The indie-author’s ability to grow up in public

steps-1081909_640It’s interesting how different arts view the development of talent. In the visual arts, it is common for a painter’s early years to be regarded as training, or as an apprenticeship period. It is often later works that are more highly valued. Then there are actors who mature with age, performing with more gravitas and filling larger roles. The ones who relied on their looks fall by the wayside, but the ones who worked at their craft and developed their acting skills earn increasing respect.

Music is a little different. In some circles (’art’ music as opposed to ‘popular’ music, if you care for such distinctions), it is expected that a musician will improve with age. But in more popular circles, the instant impact is all-important. A band who do not have a massive hit with their first song are deemed failures, and it is common for record companies to drop bands if their debut does not live up to a certain sales-related standard. Sometimes, only breaking the top ten, rather than reaching number one, is seen as a failure.

It was not always this way, though. Fifty years ago, record companies were more likely to see a new signing as an investment. The first couple of albums might not be that successful, but they lay the groundwork for the third and fourth. If these more mature works didn’t catch the public’s attention, only then were the bands let go.

The perfect debut

Then we have books. There are so many examples of the authors who appeared to explode with a debut success, but struggled to find similar success with subsequent books. Think of Alex Garland‌—‍his debut, The Beach, was a popular hit, but how many people have read, or even heard of, The Tesseract (or The Coma)? Then there’s someone like Joseph Heller, who was never able to match the commercial success of Catch 22 (and even used his experiences of this as the basis for one of his later books, Portrait Of An Artist As An Old Man).

But viewed logically this makes no sense at all. Writing is a skill, and it takes time and practice to develop it. Surely, the more someone writes, and the more intention they place on improving their craft, the better their writing will be. It seems evident that later books should be far superior to earlier ones.

Terry_PratchettTerry Pratchett is a case in point. He wrote a few books before starting on the Discworld series, but they are not a patch on his later works. Even with the Discworld series itself, it took him quite a few books before he got into his stride. The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic are still Pratchett, but nowhere near as good as many of the later ones.

Yet it seems that publishing companies are still searching for that impressive debut. They are still after the runaway success by the unknown author. It takes time and, more importantly, money to nurture a talent, so it makes far more business sense to have a success from the very start. When the public are always after novelty (while also looking for familiarity, but that’s a whole other issue), ‘another’ book by a mediocre author doesn’t stand a chance of being noticed.

As a side-note, I’m not placing blame on the publishers. They are in business, and they are doing what they need to do in order to survive. As much as they care about the artistic side of books, the bottom line will always be profit.

Many authors get dropped, and the publishing companies lose money on these authors. But some shine through. There are the runaway successes, the rags-to-riches stories that capture the imagination of the public as much as the written words themselves. And this is what the publishing companies appear to be searching for.

Maybe this puts too much pressure on the successful debut author, thrust into this strange world of being touted as a genius, even if the advance has already been spent, and the endless promotion gives little time for working on the next book. Maybe that is, at least in part, why so many struggle with the second book, and the third. Maybe too many are finding it impossible to reach the heights others have elevated them to.

But in independent publishing the story is different.

The debut as a starting point

I read loads of books by independently published authors now (and it is not always clear from the writing‌—‍I have read excellent books that authors have published themselves, as well as clunkers published by the big houses), and it has been interesting to see how some authors have developed over the years. I’ve read many of the Sean Platt/Johnny B Truant books, and there’s such a clear improvement in their writing. Unicorn Western is great fun, but the character interplay in last year’s Devil May Care is writing of a far higher standard.

BeatrixRose_seriesAnother example is Mark Dawson. A well-known name in independent publishing due to his marketing strategies, he has been writing thrillers for years, and did in fact start off in traditional publishing. I’ve read quite a few of his books over the last few years. I got some of his earlier ones for free, and although the stories rattled along at a good pace, I didn’t initially think they were anything special. Not bad, but not excellent either.

Then I went to his more recent Beatrix Rose books, and it felt like his writing had stepped up a level. There was more depth to the characters, and Beatrix’ personal journey was well integrated into the external plot. The writing itself was smoother‌—‍those odd passages that sounded clunky had now disappeared. Now, I’m eager to read more.

I wonder if Mark Dawson would have reached this level of writing if he hadn’t gone the independent-publishing route. I can’t help thinking he’d be spending his time querying agents and editors, and building up a string of rejection letters, rather than working on his writing. I don’t know how long his earlier books took him to write, but it’s probably a fair assumption that, now that he has total control over his career, he is able to finish books far quicker. If one book isn’t as good as he might like (although I’m sure each book is the best he can make it at the time), there will still be readers who will enjoy it. Some might pick up on ‘poor writing’, but many more will simply enjoy the story, and be contacting Mark to ask when the next book will be out. And he’ll be working on that next book, using what he has learnt to make sure the new work is better than what he’s produced before.

And this, maybe, is how it should be. Yes, there will be those outliers who produce a near-perfect debut, and struggle to reach that height again. But for most authors, writing is a constant process of learning. However successful (whatever that means) those first few books are, the later ones should naturally be an improvement.

This is something I need to keep in mind for my own writing.

editing-1756958_640Recently I formatted a PDF version of my first Dominions novel, and I was almost embarrassed by some of the sentences I saw. I had to stop myself from going through it line by line, because I knew I’d find so much‌—‍too much‌—‍I could improve. In the last two years, just through the process of writing more and working at my craft, I’ve grown as a writer.

I could go back and make that first book better, but then I’d be tempted to ‘fix’ the others as well. But how productive would that be? If I kept these files to myself, tinkering away until they were perfect, they’d never see the light of day.

And I’m not sure that readers want ‘perfect’ anyway. They want a good story. They want a bit of escapism. Just look at how well certain ‘poorly written’ books do.

So far more sensible to write the best book I can at the moment, put it out for anyone who wants to read it, and then concentrate on the next one. That one won’t be perfect, but it will be a step closer. And in the meantime, there are readers who will enjoy these books.

The best way to improve as a writer is to write.

The Price Of Free

Free books. What could be the problem? Everyone loves free, right?

I’ve been thinking about this recently, both from a reader’s perspective and an author’s. And I’m not too sure what I think.

I download free books. If I find something on Amazon that looks interesting, and it’s free, I’ll grab it. A few months ago I got a few books through Instafreebie, and now not a day goes past without at least a couple of e-mails informing me about more Instafreebie giveaways. I’ve lost track of how many free books I’ve downloaded. It must be in the hundreds.

And I’ve even read some of them.

For new authors, it is hard to get noticed. Most people aren’t prepared to shell out for something new. So giving something away for free‌—‌a ‘try before you buy’ strategy‌—‌can help increase visibility.

Author Nick Stephenson’s strategy is to have the first book in his series free, then offer the second free to anyone who signs up to his newsletter.

Does this make sense? He’s spent time and money to produce those two books, and he’s not getting anything in return for them, right?

Not quite. If enough people get that first book, some are likely to sign up to his newsletter in order to get the second. And of those, some will buy his subsequent books. And the readers who only get the freebies? They probably wouldn’t have bought his books anyway, so these are not lost sales. This is e-books we’re talking about, not physical products. Once the original file is created, there is no cost in replicating it.

Although I see the logic in this, and although I have downloaded far too many freebies myself, a part of me doesn’t like this model. I’ve considered it for my own books, but have resisted giving any of my novels away so far (although I do have a novella out through Instafreebie‌—‌check out Expedient by clicking here — and yes, that was a shameless plug).

There are a few reasons for my unease with this model.

Unrealistic Expectations

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I heard a story about an author who was contacted by a reader. This reader praised the author’s books, saying that she’d downloaded and read all of them. But she also said she’d returned the books to Amazon, taking a refund. Other authors had books for free, so this reader didn’t see why she should have to pay for books.

Yes, it is possible to read an e-book and then return it for a refund. Amazon probably don’t like this, but allowing customers to return unwanted goods makes sense from a customer service perspective. And many people who do this probably don’t see it as anything more than a mild inconvenience. After all, Amazon can afford it.

Of course they can. They record both the sale and the return, and no money passes on to the author. Amazon doesn’t lose out. The author does.

But that’s another issue, and isn’t why I mention this reader. What I want to focus on is the expectation that books should be free.

This is becoming more prevalent, especially with subscription services (which feel like getting something for nothing, because it’s easy to forget the monthly fee when you don’t have to pay for each individual ‘purchase’). The same kind of expectation happened with music, when mp3s became so prevalent. It was easy to download a whole album, and as there was no physical object, it was fine, right? Walking into a shop and taking a CD (or a book) is clearly wrong, but downloading something? That’s‌…‌not a thing. So it doesn’t really exist. So it’s not a problem.

I’m sure you can see problems with this. In the case of both music and books, there is a cost in producing those downloadable files. With books, this involves formatting, buying a cover, and paying for editing. There are also other costs around the business of producing and promoting books, like web-site upkeep and advertising/marketing. And then there is the time it takes to write the thing in the first place. Is it really fair to expect someone to spend hours writing a book and then give it away for free?

But once one author gives a book away, that sets a precedent. Others feel they should follow, and then readers come to expect free books. And when the amount of free books available would take over a lifetime to read, why should a reader pay for a book?

Thankfully, most readers still appreciate the work that goes into writing, and they are willing to pay for their entertainment. But the more widespread free becomes, the harder it will be to convince readers to pay.

Maybe, in the long-term, subscription services will be the way forward. But again, this causes problems. Which books are available in which subscription service? Kindle Unlimited is the biggest at the moment (I’ve heard it said that, if Amazon is the largest book store in the world, then Kindle Unlimited is the second largest), but for independent authors it is only available if you go exclusive to Amazon. Where does this leave those who use Kobo or iBooks? Where does that leave those who don’t have, and don’t want to have, a Kindle or Kindle app?

But I’m getting sidetracked. Back to other problems with free.

Perceptions of Quality

editing-1756958_640There is a saying‌—‌‘you get what you pay for.’ Now, I’ve read some fantastic free books, both out-of-copyright classics and books by new authors, so the correlation between cost and quality is not rigid. But there is a great deal of poorly-written free stuff out there. And this, combined with the (thankfully lessening) idea that only traditionally published authors are good writers, has led to a certain attitude towards free books‌—‌that they can’t be much good.

This leads to a subconscious problem. If we read a free book, there is a part of us that doesn’t expect much. If it was any good, it would cost money, right? So we expect the free book to have problems. We almost seek out those typos and grammatical errors that mark it out as sub-par. We’re on the lookout for poor dialogue and plot holes.

Look hard enough for something, and you usually find it.

This shouldn’t be the case, but it is. If there are two books that have the same problems (a few spelling mistakes, a few dodgy plot points), we are far more willing to forgive them if we have paid for the book, and praise its good points. If the book is free, the problems confirm our suspicions that it was badly written, and the good points slip by us.

If the author has a solid reputation (and therefore doesn’t need to give books away), they must be good, and if their writing is hard to get into, the fault must lie with us‌—‌maybe we’re not intelligent or educated enough to appreciate what they are doing with their words. Conversely, anyone who is starting out and who has to practically throw their books at potential readers‌—‌well, they’re desperate. Of course their books won’t be up to much.

Quantity

tablet-1632909_1280Another problem I can see with free is one of quantity. As I mentioned before, there are more free books available than anyone can read in a lifetime. Through projects like Gutenberg, older classics are available to all. ‘First in series free’ is such a popular business model that there are a glut of books in every genre that can be downloaded without any cost.

My Kindle has books I downloaded years ago that I have yet to read. It’s too tempting, when a book looks half-interesting but has no cost, to click on the download button. My in-box is becoming clogged with updates from authors whose mailing lists I have signed up to in order to get free books, and many of these contain links to other offers (the Instafreebie model, to be successful, involves a great deal of cross-promotion). I try to resist, but so many of these books look interesting, and I end up with even more freebie.

The saying that the cream always rises to the top might be true, but it takes time, and with so much material out there, it’s taking longer and longer. I’m wary of spending too much on a new book now, because I start to question when I’ll get round to reading it. There’s a risk that any book I pay for will become lost in this sea of free.

I know not everyone thinks this way. I have heard of people who never consider a book unless it is over a certain price. But I also know there are those who actively seek out free books. And with so many available, why not? Why ever buy a book again?

Of course, the ‘first in series free’ model hopes that readers enjoy the book enough to buy the rest of the series. But I sometimes find myself enjoying a book, telling myself I’ll check out others by that author, but then I’ll move on to another free book, and that first one will slip from my mind.

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problemSo I have problems with the free model. But I still download free books. Sometimes, when I enjoy a book, I’ll buy more by the author, so I know that free can work as a marketing strategy. And authors like Nick Stephenson have boosted their writing careers through this strategy.

Maybe whenever I download free books I’m becoming part of the problem. Maybe I’m helping perpetuate a situation that will slowly become more damaging for authors.

Or maybe it is a situation that is inevitable. When digital files take up so little memory space now, and can be shared and spread across the world in seconds, maybe the idea of paying for such products is becoming a relic of a physical past. Maybe those of us who create digital work need to look at a different way of funding. Maybe we should start thinking of art as a service, and seek funding not for the product but for the entertainment and enjoyment it brings. Maybe the way forward is sites like Patreon, or subscription models.

I don’t know. The only thing I can be certain of is that things will always change.

Holiday Reading

Just a short one this week, due to being on holiday recently. A week in the sun, lounging about by a pool‌—‌ideal reading time. Some of what I read wasn’t too impressive, but I thought I’d let you know about the best three.

GreatPack_ChrisFoxThe Great Pack‌—‌Chris Fox

In self-publishing circles, Chris Fox is known for his openness in talking about what he’s doing, as well as his data-driven approach to writing. He produced a book on how to write 5000 words per hour (through planning, then using dictation software), detailed his ‘write to market’ strategy (basically, looking at what kinds of books are popular, and writing to please the audience), and is currently doing a ‘trilogy in thirty days’ thing.

I’ve read a lot of his books, and while his Space Opera stuff is enjoyable (that’s the ‘written to market’ stuff), I much prefer his first Deathless series. Somehow, they combine vampires, werewolves, zombies, sci-fi and Egyptian mythology without being disjointed. They’re fast, fun and inventive.

It seems that Fox likes these books, too, because he’s now brought out the fourth in the series, The Great Pack. It takes off where the original three ended, but includes a ‘previously’ section that is helpful on getting up to speed.

And then we’re off. The book is faster than the others, and without the ‘previously’ section I’d have been lost. It twists Fox’s ideas even further, and I really enjoyed it.

Thankfully, he has toned down the action scenes a fraction (if I have one complaint about the previous books, it’s that the fight scenes started to sound like stage directions, and with practically immortal beings, who can survive limbs being ripped off and so on, they soon became pretty ridiculous).

The book almost moves too fast for its own good, though. I noticed this in Fox’s Void Wraith space opera books‌—‌description and emotion are pushed way down, and plot takes over. Personally, I’d prefer something that eases up on occasions (and it’s not like The Great Pack is a short book).

But that’s a minor point. The story’s fun, and while it’s not quite as good at the previous Deathless books, it’s a good read. If you like the others, you’ll enjoy The Great Pack. And if you haven’t read the series so far, check out the first one, Vampires Don’t Sparkle, and see what you think.

Quiet_SusanCainQuiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking‌—‌Susan Cain

I first heard of this book through J Thorn’s Intronaut podcast, where he talks about being an introvert and how that has played out in his life. Quiet appeared as a Kindle Daily Deal recently, so I snapped it up. The more I read and hear about introversion, the more things in my own life make sense. I don’t know if I’m a ‘proper’ introvert (and there are tests to determine this), but I’m definitely towards that end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

As the title suggests, it’s about introversion, which is far more than just ‘being shy’ or ‘being quiet’. Cain’s spent years researching for this book, and has interviewed many people around the world, both introverts and extroverts (and everyone is in one of these camps to some degree). But she can also write, and the book reads like an exploration rather than a dry, academic tone.

There are some surprising facts in this book. Introversion is linked not only to societal pressures, but also to genetics. It is easy to see how western culture seems to favour the extrovert, but introverts, in certain circumstances, make more effective leaders. In the financial chaos over recent years, the traders who have come out on top tend to be more introverted in nature.

But the book also explores how to cope with introversion, and how to fake being an extrovert. There is a whole section on raising introverted children in ways that will help them cope with life. And there are also sections on different cultures, especially how eastern societies tend to favour introversion‌—‌think about how somewhere like Japan holds respect in high regard, whereas America is all about making oneself bigger and better in order to get ahead. There are interviews with eastern students studying at western colleges, and the struggles they face.

So, a very interesting book, and well written. As something thought-provoking, it was a great contrast to the rest of my lighter holiday reading. If you’re at all interested in how people think and function, it’s well worth a look.

SongOfTheSpaceSiren_BarryJHutchinsonSong Of The Space Siren‌—‌Barry J Hutchinson

This is the fourth Space Team book, and from what I understand, there are two more to come before the end of the year. Hutchinson seems to bring one out every couple of months, and I recently discovered that there is very little editing involved in his writing process, which makes the quality of these books even more impressive.

Comedy is hard to do well. Pratchett managed it fantastically with his Discworld books. Douglas Adams was great, but the comedy and the bizarre ideas took over, pushing the story to second place. Hutchinson avoids this problem, and he describes his books as space adventure stories with humour, rather than comedy books. The humour comes from the character interactions. It helps, of course, that his main character tends to react to stressful situations by making fun of them.

After reading the first book, I downloaded the rest, but I did wonder if Hutchinson could keep up the high standards of the original Space Team. So far, I’ve been impressed, and I think that rounding the series off at six books will keep things from getting too stretched. As it is, there were a few things in Song Of The Space Siren that didn’t quite work for me (to avoid spoilers, I won’t say what they are), and the growing relationship between a couple of the characters didn’t quite ring true. But these are minor points. The book is still great fun, and I’d recommend it (and the whole series) to anyone who is looking for a space opera adventure with a good dose of humour. I’m already looking forward to early June, when book five comes out.