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.