Monday, September 5, 2011

The case for saying the same thing twice, thrice, frice

I was trying to explain why the reality of fairly simple and successful "direct-to-reader" publishing has unlocked something exciting in my psyche, and I realized that one liberating factor is that I get to say the same thing as many times as I want.

Now I have always believed in traditional publication and have been gratified to have the minimal success at it that I have had over the years. When I was coming up, this was the only credential that counted, and I was glad to have gotten it early in my career. As impossible as it all got for awhile there, I always felt that I'd passed some test, that I'd "graduated." I knew that better writers than I had been ignored by the often-arbitrary marketplace that was traditional publishing, so I could never, like so many trad-pubbed authors, feel superior-- I know very well how much luck is involved-- and I never made enough money at it to feel the least bit smug. I assumed that everyone who was in the know was probably laughing at me and my paltry advances and my ever-necessary day job. However, trad-pubbing allowed me to know that I wasn't just being a narcissist when I thought maybe my writing was better than average. And, in an odd way, trad-pubbing made me more humble that all those who, rejected by the traditional publishers, felt the need to constantly extol their own brilliance. I could hardly entertain the notion that I was "too good" for NYC publishers, since I'd had three of them at that point. Or "too good" for NYC agents-- I've had seven of them, all of them discerning of brilliance (witness their sporadic, temporary, apparently unconvincing yet still extant recommendation of mine :).

Anyway, I cherished the minor prestige and the generally recognized credential, even if, as the years went by, I became more impatient with all the hassles that came along with that.  Eventually I realized that, heck, I'd already gotten about all the cheap benefits (prestige, access to certain contests, etc.) and didn't need to keep storming the balustrades if I didn't want to, and I didn't. At the same time, though, I didn't altogether "trust" the alternative market of a decade or so ago.  I suspected that, for good and human reasons, a whole lot of epubbers weren't being candid about their experience, or epublishers their sales figures, and wiser than most in the ways publishers can screw writers (taking all rights forever for $20 royalties, say; or getting writers to pay for things the publisher usually paid for), I didn't see the reason to go that route. I didn't need the validation of saying I was published-- I already had that.

Well, so then we arrive at the teens, or almost, and wow. The hardware has finally caught up with the software, and we have both dedicated readers (the Kindle, the Nook) which are not just plausible substitutes for print books, but in some ways better. (I stopped being nostalgic about "the feel of a real book" when I got a Kindle and found it was lighter and thinner than the littlest paperback... great on the wrists.) Most of the hassles of "publishing" which the publisher used to do can now be done by the author ("publishing" might take an hour of my time, and the cover I can hire out for not too much, and it's not like most NYC publishers ever did the slightest amount of promo for a silt-sucker like me). And far from boasting about a probably mythical financial windfall, writers who have chosen this "direct publishing" tend to downplay what turn out often to be (to me) impressive royalties, most of which they get to keep to themselves and not share with publishers and agents who take on ownership in a weird way not only of the work but the career.  

Okay, so I'm going to do it, but I'm doing it with a far greater understanding of what it all means, and a confidence that comes from succeeding, however minimally when it comes to the moolah part, the old-fashioned way.  That old credential liberates me to feel that I really don't have to prove myself, you know? And that feels good.

But now I'm thinking of other, intangible and perhaps inchoate benefits to going directly to the reader and bypassing those gatekeepers (editors and agents) who frequently responded to me with gratifying recognitions of my skill but disappointing (and perhaps, for the time, actually realistic) reads of the reading market.  I don't need to worry about them anymore. Sure, if someone wants to offer me a $100K advance-- but you know what? They don't. Traditional publishing has gone in a new direction, one I think of as misguided, but presumably they have reasons they don't need to share with me.

So some benefits:
1) The medium actually doesn't have to be the message so much anymore. That is, when we decided we wanted to be traditionally published, there were two major possible "media"-- hardcover and softcover. Benefits to each, but limitations too. I remember being told that a book of mine which to me just screamed "hardcover" would probably never be published because it actually was hard-coverish, but few publishers would waste a hardcover slot on someone no one had ever heard of, especially someone writing a conventional (if good) story. And it just wasn't a mass-market paperback story, and the fact that I knew that, that I'd absorbed the difference, made it clear... to some extent, my understanding of the media, the forms of delivery and what stories were best delivered that way, and the publishers' reluctance to break that "contract", limited how I wrote, or at least how I published. Now, really, there's a lot more flexibility, partly because the electronic medium is as flexible as the Web itself (I don't actually see a lot of reason to do print in direct publishing, btw, unless it isn't the focus and can be done very cheaply, which it sort of can now). I don't have to mold my books to 'hardcover" or "paperback" expectations, or limit publication because of that.

2) The medium isn't a straitjacket either. Back in the old days, they'd print a few hundred thousand copies (well, never close for me-- tens of thousands, however, yes) in one printing, and if somehow "Napoleon" was misspelled 210 times, or you (or, uh, me) didn't do sufficient ornithology research (back then, children, even Eric Schmidt hadn't imagined Google-- we had to go to the library -- the actual physical library! -- and look these things up in books! And you know what? You don't know what you don't know, and maybe some of us didn't know even what to look up about birds!) to know that certain birds are native only to certain continents. Who knew, huh?  Anyway, if you happened to put hummingbirds in England and nightingales in Louisiana, you were sure to locate a few dozen birdwatchers who could overlook the depth of your characterization and the suppleness of your prose and focus on the all-important "native" issue. (Ha, ha, before the internet, they were reduced to bitching about you in their birdwatching groups and writing you heated letters with painstakingly copied encyclopedia entries. Now they'd give you a 1-star review on Amazon and you'd feel lousy THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, not that I'm speaking of any particular author's experience, you know.)
Contrast that with what can happen with direct publication. So there you are, Innocent Author, absurdly assuming that no one is perfect, except you when it comes to your mysterious alchemy with sexual tension and delicacy of subtext. And you get this email from a birdwatcher, who points out that-- who knew? Well, apparently every birdwatcher in the known world-- that there were no hummingbirds in the old world nor nightingales in the new (I love the designations "new and old world," btw, though I suspect they will and probably pass from the earth soon, since probably all the continents qualify as "old" these days).  NOW you don't have to die a little death every time you see the cover of your Sussex-set romp with that merry bitty pretty little hummingbird!  Because there aren't 200K (I wish) copies of your book on shelves everywhere, testifying forever to your ornithological idiocy!  There's only one file, or maybe a couple (you know, Kindle, Smashwords, wherever you're doing your POD printing...), and you can grab them back and FIX them, changing that hummingbird to a bumble bee. (Smilar sizes, hey, wait, let me make sure there were bumble bees in the old world.....YES!! You know, some people are happy that there are so many cancer cures now, but I smile, knowing there's Google. I love Google. I know, Borg, infodump McDonalds, all that. But... but... it works JUST the way my mind works, and it's good to me in ways no one has ever been. It loves me, and I love it. We're soulmates.) You can even instead of sullenly thanking the birdwatcher, enthusiastically thank the birdwatcher, and tell her that you've changed the acknowledgments page to acknowledge her help, and maybe she can tell everyone in her birdwatching group.  Everything is eternal on the web, but everything can be easily fixed too.

3) I think the wheat is usually (not always) separated from the chaff. There's a lot of bad stuff out there, but the quality stuff generally has a way of being recognized and promoted, and with the almost eternal publication period (compared with maybe a month, if that, on the shelves even now with the old model), there's plenty of time for word of mouth to build you an audience, and for one book to lead your readers to other books of yours. I remember that no publisher of mine ever (I think?) went to a second printing of any book of mine-- there was the bare month on the shelves, and then the dread and soul-destroying grabbing and stripping. No matter what happened to the book, how well-received it was, how well-reviewed, that was it, the one chance.  A couple of my books won major awards, and I couldn't capitalize on them because the publisher had little interest in re-issuing the books, and I write so slow that it wasn't worth it to them to use the award to push another book. NOW, well.  There's a long, long, long tail.  A book that sells virtually nothing for months after publication can be there (because I'm in charge, and I'll keep it there, damnit) for a long time, long enough for readers of my other books to mosey on over and decide they have to-- have to or they'll just DIE -- read every book I wrote.... and every book will sell every other book, if I'm good enough and wait long enough. (I hope.)

My model here is fan-fiction, about which I wrote a long academic paper that no one ever has said anything nice about, so it's probably really boring and stupid, but I totally loved. (I always totally love every word I write until I get a single bad review on Amazon, and then I hate myself, all my work, my stupid mismatched ears and my relentlessly mediocre mind and my life too, and my parents because they brought me into this world, and my friends because they should have warned me that I'm an idiot and should work at some anonymous job and never go out into public and I'm scum, scum, and those NYC publishers were RIGHT never to re-issue my books because the books were really stupid and so am I... okay, really, if after that, you can post a bad review of any book of mine on Amazon, all I can say is, you are really, really, really sadistic, and might want to rejigger your moral compass, you sociopath.)
Where was I?  Oh! Fanfiction. There's a whole lot of fanfiction, and there's no commercial market for it so no "vetting" from any "gatekeeper". Instead, there's evolved all sorts of ways -- niche websites like "All about Spike," contests, award sites, recommendations, targeted forums-- where you can find out where the best "Spike/Xander amnesia baby fic" stories are, and the writers generally accepted as the best in any "niche". You go on livejournal (where a lot of Buffy readers hang out) and ask, "I love fics where Buffy learns that Spike's still alive and that Andrew knew it and she wants to kill him and Spike too, but Spike not until she's kissed him a few dozen times... any recs?" and you'll get considered and thoughtful recommendations, usually with live links.

The same is going to happen with, say, Kindle, plus there are all the Amazon tools, the reviews (the negative ones of which are sometimes entirely soul-destroying and besides will come back to haunt the bad reviewers some day if they have even the slightest vestige of conscience, which, to be sure, they probably don't, being ruthless, heartless sociopaths... oh. Sorry. Back to our regularly scheduled perfectly calm and reasoned analysis) (I actually think bad reviews are important in establishing the credibility of reviews as a decision-aider, but .. well. Soul-destroying nonetheless), the "Customers who bought X also bought Y" algorithm, the keywords, all that stuff I don't yet know about except for reviews.  Instead of one person-- some editor or agent-- deciding whether your book is worthy of sharing with the world, there is a true democracy of access... and an actual means for readers to make plausible judgments of whether they might like your book.

4) Niche is all, and you as an author can have more than one niche. Finally, and at long last, this is what I was really thinking about.  Because the ease is high and the expense is low, the writer can write whatever she wants to write. And that's amazingly liberating. Yeah, maybe no one will want to read it. But this is the internet.  There are probably a few thousand readers who have been longing for a romantic thriller about a medieval knifemaker (hi, Jenny's Peter, not that you're medieval or anything). In fact, there might be some readers who will read ANY novel that's about knifemakers, and they will like some more than others, especially ours, which is not just meticulously researched (or quickly fixed if not) but also uproariously funny, beautifully written, and subtly insightful in its understanding of the psychology of the knifemaker (now see, THAT'S how you write an Amazon review! And click that 5 stars while you're at it).  You can actually write what you want, and trust that you can find a market, rather than write to a generic market ("historical romance readers," you know, like they all want the same thing). Maybe there's no market for it, or maybe you can't reach it, or maybe you'll offend some influential member of the knifemaking community by, I don't know, what is a controversy in knifemaking? By presenting oak as a better hilt material than teak? I don't know. Something controversial. In Buffy fanfiction terms (that I know more about), it might be in suggesting that Faith, not Buffy, was the better fighter. I'm sure there's a similar controversy in knifemaker fics. You really never what effect, negative or positive, will come of your many choices as you write.

But now, with direct publishing, no one is going to be able to keep you from trying to find/create/reach the market of potential readers, as for so long the whole system of publication did.  The entire aim has changed, in fact, from "we're going to tell you what you can read" to "you have to find what you want, but what you want is out there." To tell you the truth, while I think the editors and agents often have really good taste and can recognize high-quality stories, they often have little similar confidence about readers, and frequently used to say things like, "I love this, but it will never sell," or "This is exactly what I like best, but readers are now looking for werewolves, not angels, and quality doesn't matter." Quality actually matters to a certain group of readers. Jenny Brown and I were talking about historical romances, and a certain Very High Quality writer (okay, it's Judy Cuevas/Ivory) who is recognized by most "readers for quality" in romance as one of the best romance writers ever. (She's really good... I remember once realizing I was weeping helplessly because some dumb lamb had died, and it was just page 10, and then thinking, Oh, right, this is Judy Cuevas.... surprised it took so long for her to RIP MY HEART OUT this time.) And we know that both of us "read for quality" -- meaning (for us, not necessarily all "readers for quality" want the same qualities) high-level subtextual prose, a particular delicacy in handling emotion, and more historical detail than in most books. And a theme. Theme=important to us.Well, we're in contact, and if we happen to discover a book we know the other will like? We share the recommendation. Duh. And there are some influential readers (not us, so don't bother to woo us with free books and chocolates-- wait! On second thought, we're totally woo-able, woo away). Point is, we do not regard each other as "generic historical romance readers," as might those editors as they decide to send one of those soul-destroying (you think I have only one soul to destroy?) rejection letters about how they love this book but that 'readers' just want Scottish settings these days.

The niches can get both more narrow and more overlapping-- for example, Jenny might know that I prefer a Gloucestershire setting, but that I'll read anything deemed by someone I know to be sensitive to voice in fiction as having a really good voice, yes, even if it's set in WALES!!! (The sacrifices we make, I tell you.) And she might have picked up that I really like (this is SO embarrassing) dumb heroes. Okay, clueless heroes. Naive heroes. The guys who are great and all and handsome (note to all, I might be really accepting of clue-challenged heroes, as long as they have abs of steel and faces like those of  fallen angels, okay?), but who ruefully admit that the minds of women are terra incognita. Now that's the sort of niche ("clueless heroes") that historical romance readers will chuckle at but allow is a recognizable category. Let's just say, traditional publishing didn't have any imprints for 'clueless romantic heroes", but those of you who read historical romances? You know what I mean, and I'm soliciting recs. And I could start a niche list for "clueless hero" books.

5) Direct-to-reader publishing allows for ever more focused niching, as long as the quality of the writing is worthy of recommending to those outside the niche. Start with the assumption that every reader might have a different set of niches, and that these sets are ever-shifting, and that a member of the "locked door murder mystery niche" might also, who knows why, be a member of the "arranged marriage romance" (though you know, notice what's the commonality-- being trapped?) and simultaneously a member of the "any book at all that has recipes in it" and also dabbles (only in secret!) with "books with main characters who own cats." You think I'm kidding? Wait till you hear just a few of my niches (and yes, recs are appreciated, but remember, prose style and meticulous grammar really matter to me)--

  • Amnesia stories
  • Books that are set in theaters, I mean, live theaters where there are actors
  • Mysteries with old lady sleuths (Miss Jane Marple types)
  • Romances about couples that have been married for a long time
  • Novels set in the Midwest and/or Great Lakes-area Canada, particularly the Lake Huron region, any genre
  • Novels about people who work in restaurants
  • Legal thrillers but with protagonists who aren't top lawyers, in fact, I'd love to read one with a paralegal or legal secretary protagonists, in fact, any book with a protagonist who is a really smart secretary- I love really smart secretaries, all those class and gender issues. Miss Moneypenny has long been one of my favorite secondary characters, and I think it's time she got to star in her very own story!
  • Complicated emotions, depth of interaction stories-- I know it when I see it-- all about how people seldom act in their own best interest
  • Art thieves. Really. Any book where art -- only the good art-- is stolen. White Collar is like my dream show.
  • I also love heroines who are trying to make it as artists in a man's world.
  •  Rock star heroes. I attribute this to childhood Beatlemania (and still extant; please don't tell my husband, but if Paul McCartney needed a shoulder to cry on, well, you know, that's why God gave me TWO shoulders, and Paul, if you're reading this, I'm also a pretty good cook. Do you like bread pudding? Trust me. You will. Just in case, I'll put the recipe in my book with a rock star hero and the heroine caterer who cooks for the band).
  • Books with recipes in them. I mean, novels. I also like cookbooks, but novels with recipes more.

Point is, I intersect with others in one niche or another. And each of the members of each niche intersects with other niches. Just sayin'. If I read and love your mystery about the clueless punkrock drummer on the Bruce (Ontario) Peninsula who is trying to win back his secretary wife who finally gave up on him, well, who knows how many readers might eventually hear about your book? But I will be much, much more likely to recommend it to other niches, like the one for books with recipes in them even if you mysteriously neglect to put a recipe in there, if the book is well-crafted and well-written, so that other readers get not only to be impressed by your lovely prose but also maybe experience the new thrill of the rockstar hero who fakes his own death (yes, I think that's the only way he can win Miss Moneypenny back-- she's too sensible otherwise) (and will join my faked-death novel niche).

So I was thinking, one of the really liberating things about direct publishing is, what the hell, why not keep coming back to that weird thing that who knows why, I keep coming back to. Like I keep coming up with great ideas -- different genres, time periods-- that feature a main character faking his/her own death. Why? I don't know! Do I really have to know? I think it's like the wimp's form of suicide, maybe. But-- no kidding. I have three MIPs where the heroine fakes her own death, and another where the hero, who thought he was a widower, finds out that his despised trailer trash wife who ran off with that damned Greek general-- to save him from arrest and maybe execution, had sacrificed her own future for him (just like PRIMAFLORA!!!! See, Primaflora, I love you even if Lady Dunnett didn't), and is maybe still alive somewhere, having perhaps survived that supposed fall from Greek general's yacht.

It's kind of like live theater, this continued circling back to an oft-told tale or constant theme. There's probably a reason for this, some deep psychological issue. You know how it is in live theater, how they perform the same play night after night, and they think that's interesting? Why? Well, it could be because every time, they're getting closer to understanding something, or they're trying out some alternative interpretation (did Hamlet know during his soliloquy that Claudius and Polonius were listening? Maybe tonight I'll play it like he did know, and tomorrow I'll play it like he didn't know! I got that distinction, btw, from Slings and Arrows Season 1-- a great TV show, watch it). Direct publishing might actually reward authors who care so deeply and understand so deeply and explore so deeply about particular themes, they can cover and dis-cover them in several different versions, each differently intriguing.

Granted, it might take a while before faked-death fetishists find each other and start recommending books and even found online book clubs, but if my book features not just a good faked death but also excellent prose and maybe a big sub-genre theme (murder mystery) and some other fetish motif (rock stars?), the faked-death fetishist reader might be emboldened to rec the book to some other reader circle. All this can take some time from publication to taking offdom, and the greatest advantage direct publishing offers over traditional publication may be time. While my old Regency print books had one count 'em one month on the shelves, the re-edited "Author's Edition" offered (whenever I get around to doing the author edit!) will have perhaps years to draw an audience.

So. Point is. Know your niches. Love your niches. Try not to call them, as I just did, "fetishes," especially if you're going to do a Google search and are easily put to the blush. Start a website devoted not to your wonderfulness as a writer, but to the niche, you know,  Start a Facebook group not of your "fans" but "fans of faked-death novels."

That's what I'm going to do. We can be on each other's blogrolls!

Thoughts? Suggestions? And, oh, never forget that what's important about direct publishing, really important, comes to those who figure out what they want, how they define success for themselves in publication, why not to settle for some default definition of success but rather one that will, in fulfillment, truly fulfill the inner writer.


green_knight said...

What you write is very much in line with what I see a good many midlist authors muse about. And no, I woulnd't turn down a contract with a major house (eg, one that has distribution and pays a sizeable advance), but then I've not been published and don't have the advantage of the name recognition/seal of approval that being published conventionally definitely brings.

I like the term 'direct publishing' and shall adopt it. Neither 'self-publishing' nor 'indie publishing' hit the mark and describe the aspect of _directly to the reader_ very well.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Yeah, I like Direct Publishing, too, IF I have to use a label. I hate labels.

And, Alicia... I've got a page on my website devoted to rock fiction. Sounds like you need to check it out and let me know which of your books I need to list, if they're not already there. It's the Rock Books tab on the left side of the nav bar, over at West of Mars. C'mon by; we're gearing up for Rocktober

Edittorrent said...

"Direct publishing" I actually got from Theresa. I love the idea of "direct to reader".

These days, I'm thinking of NYC publication (the usual kind, that is, without the sizeable advance, LOL) as sort of like going to Vegas. We'll probably be disappointed in the experience, but if we think of ourselves as "travelers," we kind of have to go to say we've gone. But... Sinatra isn't there anymore, and we probably won't make or lose much more than chumpchange.

Susan,I haven't actually written a rockstar book. But I'd love to see your recs! This is a great way, btw, to gain readers' "investment" both in the niche and your own work. I'm thinking of doing a Regency website with a blog musing about Heyer books, doing a big re-read, and will step up my work on that now! Thanks! (Unless I start to read all the recc'ed rock books... (G)

Unknown said...

I hadn't thought about the advantage of being able to publish whatever the heck I want to write. I mean, you don't have to have mass appeal when you self-publish. In fact, I think self-publishing is more conducive to finding "1000 True Fans" in the long tail. So it's probably a better route for anyone who isn't a best-seller.

Annette said...

Wow, fascinating post. The world is changing! It is exciting and frightening at the same time.

I haven't had the validation of a big publisher like you've had. I'll soon be submitting my first novel to agents (I think! Posts like these make me reconsider for brief moments). But these points you make are all wonderful and ring true to my objective reasoning. I think the biggest hurdle, after submitting a quality product, is marketing. Finding unique ways to reach your target audience is a key here. This niche stuff of which you speak is excellent. *wheels are turning*

I wish you good fortune on this endeavor.

Oh, and for your yen for clueless heroes - I highly recommend Balogh's "Slightly Dangerous" for a hero who is aristocratic, icy and reserved, cares deeply about his family, and is clueless in the romance department. The development of the relationship is very entertaining, and I greatly enjoyed the book (as I do almost any Balogh I read).

Edittorrent said...

Annette, there are many good reasons to go with traditional publishing, but you might ask around and see how much promotion traditional publishers do anymore. Just sayin'. You might end up doing it all yourself one way or another.

But the NYC publishers do have a good pipeline to the bookstores!

Kelley said...

Great points. I think that being able to write what you want to write and not having to beg to get it published is a HUGE selling point. Best of luck!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I do see advantages to going both ways. Which sounds kinky as hell, but whatever. Both forms of publishing have their drawbacks and their advantages.

Anyway, Alicia, here's the link: