Friday, December 7, 2012

Jumping the Cliff of Self-Publishing (or, Disney Analogies Gone Wrong)

The journey isn't easy, folks.
Don't jump without all your
balloons in place.
I had two teens come to me in the past week asking for advice about book marketing. Not writing, not editing, not cover art design, not the publishing process--marketing. Because they had already taken care of the other stuff by themselves. They'd written a book, edited it themselves, created their own covers, and uploaded their files to Amazon/CreatSpace. They were ready to sell!

What did I say?

What could I say?

They'd already jumped off the cliff.  I wished them well, prayed they'd packed their parachute (or had all their balloons), and tried to explain that marketing is hard, hard work.

What I wanted to tell them was to climb back up the cliff, and then walk up and down the hill a few times. About a thousand times. I was squirming inside. It took me four years to get  Finding Angel ready for publication. I had critiquers and then editors going through my manuscript with a mean red pen and an electron microscope. My publisher and I worked diligently on creating an original cover design, tweaking and perfecting, searching through thousands of fonts for the perfect one. It was a huge process.

I asked some writer friends what they thought of this phenomenon of self-publishing, especially among teens. The reaction was mixed. Many felt it would be a great learning experience. I disagree with that. It's kind of like learning to play the piano with a full audience in the room expecting a professional musician.

A few mentioned the teen obsession with Christopher Paolini. The one who wrote and self-published Eragon. Yes, he was the first teen self-publishing sensation, and a specific appeal to homeschoolers, but he self-published years ago. Before ebooks, before CreateSpace. His parents backed him financially, helped him market--and they knew the business. ALSO, his book was picked up by a big press and professionally edited BEFORE it became a best-seller.

What I'm seeing these days is more the Amanda Hocking dream than the Paolini dream. Write a book because, oh, it'd be fun, or you just want it now. Then upload it to CreateSpace and/or Kindle because it's free. No editing required except what you feel is necessary. A cover is a stock photo and any-old-font ("oh, that one's cute..."). Then go tell the world!

Enter: Instant success. Millions of copies sold overnight! Woohoo!

No...sorry. More like tears and broken dreams. Begging and pleading for people to read your book. Friends and family raving about it because they are so proud of you....but the rabid readers out there may not be so kind--IF they even find your work.

Am I being negative? Yes. But don't get me wrong. There ARE prodigies. And I love to see teens write. I love to see new writers, period. Would I love to see a teen become an overnight success? You bet! But the fact is, the Amanda Hockings of the world are so well-known because those stories are rare. Big news like that is not made from the everyday. If everyone were getting rich off self-publishing like that, then THAT would be the headline, not a handful of individual names.

Also, Hocking's story isn't *that* different from Paolini's. Same goes for the others of her ilk--the ebook self-pub sensations--as most of them didn't really hit their peak of fame until after an agent took over their careers.

The fact is, most books become a success--whether self-published or traditionally published--through hard work and persistence. Luck does play a role, too. As does true talent. But they are like genes--some factors are dominant and some recessive. Luck seems to be dominant--it can compensate for lack of talent and hard work. The thing is, luck's not a common gene. Most of us have to figure out how to get there without it.

And what the world sees is the end result. It looks easy, because writers don't practice in public. They spend hours and hours and hours--usually for years and years--getting ready for that debut novel to step out into the world. So readers see all the glitter and polish, not the sweat, tears, doubts, and work. Instead, what they get is like the "falling with style" scene in Toy Story. (Sorry, tried and failed to find one to embed.)

I hope more than anything these two teens are the exception to the rule. I hope this is a wonderful experience for them that leads to years and years of writing and success. I hope, yes. But I'm still going to cringe every time I see someone jump off that cliff just clutching a handful of balloons.


Sparks of Ember said...

I have a hard time understanding the look-before-you-leap philosophy so many people have. But that's because I have a tendency to research every to death - seriously. We don't even buy a coffee brewer or vacuum cleaner without checking consumer reports and endless reviews. It took me over 6 months to settle on my Nook Tablet for my ereader! And I've been researching writing/publishing/marketing for literally years! Reading books - fiction and about writing, taking classes in writing, honing my craft because I want the stories I share to be *the best* of my ability. I hope things work well for them.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I am so the same way! Consumer Reports for everything. Reviews on Amazon and wherever else...

I think it's awesome that teens are fearless, and I would be sad to see that go away. But there is a difference between fearlessness and jumping before you're ready.

Kessie said...

I spent years giving teens cheerful critiques on their fanfics. I ran a G-rated fanfic site, and I was always sending stories back with notes attached, "Remove this scene because sexuality is not G-rated."

I ticked off a lot of people, but the people who really wanted to write kept plugging away at it. And they got really, really good. I have a friend who told me she'd finished her book and was going to publish it, so I offered to critique the first chapter. I wound up telling her to delete the first 11 pages. She ragefaced, but edited it and went on to learn tons about writing.

Oftentimes, you can show a new writer how much they don't know just by asking a few questions. "Oh really? Can you sum up the whole book in one sentence? Agents want that. What's your hero want? What motivates the villain?" And they have to admit that they don't know the answers, and you can say, "Tis not ready for publication, then."

Kat Heckenbach said...

Agree, Kessie. The key--they have to ask for critique first.

I taught a creative writing class for teens. Not one of them thought they were ready for publication. They were all there to learn. That, I think, will be the biggest help for those kids later.

Sparks of Ember said...

I think the creative writing class I took in community college when I was 17 was one of the best things for me in terms of helping me realize, yes, that list of edits hurts but your story will be so much better for it. (How's that for a run-on sentence? ;)

Kat Heckenbach said...

It's a hard lesson to learn, I admit. You want to feel like your work is inspired, that it all just flowed out perfectly. But that is almost never the case, even for seasoned authors.

I was glad to learn that lesson early in my writing (which didn't start until I was 37, but still). Much better to fall on your face in front of trusted friends/mentors than in public by publishing too early.

Krysti said...

Something I also learned recently that you might want to update your blogpost to add is that it is very difficult--someone actually used that word "impossible"--to get a book listing removed from Amazon, regardless of the abysmal quality.

I've seen a few listings removed. The FBI leaned on Amazon over one book, and it disappeared. But that book appeared to have been written with clear, criminal intent.

Amazon is currently using the threat of removing book listings in order to limit complaints over the deletion of book reviews. They don't care who they threaten with this either, or if the person threatened has any connection to the actual author of the book.

So, if you change your mind and want your book delisted, (really horrible idea here): I suppose you could possibly update it with clear criminal intent, and then publicize what you did--(it took mass outrage on Facebook before the FBI and Amazon deigned to notice the last book).

OR--you could write a bad review of your own book, and then persist in complaining until they take it down. Of course, you might also get banned for life from Amazon in the process, but if you don't care about that--

I'm not sure that either of these are terribly great options!

I'm just sayin' it's much better to have the kind of input into your creative process than to find yourself in such a pickle where you would ever seriously contemplate either of these actions.

Krysti said...

Sheesh. And now I can't write either--

I meant to say, ...the kind of input you need to be SURE you're ready to publish...

Kat Heckenbach said...

I know of a few authors who self-published and then have since gone on to have those same books traditionally published--but Amazon still has the old books listed. They may read "out of stock" all the time or something, but you're right, it would take calling in the FBI to get them to take the listing down.

I hadn't really thought of that, either. Good point!

Jeff Chapman said...

Shame on the parents for letting these kids hurl themselves into an abyss. There's a time to be a cheerleader and a time to teach your child some valuable and perhaps painful (at the time) life lessons. Maybe we should have a minimum age for self-publishing. If you can't buy your own beer, you can't self-publish your book. : )

Kat Heckenbach said...

The thing is, I think parents are as naive as kids about this stuff. I know so many ADULT writers making this same mistake.

R. L. Copple said...

I do think this can be a learning experience, if they take it as such. When reality comes knocking and they only sell three books in a year, they'll realize how hard it is.

The first rule of marketing is to write a great book. If you don't do that, you can't market effectively.

The real question is when they don't sell those hundreds and thousands of copies they dreamed of, or worse yet, get reviews ridiculing their work, will they be so disheartened that they give up? One could say the same thing about a negative critique?

Maybe the first rule they need to learn is to prepare for lots of rejection. Most people think they will be the exception. At least, they're hoping.

Whether they can take the rejection whether from an editor, critique partner, or lack of sales, and learn from it instead of being discouraged by it and quit, is really where the learning comes in.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Well said, Rick!