Thursday, 31 May 2012

Why Self-publishing Advice Often Uses the Wrong Assumptions - 1000 true fans revisited (part one)

Originally posted on my all-purpose blog here. Reposted as I will be putting part two here and this site is where the article belongs. Do go and join the discussion there as well as here.

A couple of years ago, in the earliest nanoseconds of the big Kindle bang as Brian Cox might say, you could barely come across a post about self-publishing that didn’t refer to Kevin Kelly’s seminal article “1000 truefans.” These days, mentions are as scarce as a self-published book in Waterstones.

The idea behind 1000 true fans, and earlier versions of the theory (which Kelly outlines at, is that it is possible for an artist to make a living wage by building and then looking after a small, dedicated following (in this case 1000, but he is not dogmatic) of people all of whom are willing to pay a relatively small amount for your work on a regular basis.

It’s easy to understand why so little is said about 1000 true fans (as well, I’ll admit, as a lack of case studies of those using the model to earn a living). Post-Kindle (I wonder when we will start saying BK and PK, for all it makes me want to sit down with a whopper and do some freerunning to burn it off), advice to self-publishing writers focuses fairly exclusively on maximising revenue from ebooks (in practice, this usually means talking about Kindle).

In this piece, I want to suggest three key points that most advice in the PK era focuses on, all of which is antithetical to the 1000 true fans model, and then next time I want to reclaim the model, looking at what working by it might look like for writers, and arguing that not only might there be some mileage in the economic aspect of the theory, but that this is a very good way for us as artists to do our art.

  1. How-to advice focuses on volume – on how to sell more books. Where this is moderated in some way it is in terms of the relationship between volume and price and how that feds into maximised royalties. There is little place for discussion of how to achieve a fixed or maximum number of sales
  2. Advice focuses on how to use charts and algorithms to create exposure for books, effectively looking to hit a sweet spot where sales become self-generating, whereas the 1000 true fans model looks at selling only at a very specific, and fully defined, customer base
  3. When how-to advice looks at craft, at standards and doing things better, the focus is on objective criteria – professional editing, formatting, proofreading and cover design, for example – all of which are aimed to please a notional idea of a customer. With 1000 true fans, on the other hand, the artist aims to meet subjective criteria or, rather, a single subjective criterion – pleasing their fans. And not some abstract concept of a fan, but their actual fans.
The thing about each of those dichotomies is that we are so used to a particular mindset we don’t even think of them as dichotomies, as choices – in each case we struggle to see the former as anything but the only option. In brief:

  1. Surely we all want to maximise sales, after all we want to make a living (how many times did you read that before you saw it was a glaring non sequitur?)
  2. Surely the point of marketing is to maximise the return on your effort, and this means learning to use the most efficient sales generators (well this may be a non sequitur also, and it may be wrong about the purpose of marketing, but what it most definitely is, is mistaken about the most efficient sales generators because its still hung up on measuring volume and not percentage of target audience reached
  3. But this is incontrovertible, surely? To rise above the slush we have to present our work professionally. Readers notice. Readers matter. Yes they do matter – your actual readers, the ones who will love your work so much they will buy anything else you write. So give them what they love – maybe that *is* well-punctuated and neatly justified text with no typos. I’d wager it’s not though – stop forming some imaginary ideal of a reader (didn’t that go out when Aristotle slam-dunked Plato?) and look at what your readers want (and also not someone else’s readers, people who would think the only great thing about your book was the punctuation).
Next time I’ll take a look at what a writer’s life might look like if they took the 1000 true fans route, and explore a world of crowdfunding, gigs and merchandise, newsletters and a life without Amazon.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Anatomy of a Great Self-Published Book

One of the things I want to do is highlight examples of superb self-published books. That’s the best way of showing what I mean by a lot of things. That’s not quite what I want to do here, though. Rather, think of this rather like those daft mash-up memes you get on Facebook that actually have some sort of a point buried away somewhere (though I’m afraid I don’t have the software or knowhow to produce a visual mash-up – maybe later!). You know the kind of thing – “the perfect philosopher has: Gandhi’s heart, Socrates’ beard, Elizabeth Anscombe’s collection of novels etc etc”.
So, what would the Platonic Form of a self-published book look like? Well, the simple answer is, it wouldn’t. Aristotle was, after all, right (following the first rule of fiction, there, you see – when I mentioned philosophers you just knew they were going to come back and be fired in the final scene. Or something). There is no such thing as “the ideal” anything. It is, rather, a case of what’s right for each book and its author. Which is where a lot of otherwise really great pieces of self-publishing advice come unstuck – they assume that “the rules” are universally applicable. They aren’t. It’s just that some things are right for a lot of books, and us being evolutionarily primed to be lazy (Hume said some fascinating things about this to go back to the philosophy whatnot), we come to think of these as universal rules. Like “good editing” or “thorough proof reading” or “use of professional cover design”. Most self-published books – like most other books – will best achieve what they set out to do by making full and efficient use of editors, proof readers, and cover designers. But the key point is that these things help the author to make their vision a reality. That vision comes first – and then we look at how best to make it real, without bringing any preconceptions to the table.
So what these self-published books have in common in the respective areas is they know what they set out to do and in that respect do it perfectly. 

Everything Speaks in its Own Way by Kate Tempest is one of the most beautiful objects I own as well as being an extraordinary book. One of the very best performance poets in the UK, Tempest also makes music (often using the same words) with her band Sound of Rum. All of which means this combination of book, CD, and DVD is the perfect vehicle for her material. One disc slots into a gorgeous pocket made of purple card inside each of the front and back covers.

Neil Schiller is a wonderful writer of things that fit all the categories publishers hate, which is why self-publishing is perfect for him. I actually first met him in his capacity as a Vine Reviewer when I saw he’d reviewed one of my books. I had no idea he wrote. Until I nosed around. I’ve since had the privilege of hearing him read his work twice. The idea he came up with for presenting his flash fictions is so simple – and obvious, except I didn’t think of it and nor did anyone I know until we saw him do it – 7" fiction, A sides and B sides of a single. The stories are printed up so the title looks like the centre label of a vinyl single, cut square, and inserted into real paper sleeves from old records. And Neil writes urban, Beat-inspired pieces which means anyone who loves his writing will love the presentation and vice versa – the perfect storm

James Everington is another writer who insists on writing in awkward formats. Be it novellas, novelettes, or collections, he just refuses to write anything publishers would consider. What’s more there’s a sneaking suspicion (at least the publishers suspect it) that the reading public likes to feel the heft of a tome in their hand (personally I like nothing better than the elegance of a small novella), which makes his books perfect for epublishing.

This is the cover of one of my books, which is no longer available to buy for various reasons some of which were covered in the opening post – so I don’t feel like I’m gratuitously plugging. Covers are things that self-publishers actually do rather well a lot of the time. I do think my fabulous cover designer, Sessha Batto, created something which does its job perfectly – I asked her for “Hannibal Lecter in Oxford University” and that’s exactly what she gave me, and quite brilliantly. The key is that anyone who sees it will know exactly what they’re getting, and it will draw people in – and those people it draws in will like the contents.

It’s a very tight line between enticing and pastiche. Sessha treads it perfectly. As does this exquisite cover for Anna Hobson’s Tales ofUnrequited Love. Anna writes gritty, lyrical poetry. The cover conveys that perfectly – it has the feel of something City Lights would have put out, but the typeface gives us the modern urban feel.

Living Room Stories by Andy Harrod could equally have gone in the first section. It’s another self-publishing perfect storm – a series of flash fictions presented as an album. Each of them is inspired by a track from Olafur Analds’ album Living Room Songs. There are separate square cards for each, each consisting of a picture and a flash. The cover, with its use of multiple layers and transparencies, is not just perfect because it’s so beautiful, but because it so perfectly captures the spirit both of Harrod’s writing and Arnalds’ music.


Neil Schiller’s Haiku Diary I include because the idea and the execution are just perfect. This is a diary. Written in haikus. That is all. Perfect.

You probably didn’t expect to find one of her titles here, but Amanda Hocking’s Hollowland illustrates my point about relativity perfectly. It’s littered with typos, as she will readily admit, but for her fans they don’t detract one iota from the really rather well-paced storytelling that lies between the covers. And that’s what matters – not what someone tells you should matter, or what someone thinks “all readers should care about” – what matters is what people who love the things you write about really care about. And what they care about in Amanda’s case is thumping good storytelling. And people have to get over that passive-aggressive phraseology that, for example, “readers like this DESPITE the typos” – the answer is most don’t give a fig about the typos. Now we can say what we want about that sociologically – well, others can and I will beg to differ – but as *writers* what matters is our readers’ priorities– and if that doesn’t include typos, live with it.

And then we have the glorious piece of literary fiction that is John A A Logan’s The Survival of Thomas Ford. This is much closer than most things here to what you would expect to find in print. Until recently, that is. John’s story is both heartbreaking and one that many authors will connect with. John has written an exquisite literary novel, achingly beautiful and flawlessly polished, that would have sat proudly on a publisher’s midlist as he built a career that saw long and shortlistings as he developed his craft. Only the midlist is vanishing, which means people who write that kind of book are increasingly turning to self-publishing, which suits them perfectly. When I started Year Zero Writers at the start of 2009 I was one such author amongst others like Marion Stein, Heikki Hietala, and Larry Harrison (whom we will meet in the months ahead). Readers of this fiction very much do value what they consider high production values – so editing and proof reading are essential. And John has done these very very well

MCM is something of an internet legend. The brains behind 1889 Laboratories, the spiritual home of serial webfiction (serial fiction of any kind could have come in section one on format), he uses the internet brilliantly to build a community around his writing, drawing people into the excitement of each of his creations. From 24-26 March 2011, he embarked on the project 3D1D, which saw him write a whole novel in 3 days. Which is prolific but nothing special, you might think. Only he performed the feat live – literally live – every keystroke live streamed, and interactively – 12,000 people contributed 87,000 questions and answers which directed the plot! 
You don’t have to create that kind of scale of community by any chalk! The real key is to spend time doing what you do with your readers, talking about interesting things, creating an interesting experience that relates to your book and enriches your readers’ lives. I can think of examples among my online friends who do this very well. Jo Carroll, for example, with her wonderfully mischievous travelling tales; Viv Tuffnell with her thought-provoking, soul-enriching posts. Both of their blogs tie in seamlessly to their books – people who enjoy spending time with them will enjoy their books.

Possibly the most perfectly honed example of authors who have built a whole world around their writing are the Zero Lubin collective behind Lubin Tales. Zero Lubin have created a marvellously darkly kitsch world that could be lifted straight from the twisted outtakes of David Lynch, which perfectly complements the set of suburbia-on-acid shorts in Lubin Tales, and their world extends beyond the web and some fabulous merchandising to live theatrical installations that bring sinister creations such as The Poodle Faker to life.

So there we have it - the perfect self-published book. It's actually remarkably similar, you might say, to the perfect book. And you'd be right. In short, any book can be the perfect self-published book - just have a bozo idea and execute it perfectly.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why Self-publishing? And why I am here

This blog has been a long time coming. I've been writing about self-publishing across the web for several years now as well as on my regular blog. You can see some samples here for Loudpoet, here for Self-publishing Review, and here for Beyond Infinity. My regular blog is also filled with kinds of other stuff, and many of my detailed articles are scattered around the place, so I wanted a single site where I could support and advise, comment, report, and generally build a body of work just about self-publishing.

Every once in a while I will fill in some backstory just so you don't keep wondering who on earth this muppet is. Those of you who know me will know I am fairly outspoken, often contrary, but most of the time have my heart in teh right place. My take on self-publishing is different from that you'll find on most of the blogs and advice sites out there, whcih is why I thought it might be wotrh adding to the primal sludge of blogs on the subject. The title says cynical but that's not really it - if anything I'm a Pollyanna, always looking on the bright side of everything. The cynicism comes at the way many self-publishers go about things. Don't get me wrong, sales are really, really important. But self-publishing is just as much about the art as the cash register, as much about meeting people face to face as about ebook, and marketing is just as much about building relationships as it is about Amazon's algorithms.

It was recently my pleasure to be on the author panel at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors. In preparation, I was asked to write about "why I self-publish." That's probably the best possible place to open this blog.

Self-publishing was a very simple choice for me to take. Back in 2007 I decided I wanted to give writing for a wider audience a proper chance. Like most writers, I’ve always written and I have my share of drawers full of emo poetry and really angsty teenage novels, but at 35 it felt like the right time to give it a proper bash. I churned out a thriller set in Oxford, and set about fine tuning it with a view to getting an agent and then a publisher. To this end, I joined the writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy in 2008, where I soon discovered I preferred writing literary fiction to writing thrillers, and by mid 2008 I had churned out a second book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a literary work set in post-communist Hungary about a girl growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nothing is constant. I set about finding an agent for it, still rather wet behind the ears and not really knowing anything other than that “this was what you did.”

I had a lovely letter from the only agency I really wanted to work with (one that focused on international fiction) saying how excited they were by the book but they couldn’t sell it in the current climate. At about the same time I was learning more and more about the vibrant literary world that existed online, and I started to wonder why I’d ever looked for a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t interested in making “a big splash” as the agent had put it. I wrote because I had something I needed to say, in whatever form it needed saying – whereas publishers wanted to tell you how you should be saying it in order to get sales. I didn’t want sales. I didn’t even want readers overly much. I wanted to get what was in my head out of there in the form it wanted. And I wanted to play with what was and wasn’t literature.
I’ve always loved art since a school trip to the Tate introduced me to Rothko. I’d spent hours at the infamous Turner Prize exhibition of 1999 and fallen head over heels in love with Tracey Emin’s work (and, it’s probably true to say, with her). Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is set largely in the art world, and references Emin’s works throughout. Art was very very exciting. My childhood and young adult heroes were artists – Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat, Emin and Lucas, the Wilson Twins, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread. Art was heady, dangerous, talked about, argued about. It incited passion. And whilst I was aware of the storm over Satanic Verses, that was hardly the same as the reaction to Sensation, to Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley. Yes, YBA was full of marketing and slick and surface and phoneyism. But it was also dangerous, challenged the way people thought about art, about the world, about themselves and reality.

Literary culture just wasn’t like that. And aspiring writers just talked about how to get published. That wasn’t a conversation I was interested in. I wanted people to talk about literature like they did about art – I wanted to work with people who were doing wild things that would have people shaking their head and asking “but is it a book?” The whole world of getting published was, quite simply, a different conversation from the one I wanted to have.

Of course that was simplistic. But it remains the case that the most exciting discussions of words take place “in another place” and not in the world of publishing. I have also been saddened rather than heartened by much that has happened in self-publishing since the launch of the Kindle. Self-publishing is now (and fair play to everyone concerned) a place where people can set out their stall and hope, with a following wind, marketing acuity, and great writing, to make a decent crust. Which means its landscape is much like the landscape of mainstream publishing. And the conversations self-publishing writers have are, now, about how to market, how to format, what their sales figures are. It is a conversation that is increasingly squeezing me out the way regular publishing did. Or, rather, it is a conversation that regularly threatens to subsume me the way regular publishing did, and that would be my biggest single piece of advice to a self-publisher – remember why you’re doing it and don’t be a magpie. Don’t let sales or invitations or publicity distract you – unless they were the reason for self-publishing, in which case go for it.