Ebooks, Publishing, Writing

Ebooks: is it a genre thing? Definitely…

I’m temperamentally inclined to favour anything that casts aspersions on the value of social media. Also any article that can get Joe Konrath to make his charmless, boorishness more public than ever has to have something going for it.

Just such a piece appeared in the Guardian by Ewan Morrison a while back, entitled ‘Why social media isn’t the magic bullet for self-published authors’.

In a typically ill-mannered comment Konrath, Stephen Leather’s alter ego across the Atlantic, booms…

How many hours did (this article) take, Ewan? Hours you could have spent working on a book that you self-published, which then earns money indefinitely?

I’ve got a short story on Kindle which took me a few hours to write, which has earned me more than $10k. That seems like a much better use of a writer’s time than writing for the Guardian.

The idea that anyone would write for reasons other than money clearly baffles the man. Anyone with half a brain knows you don’t write for the Guardian for the cash, Joe. People do it because it’s an interesting, independent-minded place where ideas are shared, then torn apart by reams upon reams of frequently banal and self-serving comments like yours. OK?

Hidden in the vitriol and insanity of the thread following the article is one very interesting and accurate point made by Ewan Morrison. It’s this…

I know many writers of literary fiction and in the attempt to survive as literary fiction shrinks within the mainstream market and cannot find a footing in the digital one they are either.

(a) turning themselves into genre writers to make money
(b) moving into other fields – theatre, film and TV
(c) looking for jobs

…Literary Fiction is being kept alive by the Prizes system.

Writers of Literary fiction are not making any money through self epubbing, which leads me to conclude that self epubbing is entirely based on niche markets within genre fiction.

Is self-publishing a genre thing? Absolutely. Just look at what sells. But it goes further than that. It’s a simple structure, linear genre thing. Any book that pushes the boat out, stretches conventions, is in any way ‘hard to read’ isn’t going to be as popular, inside the genre or not.

Let me give you an example from my own experience.

My second book, Epiphany, was big in the UK when it came out in 1997. Probably the biggest-selling book I’ve written. It got great reviews – the Guardian called it ‘John Fowles on acid’. There was a huge marketing campaign. People seemed to love it.

Epiphany is a kind of literary thriller. It bounces back and forth between Seattle in 1995 and San Francisco twenty years earlier, telling a drug-soaked tale of retribution and forgiveness. I don’t think it’s a hard read. But it’s not linear and you need to stay awake.

A few years on from that book and my career was in a lull. The novel that followed didn’t get much in the way of publisher support and died. I was struggling to work out what kind of writer I was. Almost as a personal challenge I wrote a Gothic rural English kind of horror story, Native Rites, the only book I’ve ever set in my native land.

Sometimes publishers buy a book and then, not long after, think… what the…?

This was one of those occasions. I really liked the book and still do. It’s very English, it takes place in the area of Kent where I live, and it’s resolutely linear and quite simple in structure. The tale of a stranger who finds herself in a hellish kind of paradise, and what happens to her over a year there.

But the publisher wasn’t of a similar opinion. It went straight to paperback and was remaindered less than a year after it was published (or perhaps I should say ‘printed’ for the sake of accuracy).

When ebooks came around I started to get a trickle of emails from people asking… when would my backlist of titles return in the new medium? Native Rites was lying around in its first draft so, after a quick attempt at corrections, I put it up on Kindle. I didn’t do quite enough in the way of corrections, as a couple of reviewers pointed out though, so the version up there is now revised and I hope a bit cleaner.

Then, a couple of months ago, I did the same with Epiphany.

As print books these were chalk and cheese. Epiphany vastly outsold Native Rites and earned out its advance. In ebooks… Native Rites outsells Epiphany by three to one. Epiphany has garnered just one review on Amazon US, though it is, I’m proud to say, five stars.

Why? It’s not because one got better marketing than the other. Neither got any, which is why my self-pub sales are pretty modest. I simply put the titles up there, announced the fact on Facebook and Twitter, put them on this website, then let nature take its course. Yes, I could go on forums begging reviews, tweeting and poking and generally annoying the hell out of everybody to get more sales. And maybe even invent a sock puppet (just joking there).

But I didn’t. I don’t like that stuff and more importantly… I’m writing.

My own theory – completely impossibly to prove – is that the ebook medium lends itself to simplicity and a linear structure. Especially at the cheap end of the market – and since these are backlist they are cheap – people want quick reads for the train and the airport and nothing too taxing. It’s the book equivalent of easy listening: easy reading. Or in the case of some stuff out there: muzak.

I don’t say that in a judgemental way. I won’t join the chorus of disapproval for Fifty Shades of Grey for two reasons. First, I haven’t read it (and have no intention of doing so). More importantly I don’t think it’s my job to tell people what to read, any more than it is to tell other writers what to write.

But I do suspect that ebooks and the nature of ereading are changing the nature of popular narrative. Anything complex and lengthy – even Stephen King – feels odd on the ereader page. These are works made for paper, not pixels. The ones that ereaders – the people, not the device – favour are less adventurous, more predictable, and inevitably sit in the middle of popular genres.

In short… if you’re looking to the ereading revolution to save interesting, innovative and revolutionary writing then Ewan Morrison’s bang on: you’re looking in the wrong place. The challenge for those of us who care about quality is going to be to find the texture, resonance and depth of ‘literature’ — whatever that is — within the tight strictures of an undeviating narrative shorn of anything the average reader might regard as ‘art’.

And we have to do that because if we don’t we leave the world to the likes of Joe Konrath.

18 thoughts on “Ebooks: is it a genre thing? Definitely…

  1. DiscoveredJoys

    Here's a thought…I like Kindle/ebooks. I have the Kindle app on my PCs and have 50 or so (mostly non-fiction) books downloaded. Kindle is great for just ploughing through text in a linear way.But for complicated matters (fiction or non-fiction) the book format seems more intuitive. You get a physically encoded feel of how far you have progressed, when key events happened and so forth. I suspect (without scientific proof) that people carry two different models of a book's text in the back of their minds. Kindle – a continuous file, mostly hidden from view. Books – lots of discrete pages/chapters which can be manipulated by touch.Which makes me think that a story on the Kindle is more like a scroll than a book.

  2. David Hewson

    With you on paper, ebook…. I do wonder if Kindle is a continuous scroll in bite size chunks. Say 800 words then a gap (so you can change Tubes). Talking to (mainly baffled and frightened) people in a few editorial departments they seem to think that's the way it's going.I'm applying to ASDA.

  3. Excellent piece as always but as someone who writes in linear and simple fashion for the very reasons you outline, I actually think your theory is spot on.When I first started writing 16 years ago, I had little or no knowledge of the publishing world and even less of how it is supposed to work. Quite simply, I wrote the books I wanted to read and for the type of people I wanted to read them. It worked.As one book turned to four I soon attracted the label of 'the father' of what was apparently a new genre and so in response, I began to examine more closely not only who was reading my work but why.What I discovered was that amongst my readership were a growing number of people who until I came along, simply hadn't been reading books. But they were reading mine not simply because of the subject matter, but because they were written in a linear and easy to read style. In short, I wrote everything in thirty minute blocks.Having realised the attractiveness of this style, I've continued to employ it ever since both in non-fiction and fiction form. Yet if it was successful in paper format, it's been even better in electronic format because since I put my books online, my sales have been higher than ever. The 30 minute block approach clearly being perfect for the daily commute! My approach might attract criticism and even a degree of snobbery from certain quarters but the fact is that I'm no literary heavyweight nor am I a likely winner of any literary award. I do however sell books and entertain readers and at the end of the day, isn't that what an author is supposed to be doing?

  4. You only have to look at Amazon's list of Kindle bestsellers to see that you're right. It's all crime, chick-lit, thrillers, erotica and 20p books. The first 'literary' title I could see was by Alan Hollinghurst – and that's another of Amazon's 20p offers.

  5. It's a kick to see what you get cranky about, David."Literary" is just another genre…one with a smaller (though more vocal) aggregate audience. Low brow and middlebrow have always outsold highbrow in totality, which partly explains the success of genre fiction in ebook format.Consider that genre fiction dominated mass market paperbacks (which were equally disruptive of old publishing models when first introduced). But now and then — Philip Roth, William Styron — a "literary" novelist crossed over to mass market.It's always been thus. The rise of ebooks should hardly be expected to change that.

  6. David Hewson

    Where's the cranky there? I'm a commercial writer myself. I'm not looking for the Booker. The point I think the piece was making, and one with which I concur, is anyone thinking ebooks will somehow do all writers a favour is mistaken. Everything outside the established genres (and 'literary' is surely too broad and undefined a term to be part of that) is going to struggle to be seen. And if we're not careful what ebooks will actually do is reduce the breadth of books available, delivering a lot more titles in much narrower and less adventurous fields. And that those within the genre will have to be simpler, more linear and less innovative than titles written for print.I doubt Roth or Styron would have got a look-in if they were ebook originals right now. Not a good thing I think.

  7. As a digital-first publisher, I must admit that the theory developed here is puzzling, to say the least. At Le French Book, we are obviously strong believers in ebooks, but not because they induce a different kind of writing. It's just a different way to deliver books–and we obviously hope they are good books–to readers as reading habits change. As far as I'm concerned there is no reason to set up a battle zone between paper books, electronic books and audio books, for that matter. I for one have been reading only electronically for more than 3 years because I consider that paper is not the best medium for reading. But it's just my preference.We chose to go ebook first as a way to reduce time to market. We publish English translations of French crime fiction and chose this category because this is what we love to read and also because, of course, we hope to sell some! And when we find partners, we will offer our books in print as well.And to loop back to the potential difference between ebooks and pbooks, I would emphasize that our first published book, called The Paris Lawyer, isn't linearly structured or sliced into 30-minute blocks. It sold very well on paper and in ebook format in France. As far as I know, the best-selling categories sell in the same proportion wether it's on paper or in bits and bytes.In a word, we love good books whichever format they're in…

  8. I think this is depressingly on the mark. The model for self-publishing ebooks requires a writer to be capable of churning out book after book – at least three or four a year – with little or no regard for the quality of the writing. I actually think it's doing a disservice to genre fiction to create the distinction between that and "literary" fiction. There's a huge range of quality within genre fiction, and it isn't only literary writers who will struggle to find success in Konrath's brave new world of "trash for cash". I can't imagine that the likes of Michael Connelly, John le Carre or Thomas Harris would have emerged from this model of publishing, and that should be of far greater concern to lovers of crime fiction than the constant petulant demands that books should cost a pittance.

  9. Hmm. This is certainly an interesting discussion, David, and I applaud you for beginning it. Again, I would direct readers' attention to the parallels between old-time genre mass market paperbacks and the emerging ebook marketplace of today. Of course, plenty of junk emerged from the mass market format — as it does from any format. (Hollywood made bad movies even in the legendary year of 1939.) But so did many authors in the categories of Sci Fi, Mystery, Western, and Romance who later "broke out" into hardcover. Many of these people went on to be quite well respected. Isaac Asimov, for example, wrote or edited 500 books. Some of them were low-quality, but others have gone on to become classics of the genre.

  10. The model for self-publishing ebooks requires a writer to be capable of churning out book after book – at least three or four a year – with little or no regard for the quality of the writing. It's OK Tom, as a self-published author of both genre fiction and non-fiction, I'm not at all insulted by the suggestion that I don't actually care what standard of rubbish I churn out and I'm sure that my many thousands of readers will be thrilled at the notion that they read any old crap.I'm sorry but your entire post is dripping in basic literary snobbery. You are also wrong.Why would any self-published author actually need to keep churning out ebooks when they would almost certainly earn more from 10k sales of an eBook than a traditionally published author will earn via 10k books sold via a house? They will also see that income much faster.Furthermore, I published through one of the major houses (Hodder Headline) for over ten years so does the fact that I now self-publish by choice make me less of a writer? Or my readers less discerning? Of course not. More and more writers are turning to self-publishing because they are increasingly sick of having to jump through hoops to please editors who more often than not, know little or nothing about the market that the author is trying to hit. That was certainly the case for me and since I made that leap, my career has literally taken off. That's a simple honest fact.

  11. stevemosby

    Dougie – "Why would any self-published author actually need to keep churning out ebooks when they would almost certainly earn more from 10k sales of an eBook than a traditionally published author will earn via 10k books sold via a house? They will also see that income much faster."I'm unconvinced. The Taleist survey of self-publishers earlier this year found an average income of $10,000 – but this was skewed by the high-earners, and half of self-publishers earned less than $500 a year. Speaking for myself, my UK advance is £10,000. If I self-published at £2.99, I would need to sell upwards of 5,000 copies to equal that, without even taking production costs and time spent marketing into account. I'm not confident I could do that, working alone.That same survey indicates that romance writers averaged 120% of that average income, while literary fiction was down at 20%, which would support David's point. As things stand, I think it's pretty clear that digital self-publishing favours two types of writers: those with extensive backlists; and those who can write very quickly. (The average number of titles published per year was 2.8). I make no comment on quality or value, but it seems obvious to me that if you're producing 3 or 4 novel-length works a year then they're more likely to resemble John Locke than Danielewski's House of Leaves.

  12. David Hewson

    My take exactly Steve – it's either big backlist or churn out stuff at a phenomenal rate to keep the money coming in. Which is fine if money's all you care about. But it's not the beginning and the end for some of us. It's also worth pointing out that those who do hit gold with self-publishing can't wait to sign a conventional contract with a 'legacy' print publisher when it comes along. Nor do I blame them. They want to be in libraries, book shops and airports and reaching translation markets. Who'd turn that down?

  13. Steve & David,Excellent points both. I certainly have an extensive backlist which has kept me floating along quite nicely since it was made available to download.However, as a screenwriter as well as an author, I generally aim to publish no more than a book a year and I work bloody hard to ensure that when I do release a book it is the best I can possibly deliver. That said, as I have previously mentioned I also work hard to ensure that my books sit well with the market I am writing them for and whilst some might dismiss that almost as almost a 'pulp' approach to writing, the truth is that I love sitting where I am in the literary scheme of things. Albeit not on the bottom rung of the literary ladder, but as the rubber bungs on the end.I suspect I might be something of an oddity in many ways as even after 16 years in the 'job' not only do I actually know very few fellow authors but it's very rare for me to attend any literary function or indeed, partake in much literary discussion even though I'm out here and doing very nicely thanks.Hence my responses are generally based solely on my own experience. Experience which I am increasingly realising seems to be far from the norm.

  14. Dougie,Of course it's true that writers are self-publishing for all kinds of reasons – and frustration with the way publishers operate is an extremely valid one. It's also true that many take great care over the quality of their work. But as I said before, the model for self-publishing success does seem to require a focus on productivity, and while there may be a few writers capable of producing three or four great novels per year, I'd argue that most people who work to that sort of schedule have no choice but to "churn" them out. I know I would be.Now, maybe those writers still care about the quality of their work, and feel the books are as good as they can make them. But the other great drawback to self-publishing is that writers are often the last people to see the flaws in their own work, and the lack of input from an experienced, professional editor usually shows.I do take offence at the charge of literary snobbery. It's not snobbish to care about the quality of writing in genre fiction, and the basic fact remains that a huge amount of self-published fiction is very, very badly written. The real insult to readers is to put out books that are full of typos, bad grammar, cardboard characters, cliched dialogue and all the rest of it. Writing is a craft and it has to be learnt. As a professional writer you know that's the case. My fear is that it's no longer such a big issue for what used to be called "aspiring writers", simply because it's so easy to self-publish.

  15. "The real insult to readers is to put out books that are full of typos, bad grammar, cardboard characters, cliched dialogue and all the rest of it."I've read quite a few books from major publishing houses that answer that description.

  16. David Hewson

    I'm sure that's true, Mike. But major publishing houses do try to have limits and don't publish everything that comes their way. There's an ocean of crap out there in self-publishing circles, including books that are being ripped off from all manner of sources, that would never get past a conventional publisher. Doesn't mean all self-publishing is like that by any means. But I think Tom's point is a real one.

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