The Game is Rigged
For the last two months, I’ve been pushing my Kindle book The Beach Diaries 2012 relentlessly. The month of release actually did pretty well. It sold better than expected, resulting in my biggest sales month ever. Great, I thought, feeling for the first time in ages that I might actually be able to make a go of this, if I could keep up that momentum. I know it’s not the done thing to talk about specific sales figures, unless you’re throwing out huge, imaginary numbers to big yourself up, but this post about the reality of ‘Indie’ publishing doesn’t work by vaguely tiptoeing around the facts, so, in its second month, April, during the midst of this big promotional blitz, The Beach Diaries 2012 sold a whopping 2 copies. Today, we’re almost ten days into May, and so far this month, it’s yet to shift a single one.
There are stacks of opinion pieces about why ‘Indie’ publishing is a dead end — which it is — but from some poor fucker languishing on the inside, here are the reasons why.
The Stink of Self-Pub
Overwhelmingly, this is the downside of putting yourself out there. While you are afforded complete artistic freedom by going ‘Indie’, as I went into before, you’re also shouldering 100% of the promotion. This is tough, because ads cost the kind of money regular folks — especially broke-arse writer-types — generally don’t have, and big reviews or celebrity endorsements are all but impossible to come by. At the root of all these issues lies a bigger issue, the one cause making everything tougher; the terminal disease behind all of the symptoms — “Oh, this is self-published? I’ll pass.”
I haven’t made it yet, but I’m trying. Fuck me, right?
That whole self-publishing-as-stain thing, where any author who does it is automatically a laughable pariah shouldn’t work any more. These are no longer the days of vanity publishing, when terrible writers in howling wolf t-shirts dropped $20k on “admin costs” for their 1,500 page space epic to an extortion racket dressed as a publisher, so they could have them sit in boxes in their garage until the end of time. Self-pub in 2013 isn’t a sign of failure, it’s merely a new way of making your work available; a new distribution model brought about by changes in technology.
Of course, things can, and often do fail, on various levels, but I’m talking failure in a sense of, “I sent this out to every agent and publisher in town, and everyone passed, so here we are. Not good enough for literary contracts, but good enough for the Kindle!” The game has changed. With the new distribution methods, I, as does anyone capable of cobbling together the Word files for uploading, have the ability to put my stuff out there. That I choose to do that, rather than run the time-heavy gauntlet of agents and publishers immediately chalks me up in the eyes of most as a failure who’s pimping something of such lesser quality, it belongs only in the garage, to serve as mice food over a slow period of decades.
Not forgetting that the Kindle store allows me to do something a little different. Let’s take The Beach Diaries as an example. For a start, it’s an unpitchable concept that wouldn’t have found a home anywhere else, unless I was already established. Agents and publishers are very specific in the types of manuscripts they’ll accept. A 20,000 (2011’s) or 40,000 (2012’s) word non-fiction kinda-journal of people-watching interspersed with flights of fancy has no place on anybody’s list of wants. Following those rules of the legitimate avenues, TBD should sit on my hard-drive, unpublished forever, because it’s not welcome anywhere else. Like a Chinese baby with a vagina, the length, content and subject matter condemn it from birth, left to die squealing in literature’s gutter, regardless of potential artistic worth.
There’s still this overriding notion that self-published work isn’t ‘real’; somehow fake; a pale imitation of real literature, because God knows, there’s nothing but five star classics out on those highstreet shelves. Literature is the last medium with this elitist holdover. Bands who play for studio time, independent comics, self-funded movies; all fine. Nobody’s calling Shane Carruth a prick for making and distributing the best film of the year all by himself. But a self-published book? That’s just a stick to beat the author with. “Oh, you’re self-published…” It’s the same stick that keeps you at arms length like a hobo who’s gotten into a garden party when you’re reaching out for those absolutely crucial reviews or endorsements. And that latter part is the true killer. Reviews and publicity are the oxygen that keeps a book alive, and if you’re ‘Indie’, they’re all casually stepping over you as you lay on the ground with your lips turning blue.
The only way to lift yourself clear of this and legitimise yourself in people’s eyes is to sell a ton of books, at which stage, it’s a moot point anyway. Money is the only validating factor. “Oh, you sold a hundred thousand copies? It must be good!” It’s the same work, yet shifting bulk has a transformative effect; Pinocchio being patted on the back for finally becoming a real boy, despite his being able to defecate for the last six months. It’s the same thing should a self-pubbed author get signed. Suddenly you and your work are validated and you’re worth talking to; worth reviewing or pimping; behind the velvet rope where other artists meet your eye instead of the floor at your shabby-shoed feet.
This kind of thinking breeds elitism even within the ‘Indie’ world. Any time I stepped out of my usual internet circles into the Kindle author ‘community’ (quote marks indicating heavy sarcasm), it resulted in nothing but the volcanic explosion of my bile ducts. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been snippily told that I shouldn’t expect to sell any books, by passive-aggressive seers of wisdom with large collections of historical and/or paranormal erotic romance for sale, with covers of poorly manipulated stock photos of 21st century Fabios with vampire teeth, because my covers are shit, or because “you should be putting out a book every month!” Yeah, just churn those fuckers out. Which leads me nicely to point number two.
Dilution of the Pool
If the early part of the twentieth century was mostly comprised of people braying that Warhol quote about fifteen minutes of fame while waving an accusatory finger at Reality TV, then the 2010s need another pithy line about how, by 2017, every person on the planet will have at least 3 ebooks for sale. I mentioned how most people equate ‘self-published’ with ‘terrible’, but in a lot of cases, without no gatekeepers, yes, much of what’s being published is objectively unreadable garbage. Obviously, I don’t put myself in the unreadable garbage pile. My stuff is great. Again, fuck me, right?
The problem here is that I simply cannot make myself heard above the cacophony of other people hawking their wares, like cockney men with suitcases full of bootleg Justin Bieber dolls that emit lethal doses of Co2 from their girlish, plastic faces. I naively used to believe that something only had to be good, and it would eventually find its audience. Maybe I’m wildly deluded, and my books are all guff, but it’s clear that I was way, way off. You could produce the most incredible work in recorded history, but if nobody takes that chance to read it in the first place, you might as well have wiped your bum across the pages and scanned it in for all the good it’ll do.
There’s a huge glut of ebooks right now, increasing almost exponentially every day. It’s kind of a dick move to question people’s motives, as though I’m somehow more of a pure artist, but some people just want to be able to call themselves a writer; like sending off the entrance fee for Mensa and flashing your membership card every time you walk into the room. People who’ve always dreamed of being a novelist — well, now they can be. All it takes is the ability to upload a correctly formatted .Doc file to Amazon, and suddenly they get to tell everyone “Hey, I have seventeen novels on Amazon!” As each day passes, introducing another ten thousand newly published writers into the world, people’s interest becomes further diluted, down to a homoeopathic level.
I’ve witnessed this in the diminishing returns of my own work. Each new title has been less successful than the one before, despite a bettering of my craft, seemingly new opportunities to reach people, and a wider potential audience with which to connect. When Frantic Planet: Volume I came out, seven years ago, there was no Twitter. We were all stuck on MySpace, pretending to be friends with Paris Hilton. There wasn’t even the Kindle. Back then, in those heady days of Tila Tequila, and Michael Jackson still being alive, someone releasing a paperback was a real novelty; a genuine achievement. In 2013, your nan probably has a 20-book series of erotic minotaur fiction, so with each new release, the novelty, and interest levels, further dissipate into nothing. To this day, Volume I is by far the biggest seller I’ve ever had.
Think of the potential audience as a taxi full of tourists, the windows darkened by the pleading hands of third-world child beggars. The first hollow-faced child they spot has a missing foot, and as his fingers push against the glass, the pinging heart-strings see them reaching towards their wallets. But soon they’ve seen a child without arms, and another covered in horrific burns. By the time the cab’s halfway down the street, there’s a little girl who’s just a head, shaking a bucket she grips within her teeth, and everyone in the cab’s figuring they’ll probably just save their coins for the hotel bar, and showing each other Youtube videos on their smartphones of a Rhino in a zoo doing a big messy shit and laughing.
Of course, there are people who’ve found success from self-pubbing, and plenty who chucked in their jobs because they’re making a living from it, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. For every Hugh Howey, there are a million and a half Stuart Millards, some of whom are currently undergoing the horrible acceptance that they could have spent the last seven years more productively.
The title of this piece is a quote from The Wire, and the concluding line of dialogue is: “You cannot lose if you do not play.” The first draft of this article, written a couple of weeks ago and then sat on because I didn’t want to post it, originally followed the Wire quote with this:
“But I want to play. I have to.”
Now? Not so much. I still have to, but it doesn’t work, so it doesn’t matter. I’m done here, I think. And I know when people make these “I’m done, I’m done!” posts, it reeks of a tantrum, or bitterness, or fishing for compliments begging them to reconsider, but I’ve been in this for the long haul, having devoted a lot of my life to effectively making zero headway, and barring some miraculous thing that causes my books to suddenly catch fire, it’s not happening. Not this way. At this point, I’m both frustrated because I couldn’t make it work, and legitimately terrified for my future. I don’t know where I go from here, other than, “the fuck away from ‘indie’ publishing as fast as I can,” or deeper into a financial black hole that I’m never, ever climbing out of. I’m sure there’ll be sporadic bouts of “Maybe this time, this thing will make them catch fire…” and me linking to a new poster, or tweeting a quote and a link, but don’t expect a Beach Diaries 2013, or anything else, ever.
On the subject of reviews and that, while I’ve been busy with my miserable, existential crisis, a few sites were kind enough to review The Beach Diaries 2012, so check those out if you like.
Read Between the Lines liked it to the tune of five stars (out of five, not out of a thousand, if you were wondering).
If those reviews, or this post, inspired you to snap it up for yourself, have at it with these handy links.
~ by Stuart on May 9, 2013.