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The great e-book revolution (and why you should judge a book by its cover)

Duma Key by Stephen KingSocial networking sites have been a godsend to authors in many ways. It’s extended their reach dramatically, opening their work up to new markets and readers. In tandem with the self-publishing and e-book revolution (and let’s not deny that it is a revolution) it’s also enabled people who have harboured ambitions to pen a novel to now do so, without all that palaver of submitting it to an agent or a traditional publisher. And, of course, they can tell the world and their neighbours that they’re now published authors.

But therein lies my problem with this particular revolutionary paradigm. Don’t get me wrong: I think the fact that people can now realise their literary dream is absolutely marvellous. I firmly believe that aspiring writers should be encouraged – after all, how else can publishers and readers discover the next Stephen King or Clive Barker if people don’t sit down and write that novel they’ve always wanted to put on paper? In fact, I admire anyone who does sit down and write a book, as it’s quite a commitment and very much an achievement in itself. I’ve tried it myself once or twice, and have failed on all occasions – it takes dedication, commitment and discipline to write that book.

Care about writing

However, let’s look at this realistically. While we’ve all heard the age-old adage that everyone has a book in them, does that necessarily mean they should go ahead and write it? Judging by some of the material I’ve come across being sold on Amazon (and which people are apparently buying), that answer is clearly no. Relating to my last column, where I spoke about editing and proofreading as essential bedfellows of the author, the other thing that writers of whatever stripe should care about is the craft of writing – in other words, being able to tell a story well. It’s called a craft for a specific reason – it’s exactly like sculpting with words, shaping the reader’s responses via a well-chosen word, or a finely-tuned phrase or a beautifully descriptive passage. That’s what separates a great writer from the merely workman-like. And there are plainly some people who should never have been encouraged to fire up that ol’ Word programme in the first place.

Judge a book by its cover

This is the downside of the democratisation of both technology and process: it means that anyone can participate. It’s a lovely utopian ideal in theory, but very different in practice. Just take a look on Amazon to see what I’m getting at: the market is now swamped with thousands of titles all vying for your money, written by authors of wildly varying abilities.  Admittedly the same can be said of any well-stocked bookshop, too, but with one difference – at least each of the books on the shelves has been through several stages in its evolution from manuscript to printed book. The same cannot be said about a good portion of what’s available from self-publishing outfits. It’s a time-consuming process having to plough through all those titles just to find something that won’t end up being utter dross and a total waste of money (although, if it has a bad front cover then one can generally take it that the contents reflect that same quality). I have no doubt that there are excellent writers in amongst them but, just like trying to find the proverbial needle in the equally proverbial haystack, it’s nigh on impossible to get to them without drowning in a sea of mediocrity first.

Learn how to use social media

Fed upThis is where social networking comes in and where sites like Facebook excel. New and self-published authors can market themselves on next to no-budget and still get people interested in their work. That’s also how Spectral got its start and it wouldn’t have got where it is today without the wonders of social networking. But (and you must have known there would be a qualifying but in there somewhere), online self-promotion can get a little overbearing sometimes. It’s a difficult art to attain: too little and you risk being swamped by the deluge, too much and you risk becoming part of that dreadful deluge. Judging what the right balance is can be problematic – I fell foul of that one myself in Spectral’s early days.

This acute nature of this issue was brought home to me quite spectacularly just before and after Christmas – it became almost one long unending stream of ‘BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK!’ on my newsfeed. I appreciate that, after taking the trouble to write a book and make it available, you would then like it to sell. That’s entirely admirable. However, when the same exhortation is repeated every hour or two (or even more frequently in some cases), it becomes annoying and irritating, to the point where, even if it’s a great book, I am no longer interested. I’m more likely to skip past the offending status or advert, and I never really ‘see’ it again. I filter it out and ignore it – surely the very antithesis of its original purpose.

Self-aware promotion

KindleI blog regularly, but not every day, and I only blog when I have something I think people will be interested in. I’ll put links to it on G+, Facebook (including relevant FB groups) and Twitter. I will advertise the blog entry’s existence just twice a day however, and even then, the second time I’ll leave out the groups (unless it merits doing so). This is done to make people aware, not to annoy them. I learnt the balance when I ran a record label four years ago, when I had a habit of swamping the virtual airwaves with what was happening, plus taking on-board what others advised me during the early days of Spectral. I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modicum of balance between the needs of commerce and avoiding alienating people.

What I am trying to say is this: if you’re a new writer who has recently uploaded your debut novel/novella/whatever onto Amazon or wherever, don’t advertise it to death. Let potential readers know of its existence and point them in the right direction, by all means, just don’t bludgeon them constantly with endless pleas to buy your book. That will only have the effect of driving people away. Additionally, over-frequent posting can sound like there’s more than a hint of desperation. The bottom line is that every writer wants a book they’ve written to do well and go beyond selling a few copies. And, for a new writer, if it’s good enough and there’s a consistent buzz about it, the work will interest a major publisher enough for them to offer that much sought after book-deal – in the meantime, though, a little self-awareness on the promotional front goes a long way.



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  1. Great blog and very relevant seeing as I’m about to dip my toe in the e-revolution by publishing one of my longer stories through Kindle tomorrow. But – and this is a big but for me – I would never release anything into the public sphere *without* the validation that comes from an editor publishing my work. So I feel it’s OK to release a few previously published stories in eBook form, but for me personally, I’d never put out unpublished work that way. It will always have to pass through a professional outlet first.

    And I agree that the focus should always be on the craft. Self-promotion remains a fine art but one should always try to remember modesty, respect and restraint.

    Great article.

  2. You might find this article useful too, James….

    It’s just a question of being aware of the pitfalls – and if always being professional when it comes to presenting your work, because you don’t want to patronise your readers….

  3. Great column Simon, interesting points well made.

  4. I’ve enjoyed quite a few self-published Kindle books lately, and although the stories were great, the spelling was horrible in most in them.

    I’m still busy writing my first novel, but I think I’ll be going the traditional route, at least for the next eight years. If I do eventually self-publish, I’ll at least have several books already written. And having dozens of short story publications has put me in touch with a lot of people asking for a novel.

    • James on February 3, 2012 at 9:08 pm
    • Reply

    There are a few articles like that around, Simon. They’re interesting, but if someone feels its fine to self-publish, then in my experience, not much will dissuade them.
    I think a lot of it comes down to integrity, and what you, as a writer, want to achieve. Personally, self-publishing doesn’t feel like being ‘properly’ published to me, which is why I’ve never gone down that route. I’ve experimented with putting out a previously published story, but already I feel that’s enough. Interesting, but not what I set out to do.

    Quality control is important. A writer grows by their knock backs. Take that away and…well, it’s not much of a game any more, is it?

  5. Excellent article. And I find it difficult to disagree with any of it. Too many authors get a little ‘promo-happy’ when their book is out. There does seem to be a lot of self-applied pressure to get their books in front of people, but as you point out, the craft and quality is paramount.

  6. Great article, Simon! I’ve been in the same boat, having novel(s) to sell and wondering about my level of self-promotion. Sometimes the harder you push, the more you’re greeted with silence. I wish there was a system to rate the quality of books as they are published, or even filter out unprofessional entries from being foisted on the public in the first place. Oh, wait… that’s the traditional publishing system. Never mind.

    And that’s why word-of-mouth promotion is still the best and truest way to grow a fanbase. Finding those readers who will spread the word is the hard part. But when you do connect with those readers, their influence is like gold.

  7. Excellent blog. As a writer and editor I get to see both sides of the issue–the avalanche of poorly constructed and written stories by writers who never bothered to learn the craft, and the difficulty good writers have in breaking through the clutter of mediocrity. As with all forms of mass media, once something becomes accessible to the general public, standards tend to drop to the bottom of the barrel. Think of the early days of TV, movies and the internet, compared to what they are now. Yes, there was always trash, but now it’s almost all trash. Now that book publishing has been made available to just about everyone, the gatekeepers of literary standards have been marginalized and anyone can see their words in print. There is good and bad in that–but mostly bad.

  8. Great blog. I wish more people would follow that example when it comes to self promotion. And now that I’m almost done with my own novel (still have to re-write) I thought about going the route of self/epublishing and my my greatest fear when it comes to that is exactly what you spelled out on how many GOOD authors are lost in the deluge of the mundain.

    Things can never be easy… lol… but then again now that epublishing is, there lies the problem of everyone who has time to write does whether they have talent or not.

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