In mid-nineteenth century Britain the Theatre was changing. Theatre audiences were demanding entertaining acts and Shakespeare was no longer classed as entertaining by the hoi pilloi. So, classically trained actors had the choice of either working to diminishing audiences or becoming a variety act in the burgeoning Music Hall, complete with elephants. Barbara Ewing illustrates this very well in her novel, ‘The Mesmerist’, which, in passing, is well worth a read, if a little expensive.
Today, fiction publishing is changing for everyone concerned: writers, agents publishers; no one is sure of the model, or if there even is a model.
Major publishers have reacted to the threat of Amazon and Indie publishing by becoming vanity publishers, charging novice authors several thousand pounds to see their work in print. They do it through surrogate companies so as not to sully their, ahem, reputations. Meanwhile, middle ranking, traditionally published authors are finding it difficult to either get a reasonable advance or make a living from writing. The superstars of writing are safe from this reversal of fortune for the moment, but that will not last.
Publishers have missed the point.
Writers too have missed the point.
The arithmetic is simple. The more authors there are, the less visibility any one new author will get. Forget about building a platform of twenty-three readers; unless you have a lot of money and a PR company you will struggle to find an audience, or rather the audience will struggle to find you. Sure, there will always be the ’50 Shades’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Hunger Games’ phenomena, but they succeeded because they gained a little traction for a variety of unpredictable reasons and then the money men piled in, sniffing gold.
I’ll make a prediction. One day and soon, every book, except those of superstar writers, will be free.
Currently, around eighty per cent of all Indie books for the Kindle are offered free at some point on Amazon KDP Select. My own novel, NORTHMAN, went that route and in just a few days amassed over 7000 downloads. The aim was to increase visibility and ‘discoverability’ to ‘build a platform’, creep up the Amazon rankings and get a few paid sales in the aftermath. I’d read this was a good strategy and a cunning plan.
It was a waste of time.
At one point NORTHMAN was #1 in the Mystery/Thrillers/Supernatural Amazon list, or somesuch. When the promotion ended perhaps twenty books were sold at the normal price of £3.99 before tailing off into single figures per week. Increase ‘discoverability’ and visibility? Build a platform? I’m neither a lost continent, transparent nor a railway engineer, but any idea appeals when a cunning plan fails. Three new reviews, twenty new Twitter followers and two or three new blog followers disabused me of the notion. 7267 people have NORTHMAN on their Kindles and I have no way of finding out if they have even read it.
Was there any purpose to the promotion?
It taught me what not to do and what not to be.
First, I learned I was not a marketeer. The ‘how to’ writing pundits tell me that lack of marketing nous represents obscurity and starvation. Promote, promote, promote is their mantra and I would find it difficult to disagree with them if it were not for the fact that I don’t give a flying fart. I hate marketing. I hate cold calling. I hate all the energy wasted in trying to sell books when I’m primarily interested, as a writer, in two ways of justifying my life.
Writing. Reading. The first is so I can tell stories. I love telling stories. The second is so I can wonder at the stories of other writers and marvel at how complex is the human mind, how imaginative, how unique, how full of infinite variety. Minds like these can conquer the universe and will.
Not waving my arms about and shouting ‘look at me’. I did that as a child. Then I became an adult (almost) and no longer felt the need to be patted on the head. Not as much, anyway.
The promotion also taught me that people like free stuff, but are not keen on paying. I do. You do. We all do. It’s in our DNA to gravitate towards free stuff and gorge ourselves on it in case tomorrow, there is no more. Check your Kindle. How many free books are languishing there, never to be read?
Jane Austen didn’t need to make money. In some ways she was a dilettante writer: a posh lass having an ironical, gentrified giggle about and with her awfully nice chums. For her – and I know Austen fans will disagree – writing was a hobby. There were few female fiction writers at the time so she captured the imagination of a generation of women with her works, almost by default. The TV ‘reality’ show, ‘Made in Chelsea’ springs to mind as a dumbed down version of her social commentary. It’s interesting to note that Austen only became truly popular after her death, so the writers and stars of ‘Made in Chelsea’ obviously have a better cunning plan than had dear old Jane.
There are, perhaps two ways for fiction writing to go. One is the Billions way, where a billion writers, some of whom can write and others who struggle, flood the streets with their pamphlets in the vague hope that someone will be interested enough to read them and not use them for lighting the stove. For ‘street’, substitute Amazon and you’ll see where that’s going. They will all – with a few exceptions – be hobby writers: not because they write badly, but because they cannot make a living from writing through sheer weight of free reading material and because few read their books. My heart goes out to them (us) all. Fiction has to be wrung from the soul and it deserves to be more than kindle-ing.
The second way is to find a new model.
I know what I think the new model should look like and in it everything is free.
There will be no publishers. No agents. Indies rule, okay? I’m going to test the model later this year. I won’t be able to do comparative testing, so it won’t be a fair test or even definitive, because I have no intention of wasting my hard earned dosh on shiny-faced 14 year old marketeers so they can buy a new Ferrari, or spending endless days tweeting, getting passengers to my platform, being found with a gasp of surprise around a bend in the Orinoco or wearing a clown’s outfit to increase visibility. My wife tells me I don’t need an outfit to be a clown.
It should produce more information, but won’t be a model that suits everyone. What I have in mind doesn’t suit me too well, but the alternatives are not pleasant.
It will enable me to write with fewer restrictions or possibly more and remove the present concept of marketing when I could be writing, or just staring at a cloud that looks like Buddha or Groucho Marx. There will be a price. There is always a price for every human action.
I’ll give you a clue.