The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent

Hugh Howey makes another insightful set of comments on the state of self -publishing. If there is a self-publishing revolution, Howey is it’s Napoleon. Will end up being made mad by the wall paper on a small mediterranean island? Let us hope not. Centrally, Howey tackles the false equivalence made when critics of self publishing snort that most self-published books do not sell many copies.

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One reminder that I’ve blogged about at length is that most books don’t sell very many copies. And that’s okay. It’s not a self-publishing thing; it’s a publishing thing. 98% of manuscripts submitted to agents never get published at all. They don’t sell a single copy. Nobody mentions this when they deride self-publishing as an option. The false premise seems to be that you can choose to self-publish, or you can choose to have your book on an endcap in every bookstore while you are sent on a 12-city tour by your publisher. That’s not the choice. The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent. This is the choice.

If you self-publish, you can immediately move on to writing the next work. You don’t have to look back at all if you don’t want. You have the rest of your life to promote that work, if you decide to promote it at all. If you are one of the 1% to secure an agent, the earliest you might see that work in a bookstore is a year. More likely, it’ll be three to five years. And you’ll be asked to rewrite that work, not based on any artistic vision, but based on what’s currently selling, what publishers are currently looking for.

via The State of Self-Publishing | Hugh Howey.

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What Howey is pointing to here is really a marketing issue as much as a creative one. Remember way back in the mists of yesterday when I told you that books were about as naturally marketable on the internet as an M1 Abrahams tank is a practical commuter vehicle? Well, that marketing problem is only made worse by waiting two years to find an agent, then two years for your actual book to get published. In that time your equivalently talented self-published comrade has written and published four books which they are happily selling in varying numbers as they build a following. See the problem? Traditional publishing has become a waiting game, and in a digital  world of microsecond attention spans, that is tantamount to suicide.

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The problem with books

The problem with books is they are an extremely bad strategy.

Imagine you wanted to introduce yourself to a group of people. It could be a new social group or a new workplace. It could be a a new town. Even, if you’re a particularly ambitious and entrepreneurial sort of person, a whole new city. Whatever the scale, you face the same essential challenge. How do you go from being unknown to these people, to being well known?

Consider these two options :

1) You go out to social events and chat with people. You invite people to your events, maybe throw a few parties. You listen to what people have to say, and you share you’re own thoughts in exchange. At some point you put on a real grand shindig, with a free bar and top class entertainment. Hurrah! You’re the toast of the town. You pen a memoir and it sells like hotcakes.

2) You sit at home every evening on your own. Instead of sharing your ideas with people you write them down in a series of ever more intensely scribbly in notebooks. Eventually you take the notebooks, at this point resembling the deranged meanderings of a serial killer, have 10,000 copies printed up, and leave them in a pile in a shop somewhere. Uhm…where they are completely ignored and then pulped.

OK. So I’ve painted a less than flattering portrait of the aspiring novelist. But fundamentally the writers task is very much like that of meeting any new group of people. You write stuff, and out there in the world are people who read stuff. Unless you can somehow connect the two, you’re life as a writer is going to be deeply frustrating.

A book is a tremendous investment of time. Which in turn means tremendous resources, money, energy…or put bluntly, life. Imagine what you could do in the time you’re writing that book! In that time you could, I’m fairly certain, found a Fortune 500 company, sell it, and retire to your own island to be served by an army of slaves engineered from the genes of your defeated enemies.

Anyone who writes professionally online knows that long, ambiguously titled bits of text disappear without a trace in the viral marketing shit-storm that is the internet. Sadly, a “long, ambiguously titled bit of text” is basically the definition of most books. The book, as a marketable artefact, is about as profoundly unsuited to the internet as a tribe of hill dwelling indigenous peoples are unsuited to the radioactive vacuums of deep-space.

But whoah there Damo! Books still sell on the internet you know. To which I say yesbut. Look at the how and the why of books that sell well on the internet. Take a look, for instance, at the the Hugo best novel shortlists of recent years. How many of the shortlisted authors have a platform to reach readers *other* than their novels? The answer is almost all of them. At least 2/3 thirds are successful bloggers and that includes, notably, almost all of the writers to emerge in the last decade.

Does that mean that their books suck? No, quite the opposite. It means their books perfectly suit the established audience that enjoys their blog. Take a little time perusing the non-fiction book world and you’ll find that a strong online presence is pretty much essential for any writer in that field. A best selling non-fiction book is now, with very few exceptions, the culmination of a much longer audience building process effected through YouTube videos, blogs and social media.

IE, option 1 from the two discussed above.

Am I suggesting that you have to be a successful blogger to successfully sell books? No. But I am suggesting that books as we currently think of them are a very bad way of introducing a new writer to readers. Books are already adapting. Savvy self-publishers are using shorter forms to “pilot” work and then building on those which grab reader attention, Hugh Howey’s Dust being the most successful example of this to date.

As fiction writers we are storytellers. But stories have always adapted as the ways of telling them have changed. I don’t believe the novel has found the format that will carry it in to the 21st century yet. But I think the search is on. And the writers who crack it will be well rewarded by readers.