Trad and Indie: So what's different in 2020?

The new technologies of communication were supposed to open the literary landscape to everything and make all things possible, but instead the world of writing/reading has been sinking ever deeper into a bog or maybe it’s a quicksand. There needs to be a new way of reading and writing, assuming there is still time in this bizarre and quite possibly doomed century.

Not so long ago I assumed that soon writers and readers would be able to meet each other wherever they chose, around whatever books they preferred. Independent publishing seemed to open up the possibility that everyone could be an author and every reader could find a book (and author) they liked and could afford. Books would become easy and fast to produce. Gatekeepers and cultural brokers from identical backgrounds would no longer determine what was published. To some extent a bit of this vision has come true, but far less than what might have been. The infinite potential of the new technologies has been squandered and a new two-tier publishing world has emerged.

The two publishing worlds have accommodated one another. The Trad Pubs have happily regrouped and concentrated themselves into mega-corporate enterprises, swallowing up small publishers like sardines, cramming writing once again into little boxes marked by gatekeepers ever more vigilant and responsive to the needs of their local ecosystem with its critics, fashions and fame.  The so-called “Indies” are dominated by rules and expectations in part set by the publishing industry itself, requiring ever-greater expenditure on processes which independent authors once expected to do themselves.

Many books are no longer even written by their authors. Professional writers do what used to be called “the writing”. Editors do the rest. The degree of uniformity is astonishing. Sentences have shrunk to the minimum. Subordinate clauses have gone to the woodshed. The semi-colon and colon have largely been outlawed. Nobody would ever publish footnotes in a fictional book, or include photos unrelated to the text. In most cases there are hardly any photos at all, even in autobiographies and biographies. Copyright law makes sure song lyrics or poems by someone else cannot be included in a book. Content editors make sure the text conforms to specific “arcs”. Everyone expects three acts and a “hero” protagonist. Writers who still want to author their own books are enjoined to go to courses and learn to write so every book in each genre is as far as possible the same as every other one, apart from title and author name. Cover art, even font-styles, converge around genre expectations.

In Trad Pub the global space is once again divided up into “territories” defined by nation-states. What should have been a free flow of ideas and exchanges across an open planet has fallen into a morass of dot com suffixes with financial consequences attached. Trad Pub still pretends to be terrified of Indie, but it shouldn’t be, because Indie has been more and more mimicking Trad Pub and Trad Pub is making good profits from selling in the online market. Court cases secured publishers’ rights to set absurdly high prices for ebooks while Indie writers continue to destroy their own viability by setting lower and lower prices and indeed give a lot of their writing away for free.

Trad Pub retains the aura of superiority in cultural value. Literary writing conforms to certain expectations about ideology and positioning. Certain themes are “big”, especially if they are to do with those who are ‘Other’ to the publishing enterprise itself. It is sustained by hordes of English majors and over-educated humanities people willing to work for miniscule wages for the privilege of serving the interests of these grossly inflated transnational companies. Some books are mired in complex moral issues, most recently the question of cultural appropriation, when mostly white members of the cultural majority try to write about the experiences of the “less fortunate”. But in truth most of these books, whether worthy or unworthy, are being supported by the publication of one or two or three blockbusters every year from famous authors. If the books can be sold into movie markets or developed for long-form TV series then their success is assured via the feedback loop between viewing and reading.

In the Indie world, genre is King, Queen, Bishop, Knight and Deity. Editors, cover-designers, blurbists  and the rest ensure that writers conform to the genre. If you write one book in that genre then woe betide you it you don’t write a series of others, with matching title livery and often the same characters. This is popular mass-market writing, everyone agrees, and there is no room for literary fancies or trans-genre mucking around.  In Trad Pub they only want one book a year from their writers, if that, but in Indieland they want two, three, four or more one after the other. Mass production for a mass readership. Now readers don’t even want to read. The big thing is audiobooks so readers become listeners, mainly because the level of literacy in the general population has fallen so low.

Where is writing outside the norm? The most encouraging signs come from small local independent publishers who find all kinds of new (and old) writing worthy of publishing. It is fortunate that many writers can get back their rights to their own works from publishers who have gone out of business, or whose contracts were limited. The new publishing technologies mean these books, long unheard of and forgotten, can be republished and brought to new readers. But what about the countless writers who want to do something different but are being railroaded into the latest trends via K-Lytics and feel obliged to write shape-shifter romances featuring panthers, lions and mongoose (mongeese?) There needs to be a space where they can be published even if they aren’t going to score on the peculiar algorithms used by Amazon and the rest. Books used to appeal to small groups of readers. People didn’t expect to make $50,000 a year or more by writing pot-boilers, although now it seems to be a career path. But it’s all about money and ranking these days, whether Trad or Indie.

Meanwhile I am pushing onwards trying to find some path between the two even though I increasingly think it’s a truly thankless venture.

REVOLUTIONARY BABY: final edit?

So I think this is the final edit. The whole manuscript is printed and I am about to get into it with a red pen. I couldn’t say how many edits it has had, that is not a meaningful question. I edit all the time as I go along, and I try to keep a version in my files periodically in case I need to go back. I can see why people employ an editor, if only because it costs so much money and you wouldn’t want to mess around with something that already has had so much expensive attention. Maybe I’ll reconsider my position on editors. But every time I have had an editor whether for creative or factual writing they make changes according to some inexplicable principles of their own. I am very aware that all of my stories in Revolutionary Baby use different narrative voices which do not convert into standard grammar, in some cases (as in the voice of one of my young hippies from the Northern Rivers) very far from it. But it is how my characters think, as far as I can write it. It is not a mistake or the product of grammatical infelicity even though grammar checkers don’t like it. Does it work? I am trying to inhabit each of my main characters in their own worlds, and each of their worlds are very different. I guess I will know more when I’ve read all of the stories together while wielding the red pen.

Regret Horizon: the Memoir

So my memoir of the year my mother and my ex-husband died is almost finished. Procrastinating about sending it out to the family and trying to do the final edits. Every time I open the file I find myself making changes, not just a few, but a lot. I still don’t feel clear about it. And the question of the title has been holding things up. From the start, the working title was A Dying Year. Feedback? Oh, that sounds so sad/distressing/upsetting. And who is dying? Is it you? Is this yet another PityParty by someone on the way out? No, no, not that! Well, what then?

So it got a new title, and a new slant, because I realised by the time I had finished the penultimate draft that my main feeling about everything was my awfulness, and how much I still don’t understand, and how much I feel regret for what I had done and not done in those last few months.

Somehow water, rivers and seas, threaded through everything I felt throughout the process of writing this book. So when I found Jordan Cantelo’s wonderful photograph, “Ocean Horizon”, it spoke to me profoundly. Jordan gave me permission to use it for the cover, and asked for no payment, which was truly generous of him. I love his work. I will write something more about it later.

Draft cover: Regret Horizon.

Kindle Create: how much easier can it get?

When I first started learning how to publish on Kindle it was such a struggle. I wrote quickly and fluently, I was a great typist and could use Word with my eyes shut, but the next steps – getting the manuscript right for the various platforms, understanding how to format, what was involved in covers – not to mention ISBNs and uploading and getting manuscripts to conform to arcane and mysterious requirements proved baffling, frustrating and humbling. I was just getting the hang of it when life threw a curved ball and the almost finished books had to languish for most of 2018. Back in action now and I discover everything has suddenly got so much easier. Ingram Spark are falling over backwards now to help the self-publishing author (as well as those micropublishing through their own companies), there are many new cover services available, new international players have appeared in unexpected places (Italy, Finland!), Draft2Digital is flourishing and best of all (for Mac users) Vellum came along with fantastic options for interior designing and trying-out on different platforms.

Amazon closed down Create Space, that was a surprise, and started its own print arm, which didn’t help Australian authors since there was no way to get printed books to Australia and Amazon wasn’t planning to print them here. Local readers in Australia are still wedded to print books and the local publishers/booksellers/reviewers are resolutely set on ignoring self-publishers, so without a print book presence of some kind the Australian market is very hard to reach.

But never mind, Ingram Spark is a very good alternative, prints in Melbourne and has great international distribution.  The print version of my experimental children’s book (The Priceless Princess) can be ordered now through Book Depository, Angus and Robertson and others. It is also available in print from Amazon, although nobody in the US is buying it.

But even with all the alternatives, publishing on Kindle remains a necessity although the market is now so hugely competitive. The good old .mobi file was easy enough to produce but it generally looked pretty ordinary and the placement of images was a pain.  BUT today Amazon announces a new service called Kindle Create. Seems to have purloined some of the best features of Vellum, for no cost. So I’m going to have a go with it for my two books of short stories, ready to come out early next year, although I’ll still get epub and pdf versions for Ingram Spark made through Vellum. I feel like I might be onto it at last.

I guess the only thing easier would be if Amazon wrote your books for you. Ghostwriting is already a big business – celebrities and rappers use ghostwriters all the time. But if Amazon could guarantee a good book written from your plot outline, and then marketed it where the old “Other Purchases” used to be, it would raise the career of writing to a whole new level.

How do you get this gig?

A two-speed economy: How traditional publishers are benefiting from Amazon.

I’ve mentioned before the way Amazon publication has entered new territory since the Big Five managed to get their own way about e-book pricing. It’s become increasingly apparent that conventional publishers have worked out how the maximise their gains from e-books and distributors, and while still bemoaning their existence have seized on the new opportunities now available.

There is no doubt that a traditional publishing deal remains the aim of most writers. Other than genre fiction of a certain kind (explicit erotica, shape-shifters, Space Opera romance and so on) every serious writer still wants a deal with a “real” publisher. But a lot of readers don’t want to buy physical books, and want to buy e-books online.

Now the traditional publishers have worked out that they can offer e-books at the same time as they publish print books, and preserve the powerful traditional ecosystem. By ensuring the price of the e-book version is not far from the print version (which may indeed be available in bookshops and will receive traditional marketing, recognition and publicity) they can make profits from e-books which are virtually cost-free since they only need to prepare the files once, there are no publication costs, distribution costs, warehousing costs or any other costs to speak of. The writers meanwhile have presumably signed contracts for the standard royalties, like 10% or whatever, and the publishers are pocketing the difference. And keeping the e-book costs high for the readers.

So a newly published book, like Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers (2018) is selling on Kindle for $14.99 and in paperback on Amazon.au for $16.00.  And Sydney-based author Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday (2018) – a most unusual read about a woman who has breast cancer by an author who learns that she does in fact have breast cancer after she has finished writing the book – is published by well-known Australian publisher Allen and Unwin on Kindle for $14.99 and in paperback at $22.99. I have no idea whether these authors have made special royalty deals with their publishers regarding the e-book version, maybe they have and good luck to them.

This process is pushing the distinction between self-published books and books from traditional publishers further and further apart, so most indie books on Kindle are $2.99 or even less and the trad pub books are now well above $10.00.  Do readers know, or care? Well, they probably don’t care about that, as such, but they DO get to hear about the books because the publishers have established methods of publicity which benefit the e-book sales in a way that the randomised chaos of Amazon Kindle at present cannot equal. So the traditional publisher sells lots and lots of e-books but makes the reader pay almost as much as they would for a paperback even though they don’t get to actually “own” the book, can’t lend it to anyone or do anything else with it. But somehow still think they are getting a good deal because it costs less than the paperback they saw in the store.

What a mess it has become. I wish some clever statistical analysis was going on right now to clarify what the effects of all this are. You can glean a bit from services like Alex Newton’s K-Lytics and Data Guy at the Author Earnings Report, but I haven’t found anyone who is tackling the divergent effects of the way traditional publishers are now using the e-book market to enhance their reach while re-consolidating their influence over publishing and pushing independent authors back down to where they think they belong. Is genuine independent publishing doomed? Does anyone know of any updates on this?

Opportunism and opportunity: on building a writing career

Only a bit over three months left of 2018 and the silly season is almost upon us. Everyone in Australia knows that the country shuts down in early November with the Melbourne Cup and doesn’t start up again until the end of January.

Melbourne_Cup_Finish,_Melbourne,_Vic._-_1905_(31511457514)

As I don’t go to the races, have no travel plans for the summer and don’t drink alcohol this annual idiocy-fest should not affect me. But I am filled with fear and trepidation because I have so many writing projects which were going to be released “by the end of the year”. Score so far: NIL.

It’s not as if I haven’t written them. Almost all have been through several edits, I have a production method in hand, cover artists lined up … one final edit each, I say to myself, and they will be ready to go. I so much want to do this, because there are new writing projects I want to start. Sure, there are lots of things that get in the way of finishing books, ordinary life stuff. That’s bad enough. But now I am suffering a crisis of confidence. Maybe I should just embrace the silly season and forget about writing altogether, apart from dumb “Season’s Greeting” cards. Or I should take a leaf out of my own (unpublished) cook book and get going on the cakes and puddings. At least I could sell them at a cake stall!

christmascakes

A few short years ago  independent publishing seemed so clearly the way to go. But it seems more and more difficult to get any purchase at all with the reading (buying) public without a huge effort in marketing strategy and general non-writing activity. Writing itself takes second place. I need to get serious, not about writing, but about the “writing career”.

Everyone says you have to do it, and lots of people tell you how. Using the Internet strategically is obviously top of the list these days. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet and have done ever since it debuted back in prehistory, well, the early 90s or whenever it was. I love my blogs, both the writing and art sites, it feels truly creative putting them together, but I do that because I love it, not to build a following or expand an email list. I am a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and they put out some great stuff. but tweeting is troppo mucho and Facebook gives me a kind of hysterical indigestion, yes, I know, I shouldn’t have subscribed to those I-Love-Cats sites but there was a reason for that, believe it or not, although I won’t go into it here.

writing books is like military strategy

No, the real problem is I can’t wholly see myself as someone “building a writing career”. I am a writer, I love to write, writing is what I do. If I have any time at all, like those precious two or so hours before the world wakes up in the morning, I want to spend it writing or editing or thinking about better turns of phrases for titles or thinking about how to improve a story or how to introduce some new themes. I don’t want to spend it building my email list or tweeting or whatever. It’s bad enough that I have had to go through so much time just working out how to produce a workable manuscript which will go through the publication process smoothly, and identifying useful information sites to follow. But now I see I have to see I have to Put Myself Out There as well.

This morning I came across an article by Wendy Jones called How Being an Opportunist Helps Build Your Writing Career (republished 5 September 2018) here.

This article really made me realise that I just didn’t have the right frame of mind to be a successful Independent Author. Just not opportunistic enough. Read it and weep!

On the other hand maybe I should go to the Melbourne Cup and hand out leaflets urging punters to buy my books! Now that’s an opportunity.

Melbourne_cup_1881

 

Amazon creates NoSpace for Australian authors: Ingram Spark to the rescue?

In my previous post I mentioned the problems Australian authors are having under the new KDP publication model. I wanted to offer a couple of observations based on personal experience.

I have used KDP, CreateSpace and Ingram Spark in my experiments with publishing to date. I found Ingram Spark quite problematic – this was a couple of years ago – it didn’t seem at all friendly and had difficult protocols which had to be followed exactly for it to work successfully. IS charged a set-up fee (unlike CreateSpace/KDP) and you had to re-pay every time you changed anything eg because of errors you discovered only after the first files had been set up. I had problems with a colour shift in one of my covers and when I asked IS why this was so they were completely unhelpful, and didn’t want to engage in any discussion about it. They said the problem was in my files, but they came out perfectly on Create Space. If you have published ANYTHING on Kindle in the previous year, IS cannot distribute to Kindle, ditto Apple. There were heaps of others to whom they distributed though, and this became important when I realized that Australian readers could order my books through sellers like Book Depository and Angus and Robertson online. Booksellers could, if they wished, order them too. Amazon didn’t offer anything like it and seemed to have no Australian outlets. If someone in Australia wanted to buy a print copy through Amazon they had to pay a huge postage fee.

Now Australian readers can’t even buy from the US site. If they want a print copy of a book by an Australian author who has published with Amazon they have to order from the Australian site and pay the A$ price and the postage from the US as well. What’s worse for authors, they can’t access their own books for review copies or place bulk orders as they used to be able to do from CreateSpace. So the need for an alternative becomes compelling.

Ingram Spark has printing facilities in Australia, in Melbourne to be precise. So they can print one copy, or multiples, and ship them to the author directly. Their printing costs are higher in some cases than CreateSpace used to be, but having local access more than compensates. Ingram Spark seems to be making a much more active effort to engage with the self-publishing community. If you belong to the Alliance of Independent Authors IS was offering free set-up, for instance. Not sure if that is still the case, but will find out in a few weeks when I set up two of my new publications and will report back.

Now to the option of local printing. I have checked out two Sydney-based printers and am about to see what a service in my local regional area can do. This is not old-time offset printing, but Print on Demand suitable for short runs. One printer offered quick service and lovely-quality print (including good quality covers based on the CreateSpace files I provided) but the cost was so far in excess of what IS or CreateSpace offered and you had to arrange your own pick-up and obviously storage. Another couldn’t work with the type of files I had at all and said they weren’t going to be compatible with their machines.

Once you go to the commercial printing universe you are in a world of pain. Here’s why: https://graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/58921/which-file-format-is-best-for-printing

Printers have their own expectations and facilities. I had a professional designer do both interior layout and covers for my previous books but local printers still had problems. Now I’m looking at using either Pressbooks or Vellum for the interiors and getting a professional designer for the covers. Whether this would work with the local printer, we shall see. Anyway, if you do go the local printer route, you have to be able to pick up and store your books, and forward/deliver them to the customer. And charge a much higher price. I am thinking of doing some locally printed good quality paperbacks for my own sales (through the website and maybe some local bookshops) as well as using Ingram Spark AND KDP. Steep learning curves all around.