Welcome to the first in a new series of blog posts where I answer your questions about life, love, and self publishing. All names are changed to protect the innocent.
Send your questions to me on Twitter @damiengwalter using hashtag #DearDamo
I’ve always wanted to be a BESTSELLING writer! So, a few weeks ago I sat down and wrote a bestselling novel in a genre I know to be super popular…SPACE OPERA! My book it has space ships, space battles, space marines and even space cadets! My book is on Kindle now…but it isn’t bestselling! This surprises me because space opera novels are huge bestsellers! I also went the extra distance and made my space opera novel an EPIC space opera cover! It’s of a space ship that looks like that cool one from Aliens and it’s in orbit above a gas giant planet which is all swirly colours…how could that not stand out! What’s wrong with people?!
I’m glad you’re having fun being a bestselling author, even if the bestselling part hasn’t shown up yet! That’s the spirit!
However…what you describe here is a common problem among many self published authors. We tend to assume that if something is successful, other things like it will also be successful. To an extent, this is true. Some people like to read within one genre, and big bestsellers can have a “halo effect”, as readers look for another hit of a story that gripped them. BUT, like a goth kid who wants to be unique but ends up one of thousands wearing identikit black eyeliner and DM boots, copying popular trends like “space opera” actually has the opposite effect. Tens of thousands of other people had exactly the same idea, and their books also have space marines and a space ship orbiting a gas giant on the cover.
So what’s the answer? Great writers have an instinct for the kinds of stories that will grab an audiences attention, stories that are both comfortingly familiar and indescribably new and different. Harry Potter wasn’t the first story about a kid who goes to magic school, but J K Rowling twisted archetypal elements and blended genres to create something truly new. Technology opens up surprising & powerful ways of analysing data about successful stories, with platforms like K-Lytics offering detailed reports into the “hot niche” sub-genres that are coming into popularity.
Always, always, always write what you are passionate about. But once it’s written, you can use research and analytics to find the best niche genres to market your work, and then create a cover design that really stands out for that audience.
Humans like stories. In fact, it’s fair to say we are obsessed with stories. And never has our society been richer in stories. Today we have access to all the books, films, TV shows and other story media ever made, with more being made all the time.
Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.
But if you wanted to lose yourself in a story in 17th century England, where did you go? Most likely to the church or to the Bible, to have biblical myths read to you. Or you might read them yourself if you were among literate minority. Theatre of course, in cities or when a troupe travelled on tour. Possibly to a storyteller to hear a folk tale or two, or maybe some some bawdy stories told in drinking holes. But all said and done, your options were somewhat limited.
When novels began to arrive in the 18th century, as the costs of printing decreased, they arrived in to an environment starved and hungry for stories. And they provided stories stories that were far more complex, original and engaging than the competition. Unless you had a very good vicar, it’s unlikely his storytelling held much a candle to the serial fictions of Mr Charles Dickens. Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.
Novels allowed the telling of more sophisticated stories. And novelists quickly innovated new tools for the telling of stories. Novelistic techniques that we simply take for granted today, such as limited 3rd person point-of-view, simply didn’t exist in the early days of novels. Stories were told either by the writer as omniscient narrator, or through formats like the epistolary ‘novel of letters’ that allowed the characters to speak for themselves. A large part of the work for students on a creative writing course is to learn all of these novelistic techniques, so that they can write novels to the standards expected by readers today.
The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel.
Examined from a technical perspective, a novel like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy is an amazing storytelling achievement. It doesn’t simply tell one story but many, weaving through multiple points of view over a timespan of many years. It chronicles major events in human history, and illustrates them through their human dramas. It leads the reader to ask the big philosophical questions that underly the events. What is war? What is peace? How do we best live in either circumstance? There are other comparable literary achievements – Homer for instance, although the Iliad’s poetic form makes it a tough read for most – but the novel made this kind of complex storytelling widespread. And hugely, hugely popular.
Film took the development of story in a different direction. Filmic narratives are highly compressed, simply to fit in to the typical 120 minutes of time a feature film occupies. The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel. Film also has an immense capacity for spectacle. You aren’t just watching a cowboy story, you’re seeing a real man firing a real gun. In the modern era of CGI, that spectacle has grown to epic proportions. The kind of slow, subtle character development novels thrive on is hard to achieve in film, and rarely tried today, when explosions and superheroes are so much more profitable.
Storytelling on television was hobbled for decades by that medium’s dependence on advertising, and the advertisers demand that television shows appeal to the lowest common denominator. Episodes of television drama were relatively short, sometimes only 20 minutes when advertising was removed. And networks did not allow producers to advance the storyline across episodes. The TV miniseries – often adapted from novels – allowed some great TV drama to be made, in particular shows like I Claudius and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy in the UK.
The HBO “box set” series is designed to be sold directly to the audience (as opposed to attracting advertisers) and consequentially aims for a far higher standard of narrative. It typically gives 10 hours of screen time in 1 hour chunks dedicated to telling one coherent story. Each 1 hour episode has its own discrete plot and subplots, but they all feed in to the over-aching series plot. They feature an ensemble cast of characters – as opposed to the single protagonist of most films – all of whom grow and develop (or die!) as the series unfolds. And they deal with complex human situations and relationships. They are, from many perspectives, highly novelistic. And in all honesty, the best of them leave War & Peace and many other great novels, eating their dust.
The Sopranos. Madmen. Band of Brothers. House of Cards. Game of Thrones. My new favourite, True Detective. Individually the best shows in the HBO format (there are now other producers) are the equal of any stories ever told. And in many regards, better. Taken as a whole, there is a strong argument that they are part of the most amazing flourishing of story in human history. They combine the complexity of novels with the spectacle and film. And they bring another element almost unique to television. They are written collaboratively by teams of writers and script editors. These shows aren’t just the product of one superb imagination, but many of them, working in unison.
The novel, having pioneered the complex high quality storytelling it is clear audiences hunger for, now struggles to match the best of that storytelling in other mediums. Novels can’t touch the spectacle of film or the new king of that hill, video games. And they’re outgunned in the sheer richness of storytelling the best television shows can achieve. Not because the novel can’t match that quality, of course it can, but because doing so is very difficult. And the number of writers capable of producing stories of that quality is very small.
It’s easy to set up shop as a novelist. It’s ridiculously hard to actually write high quality novels. Writing a great novel is an achievement on the scale of making a major scientific breakthrough or winning a significant military battle. That’s why in British history Jane Austen is remembered alongside Isaac Newton and Horatio Nelson. And yet very few writers seem willing to pursue the long, hard path towards that kind of achievement. Absurdly, there’s a common conception among writers that they don’t even need to learn to write before putting their work in to the world. How many scientific breakthroughs are made without decades of learning? How many battles won without years of collective experience being deployed on the battlefield? Why expect making art to be any different?
Among the runaway hits in recent publishing is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. It’s a novel in the epic fantasy genre, but its success is far more to do with its complex, high quality story telling than the presence of dragons. Martin was a Hugo award winning sci-fi writer at a young age, who then spent two decades working in the word-mines of Hollywood script development, before bringing all of that expertise together in his masterpiece. The books were already massive bestsellers, head and shulders the best books in their genre, before being picked by HBO, where they required little work to fit in to the new television format.
The response of publishers has been comically absurd. For the best part of a decade now publishers have been flooding their distribution channels with fantasy series in the style of Game of Thrones. But instead of seeking out the few writers who might have the chops to make a new work on the scale of Martin’s epic, publishers have paid peanuts to debut authors to make third rate clones that lack all the technical expertise to equal the original. And this is far from a unique scenario. The publishing industry, instead of nurturing quality writing, has turned itself in to a cloning operation. There are still quality books to be found of course, but they are buried amongst a swill of third rate clones of the rare bestsellers that appear. And this, more than anything else, is destroying the audience for novels. Imagine if HBO, alongside True Detective, also released 200 competing television shows that looked similar but nowhere near as good. They would quickly undermine their audience engagement, just as publishers have. If publishers want their business back, they need to be as obsessed with story quality as HBO.
There’s a bun fight about self publishing in the book trade at the moment. Half the trade are waking up to the reality that self publishing is the future, while the other half are looking for reasons why it shouldn’t be. The number one reason is quality. Self-publishing doesn’t provide a career path for writers, or police quality. But publishers abandoned both these roles long ago. The writers who achieve real quality in their work do so entirely under their own energies. And that small minority of writers are now turning to self publishing as an answer to the serious question, what value are publishers adding if they do not nurture quality? Because, if novels are to thrive as a medium in the 21st century, it is only an obsession with quality that will place them among the best storytelling on offer.
Brenna Aubrey self-published her debut romance novel At Any Price on the Amazon Kindle on 9 December 2013. One month later At Any Price had netted a total profit of £16,588. Aubrey’s success is far from unique – 2013 was a breakout year for “indie authors” led by the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey. But Aubrey is among the first in a wave of authors to do what, until very recently, would have been unthinkable; turn down a $120,000 (£72,000) deal from one of the big five publishing houses and decide to do their job herself.
For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?
This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.
It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.
Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.