Review – Grandpa’s Gold

GGoldOnce upon a time, not long ago, unearthing quality crafted, self-published children’s books was like fossicking for gold. They were out there, but often buried under layers of fools’ gold. Grandpa’s Gold is one of the genuine gems.

For me, one of the greatest rewards of being a parent is being able to share the world’s wonders and its treasures with your offspring. Heading off on adventurous travel, although beset with obvious challenges, creates unimaginable, lasting memories for young and old alike. Seasoned children’s author, Robin Adolphs, has struck gold with this slick, memorable story about a young boy and his grandfather sharing such an adventure.

Jake has a Grandpa who possesses a 4WD and the ancient ability to read maps. Best of all, he knows how to find gold. He and Jake set off one day in search of it. Along the way, Grandpa reveals just how elusive the precious metal is and how tricky it is to find. Jake is fascinated to learn that if he listens hard enough for a ‘kind of WHOOP-WHOOP noise’, gold won’t be far away.

They set up camp in the goldfields. Jake hears many noises that first night but none of them the WHOOP-WHOOP of gold. That is until Grandpa introduces Jake to the mysteries of a metal detector. Jake is spell-bound by it, having had ‘no idea the earth was so noisy’.

Each buzz, crackle and whirr prompts them to stop and dig. Soon Jake’s pockets are bulging with treasures: a rust billy can, an old hob-nail, a broken horseshoe, even the head of a pick-axe; relics of a yesteryear all too wonderful for a small boy to leave behind. Grandpa’s efforts are less fruitful until he relinquishes the detector to Jake. WHOOP-WHOOP! ‘And there is was. Gold!’

This appealing tale transported me back to the time I spent fossicking the gem fields of west Queensland. Miles and miles of Brigalow scrub, rocky outcrops and the promise of stumbling across the next pink sapphire kept me there for a spell. Fossicking for one’s fortune is an addictive occupation only the human race has bothered to adapt for; only we can devote countless hours to sifting through barrows of scree, tediously sluicing gallons of mud or blowing up mountains in search of something so ridiculously small and shiny in comparison to the huge, dirty effort expended looking for it.

Robin AdolphsRobin Adolph’s story suggests there is more to be gained from the quest itself than the find. (She’s right. There is something almost therapeutic about time spent this way.) Grandpa and Jake share much more together than plain old greed. They experience the thrill of adventure, a shared camaraderie and those marvellously unquantifiable feelings of anticipation and inflated expectation.

A winning picture book embraces many levels. Grandpa’s Gold does this in spades. This is cheekily represented in the last page spread with an alluvial multi-layering of treasures that Jake is determined to find one day.

Perhaps the best discoveries in Grandpa’s Gold for me are the illustrations of Arthur Filloy. Big, bold, cartoon-style drawings flood each page with sound and motion. Jake and Grandpa are depicted in beguiling caricature fashion. I particularly like the way the illustrations involve both pages with shales of rock, drifting clouds and nocturnal eyes appearing on pages of text– something not often found in self-published picture book offerings. The simple line drawings of an old timer from a by-gone era ‘using’ the treasures Jake mines on each opposite page are genius and help span a young reader’s understanding of the passing of generations.

But that’s not all. Ex-teacher Adolphs gives us one last reason to linger a little longer in search of hidden treasure – A did you find…Quiz at the back of the book. This was the clincher for my Miss 7, who declared Grandpa’s Gold as ‘a very cool book’. Eureka!

Recommended for 3 – 8 year olds as enthusiastically as heading off into the sunset in search of adventure with them.

Butternut Books April 2013

Adolphs’ other titles under Butternut Books include Yesterday I Played in the Rain and The Pile Up.

Lucky SE Queenslanders have a chance to experience all the fun of finding gold this weekend at the official launch of Grandpa’s Gold 13th April at Logan North Library 10.00am, Underwood, QLD




Indie Publishing

The Simple ThingsI booked a last-minute ticket to the Queensland Writers Centre’s (QWC) Going Indie seminar, unsure what I was going to hear, but hopeful it was going to be applicable.

I’ve had good fortune with QWC’s workshops and figured this one, which was tackling the oft-sneered-at, but increasingly decent option of self-publishing, would offer a handy industry-in-flux oversight. I have to say, though, that I hate the term ‘self-publishing’, so was relieved when the panellists swiftly renamed it ‘indie publishing’, as in reminiscent of the respected independent music industry.

I turned up largely to hear Sally Collings*, esteemed writer, editor, and publisher, and person self-described as being able to offer a 360-degree view of the publishing process and industry. In fact, I’d have turned up just to hear her speak—her wisdom, warmth, out-of-the-box, and ‘unashamedly commercial’ approach to non-fiction publishing are something I’d love to learn from and perhaps one day emulate.

She was joined by poet Graham Nunn, who was awarded the Johnno Award for his service to the industry last year, and spec fic writer Alan Baxter, who described himself as ‘just another kung fu-teaching writer’. No, really. He writes and he teaches kung fu.**

Alan BaxterThe panel in essence echoed the conclusions I’ve come to myself in recent times. Notably that there’s never been a better time to be a writer and there are a bunch of opportunities to publish and be published in a variety of formats. All three made incredibly salient points, including (in no particular order):

  • Indie publishing appeals to control freaks who like to be in charge of the project from start to finish (hello, me!), as well as people who are authorities in their niches, have direct links to their audiences, and who know more about the subject than any publisher would.
  • Indie publishing enables you to be creative and task risks you couldn’t within a traditional publishing framework.
  • No matter what you do in publishing, you must be your own gatekeeper, i.e. whether you’re self-publishing or being published by a traditional publisher, be sure you’ve done your best work.
  • An independently published book must never look like one—quality design and content are a must.
  • Because self-publishing’s easy, everyone’s doing it, which means there’s a bunch of competition and noise out there. It is levelling off, though.
  • Indie and traditional publishing aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both, and both at once if it works for you.
  • If you do self-publish, it’s key to have a marketing strategy.
  • You should invest in the writing community of which you’re a part as the engagement, support, and advice are critical.
  • The fundamental thing is the writing. It never occurred to Baxter that he was independently or traditionally publishing—he was just writing.
  • Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. As noted above, quality is key.
  • It’s possible to source cover artwork from such sites as 99 Designs, which also allows you to create Facebook polls for friends and fans to vote on, i.e. developing awareness of your book before it comes out.
  • Postage costs in this enormous land of Oz we live in needs to be factored in. Baxter’s example was that his book was a mere (but fiscally painful) three grams over the minimum postage weight. It meant that he had to spend hundreds of dollars on postage he wouldn’t have needed to had he printed the book with a font 0.5 px smaller than the one he did use.
  • Don’t be afraid to give work away—writers such as Cory Doctorow have built strong careers based on this philosophy (but don’t give your rights away if you can help it).
  • The only thing worse than piracy is obscurity. The people who’ll pirate your work weren’t the ones who’d ever have paid for it anyway. If they have it, they might read it. If they read it, they might like it and mention it to others. Those others might actually buy it.

While the session was ultimately positive, I was pretty disappointed to hear that Nunn wasn’t publishing to make money. A bestselling poetry book sells, he told us, 500 copies nationally. That’s a woefully low figure and it’s probably just as well he’s not after commercial success—that’s a huge obstacle to overcome. Still, the glass-half-full way of looking at that is that he’s not letting it put him off and he’s publishing because of his poetry passion.

Like Collings, I’m unashamedly commercial about my intentions—people don’t practise law or medicine for the love of it and don’t feel squeamish about getting paid for their expertise. I’m still just trying to 100% work out how to produce commercially and critically successful non-fiction work. After today’s panel, I don’t think indie publishing is the answer, but I do think it has an important supporting role to play.

*Her latest book is The Simple Things, which she co-wrote with Antonia Kidman.

**An interesting side note: After reading some woeful efforts, Baxter saw a need for a book offering some pointers for writing action and fight scenes—something his expertise well-positioned him to do so. It continues to tick over on Amazon.

The Love Quadrangle

AscendHaving not known that the ultimate book in Amanda Hocking’s self-published, now-publisher-published best-selling trilogy wasn’t yet available, I awaited its release with postman-stalking obsession.

I wasn’t sure who was more relieved when it finally arrived—me or the postman I’d been shaking down for days—so I’m a little disappointed to say that although Ascend was good, it wasn’t as great as I’d salivatingly anticipated it would be.

The book opens with the queen near death and Wendy, the queen to be, effectively running the show. Hanging over everyone’s heads is the knowledge that as soon as the queen carks it, Wendy will be coronated.

Apart from providing her with a fancy crown, her coronation will mean that the peace treaty, which promises that the Vittra won’t attack the Trylle kingdom until Wendy is queen, will be rendered null and void. Oh, and in the opening chapters Wendy and Tove get married.

Still with me?

There’s not a lot I want to write about the book, which spends almost its entirety puzzling over how prevent the Trylle being slaughtered after the dissolution of the treaty. Sure, they needed to build up to the climax, but I had the same reaction I did to tediously long third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy: Are we there yet? Hurry up, already.

Perhaps the plot point that proved my stumbling point—and here I’m issuing an absolutely massive, couldn’t-be-any-bigger spoiler alert—is that I didn’t think Hocking quite get the love triangle right. Ergo, Wendy ends up with the wrong guy.

The Vampire DiariesThe thing that makes love triangles so appealing is their constant push–pull. In any given moment on any given day, the object of the love (in this case Wendy) is supposed to lean towards one and then the other guy. You can see that hugely in modern-day, pop-culture equivalents Twilight (Bella, Edward, and Jacob) and The Vampire Diaries (Elena, Stefan, and Damon).

The love triangle should go like this: The female lead falls in love with the first-named guy, but there’s always the Plan-B-could-almost-be-Plan-A guy waiting in the wings. The moment Plan A’s out of the picture—most likely on mis-directed, self-flagellating banishments to keep her out of danger—she starts to see Plan B in a new light and he morphs into Plan A. Then the original Plan A returns. Tension ensues over which lover she’ll choose. The original Plan A invariably wins, but it’s always a tenuous, temporary victory. Then the whole thing is reset and replays.

I’m all for reinventing the love triangle, and kudos to Hocking for trying. Her whole love quadrangle thing was an interesting twist, courtesy of having Wendy marry not just a guy she didn’t love but a guy who would never love her because he was gay.

The problem is that I don’t think it ever 100% rang true and, having set it up as the thing that absolutely had to happen in order to save the kingdom, Hocking suddenly discarded it. How could she have Wendy divorce Tove when the only reason she married him was to avert a power struggle and to marry their genetics in order to save the Trylle race? Why couldn’t they stay married and sneak around with the ones they truly loved?

Which brings me to the Finn and Loki issue. It’s not that I didn’t like Loki, because I did and I do. But Hocking spent the first two books setting Finn up as Plan A. Then she ditched him without warning, good reason, or dramatic tension when it got to book three. It’s ok that Wendy developed feelings for Loki, but she completely un-developed feelings for Finn, which isn’t.

Hocking lost me when she broke the love triangle. The book’s dramatic tension slackened and I, frankly, got my grump on. It’s unfair to make me, as the reader, care about a character for two books and then try to make me un-care and accept an interloping lover in book three.

It would be like Stephenie Meyer replacing Edward without warning and no more than a shrug. It would then be like her closing the door on him reclaiming his original crown of Plan A. We like Jacob, but we love and have come to better know Edward—no matter what happens, Bella without Edward in some capacity (even as a dodgy CGI ghost chasing her on a motorbike) doesn’t quite work.

Likewise, without reading too much into it (which I clearly did), I think Wendy ending up with Loki sent the wrong message. That is, despite saying for two books that class rules need to be broken and a royal can fall in love with and marry a commoner, Hocking inadvertently ended up saying that bluebloods and commoners don’t get a happily ever after together.

I say bring back the tried-and-true, love-conquers-all love triangle.

Switched (x 2)

SwitchedAmanda Hocking’s self-published book Switched has multi-millions of copies. I’ve personally contributed two of those sales, having purchased the book, accidentally left it on a plane, cut a forlorn figure at the lost-and-found counter, and then, as the book hadn’t been handed in, bought a second copy to read on the flight back home.

I’ll admit that my first purchase was merely to determine what all the fuss was about. My second, though, was because I was hooked. Seriously. Switched isn’t going to be lauded in centuries’ time as one of the great writing tomes of the world, but it is a great young-adult book.

So great, in fact, that I was prepared to own my shame and stand describing the book to a rather grumpy, disinterested airport official who told me he’d have to specially open the lost-and-found counter to go look for the book I was after. The not-so-subtle subtext of his statement was that he didn’t want to open it at all.

I made him open it anyway and then applied my best I’m-not-dying-inside face while describing what clearly wasn’t a capital-‘l’-literature book: ‘Um, it’s called Switched and it’s got a kind of blue and grey cover with a girl and butterflies on it.’

Either it hadn’t yet been handed in or someone had found it, become similarly hooked, and decided to snarfoo it for themselves (I’m giving the guy the benefit of the doubt and not assuming he didn’t actually look for it), but Switched is what I kind of expected and that I hinted at in my previous blog. That is that it’s a good story executed by someone who can write.

The tagline is the suitably vague, broad, and mysterious ‘What if your entire world was built on a lie?’ and the book opens with the protagonist’s attempted murder by her mum. Fast forward a decade or so and you find that the protagonist survived but has never quite found herself to fit in.

I won’t say any more for fear of ruining the plot, but Switched had me from page three and will, now that I’ve finished book one, likely have me for the entire trilogy. I can see why this self-published book has sold a motza.

That said, it is a little clunky. It reads like a second or third draft that hasn’t been massaged and smoothed out by an editor. I guess that’s the danger of the ability to press publish before a book’s ready and a reminder that editors are writers’ unsung heroes. Still, while the text leaps from A to C with not a heap of subtlety, the telegraphing of the plot points aren’t enough to put me off.

Sure, the goodie and baddie characters are a little too black-and-white stereotypical. Sure, it’s a little clunky how the book bluntly tells key information rather than deftly shows it. And sure, it’s a little clichéd that the aloof bodyguard character is in love with the protagonist and their push–pull relationship veers from 0 to 100 and back to 0 with no build-up or warning.

But it’s testament to Hocking’s storytelling skills that I was willing to re-buy the book and that I’m ordering books two and three now. If you need me, I’ll be hanging around my letterbox waiting for them to arrive.

Self-Publishing for Muppets

SwitchedThe article had me at ‘self-publishing’ for ‘Muppets’. It refers not to self-publishers being muppets as in the derogatory term, but rather a cash-strapped wannabe writer who self-published some books on Amazon in the hope of scraping together the cash to go see the Muppets. The rest, as they write, is JK Rowling-worthy history.

Amanda Hocking’s is the kind of story that simultaneously draws derision from those in the industry and raises the hopes of those who aren’t but want to be. I have to say that I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Reading this Guardian article I realised Hocking might have been unpublished, but she wasn’t unpracticed or unpolished (if those terms make any sense). She had written a bunch of novels over a nine-year period and, in the process, honed her skills.

She’d approached a stack of publishing houses and been rejected by them all. More importantly, she filed the rejection letters, quashed any discouragement, and kept writing and investigating ways to get her work out there.

With traditional publishers not opening their doors, Hocking went the non-traditional route. She posted her book online with the short-term goal of selling some copies to families and friends over a six-month period in order to raise the $300 she needed for the Muppets trip.

She achieved a bit more than that, selling 150,000 copies of her books and making around $20,000 in that time. She’s now surpassed 1.5 million book sales and $2.5 million in profits (and I consider them profits because she published with largely free online tools and is not having to share the spoils with any agents or publishers. Well, apart from the chunk Amazon carves off).

Those are the stats people are generally interested in. I’m actually more interested in the work she put in to get there. I see it as less rags-to-riches than hard-work-pays-off (with a little luck thrown in, admittedly, because in this industry there’s always a touch of right-place-right-time luck required).

OutliersFrom what the article shows, Hocking’s always been a huge reader and writer so has put in the hard yards to reach those magic 10,000 hours of practice. As in the magic number of hours that unlock the key to perfection we hear about from the likes of authors like Malcolm Gladwell. Speaking of Gladwell, he’s been quiet of late—surely he’s due another book soon?

Anyway, back to Hocking. My point is that despite the fairytale angel we’d like to hope for, she’s not an example of a publishing miracle the equivalent of winning the lottery on your first try. It’s something she’s also clearly keenly aware of: ‘People built me up as a two-dimensional icon for something I was not. Self-publishing is great, but I don’t want to be an icon for it, or anything else. I would rather people talk about the books than how I publish them,’ she told the Guardian. That is, she wants to be judged for the quality of the work, not how she got rich quick through what most deem amateur, low-brow means.

Hocking obviously has some writing and marketing talent. Bad books are quickly found out. Were she a poor writer, she might have sold a few. But she wouldn’t be into the millions of sales if the books weren’t gripping and well told (please refrain from sending me the emails saying ‘Um, but Twilight’s into the millions and it’s terribly written. True, but quibble about its writing quality however you will, it’s definitely gripping.)

Utilising new and social media channels to effectively promote her work—that is, blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like—have clearly been key (even if they’re something the article, perhaps subconsciously in line with the old-world newspaper publication it’s part of, skims over). In fact, that’s what I’ve taken away from this story: Hocking’s success is less about striking it lucky and more about hard work and creating her own opportunities. Of course, the Muppets as catalyst is a fantastic hook too…

If it Looks Like a Publisher and Smells Like a Publisher – is it a Publisher?

Apple, the world’s biggest technology company, have often claimed that they are at the metaphorical crossroads of technology and liberal arts. Amazon, it could be said, are positioning themselves at a different crossroads: the place where technology and consumerism meet. And Amazon are scarily good at what they do. They’re adept at predicting and exploiting the appearance of that peculiar space where technology and retail meet. And now they want to publish books too. I’ve written before about why I think Amazon might fail at publishing books. But I was wrong. Amazon won’t fail. But they may not completely succeed either.

For the past month or so, Amazon’s publishing announcements have come thick and fast. First it was Montlake (a romance imprint) and then Thomas & Mercer (a thriller imprint). Then they announced they were hiring old-school publishing bigwig Larry Kirshbaum. We can probably expect other announcements to follow. According to the article linked to above, one New York agent summed up the US trade’s response to Amazon’s announcements in one word: “anxious”.

Should publishers be anxious about Amazon moving into the publishing sphere? The short answer is yes, probably. But the full answer is more complicated than that. Amazon seems to hold all the cards when it comes to their newest venture. They have a powerful and vibrant vertical retail presence. They have enviable access to their customers’ personal information – both buying and reading patterns. They are young and technologically adept in a way that big old traditional publishing houses are not.

So why do I doubt they’ll succeed at publishing? The answer is going to sound a bit namby-pamby. But it’s true nonetheless. Amazon lacks passion for books. They may like selling books and they’re clearly very good at it. But from the word go, Amazon have seen books as just another product to drive traffic and make money, along with milk, bicycle tyres and modular arch-shaped window shades (thanks, Amazon!). You only have to look as far as the initial acquisitions made by Montlake and Thomas & Mercer to see this pattern. All of the authors picked up by the new imprints are authors with track records selling books.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with acquiring books that you know will actually sell. Most publishers would probably love to do nothing but that. But there’s not a word about first time authors. There’s nothing in the marketing bumpf about developing or discovering new talent. And as any publisher will tell you, you can’t make a publishing company work long term without finding new authors. Bestselling authors make companies profitable – but if publishers stopped publishing everybody else, there would no longer be an industry.

So here’s how I see things proceeding. Amazon is going to keep the bastards honest. All the people who complain about publishers not tightening their belts will certainly see that happen in the next couple of years. Prices will drop. Print books will go the way of the vinyl record. And it will all be in the name of competing with Amazon. But publishers will survive, and they will modernise. And they’ll continue to find new authors, and develop existing authors in just the same way as they always did. Those authors will still be loyal to the people who found and nurtured them.

Publishing books is not just about selling product, it’s a labour of love, even if sometimes the emphasis is heavy on the labour and low on the love. It’s true that geniuses are sometimes born, but they’re far more often made – an idea that is very unpopular in this new democratised, self-publishing-is-the-future digital world.

So Amazon will keep selling books. They may even keep publishing them. But long term? Until Amazon starts actually contributing to the literary heritage of great authors without just buying them from other publishers or skimming them off the top of the self-published list, I won’t believe they’re anything but a digital clearing house with deep pockets and a really good fake tan.

Ebook Prices and Greed

So I’ve been thinking about ebook prices and greed lately. There are a few good arguments for lowering ebook prices, mostly to do with the win-win situation when cheaper books mean more sales and more profits (i.e. it doesn’t always work). What annoys me, though, is that a big proportion of blog chatter about ebook pricing seems to be based solely on a sense of entitlement. Do people deserve to be able to buy books at low prices? And how low is low? As always, The Smell of Books does not provide an answer, but I’ll do my darndest to run in ever tighter circles around the question.

But either way, yes, I think publishers are losing the hearts and minds of readers. After all, readers don’t have to know about the ins and outs of the publishing business—they just have to know how it affects their own pocketbooks …

So said Chris Meadows in a recent post he made responding to my post on publishers losing the hearts and minds of readers. And I find it hard to disagree with him. Despite eloquent arguments to the contrary, I find it difficult to even argue with my friends who want to buy cheap books overseas or cheat territorial restrictions to get cheaper ebook prices.

There are many ebooks that seem to me to be very expensive. And yet working as I do for a large publishing company, I know that margins are tight, that people are tense and that the future of publishing is by no means assured. This is the rub. People want cheaper books, but cheaper books will cripple the industry. The reason for this incongruity, I suspect, is that the people who love books (and are demanding lower prices) don’t fund their production. Books are an 80/20 endeavour. In other words, twenty per cent of the books (or less) make eighty per cent (or more) of the profits. The massive amount of irregular book buyers buying one or two overpriced books a year fund all the other books that more dedicated, passionate (and proportionately fewer) readers buy regularly and enjoy.

So what’s the solution to this conundrum? Publishers have used book windowing to try to address this issue – retaining profits while still (eventually) making books affordable. Book windowing, for those who don’t know the term, describes the practice of selling hardbacks or trade paperbacks (the bigger paperbacks) at a higher price on a book’s release, then selling smaller paperbacks at a lower price later. However, windowing is under serious threat from ebooks, and, it can be argued, doesn’t seem to make much sense in a digital world.

Some would argue that publishers simply don’t have a place in the book world any longer. I disagree vehemently (as you’d expect). There is still a valid role for gatekeepers in the chaotic world of indie and self-publishing (follow the link if you want a good argument for it – Rich Adin does it admirably well). The fact that traditional publishers successfully act as curators of book content is part of why they can charge more for their ebooks and still sell more copies than most self-published titles – yet still people complain.

So what is the solution to this problem? Or is it even a problem? Is the customer always right? Should book prices be lower than they are? Is windowing a fair way of distributing the cost of producing books? What do you think? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Self-publishing Success Stories

I’ve generally been quite sceptical of self-publishing success stories in the past, largely to do with the prevalence of traditionally published authors turned self-publishers among their ranks. However, as was pointed out on JA Konrath’s website the other day, there are a number of self-published authors finding success using new digital publishing techniques who cannot be claimed by traditional publishing in any way shape or form.

One of those success stories is Amanda Hocking. According to the figures linked to above, Hocking sold – hold on to your hats people – over 100,000 copies of her books (both digital and print-on-demand) in December of 2010 alone.

Hocking sells her frontlist digital books for $2.99 and backlist for only $0.99, and sells the paper copies (through Createspace and via Amazon) for only $8.99. Considering Amazon’s cut for digital royalties is 70%, this means that Hocking made a minimum of $US70,000 in December alone – and it’s far more likely to be significantly higher than that.

This incredible success story looks to have only started in the last year – according to Amazon, the first book came out in March 2010, and she has put out more than a book a month since then (I presume some of them, at least, were written before she started putting them up on Amazon for sale – perhaps after she failed to attract a traditional publisher – but perhaps not). They’re not short either – the first book in her vampire series (pictured above) is just a mite over 80,000 words – respectable for a YA author.

Now, I haven’t read any of these books yet (although I’ve bought one, and am looking forward to having a read), so I can’t attest to their quality. But I don’t think that this issue is especially important. Selling a hundred thousand books in one month – even if they’re cheaper than a magazine – is something almost any traditional publisher would be willing to put aside their delicate sensibilities for. But it’s hard to imagine why Hocking, or those like her, would ever be tempted into the world of traditional publishing when they’re making a 70% royalty rate by self-publishing and selling in such volume.

And it’s not just the royalty rate. Without a traditional publisher behind her, Hocking is free to sell her books to any international market (Australian Kindle readers will be happy to know her books are available here for the same price as the US), she can experiment with pricing, release schedules, giveaways and social media in ways traditional publishers can’t hope to compete with purely because of the hulking bureaucracy such large companies drag along behind them means they’re just too slow.

Obviously it’s not all roses. I don’t know the full story here. It might be that these sales figures aren’t quite accurate, or there’s another missing piece. And it’s also the case that stores like Amazon are packed to the rafters with millions of self-published authors who have never (and will never) achieve this kind of success. However, this is the first time I have seen how and why a self-published author might get this level of success and not be lured into a contract with a traditional publisher.

At any rate, I look forward to reading Amanda Hocking’s books and having a chat with the seemingly delightful young author at some point in the future.

If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

So I watched The Social Network the other day, and there was a particular scene that grabbed my attention. In the scene, Mark Zuckerberg (the inventor of Facebook) tells a group of Harvard grads who are suing him: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” It took me a moment to parse this zinger, and once I did I thought it might just be stupid. But a couple of items in the ebook news this week made me think of it again.

The first was Joe Konrath’s invented dialogue on his blog between an author and acquisitions editor. To spare you wading through the whole thing, the gist is this: digital avenues to publishing have made traditional publishers rip-off merchants who gouge authors to line their pockets. It plays into a deep vein of mythology in the aspiring author world – publishers are out to get authors, steal their work and change it, steal their profits and then dump them when they prove not to be profitable anymore. And to those authors, I say this: if you wanted to self-publish your book, you’d self-publish your damn book. To Joe Konrath’s credit, he has actually done this, and made a very decent living doing so. But a brief flick through the comments of his blog post are a sideshow of authors who agree with him, but haven’t actually found success by self-publishing their work – digitally or otherwise – all beating the same drum: the publisher is dead, long live the self-publisher.

The other bit of news that has been flittering around the blogosphere over the past week is that Amazon is setting up a script assessment arm. Essentially they’re creating a space for writers to critique each other, with the best scripts that float through the system being passed along to Warner Bros in an exclusive first-look deal. There’ll be cash prizes throughout to motivate writers, and any writer that does get their script successfully turned into a film is guaranteed $200,000 from Amazon. Many bloggers, understandably, are seeing this as the death knell for script assessment, and can easily see Amazon turning their vast infrastructure into doing the same thing for book manuscripts.

I can see the same thing happening. But I’m not as convinced that it’s going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if it did. When Authonomy first started, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Get a community of writers together to assess each others’ writing, and the best will surely rise to the top, to then be skimmed off by enterprising publishers. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t worked fantastically well for HarperCollins. And I don’t believe it will work fantastically well for Amazon either.

The thing about publishing books is that there is a massive proportion of people who read who also want to write. Massive. And here’s the other thing: most of them are bad. So while the theory behind getting writers to do their own filtering is enticing, the logic is flawed. You can’t ask bad writers to assess other bad writers and expect them to find gold. This is why the industry uses a pool of readers, editors, agents, publishers and even other writers to help filter out the bad from the good. All of these people are talented and have a stake in the outcome, and work very hard to maintain a standard of quality in published books. And readers still complain that too many bad books are published. And writers still complain that there are too many ‘gatekeepers’.

So, bring on the self-publishing revolution, I say. Let all would-be writers who cannot get noticed by an agent or publisher publish their own work. And let us see if it succeeds. Because I strongly suspect that if these writers and companies were publishers, they’d already be publishing books.

Books: Just ‘Fodder For Digital Chatter’?

It seems reasonable to assume that the future of book reading is at least going to involve more social networking. The newest ebook readers make connectivity a selling point – the built-in ability to share your views or quotes from a book on Twitter or Facebook is the next logical step, if it hasn’t happened already. This will be the digital equivalent of the bookshelf; except you won’t need to invite people into your home to brag about what you’re reading. Is there a chance, however, as suggested in this article in the New York Times, that this will mean books become merely ‘fodder for digital chatter’?

In my last post I talked about the rise and risks of self-publishing, and received an interesting response from one of the commenters:

I think we’re going to see more and more titles gaining success without going through traditional publishers. With most books being bought online, access to physical outlets … will matter less and less … I think it will come down to author reputation and following. The real success stories will be people who can get their book in front of influential people who will recommend it.

In other words, the future of publishing forecast by this commenter is democratic. Readers, through the medium of Facebook newsfeed algorithms and John Mayer’s tweets, will decide what gets through to you – in just the same way you heard about that funny cat picture. While this might seem both sad and unrealistic to some people, it’s a very common view, especially on the internet. The internet, in fact, has turned us all into writers, musicians, actors and journalists. There are so many people out there creating content that the vast majority of it remains unseen – at least until a highschool student from Idaho mashes up the video/poem/blog post and turns it into a meme.

Books, for the most part, have been immune to this type of thing. This might be because they’re long and not very easy to cut up into small pieces, but it might also be that there isn’t all that much digital access just yet. As this changes, it’s likely we’re going to see more “OMG LOL did u here about Banquo? Mbeth totally pwned his ass”.

Is this a terrible thing? I’m certainly not at the point where I have to tweet every funny line of every book I’m reading, but I’ll often turn to the person next to me and share something that made me laugh. At other times I’ll be itching to tell a particular group of friends about something specific I’m reading. Is moving this behaviour onto social networking so very wrong? It certainly feels … weird. Like a transgression of some kind. But I’m not sure why. What do you think?

Value Added: Is Traditional Publishing Obsolete?

A staggering 764,448 titles were produced in 2009 by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers, according to statistics released this morning by R.R. Bowker. The number of “nontraditional” titles dwarfed that of traditional books whose output slipped to 288,355 last year from 289,729 in 2008. Taken together, total book output rose 87% last year, to over 1 million books.

– Publishers Weekly

The internet and print-on-demand technology has made possible a gigantic leap forward in self-publishing in the last couple of years. Services like produce thousands of books per year by budding authors. In this environment, where anybody with the patience to sit down and write 70,000 words can get ‘published’, it begs the question – what value does the traditional publishing industry add to books?

This is especially pertinent with the rise in ebooks, as publishers defend the value of their intellectual property over their access to print and distribution services. If the author writes the material, and the publisher is no longer printing or distributing it – then what is it they actually do?

Matthew Reilly’s Contest was self-published before being picked up by a major publishing house. Last Christmas he was the biggest selling Australian author. Original copies of the self-published edition sell for over a thousand dollars.

Quite a lot, actually. The road to publication, from acquisition, through editorial, marketing, publicity and ultimately sales and distribution is one that traditional publishers have been perfecting for decades. I have witnessed books being torn apart and put back together by committed editors. Publicists, sales people and marketers work tirelessly to promote an author in whom they passionately believe, but who may have sold hardly any copies. Publishers develop their authors, book by book, over a number of years before seeing any kind of success. In other words: authors are not born – they are made.

The proof of this is in the pudding. Although the internet is full of people complaining that publishers don’t actually do anything, this doesn’t translate to the books people buy. There are very few self-publishing success stories – the fact remains that in order for a writer to be read, their book needs to get picked up by a traditional publishing house.

What do you think? Have you ever bought a self-published book? Do you regularly read self-published books? Do you think traditional publishers are obsolete? In what ways have traditional publishers failed their readership? If you are a budding writer – is self-publishing a viable option for you?