Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jell-O, Nails, and Miracles

In this age of the Internet, writers have created a communications network that delivers their words to other writers at the speed of light. And since most writers think of themselves as having something worthwhile to say, they are in no way hesitant to do so.

We are in the midst of a transformation in the publishing industry that is changing at that same speed. Keeping up with it can easily consume a writer's every waking moment and leave little time for doing what we are supposed to be doing. But why should we expect anything different?

I think most writers would agree that to finish a first novel and polish it for prime time are more difficult and time-consuming tasks than they ever imagined. For some, it may get easier the second and subsequent times around, but for others it seems as if each novel is like a Pandora's Box. Figuratively opening the lid with the first word on the first page frees the demon to haunt your life once again.

In the world of indie publishing, successfully writing the novel places before you another Pandora's Box with the potential to make the writing of it seem like child's play. To transform that manuscript on your computer into a product and position it for sale demand attention to details that most writers I know simply don't want to deal with, and for good reason.

The best and most productive use of a writer's time is writing. Every hour spent dealing with publishing the novel is an hour that can't be invested in the next one. That said, someone has to do it. If not the writer, then someone hired by the writer, which adds the commitment of venture capital to the hours of equity already invested.

Brad Whittington recently called to our attention an article in The Guardian that documents what we already know. More than half of indie-published authors make less than $500. If you hire anyone to do much of anything to produce your book in any format, you'll spend way more than that. In effect, most of us are paying for the privilege of publishing our novels.

Of all the tasks awaiting the indie author when accepting the role of publisher, dealing with the problem of discoverability is without doubt the most uncertain and mysterious endeavor. And if you pay for publicity in any form, you are gambling with worse odds than you will find anywhere in Las Vegas.

But you don't have to spend anything to hit the jackpot, right? All you need to do it enroll in KDP Select, accept the conditions imposed by Amazon, and entrust the first 90 days of having your book on the market to what many authors embrace as a sure thing.

Well, it's time to shake hands with reality again. Another bit of information shared by Brad offered the observation that Amazon's basement has filled to the point of overflowing with a flood of indie-published junk enrolled in Select. And further, that this repository of trash has become the new slush pile. Here's the quote from the source:

"These are the people who create slush piles for agents if they go the trad-publishing route. But in the self-pubbing world, these kind of people create a slush pile on Amazon, which deals with them efficiently by never showing them on a bestseller list or in the list of "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought." I suspect that Amazon's method of dealing with slush is more efficient than the average agent's method."

Interesting thought, although it's comparing apples and oranges.

Any submission to an agent that ends up in the slush pile has failed to meet the agent's standards. Ignoring for the moment the question of whether those standards are valid, at least they were applied.

Other than complying with Amazon's contractual provisions for Select, there is no selection going on. Anyone can enroll anything in Select, so they did. By the thousands. Jump on that rocket ship and ride it to the stars of indie success.

In the months since Select first arrived on the scene, authors have engaged in lively e-conversation about every conceivable facet of the game, and let's acknowledge that fact up front. The time-sequenced series of Select benchmarks plays the numbers game that all begins with a single element of Amazon's algorithms for determining how a book is treated: counting free downloads as sales. From that point all things magic flowed.

The problem that created the Select slush pile is no different at its core than the reason an agent's slush pile reaches the ceiling. The majority of people who think they can write a book worthy of a reader's money and time are very much delusional.

But in the case of Select, the gate has no keeper. Who wouldn't expect a massive rush to publish?

Our own Brad Whittington did everything right with Muffin Man and achieved phenomenal success with Select. We had an insider's viewpoint as he planned and implemented the series of actions required.

But before any of us take away lessons he taught us and use them for our own benefit, we have to acknowledge yet another reality that trumps every other consideration. I hate to keep quoting the guy, because it swells his head (not really!), but here it is:

Write a good book.  

Which he most certainly did.

The final point of this post is this: residence in Amazon's basement does not automatically plaster the slush label on the cover of a book whether or not it's enrolled in Select.

Analogous to the fact that a novel sitting in slush piles on the desks of 99 agents can hit the jackpot on the desk of agent number 100, good novels, worthy of a reader's time and money, do lie undiscovered in the darkness.

Which brings me full circle to the final final point: Creating discoverability is like trying to nail Jell-O to the ceiling. If you can "git 'er dun," as the redneck comedian says, you have performed a feat worthy of being called a miracle.

And they do happen, right?

Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall, 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk is available now, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit is coming soon. Visit him online at