This is a story about the end of the gatekeeper. About the movement spreading throughout media, from which book publishing is hardly exempt, as readers of Harry Potter, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have made all too clear.
It's about the reading public – the great unwashed, the hoi polloi – no longer letting tastemakers decide what's worth reading. It's about the masses seizing the means of publication.
In short, it's about choosing for ourselves.
Publishing is an injured beast, but it was mortally wounded before Amazon attacked. And the injuries themselves are partly self-inflicted.
The proof? The vast majority of top-heavy legacy publishers' books – agented, edited, sales-managed, otherwise massaged, and only then published – tank, sinking with nary a trace. Conversely, some books, refused by dozens of publishers, go on to achieve rockstardom when some kindly soul finally deigns to bring them to market.
Which means only one thing: Despite their vast education, experience and good taste, publishers have only about a quarter of a clue what the public really wants. For publishers, it's "the end of the world as they know it."
And I feel fine.
How's this for a story?
Mild-mannered Vancouver recreational-vehicle sales manager hits midlife and decides it's time for some changes. Big changes. He sobers up, gets a divorce, takes up running, remembers he's always wanted to be a writer, and enrolls in community writing courses.
Five years later, his mixed-genre coming of age/romantic suspense novel, My Temporary Life, is making the rounds of agents and publishers.
The book is rejected nearly 130 times.
For three more years, our hero perseveres, because that's what heroes do. He has a businessman's "buy-in" to the process, accepting that his product could be judged unsalable. (Nothing personal.) Aside from all those professional reader rejections, he's receiving an endless stream of compliments from every real, live, non-professional reader his book encounters – relatives, writing-class co-conspirators, friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends. He keeps going because he's just this really swell, grounded guy, seemingly without a resentful bone in his body.
You know, like most writers.
Maybe it's the 12-step program
Ultimately, our hero decides – is forced – to self-publish, which, being who he is, he welcomes. "It was either quit and not do any more with it, or self-publish," he says.
His e-book went live in December, 2011. In January, he sold $100 worth. Two-and-a-half months later, he embraced the strategy I'll spell out later: Readers have since snapped up 86,000 copies. A Canadian bestseller is 5,000 copies.
At Amazon.com, our hero is the e-book equivalent of an implanted, spray-tanned, maple-syrup-smeared Playboy centerfold, earning $45,000 in February alone. E-book sales approached $5,000 in March, with another 16,000 giveaways.
Now writing My Name Is Hardly, about a character from My Temporary Life, please give a warm welcome to – your self-published hero and mine – Kilmarnock, Scotland-born Martin Crosbie, currently personifying happily ever after.
Published but no cigar
My own book, The Meaning of Children, was released in Canada last spring, also following a midlife crisis. Winner of the David Adams Richards Prize, it garnered some magnificent feedback from readers and reviewers. "Captivating," "pitch-perfect prose," "a life-altering read," "resonates with the sad truth of being a grownup," and "touching without being maudlin, a true literary feat," readers said. Readers who weren't my mother.
The book surprisingly made the CBC-Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers' Choice Contest Top 10. (Okay, I came 10th, but the actual David Adams Richards was ninth. Besides, what do you call the doctor who graduates at the bottom of his class?)
Still, the book didn't do as well as I'd hoped: A small literary publisher can mean little publicity compounded, in my case, by distribution woes. Like Martin Crosbie, I remained convinced my book had great U.S. market potential, but I tried and failed to find American representation (though I didn't have it in me to try 130 times).
My Canadian publisher wanted the rights, but I became convinced I probably wouldn't do a worse job myself. I prepared to self-publish an e-version, knowing if I wanted much of a readership, I'd have to personally market the hell out of The Meaning of Children (how am I doing so far?). I stepped up my social-media campaign, and that's how I "met" Martin Crosbie, on Facebook, in early March. His post was eye-popping, if in need of editing: "This is the story of what happened when I hit #1 on Amazon's Rankings!"
What's it like to be vindicated, author of the latest e-book sensation? "We sat in the car and read the newest reviews. Two of them made us cry. It's an amazing experience to read about how your work, your characters, touch another person the same way it touched you. ... The sales figures are amazing … but the almost overwhelming part is that you have an opportunity to touch so many people."
Here was a guy who'd made a silk purse out of a novel nearly 130 members of the snooterati deemed a sow's ear.
I "liked" his post and submitted my book to Kindle the very next day. Martin was approachable and encouraging, so I asked him for help. And man, did he give it – pages and pages of advice.
How did he do that? Or, how to make a Canadian bestseller
First, recognize that being your own publicist requires a major time investment. On the other hand, the gun registry is a twitching corpse and there won't be a federal election for a few more years, so there's no point wasting any more time on politics. Besides, who knows or cares more about your book than you do?
1. Write a good book: Duh … and not something Martin told me; genre novels may work best. Martin's book is a cross-genre mash-up, a big reason, he surmises, it was rejected repeatedly: It was unclassifiable.
2. "Pay it forward" to other indie writers (that's what they call themselves): Martin received essential help from a couple of Amazon authors, Robert Bidinotto and Kenneth Tingle. Without them, he says, he'd be nowhere. Bidinotto rewrote Martin's synopsis, told him to get a new cover, and passed on much of the advice that follows. And that's why Martin advises a "How can I help you" vs. "why should I help you?" attitude. (Who knows, this shift may prove useful in other areas of your life. Get a lobotomy if necessary. Or restart that lapsed antidepressant prescription.)
3. My heart belongs to Amazon. Bidinotto's key message: Use Amazon's unique Kindle Direct Publishing Select program (KDP). Amazon gets the exclusive right to sell your work for three months at a time, and also pays you to lend your book to their huge bank of subscribers, Amazon Prime members. For an annual fee, Prime members may borrow a book a month from the KDP collection (there are other advantages, too). Authors can generate substantial income just from these loans: $1.65 per download the first month to $2.18 the third month, in Martin's experience (thousands and thousands of downloads).
4. Freebies: an indispensable promotional tool, five free days in each three-month KDP period. Thousands of free downloads rockets your book up the sales chart, piques reader interest, and hopefully generates those all-important reader reviews. "The rule of thumb is: For every three you give away, you'll sell one. So give lots away!" (Open, generous and giving. Remember, you're channelling Oprah.) Best days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. "The early part of the month is the worst."
5. Publicize upcoming free days, especially on Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today (suspend your inner snark). Reflect the freebie in your book's tags. Use Twitter and post in as many reader, Kindle and Facebook writer groups as possible.
6. Contact reviewers, review sites, top Amazon reviewers, and other indie authors who have sold lots of books. Buy their books and review them. Ask them for help.
7. Pricing: Martin "tried the 99-cent thing." Verdict? "It makes us look self-published and unprofessional. I really believe that now." The e-version of My Temporary Life is $3.99 – though John Locke, the first self-published author to sell a million Kindle books, counsels the contrary.
10. Time (the writer's greatest sacrifice): Even when Martin works at the RV centre, he still finds five hours daily for promotion; other days, it's 14 hours (bottles of Clear Eyes and Visine are scattered round the house). He's virtually anywhere people talk about books online. But if time is money, money also buys time; i.e. if you earn well on this book, you're buying time for your next.
Tech changes: Get over it
One more point that's probably de rigueur for the Martin-wannabe: An e-reader. "Get" the technology. Embrace it.
Personally, I still prefer books. But the world is changing and no one – least of all a garden-variety writer – can divert that iceberg bearing down on publishing's Titanic. Maybe J.K. Rowling … but I hear she's self-publishing now, too.
Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer whose e-book, The Meaning of Children, is available on Amazon.com; the paperback, not so much.