So I Unpublished All My Books On Amazon

I’m a little embarrassed about how neglected my blog has been. Months and I haven’t found time to write a single word on here. I feel vaguely justified given how much harder my work life has been than normal, but still, I thought I was better than this. Turns out, I’m not. Turns out I am exactly this.

Even though I haven’t been writing on the blog at all I have been doing plenty of reading and more writing than usual. So, about four-ish years ago I got very excited about the idea of independent publishing (I wrote a bit about it on here) and published four books on Amazon. Two novels, two collections of five short stories each. I put a ton of effort into it, not just trying to get the books as good as I possibly could, but also on presentation, cover design and all of that other stuff that goes with it. There was a bit of a learning curve. The first cover for my first book was terrible, the second version was a lot better. The way I put the ebooks together was initially very clumsy and became more refined as I went on. I made paperback versions through createspace, which I think turned out very nice. But overall, the whole experiment was a bit of a failure. Sales were very low, free giveaway were respectable (mostly) but didn’t manifest into many reviews. So a few months ago I pulled the plug and unpublished all four books.

The idea was not to give up, but to try a different approach.  I loved the idea of indie publishing. I was inspired by indie video games and the way that people who made them used the platforms available to them to create new, esoteric forms of games that wouldn’t have been possible without independence. But indie publishing wasn’t working for me the way it was working for some writers, and I had to be realistic about it. What I realised, a little slowly perhaps, is that there was a place for the kind of books I was trying to write, and it was traditional publishing. All the books I love come from there. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it sooner.

(It’s not that indie publishing is bad by the way, I definitely don’t think that. My books just didn’t fit in there. That’s all.)

So once I had pulled my books down I thought I’d better get on with doing some new writing and actually start sending stuff out again. It had been ages and I had to remind myself how it was done. I even bought the latest copy of writers and artists yearbook. Then I wrote a new short story, the first I had done in a while, and entered it into the Bridport prize. I never expected to have any success with it so I kinda just forgot about it, but I ended up being shortlisted. This is by far the best writing success I have had and it has energised me. I am just getting ready for this years Nanowrimo by actually planning and getting myself all set up for it. I have never succeeded at nanowrimo, though I have only tried twice, but I am feeling excited to get started. I even bought a Bluetooth keyboard for my ipad so that I can write in coffee shops and libraries. I’m writing this blogpost on it now. If you have noticed typos, that may be because this keyboard is going to take a little getting used to.

I kinda miss having my books for sale on Amazon, even if no one ever actually bought them. It felt like I had done something. But taking them down has turned out OK so far. This is the most inspired I have felt for a very long time.

My Independent Publishing Manifesto

I sort of fell into independent publishing sideways. I decided I’d give it a try a few years ago and then ended up getting more and more into the idea. There is something about it that really appeals to me, going it alone, doing everything my way (for better or worse), answering to no one about the decisions I make. But the more involved in it I get the more I see it as a truly viable option for writers. Especially writers who don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else. Indie publishing has a stigma attached to it that it is populated by books that weren’t good enough to succeed along the traditional routes. I have no doubt there is a lot of that out there, but I want to think that there are also weird, quirky, offbeat writers using it as a platform for their work. This is how I am trying to use it, not as a last resort, but as a home for my books. A home in which they can be unashamedly what they are.

If you don’t mind such grandiose terms, this is my manifesto for indie publishing. The things that I have discovered are important to me over the last few years of dipping my toe into these strange waters.

1, Write your book

The emphasis here is on the word your. For years now people have said to me things like, ‘Dan Brown/JK Rowling/EL James is popular. Have you considered writing books like those?’ And the truth is I have considered it and, thankfully, so far have always come to my senses and continued to write the stuff that is important to me. The desire to write comes from a love of reading, and writing a good book means writing the book that you have inside you. Not the book that someone else has inside them. Shifting to one genre or subject in order to ride a wave of someone else’s success in order to drive sales seems like a very bad idea to me. If the goal is to make a lot of money then, first of all, don’t write books. The odds of making a lot of money are low and you could probably do better putting your time and energy into something else. But second of all, artistic success comes from passion. It comes from taking the thing you feel so deeply and articulating it in a way that excites other people. I’m not saying don’t write techno thrillers or vampire fiction for young adults, but do it for the right reasons. Do it because that is the only book you truly give a damn about.

2, Be as indistinguishable from traditional publishing as possible

Someone who knows what they are looking for can tell the difference between an indie book and a trad book, but if you take care to present your work well it shouldn’t be a problem. Independent publishing is, and likely always will be, a poor second class citizen to traditional, but the gap is closing. Between ebooks and the now-excellent quality of print-on-demand we have the means to make our product to a very high standard. But this means independents need to hold themselves to that standard. I’m not just talking about typo’s, I’m talking about the full presentation of a book which, if you have not spent some time discovering its nuances, might well contain elements that you never even considered. Typefaces, line spacing, margin setting, point size, blank pages. Get these things wrong and the book will feel amateur, even if no one is able to explain why. Get them right and no one will even notice, which is fine, because they will be too busy reading the book.

3, Have fun making mistakes

They are going to happen, and if my experience is anything to go, by they are going to happen a lot. Making mistakes always feels terrible. It can feel cataclysmic. It can lead to spiraling self-doubt and a kind of artistic woe that almost no one feels any empathy toward. But the obvious and hard-to-accept truth is that those mistakes are the most valuable things that can happen, if you notice them and learn from them. I was so down when the first proof copy of my novel arrived in the post and the cover was about 50% too dark because I hadn’t corrected screen colours for print colours and the margins were set wrong so the text ran into the binding and made it unreadable. I felt pretty low about it (and this was only a proof, see above point about pointless artistic woe,) but these are two things that will never catch me out again.

4, Make reaching readers a priority over profit

When I was a kid we had day where we all brought food to school to make a big buffet for everyone to share. The teacher told us to bring something that we enjoy, and not what we thought everyone else would enjoy, because that way there will definitely be something we like and, chances are, some of the other kids would like it too. If you have written the book that you really wanted to write, and made it as good as you possibly can, there will probably be some one else out there that will enjoy it as well. How you find those people is a problem I have yet to solve, but attempting to make as many sales as possible by pushing your book to all the wrong readers doesn’t seem right to me. I would rather give away books to people that actually want to read them than sell them to people who don’t.

5, Get to the end with your integrity intact

I have never and will never write fake reviews for my books or solicit positive reviews from friends and family. My integrity is important to me. More important than selling a handful of books to people who have been lured in with dishonest reviews. Honesty is important to point 1 in this list too, recognising precisely what it is you need to write by looking inside yourself and truly accepting what you find. Write a book because you love books, and treat them with that same love.

6, Take yourself seriously

To misquote Howard Jacobson (because I can’t find the passage I want to quote) ‘serious is more fun than not serious’. Now, when my wife asks me what I am doing, I say ‘working’. I used to say ‘oh you know, just banging out another crappy book that no one will read’. That self-effacing negativity that comes so naturally to writers doesn’t do much good. I’m not saying to go the other way. ‘I’m working on my magnum opus, iron me a shirt! The award ceremony Looms!’ Just working.

There you go, the points that I jotted down in my notebook when I was trying to think about what it is that is important to me in my attempts to make indie-publishing work for me.

A long trailing edge to a very steep bell curve

I don’t play as many video games as I used to. There was a time that I would keep up with all the unusual and interesting games that came along, but now I hardly do. I put my Xbox on from time to time, play about half an hour of something mindless and then switch it off again. It’s a good way to wind down. But thanks to limits on my time playing through new and unusual games has fallen to the wayside. But then recently I reactivated my Steam account and found loads of Indie Games.

I don’t want to go on about video games in a blog that is at least supposed to be about books, (even if it occasionally diverts into all sorts of unexpected territories,) but this Steam Indie Games thing was particularly interesting to me in that it seemed to have some parallels with Indie books. A lot of the Indie Games seemed to have an emphasis on artistic merit, experimental gameplay and esoteric themes. In other words exactly the sort of thing I used to enjoy, but that had seemed to have dried up, at least a little. On Steam I found a number of games that offered a slower pace and thoughtful, interesting content. There is, after all, only so much Call of Duty a person can put himself through.

 Games of niche interest seem a perfect fit somewhere like Steam. Digital distribution offers a solution to the problem of expensive overheads involved in producing a product that would previously have needed to sit on a shelf in a shop. Those niche interest products, which by definition make less money than the big hits, can now exist and find their audience. Which is exciting for those artistic types that want to create games like that, as well as to people like me, who want to play them.

Of course, by extension I am drawing the same conclusion about e-books and indie authors who are doing much the same thing. Every now and then a post turns up on Amazon’s forums discussing all the problems with the Kindle Store and how to fix them. The view that I have seen presented is that self-published indie books are simply not good enough to be published and, therefore not worthy of being read. If they were they would have been traditionally published. I’ve got to admit, for a while I found this to be a pretty compelling argument. I am certain most writers would, if given the choice, take traditional publishing if it were offered. So does this make indie publishing a reluctant second choice? Well, not necessarily. It might just be that some books, weird, unusual, bizarre books, have no home within traditional publishing which has, whether we like it or not, the same bottom line as any other business; money.

Writing novels is not necessarily a good way of making a lot of money. It might seem like it because the exceptions are so visible, but the ratio of millionaires to writers who make only a little money is a wide one. A few months ago when Fifty Shades was occupying the top three slots of the top ten best sellers and selling hundreds of thousands of copies a week the books making up the rest of the top ten were, in some cases, selling only a few thousand. Now a few thousand is still a lot, but this is the top ten bestsellers list we are talking about. How many does the 100th top selling book sell? (I don’t have the answer to that but when I sold a single copy of my ebook the sales rank went from 500,000th to 74,000th. That is a long trailing edge to a very steep bell curve.) But nonetheless authors continue to write, and writers continue to aspire to be authors. It can’t all be about money. 

Quality of writing isn’t the only reason novels fail to be published. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that some very, very good novels fail to find a home with a traditional publisher through not fitting in with their sales plans. Books with very niche audiences might not appeal as their sales potential is quite low. But if the goal isn’t to sell a million copies and become super-rich, if the goal is simply to write what we have inside of us and make it available to anyone that might be interested to see it, then the indie market and digital distribution is a perfect fit. This isn’t to say it is superior to traditional publishing, I would take it if it were offered, but it might not be, and so it makes sense to use what is available.

There are differences between what Steam has done and what Amazon have done. For one, Amazon’s barrier to entry is much, much lower. To make an indie video game available on Steam you first need to make a video game, which is no mean feat, but with Kindle you could fall asleep on your keyboard and publish the result. And the mere fact that someone could do that does, in some ways, undermine the efforts of people who have taken a lot of time and care in their work. I don’t want it to sound like I am saying the the Kindle Store is some hidden panoply of excitingly offbeat literature. I don’t doubt that there is a lot of poor quality stuff on there too. But even this isn’t a serious criticism of indie publishing for two reasons. 1, there is always a sample available that allows us to make more informed decisions about what we buy and 2, the cost is, on the whole very low. Though I do recognise that the real cost of an indie book is in the time spent reading it. The 0.77p is nothing next to that. 

The automatic dismissal of self-published books reminds me of the way some people react to information that has come from Wikipedia. Citing Wikipedia as a reference, to some people, sounds like confessing to getting your information from a taxi driver. But in all probability Wikipedia is, on the whole, a very good source of information, if you treat it right. I remember a spate of Wiki sabotage on Cristiano Ronaldo’s entry following the World Cup where he winked at some after getting Wayne Rooney sent off. (Unless you take the view that Rooney got himself sent off, I’d understand if you did.) But just because a page can be ruined by Wiki saboteurs doesn’t mean you should presume that they all have been. The entry on Euclidean Geometry is much less likely to have been tampered with. The important thing is to treat all information critically, rather than to dismiss or accept everything.

I don’t think I am saying anything new when I say that indie publishing offers something traditional publishing can’t. Not just to writers, who get an outlet for their work. But also to readers, who get the chance to read books that, without it, they would never have been able to read.

How to make an e-book

My to-do list for making a kindle e-book of my novel.

1. Duplicate book file and replace all images with correct versions.

2. Convert to .mobi to check pictures are displaying correctly.

3. If pictures are displaying open .html file in notepad and add manual page breaks.

4. Remake as .mobi to check page breaks works. Discover pictures no longer display.

5. Try again.

6. Burst into tears.

7. Dry eyes. Try again.

8. Make tea and play xbox.

8. Try again.

9. Travel to Dover. Hurl laptop off of the white cliffs.

10. Head home. Get some rest.

11. Abandon writing. Take up decoupage instead.