the complete brand — a small self-contained corporation that projects whatever image the author wants. For writers who already have a strong reputation, it would seem that the risk isn’t very great that they’ll lose their cachet. More well-known writers should take the plunge. Only when the general perception changes and readers on a large scale understand that self-publication isn’t synonymous with bad will innovative work begin to show up.

But here’s the real problem. We have to admit that so much self-published stuff is just plain bad. Truth-telling Chuck Wendig has preached it, and we can’t deny the truth. Much of this stuff has the mark of the amateur, like thrift store paintings. It’s rushed into virtual print before it has been fully fleshed out and revised, often before it’s had decent editing. Typos are rampant, but worse than that, a preponderance of self-published writers have no apparent understanding of story structure, scene-making, pacing, thematic motifs, or other more esoteric devices. Many authors are also obsessed with the idea of publishing four or five or six books a year in order to keep their name in front of readers hungry for titles in whatever genre, who devour series like so many Ho Ho’s. It means more to them to have a bunch of covers on their Amazon pages, screaming out to readers, “I’m prolific enough to satisfy your appetite!” They think quantity is more important than quality, in part because their readers reinforce that.

Yet there are plenty of writers out there — like me, frankly — who may have had their shot at traditional publishing and got bad breaks, didn’t understand the stakes, or simply beat the odds once and couldn’t do it again. They, we, have a lot of books in us. We’re capable writers, we have talent, we’re driven, and as you’ve heard many times and will hear again and again, we can’t not write. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of the new technology and try to have an impact on readers if not on literature at large?

I’ve found, in my own trek through the land of self-publishing, that it isn’t geared toward literary fiction, making it difficult to categorize my books in a way that represents them accurately but also offers opportunities for good sales. More often than not, “literary” is missing from the list of genre choices on promotional sites, and I’m forced to select something like general or commercial fiction. Occasional SoulmatesIn marketing my novel, Occasional Soulmates, I usually had to pick between romance or chick lit when it’s really neither of those. Women’s fiction is a basket that includes so many different types of books that it doesn’t fill the bill either. Sure, I’m partly to blame too — for writing a book that’s hard to classify — but this is the nature of work that traditional publishers have turned away from. They don’t know how to sell it.

Odd, because publishers have found innovative ways to market everything from Thomas Pynchon to Go The Fuck To Sleep, so it’s not that they don’t know how. It’s just not as easy as selling a market category like YA dystopian.

But self-publishing can be so much more flexible and independent — that’s why it’s called indie — and there’s no reason why category-busting books can’t find eager audiences.

The personal costs to the writer can be easily affordable, so hesitation on that front isn’t reasonable. Instead, I’m afraid that the combination of traditional publishing’s prestige and self-publishing’s (current) low esteem in the eyes of many prevent talented writers from testing the waters. They’d rather go through the time-tested but usually futile process of querying agents, re-crafting their work for the marketplace, accepting a small advance in the hopes of breaking out and earning royalties later, and essentially promoting their own work with their own money. Most agents accept less than one percent of submissions, and the rate at publishing houses is equally dismal. The odds might be better than those of winning the lottery, but in a practical sense they’re not; it takes a ridiculous level of legwork and perseverance and immunity to lame criticism to get through the gates the sanctimonious gatekeepers have erected. All to achieve the publication of a book that’s soon lost in the crowd and more or less forgotten.

A lot of writers have good reason to believe they’ll succeed this way. Some of them will. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them will grind away during what could be the happiest and most productive days of their lives, wishing for something that happens to a painfully minute segment of the population. It’s not good for anyone to fail, but it’s worse when writers with genuine talent and unique vision are excluded from participation in their chosen art form.

They should take matters into their own hands and show the world what they can do. Publish their work on their terms.


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan

15 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 10: Will self-publishing break the mold?

  1. jeanette taylor ford
    January 22, 2016

    I agree with everything you have said. I have found some excellent books that have been self-published and I’ve found some pretty bad ones – and some alright but not earth-shaking ones too. I remember a few years ago I was searching for another piano to replace the one I had. I could only afford a second-hand one at the time and I saw quite a few. I had been warned it was on a par with the second-hand car trade and it amazed me how many people thought that their piano was good because it had belonged to their granny or whatever. I could tell otherwise – after all, I had one that had belonged to my mum and had grown up with it but I had to harden my heart because I knew it wasn’t good any more. It’s like that with self-published books; some believe their books are good but they are not and they help to give self-publishing a bad name. Having said that, I have had books that have been published in the conventional way and have discovered them to be rubbish – and with typos!

    The thing that really frustrates me about Amazon is that in order to get recommended to readers you have to have a certain amount of reviews – but how to get those reviews if you haven’t sold the books? So, in order to do that we have to resort to putting them on free ‘promotions’ so that then loads go because they are free and then you rarely get a review out of it because they have gone to people who only download free books and therefore never get around to reading all of them or takes absolutely ages to get round to your book. In the meantime, your book disappears into the mist…

    My books are also not chick-lit or romances so they don’t really fit into a category either. My only consolation is that, when someone does actually read my work, they enjoy it. I have to live on that because I’ll certainly never live off the royalties – if there are any anyway.

    • Audrey Driscoll
      January 22, 2016

      I couldn’t have said this better! Yes, I’ve redefined “success” so it fits the minute amount of attention my books get (few reviews/ratings, but almost all good). There’s the lurking reservation that the books haven’t been able fully to show their stuff. It’s inevitable that I blame myself, not for poor writing, but an inability to “market.”

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 23, 2016

        And it’s a shame that those who are good at marketing aren’t necessarily peddling quality material. So many naked male torsos out there…

      • Audrey Driscoll
        January 23, 2016

        You’re right! “Torso books,” I call them.

  2. sknicholls
    January 22, 2016

    Sometimes I feel like a traitor to my own self. I wrote Red Clay and Roses passionately from the soul, thinking more about what I needed to say than what people necessarily wanted to hear. Then I decided to write “commercial” fiction. My greatest frustration (vented on Charles blog this morning) is having my new editor with Naked Alliances dumb down my work. It’s painful, but he insists it’s necessary for my reader audience to be entertained and enjoy the read. It’s what today’s market is after, he says. Short attention spans that yearn for fast paced action highlighted by humor. We shall see.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 22, 2016

      What about a pseudonym for your commercial stuff? You can be S.K. Nicholls for the RC&R material, but maybe Sasha Newmarket for the crime stories.

      I went through this dilemma once. I was going to be Dan Rice for plotty books, and good ol’ Kevin Brennan for literary. Gave up that idea when it turned out I was lousy at plotty stuff!

      • sknicholls
        January 22, 2016

        I’ve thought about a pseudonym. It’s hard to build and maintain two branding platforms. I think I did it ass backwards (as usual). I should have used Susan Nicholls for my nice literary fiction and S.K. Nicholls for the crime stuff as men read crime and often won’t read female authors, and the book is naughty, not nice. I’m not sure about Sasha Newmarket…hahaha…but maybe we can come up with something clever and masculine.

  3. John W. Howell
    January 22, 2016

    I like to write and left a traditional publisher when I found their work to be below my expectations. So far I am happier. Who knows what else is needed.

  4. kingmidget
    January 22, 2016

    The paragraph where you cover Wendig’s comments on the quality of self-published works and provide some of the things wrong is so spot on. What really drives me crazy is when I read a self-published work that has potential. Good story, memorable characters. But so chock full of typos and formatting problems that it is simply impossible to focus on the story. I fundamentally will never understand how self-published authors who do this can’t or don’t care enough about their craft and what they’re putting out there to do a better job. It’s like, “hey look, I strung some words together, pay attention to me and ignore all of the things I didn’t care enough about to make this a first rate product, but it’s all about the words, the words, the words. I did really good. You’ll like it. Trust me. Even though I don’t care about quality.” And they’re lack of caring about this stuff hurts the rest of us. When somebody says they’ll never buy a self-published book because of the lack of quality, how can I quibble with that?

    There are so many people using self-publishing to realize their “publishing” dreams that it is impossible to be noticed. Just impossible.

    I’ll still think that a potential solution to this for at least some of us is to form some kind of collective or cooperative in which we share our skills in support of each other. In some respects, it’s almost like a self-publishing publisher, but not quite. I’ve seen a few organizations that seem to be doing something like this. I have no idea how well they work. But I think there’s some potential in it. If I had the time.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 23, 2016

      It’s a real problem. I just saw that Amazon is going to start tagging books that have been complained about (for typos and formatting errors) with a message that says it’s unavailable and under review. Maybe that’ll help.

      As a long-time writer (like 40 effing years!), it always irks me when I hear someone say, “Always wanted to write up some of my ideas in a book, so — here ya go!” There’s no sense of developing craft or learning technique. Arrgghhh!

      But I agree, it would be nice if there could be an entity that was seen as a stamp of approval of indie work. I’m afraid, though, it’d be overwhelmed with material and would just become another gatekeeper…

      • kingmidget
        January 23, 2016

        There are some places that claim to be such a gatekeeper, but from what I can tell they are really just money-making opportunities for the owners.

        There is a self-published author who has published a three or four part series. The story and characters are incredible. The problem is that they are filled with typos. Filled with them. I’m talking about almost every page. When I sent him a private email with detailed notes about the typos with the hope he’d update the book and fix te typos, his response was basically that he didn’t have time for that crap. Although I wanted to know he ended the story I never bought the last book because I was uninterested in seeing how much he disrespected his readers. And what’s particularly galling are the number of posts he has written bemoaning that he can’t find an audience.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 23, 2016

        Maybe the guy’ll get hit by the new Amazon policy and get his books pulled. That’ll teach him.

      • kingmidget
        January 23, 2016

        As far as I’m concerned, he should. It’s funny, with each book I’ve published, I’ve read the manuscript multiple times. I typically have at least four or five people read the manuscript before I publish. Including my mother who has an eagle eye for these things. And with each book the initial, published version has appeared with typos that nobody caught. The difference though is that when I learn of the typos, I put them all together, fix the copy and re-publish.

  5. 1WriteWay
    January 25, 2016

    I think this was my favorite section of your essay when I read it through the first time. It inspires me to go ahead, self-publish one or maybe all of my rough novels once I have them in shape. It’s the getting into the shape that always defeats me. Even though I’ve worked as an editor, I don’t trust myself to edit my own work. I’ll have to put some $$ into it and hire a bona fide editor (and, fortunately, hanging around on social media, I think I’ve found one or two that I would consider). Look, if your editing skills are great (and yours obviously are), then you don’t need to go that route and you can keep your self-publishing costs under control. But too many writers are not good editors of their own writing. Not even good proofreaders! I can forgive the random typo (even the most scrupulous editor will overlook one or two), but I’ve read too many indie books that suffered (and I suffered along with them) from systematic typos and grammatical errors. I don’t ever want anyone to have that experience with me. I wish more indies felt the same way.

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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