[Today’s post should come with a warning: I’m not sure I’ve got my point across clearly. It’s a very hard thing to explain. But hopefully you’ll get what I mean, and take it in the spirit with which it was intended. Or else you’ll think I’m saying something I’m not, and freak out. Either way, it’s probably best to have coffee first. This one’s a long ‘un.]
In the last month or so I’ve done two self-publishing workshop thingys, one at Faber Academy in London and one for Inkwell Writers in Dublin, both of which required the building of a pink PowerPoint presentation that boiled—or at least, attempted to boil—everything I know about self-publishing down into two handy sessions, one for the caffeine-induced enthusiasm of the morning and one for the post-lunch slump of the afternoon. Doing this, I realized that (i) PowerPoint presentations take far more time to make than you could ever imagine and (ii) some of my views on self-publishing have significantly changed over the last year, including some views I harped on and on about in Self-Printed.
So between now and the sparkly new second edition of Self-Printed, coming sometime this summertime-ish (I refuse to be any more specific than that!), I’ll be blogging about these new ideas, starting today with this controversially headlined post about why I don’t think it matters whether or not the book you plan to self-publish is good.
(Yes, I did just say that. But please, kindly read the rest of this post before you start leaving ranty comments in the box below. Thanks.)
Once upon a time, I told would-be self-publishers that their books had to be good. Absolutely, positively and with no exceptions whatsoever. I didn’t want anyone self-publishing crap, or even just mediocre stuff.
Because first of all, what was the point? There was none. Just because you could didn’t mean that you should. (As Dr. Malcom tells Hammond in the Jurassic Park Visitors’ Center dining room, incidentally.) The point of books is not just that they were written. Besides, self-publishing is a business, with you as the entrepreneur and the book as your first product. Wouldn’t you make sure if instead of a book you were selling, say, lightbulbs, that those lightbulbs worked before you put them on the shelves? Wouldn’t you make sure that they were good? Of course you would, unless you were a chucking-money-down-the-toilet enthusiast with a black belt in shamelessness.
Maybe you weren’t interested in money, and instead you were in the midst of setting up a delightful picnic of rainbows and cupcakes on Unicorn Meadow, to which you’d invited all of your favorite writerly dreams. Dreams are lovely, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big believer in having them—but also that I’d never charge anyone €2.99 (or any amount) for the privilege of seeing mine come true, and not much else. That kind of thing is called vanity publishing for a reason.
And most important of all, you self-publishing crap might cost me sales. Do you know how hard it is to get someone to read a self-published book? We may have lost some perspective what with us being self-publishers ourselves, and being surrounded by blog posts, articles, tweets, etc. about self-published books doing well, but the answer is it’s extremely hard and, when it comes to the vast majority of constant readers in the world right now, practically impossible. I don’t have to explain to you why and, if I do, then you must be only half-way through your lunch back in Unicorn Meadow. But let’s say that one of us manages to break through, and get someone who never, ever, ever wanted to read a self-published book to read a self-published book, maybe even accidentally. If it’s a good book produced by a professional self-publisher that’s been through the standards of book production (editing, cover design, etc.), then our new convert might buy another one. Maybe mine. But what if it’s a terrible book that reads like a Google Translate malfunctioning, looks like a HTML sneeze and has a quote from the author’s mother on the cover in Comic Sans? Now this self-publishing toe-dipper has just confirmed what they thought about self-published books all along, and you can guarantee that they won’t be buying any more. Maybe the book they would’ve bought next would’ve been mine. If that HTML sneeze was yours, you’ve cost me a sale. You have indulged in some irresponsible self-publishing, and you’ve messed it up for more people than just yourself.
So for all these reasons, I told you that your book had to be good. Otherwise, there was no point in even researching things like promotion, because once your early readers left nothing but one-star reviews, your title would be dead in the Kindle water. To find out whether or not your book was good, I recommended either trying to get it traditionally published (for feedback; full manuscript requests would generally confirm that there was at least something there) or paying a manuscript assessment service to tell you both the good and bad news. Whatever you did, you had to do something. You had to make sure that your book was good.
We have go ba-ack… and find out what the whispers were about. And why those particular numbers were the important ones. And how you can time travel using water and sunlight. And why Walt was important. And what’s the deal with Christian Shepard. And why women couldn’t give birth on the island. And—
But this argument had holes bigger than the plot of Lost. (Still bitter about that? Two years later? Me?) It was easy to find exceptions to the rule.
Take for example The Bad Writing, Big Selling Club. Dan Brown is probably the name that pops up the most frequently. He isn’t a particularly good writer—and is, in fact, renowned for not being a very good writer at all—but yet he’s sold millions and millions of books. Thus the Bad Book Self-Publisher concludes that although their book isn’t very good, it is definitely better than Dan Brown’s, so it’s gonna sell. Or that it’s at least as good as it, so it has a chance. Or that Dan Brown is proof that it doesn’t matter what sort of crap is between the covers, people buy books no matter what. So, bad books sell.
Last October I relocated to Nice, France, for six weeks. I have thus far managed to resist the lure of a Kindle (ironic, I know) and had a 20kg luggage limit, so I relied on the tiny English language section of the local FNAC for reading material while I was there. Pickings were slim, to say the least. One week I picked up The Swarm by Frank Schatzing, translated into English from the German, partly because it sounded really interesting and partly because it was approximately the size of a brick and seemed as if it’d last me a while.
It was to good writing what the coffee you get served on airplanes is to Nespresso. There was so much badly handled exposition that “badly handedly exposition” would’ve made a good subtitle for the book. Nothing actually happened for at least fifty pages, and the science wasn’t so much interwoven as it was dumped in a steaming heap in the middle of each page. The characters had about as much depth as a puddle on the bathroom floor after someone’s had a shower, and for most of the book the reader had absolutely no clue what was going on. (And before you protest, these problems were all unrelated to the translation.) But I read it. I kept reading it. It was inexplicably riveting. And after a while, I even found myself enjoying it. Why? Because even though it wasn’t Shakespeare—or even Brown, or even correct English, half the time—it had something that kept me reading and ultimately gave me an enjoyable reading experience. So it did it matter that the book wasn’t, strictly speaking, good? No, because the book had something else, something that kept me turning the pages.
(And for the record, I loved The Da Vinci Code. I don’t make a habit of not liking things just because lots of people do, or because it’s “cool” to knock it.)
So that was one plot hole in my Good Books theory—and then there was the reverse of that: the Great Writing, Not Selling Club. Every year we’re shocked to see how little some snooty-literary-award-nominated books have sold by the time the shortlists are revealed. I think it was 2011’s Booker that had some sales in the 800s. Yes, only eight hundred copies sold of a book experts agreed was one of the best books published by an Irish or British writer that year. (Of course they all did alright afterwards, but that’s not the point.) Recently I sat in on a talk by an editor at a major publisher of top quality literary fiction who said that the majority of her authors never earn out their (already small) advances, and that if it wasn’t for literary prize money, they’d have to shut up shop. So, good books don’t necessarily sell.
My point, 1,500 words later, is that whether or not your book is good is not what’s most important. What your book needs to have is appeal. Without appeal, your book won’t sell no matter how “good” it is. And with enough appeal, your book will sell even if you aren’t a great or even very good writer. Appeal is a terribly difficult thing to define, or at least it’s a terribly difficult thing for me to explain to you in words that make any sense. But in its most basic sense, if your book has appeal is has something that makes people want to read it. This may be useful information, an intriguing plot idea, or an author who already has a very large following for their writing elsewhere. It might just be a good product description or a snappy blurb. Or it might be something you can’t quite put your finger on, or quantify at all. But it’s the appeal that bridges the gap between someone finding out about your book, and that same someone buying it.
And before you self-publish, you have to make sure that you have it.
A well-written book does not equal appeal. It’s just not enough. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to be the next Jonathan Franzen (thank fudge for that—I’d hate to hate Twitter) or Zadie Smith to win a readership and make a living as a writer.
Take Twilight, for example. Prior to reading it, I had zero interest in vampires. (Even now, my interest only extends as far as Eric Northman.) I never read YA, except for Harry Potter which arguably was in a genre all of its own. I only relented after hearing so much about the series, and by the time I got around to reading it all four books were already out. And I absolutely loved it. While I was reading it, it took over my life. Edward was suddenly occupying far too many of my thoughts for a fictional character. (Just as well he wasn’t technically a teenage boy.) Then I lent it to my best friend, and it took over her life too. We both read all four books within a week just because we couldn’t stop; it was like the literary equivalent of crack cocaine. But why was it? It wasn’t particularly well-written, and it also, when you think about it, promotes the idea of giving everything up—college, your family, your life—for a guy, and doing it at the age of 18. Our previous shared read had been Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills, and we are certainly not the kind of girls up for giving up anything for anyone, least of all boys.
(As if. So, like, anyway…)
But we loved it. I’m guessing it was for the same reason that women the world over fell for the books: because they instantly transported us back to the heady days of being a teenage girl, and being a teenage girl in lurve. Life-altering, appetite-quenching, drowning in hormones love—except without the awkwardness, rejection, spots, etc. Thankfully. And that’s its appeal. It had nothing to do with vampires, and everything to do with the good bits of being a teenage girl. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that the adorable and devoted Edward Cullen was thrown in for good measure.) The way Meyer writes had very little to do with it outside of her ability to invoke memories of adolescence love; afterwards I picked up her only non-Twilight book, The Host, but only made it a third of the way through before I abandoned it. That one didn’t hold any appeal at all for me.
You might argue that if a book is written well, people will want to read it. Well, ask a literary fiction editor where their Rolls Royce and diamond shoes are for more information on that.
As I said this whole appeal thing is hard to make any clear points about (clearly!) but if I’m just confusing you, think of it this way. If you read blogs and/or are on Twitter, you are bombarded every single day with news about books. Books about to be published, books just published, books that have been out for months and books that have been out for years. Traditionally published books, self-published books, cult favorites and mega-sellers. Books, books, books. But do you run out and buy them all? Hardly. But every now and then I bet you Google the name of one of them to find out more, and a few clicks later you’re buying a copy with your credit card.
So what makes the difference? Why don’t you buy all the books? (Aside from the fact that we’re not millionaires.) Why don’t I buy all the books Oprah’s Book Club newsletter tells me about once a week? They must all be good, because Oprah says so, but it’s not just because I can’t afford it. It’s because whatever I glean from the blurb, the cover design and the information I have about the author, some of the books end up appealing to me and some of them don’t.
So what does all this mean? It means you may have a perfectly well-written book that isn’t selling, and that might be because despite your talent, no one wants to read the kind of book you’ve written. It would also explain why books that aren’t as good as yours are selling more, and why books that are brilliantly written aren’t selling at all. Your book doesn’t have widespread appeal, or at least doesn’t have any that’s on show. If it’s not on show, you have to find it. If you don’t know if it has any, find out. Pitch it to some readers and gauge their reactions. (Readers. NOT your mother, or even your friends.) If it doesn’t, move on.
(This is all linked to something I’ve discovered about self-publishing—that, by default, nobody gives a rodent’s arse about your book—which I’ll be blogging about at a later date.)
Now of course, the aim of the game should be to self-publish a book that is both good and has appeal. That is the ideal. But I’m here to tell you that if you’ve only managed the good book part, your work is not yet done.
Does all that make sense? Or do I need to move to a stronger strength of coffee?