A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the flood of self-published books that don't get accounted in the statistics one reads about e-books. In response, I heard from several self-published authors, most of them writing fiction, who exist in this near-invisible economy, and exist quite well. I spoke to a couple of them about how they do it.
Most of them admit that their writing is a hobby rather than a profession, but then, most conventionally published Canadian authors of fiction would have to say the same thing. We all earn a few thousand dollars a year from advances, royalties and possibly grants – occasionally a prize – but we must all earn a real living doing something else, something that will pay for the time to write our books. The self-published manage to do the same, but avoid publishing houses, granting bodies and academic institutions – all the pillars of the conventional author's economic life.
I spoke at length to one moderately successful self-published Canadian author about what distinguishes this literary world from the one you hear discussed on the book shows on the CBC. Tudor Robins, who lives in Ottawa, has a burbling cottage industry writing, promoting and selling young-adult books about horses. The stories are set in posh stables and at shows, and involve teenage girls dealing with first love, the loss of favourite horses and the occasional eating disorder. They are replete with technical details about riding. There is an element of romance to them, although they are demure in their sexuality. In other words, they fit a very narrow genre, but one with a widespread audience, particularly in the United States.
She has published five of these novels, one of them – the first – with a conventional small publisher. That book, Objects in Mirror, did okay, but she was frustrated with the lack of control she had over the process. The publisher did not do much for her in the way of publicity, she could not control the cover design, and she had no say over the timeline of its publication or the price of the e-book (which, she felt, was priced way too high at $12.99) or even whether or not it was for sale on Amazon. She decided that she could do better alone.
Her subsequent books have been self-published with the CreateSpace program, a service that helps you create an e-book or a physical book and sell it through Amazon. The physical books are print-on-demand: That is, if one customer orders one copy, one copy is printed and sent. The author doesn't have to house and ship the books herself. The author sets the list price herself. Robins sets her print book prices at around $10; she gets a 35-per-cent royalty from Amazon. But print makes up only 5 per cent of her sales. The rest are e-books that she sells for $2.99 – and of that she gets a whopping $2.07 in royalties.
Compare this with the pricing of conventional trade paperbacks. A literary novel with a small Canadian press will sell for around $20, and the author usually receives 10 per cent of this, so $2 a book. In other words, the same. But how many more books are you going to sell at $2.99 than at $20?
Ah, yes, but, you may say, how does one promote these books, published under the radar of the media or the prize juries, in the great silent forest of falling trees that is the Internet? The answer is in niches. If you are writing about a specific subject, such as girls and horses, it's easy to find online communities and appeal to them. Robins is a wizard at communication, engagement and self-promotion. Her website (tudorrobins.ca) is slick and extensive and easy to buy from. She has created a group of other horse-themed YA writers who promote each other's work and share technical advice. She paid a promotional service to create for her a "blog tour" – a virtual tour that involves appearances on book blogs across North America. She paid to belong to a co-op that got her space on NetGalley, the service that sends review copies to bloggers and librarians.
The list of things that Robins does to promote her work is exhausting. She navigates a daunting system with lots of secret passageways in it. She makes a book available for free download every now and then on Amazon, and watches the numbers for her new book spike as a result. She manages a newsletter for horse-interested people.
Now, I know from experience that just compiling the e-addresses for a regular newsletter is a time-churning and tedious task, one that I did not train to do, in all those hours studying rhyme schemes and enjambment and the morphology of the Russian folk tale. All this work is traditionally the domain of a publisher's publicity department. But Robins estimates that only 30 per cent of her working hours are spent doing the administration, and 70 per cent writing. And besides, even traditional publishers are telling their authors that they should be doing all this stuff, too.
Can she live on the proceeds of her writing? No, but neither can we. Her best-selling books have sold in the thousands of copies (just like ours); her income from them is a few thousand dollars a year. Very similar numbers to those of respected, critically acclaimed mid-list authors who appear on The Next Chapter, if you average out their good and fallow years (they might make $20,000 in one year and none for the next two).
Does Robins miss the limelight, though, the ego-gratification that happens when one is reviewed in a real newspaper or interviewed on the national broadcaster? The sense of importance in the culture? Not in the least, she says. What she relishes is "engagement with readers."
Ah, engagement – a concept dreaded by writers of my generation. It means we have to have a personality that readers think they are interacting with; it means we have to seem like their friend. Robins is great at creating this sense of community: She even has a section on her website with advice for aspiring writers.
Would Robins's approach work for the non-niche novel? How does one define the readership of a literary novel about, say, adults in the contemporary world who do a lot of drugs? There is no clear reader demographic there, no region, no income level, no common age. That readership does not seek out books by subject matter; they do not come to Karl Ove Knausgaard by browsing the Amazon category "Norway." They do not, I think, come to Nino Ricci's latest novel because they are part of a support group on sleep disorders. Their discussion group is literature as a whole.
Robins is optimistic that I could self-sell my pessimistic urban comic fiction if I just labelled it the right way, if I just found the subject category that would attract a whole new set of non-snob readers. Maybe I could put it in the "mental illness" category. I'm not so sure. But perhaps I am just so blinded by my adherence to a completely outmoded and unpopular system that I cannot even see new opportunities.
Robins stresses one thing that hardly anyone can deny: Reviews in the mainstream media make absolutely no difference to her sales. What affects her bottom line is reader reviews. One of her books has received 131 reviews on Amazon. That is an astounding number. Compare Margaret Atwood's latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, published by McClelland and Stewart – it currently has 29 reviews on Amazon.ca.