Archive for August, 2012

The publishing world is in upheaval. Everyone agrees on that.

Just this morning I read this post calling traditional publishing the new vanity publishing. The author makes a lot of good points about authors settling for far smaller royalties than self publishers in pursuit of the prestige of a traditional publishing house. He points out that many traditionally published works by new authors will recieve virtually no marketing or promotion – leaving the bulk of it up to the author, just like self publishers. Similarly he claims (and I don’t know, but have no reason to doubt his word) that most traditionally published books will not recieve widespread exposure or reviews in the media.

I have always assumed that the smaller royalties of a traditionally published author are more than compensated by the vastly increased exposure and sales. But if this article is correct, then perhaps not?

It is a very confusing time for authors, whether traditionally represented or not. Currently, circumstances seem to change by the week. It’s about 18 months since I first began to investigate self publishing, and exactly a year since I published Darklands as an eBook on Amazon. In that time I’ve already seen significant changes in the way self publishing works and the way it is perceived.

Eighteen months ago it was still pretty new and exciting. There was a pioneering, adventurous spirit to self publishing. Sites that would review self published works were a bit thin on the ground, but they existed, and would take on new authors.

Then came the first (that I am aware of. Probably not actually the first) of what has become an alarming trend of psycho-author deludo-knobbery. Jacqueline Howett’s astonishing online meltdown over what is actually a pretty fair and balanced review on Big Al’s Books & Pals quickly went viral. The next time I checked the site, Big Al was not taking on any new books to review. His plate was full.

More indie book reviewers spring up regularly. But if they achieve any success and popularity they quite quickly seem to change their review policy from ‘will accept self published books’ to ‘due to backlog, will not be accepting any more self published books.’

Worse, some review sites will not take on indie books because they have no interest in attracting the drama of a Jacqueline Howett style author attack. And perhaps *even worse* others (I suspect) intentionally provoke indie author attacks cuz, well, it’s fun. And it generates traffic to their site.

I regularly hear of (but avoid) packs of feral reviewers and equally feral authors coming to virtual blows on Goodreads or Twitter. I used to follow Cuddlebuggery (yeah, I know, that name! Just don’t worry about it), as I found their snarky reviews and up-yours attitude fun and refreshing. But I’ve been avoiding them lately. Their stream of recent posts on how to evade/confound/limit the damage caused by crazy indie authors is just depressing.

A year ago, attempting to navigate the gloomy waters of self publishing, I was a regular presence on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing message boards. There I found help, advice, and a lot of people in the same boat trying to support each other. Within a couple of months I’d abandoned the boards altogether. Not because I no longer needed any help, but because the threads were filled with messages such as: Give me a five star review, and I’ll give you one. Then came lots of complaints from reader forums about indie authors spamming their message boards with blatent and unwelcome self promotion. Then came the trolls to the authors message boards masquerading as stupid authors and working the community up into a frothy fury *sigh*

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Since the phenomenal success of initially self published authors such as Amanda Hocking and EL James, the mainstream media and publishers are starting to take notice. Sites such as Kirkus and Publishers Weekly are now offering an impartial indie book review service – for a price (around $200 for Publishers Weekly and $400 for Kirkus).

I don’t know about you, but I baulk at a) paying for a review at all, and b) those prices. But should I? If we are taking the traditional publisher out of the picture, then we have to expect to perform all the roles they used to. I am already aware of and have had to learn to fill or outsource the roles of: editor, proof reader, jacket designer, web designer, e-marketer, publicist.

But I guess the publisher also fulfils other roles that I don’t know so much about. How exactly does a traditional publisher go about securing a review in a national paper? Is money involved? Or just relationships? Networks? Favours?

If I am to be my own publisher maybe I should expect to outlay cash in order to promote my work, the way a traditional publisher would? But there are dangers. I am very wary of falling into the old vanity publishing traps of squandering money on a pipe dream. Without that objective, external presence of agent or publisher how do you know if your book really is any good? If it’s marketable? If a large audience would enjoy it? Or if a few well-meaning friends have been far kinder than they should have been, and really you haven’t a hope in hell…?

In my more cynical moments I wonder if the new-found interest by mainstream publishers and media is less to do with the extremely rare mega success stories of the Hockings and Jameses, and more to do with the small, reliable drip feed of hopeful authors shelling out a few hundred pounds here, a few hundred there, hoping, ever hoping that somewhere down the line they will at last get that big break they’ve been waiting for…? Which means that nothing much has really changed since the bad old days of vanity publishing. Authors still pay to get their egos stroked (or bashed) and the people enabling them are the ones making the money. Most authors will only lose money.

So what are we to make of it all? Have any of you paid for promotion or reviews? Did you see any return on your investment? I’d love to hear about it.

The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber

The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber

There is a peculiar and quite unique feeling of dread, dismay and curiosity when you begin reading a new book and find it uncannily similar to your own work in progress.

I had just such an experience last week reading The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber. The story concerns an ugly child raised by a natural philosopher type of magical person in an archetypal fairytale forest with the assistance of a wise cat and furry, forest dwelling being. This set up also describes my mid-second-draft work in progress, Kikimora.

The story includes several short stand alone fairy tales, as does Kikimora – though in The Witch’s Boy these are all novel re-tellings of traditional fairy tales, while mine are original.

My initial mortification mellowed somewhat as the story developed in a quite different direction to Kikimora. But then at the end, the similarities once more came thick and fast. It even veered off into a section on mining and being trapped underground. This idea forms a significant part of the climax for both The Witch’s Boy and Kikimora 😦

The awful thing is this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. Back in 2007, still smarting from my first rejection letter, I picked up this vampire book everyone kept going on about. Disbelief was followed by increasing outrage and mortification as each new similarity was revealed between my own rejected Shadow Hunter, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. I’m *still* mad about it (mainly because Twilight is so bad, but also because I’d been writing that book on and off, tweaking and altering it for the past 25 years!)

Shadow Hunter is a very different sort of story to Twilight, and the protagonist takes a vastly different path to Bella Swan, but too many details are horribly close, particularly near the beginning. The single thing that rankled the most is that Bella Swan is studying Macbeth as school – but it isn’t really important in any way; just a name mentioned. My protagonist is studying Macbeth at school – but I referenced it throughout the story, drawing parallels between Macbeth’s quest for power and rationalisation of his actions with those of my increasingly unhinged protagonist.

So I would have to lose a nice, nuanced recurring motif from my novel because it recalls a throwaway detail in Twilight. Grrs.

In that instance I shelved Shadow Hunter, and it about broke my heart. I get it out and look at it again every couple of years, thinking, could I salvage it somehow? Could I change some details? But like Macbeth, every element I look at seems essential to the mood, character, tone.

So now this has happened to me twice I find myself wondering how many other people must experience the same thing? It is after all common in Hollywood for two different films to plough the same furrow at the same time (Deep Impact v Armageddon? The Illusionist v The Prestige?)

Does it mean that I’m good at predicting zeitgeisty trends? Maybe. But the worrying thing is that if I keep having the same ideas as other people they will always pip me to the post, cuz I’m so slow meticulous :-/ Kikimora is by far my swiftest work so far, and that’s knocking on two years in progress. I’m beginning to think I’ll be lucky to release it this year.

So what do you do in this situation? Throw your work away in despair? Somehow try to work in some artificial and ill-fitting alterations? Plough ahead regardless and hope for the best?

Perhaps the important thing first of all is to take a deep breath and try to look at the problem objectively. Are the similarities really as glaring as you think? Or is your own heightened awareness of every tiny detail of your work causing you to inflate the issue beyond reason? (kind of like the way every time you look in the mirror you think your nose/bum/teeth are too big and hideous, but no one else knows what you’re talking about..?)

If possible get a second opinion from someone else. But that’s difficult if your work is still unfinished. It’s hard enough to hand over a polished draft to a friend for criticism, never mind an unfinished or hastily assembled draft for comparison with a published novel (which you will have to persuade your friend to also read).

Make a note of every similarity you find. Is it the plot? Is it the characters? Or is it more the details – the set dressing, the style? Could any of the similarities be changed without sacrificing the integrity of the story?

Also consider how well known is this other novel? I am of course not endorsing plagiarism of any kind or degree (For an interesting discussion of literary plagiarism see this post on Dear Author). What concerns me is the public’s perception of plagiarism. If most of the public has not read this other book, then you’re pretty safe. (This is another reason I simply shelved Shadow Hunter. The entire world has read Twilight. It is entirely irrelevant that I wrote the basics 25 years ago, and completed it before Twilight was published. I could dig out my faded and scribbled old notebooks to show people, but it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. If the book was known at all it would be known as that Twilight rip-off. Which is a greater indignity than I could bear.)

Ultimately, is a similarity between two stories as much of an issue as I imagine? As I already said, Hollywood does this all the time. If the public likes a thing they want more of it. Many stories bare similarities to other stories. So long as you are confident that you arrived at your ideas independently of this other source then perhaps it doesn’t matter?

I’d be interested to hear what other authors and readers think. Has this ever happened to you? What did you do about it? Have you ever read a book and thought, ‘Hang on, this is just like such and such a book!’ How did you feel about that? Did it bother you? Did you think less of the work you read second – even if you were assured of the author’s integrity?