I have a little round button that calls me a novelist. It pins to the front of my sweatshirt, and commemorates my participation in a writing workshop a few years ago, and I didn’t even participate in that workshop. I just bought the button at a thrift store yesterday. I have attended lectures by Harlan Ellison. I took a writing class from James Gunn. I have sat down to tea with C.J.Cherryh, but for all intents and purposes this button is a lie. Or at least it was until today.
Of course, I have written a novel. I completed it years ago, sent it out to the first publisher I thought might have a use for it, received one rejection slip, rewrote it a couple of times, and then let it sit there for … well, until now. You’d have to actually be a naturally timid person, or a depressive, to understand, but sometimes we despair of ever getting the approval of whatever gatekeepers protect the public from us.
But, I haven’t stopped writing. Ever. Constructing stories and considering characters is sort of going on in the back of my mind all the time, and even giving up on the idea of being published never moved me to quit. It just meant I stopped paying attention to the publishers. And while I wasn’t paying attention to them, the one-time gatekeepers have more or less lost their lease on credibility. It turns out that there are a lot of people who actually like the stuff they’d never have allowed to get published, and the businesses they worked for – the great publishing houses that used to print everything in the world – have largely slid down the razor blade of capital failure. Some are still hanging on, of course, but the business model they pursued – exclusive distribution of expensive printed media – appears to be failing. In its place we are witnessing the rise of electronic distribution of electronic media – and of course, electronic copyright violations because electronic media can be copied perfectly and easily.
But one has to stop and consider those copyright violations. In fact, violations may not even be the proper word to use, so much as promotions. Here I am, with my little blog, publishing a chapter of my novel every Friday, like a baker or candymaker giving out free samples to convince people it’s worth buying. People who’ve never heard of me and aren’t willing to just take a publisher’s word for it, can read a few chapters and decide for themselves whether they think it’s good enough to buy. When somebody who has a profit motive to convince me something is good doesn’t want me to have any samples before I buy, I’d usually consider that suspicious. So, the writer who says, “oh, you’ll like it, I’m good!” or the publisher who says “oh, you’ll like it, this writer is good!” – Why trust them? First of all, they don’t know your tastes as well as you do. Second, even if they did they have a reason to lie to you.
Who can you trust to tell you if something’s really good? Well, that would be you. Nobody knows your tastes better than you do. But that’s the riddle of the publishing game. If you provide the free copy to the person who can make the judgement, how can you avoid giving it away for free to the potential buyer? Especially since the best judge of quality for a particular buyer, and the buyer, are in fact the same person?
The answer is, you can’t. You can pretend really hard. You can market critics as being really excellent and discerning and if you convince enough people to trust the critics instead of themselves, that sort of works.*1 But the critic will never know as well as you do what you’re going to like. You can hire shills to praise something. But reviewers whose good reviews you pay for are called shills, for a good reason. Those reviews are meaningless to people who honestly want to know whether something is good. And if your business model depends on reviews by shills being indistinguishable from reviews by customers …. well, I guess you can see why the suspicious bastard in me doesn’t expect that other kinds of promotion will work for me while I’m a pretty darn unknown writer.
Hey, if I were Stephen King or Terry Pratchett or CJ Cherryh, that would be different. You’ve read these writers, you know they’re solid, you know already that the next thing they do is going to be worth it. I would cheerfully put my money down right now to buy the next Stephen King novel, whatever it turns out to be. So, once people know who you are and the kind of work you do, sure I guess there’s no problem with marketing while they haven’t seen the work yet. But as a beginner, I’m not one of those people. Nobody out there has a reason to trust that the next thing I write is going to be good, because they haven’t seen me yet pull through a few books and have them all turn out good.
So here I am. Giving away free samples. Doing exactly the thing that print publishers with their high overhead printing costs could never afford for a new author to do. But it’s the only thing that as a new author I can that would build an audience who trust me so much that they would buy something without being able to try it first.
That’s why this is promotion I could never have gotten from a “Major Publishing House.” Paper is not free, the ink isn’t free, the presses and the salaries and the power aren’t free, the distribution isn’t free, and so on. By the time a print publisher makes a commitment to publishing a book, they can’t afford for sales to be small and they can’t afford to give away more than the tiniest fraction of the books. The margins are razor thin, for the most part the writers don’t make a living at this, and there is no room in their balance sheet for free samples.
If people are interested enough to follow along for a year and a half and read the whole thing online without ever buying, then they’re probably not the ones who would have paid for it anyway so I can’t in good conscience count them as “lost sales” that damage my business. Instead I can count them as possible promoters, who can talk about the book with other people, make others aware of its existence, and, in a resolution “devoutly to be wished” as someone once said, some of those others will be buyers that otherwise wouldn’t have ever heard of it.
So, I’m taking the low road. There aren’t any gatekeepers here, there’s just us. I’m not promising that I’ll give anyone an exclusive because to build trust I think I need to give away free samples. So, I took the book, struggled for a few hours to munge it into the right kind of HTML markup, used Calibre to convert it to EPUB format, and it’ll appear on Amazon in a couple of days.
Meanwhile, I’m writing something else.
*1: At least it works for those of mainstream tastes, whom critics can address without attracting lynch mobs. Those of minority tastes on the other hand have learned never to put much trust in critics. ….