Friday, May 13, 2011

Me On Joe Konrath's Blog

EBook guru Joe Konrath gave me the honour of posting on his blog yesterday - then the gremlins at Blogger promptly took the whole posting down for twelve hours! Anyway, it's back up now - CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

Joe and I will be working on a project together late summer - all very hush hush but I'm very excited about it!

Just in case the gremlins get to work again, this is what I posted on Joe's blog. I was pleasantly surprised at how supportive the comments were from Joe himself, and from his readers. There were 81 comments within a few hours, almost all of them favourable, but you'll have to take my word for that because the Blogger gremlins wiped them all!

Anyway, this is what I wrote -

I stand in awe of Joe and his success selling eBooks. And I’m no slouch myself – I’ve sold more than 250,000 eBooks on Kindle alone since Christmas, almost all of them in the UK. (I’m sure you remember the UK – we’re the guys whose nuts you pulled out of the fire sixty-six years ago, for which many thanks!)

Joe is at the vanguard of ePublishing, shouting from the rooftops that traditional publishing is dead and the self-publishing is the way to go. Long live the revolution!

Is he right? You know, deep down I think he probably is, but I’ve just signed a new three-book deal with my UK publisher for close to $500,000. Could I make more money doing it myself? Yes, probably. So why don’t I? Here’s the thing. I love books. Real books. I always have done. And one of the biggest kicks I get is to walk into a bookstore and see a shelf-full of my books. I’ve got more than twenty ‘real’ books in print so often I get a shelf to myself. And I get an even bigger kick if my 12-year-old daughter is with me and she can see for herself the results of Dad locking himself away on the laptop for hours on end. I never get the same kick when I see someone reading a Kindle. It’s just not the same. So I’ll be sticking with real books, for a while longer at least!

But for most writers, a traditional publishing deal just isn’t possible. It used to be that a writer could send his work off to pretty much any publishing house and someone there would read it. I came up through the ‘slush pile’ and so did most of the writers of my generation. But one by one the publishers stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts and agents became the new gatekeepers.

Literary agents in the UK are actually quite nice people, but they are a totally different animal in the US and I do understand the frustrations writers face when trying to get an agent in America. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve only met one decent human being working as a literary agent in the States – the rest have been horrible, self-centred, arrogant shits. Pardon my French. They seem to take pleasure in denying writers access to publishers and I for one hope take pleasure in the fact that the new ePublishing route cuts them out of the loop. Good riddance, hopefully.
So I do understand why so many writers are embracing Joe’s philosophy and turning to self-publishing eBooks. But there is one cold hard fact that I don’t seem to see anywhere on the blogs and forums devoted to ePublishing. You probably won’t like hearing it, especially if you are one of the new wave of “Indie” writers. But I’m going to say it anyway. Here goes. The vast majority of self-published eBooks are bad. Worse than bad. Awful. There, I’ve said it.

By “bad” I don’t just been badly formatted or lacking originality. I mean badly written. Bad punctuation. Clich├ęd descriptions. Clunky dialogue. And here’s the thing. When I hear “Indie” writers talking about their books, all they seem to talk about is how they go about marketing their work. How they blog, how they work their Facebook contacts, how they post on the forums. I never hear them talking about how they want to improve their craft. For most of the ones I come across it’s all about the selling. I get emails all the time from “Indie” writers asking me what the secret is to selling a lot of eBooks. I don’t get any asking how they can become better writers.

Here’s another home truth that I always used to tell wannabe writers. A good book will be published, eventually, by a traditional publishing house. A bad book almost certainly won’t be. The fact that Amazon and Smashwords have no quality controls in place mean that home truth no longer applies. Any book can be published. The floodgates have opened. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I think of writing a book as being akin to running a marathon. Anyone who finishes a marathon deserves kudos. It’s a long haul. It’s hard work. But just because you’ve run a marathon doesn’t mean you should be running at the Olympics.

If you have written a book then you deserve a pat on the back. Well done you. But just because you’ve written a book doesn’t mean it’s good enough to be published. And just because you’ve been published doesn’t mean that people will buy it. It seems to me that the rush to embrace self-publishing means that the quality of the work has become secondary to the marketing of it.

Every “Indie” writer now has a blog, mostly pale imitations of Joe’s, they have a Facebook presence which they use to constantly push their work, (a quarter of my Facebook “friends” are writers who do nothing other than post about their books) and they spend hours on the various eBook forums. It’s all about the marketing. They ask for other writers to tag their books, they get friends and family to post favourable reviews (it’s amazing how many self-published eBooks start of with half a dozen five-star reviews on Amazon, mostly from readers who have only ever reviewed the one book) and they share Tweets with other writers. Every “Indie” writer is following the same formula. Sell, sell, sell. The quality of the work seems to have got lost in the process.

A very wise friend once told me about the Rule Of Ten Thousand. Basically he took the view that it takes ten thousand hours to acquire any skill. That’s about how long it takes to learn a foreign language, or play the piano proficiently, or play pool expertly, or become a good poker player. It applies to almost everything (except maybe free-fall parachuting).

My first book was published, by Harper Collins, but by the time I had written it I had been working as a journalist for more than ten years and so had been writing for at last 10,000 hours. To be honest, I didn’t hit my stride until my fourth book.

Let’s say you write for two hours a day. That means you hit the 10,000 hours after 5,000 days, which is what, thirteen years? And yes, that’s probably how long it has taken most writers to reach the stage where they get published. Writing for the most part is a craft. A skill that has to be learned. Very few writers published the traditional way see their first book in print. It’s often their fifth or sixth that is good enough to be published. Jack Higgins famously wasn’t published until after he’d written more than a dozen novels and he didn’t achieve any real success until his 36th – The Eagle Has Landed.

EPublishing has removed that learning curve. Now any book can be published, no matter how awful. And I think that’s bad for writers. The one or two times I have suggested that a writer spend some time improving their craft I’ve had abuse heaped on me so these days I don’t bother saying anything. Yes, “Indie” writers need to sell their work, yes marketing is important, maybe vital, but let’s not let the medium become the message. My advice to any writer who has finished their first book is to relax, take a deep breath, and start the next one. Send your first novel out to every agent there is, and see what happens. You will probably be ignored, you might get a one-line rejection, but the fact is that if the book is good then it will be picked up. Eventually. And if you can’t get an agent, maybe consider that the book isn’t very good and make the next one better. And make the one after that even better.

Once you’ve done your ten thousand hours you can consider yourself a real writer and at that point you can go back and examine your early work. You’ll probably realise how much it can be improved, or maybe that it’s simply not publishable. And if after you’ve done your ten thousand hours you still haven’t got an agent or a publishing deal, then maybe you should think about self-publishing.

Even as I write this I can feel Joe at my shoulder saying ‘What about the money?’ Yes, I know that as a self-published writer you get to keep a bigger chunk of the profits. Yes I know that it’s ridiculous that the traditional publishers keep up to 85 per cent of the money they make from selling eBooks. Yes, it is a fact that you can get an eBook up within hours but a real books takes up to a year from delivery to being on the shelves. But for me at least, being a writer is about producing quality work. Work that I can be proud of. And that takes time and effort. I’m a better writer now than when I started because I have been traditionally published for more than twenty years. I really believe that if the Kindle had been around twenty years ago and I had rushed into self-publishing I would probably have made a lot of money but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good a writer as I am. And for me, it’s the writing that matters.


  1. You sound as though you believe that a book that is not printed by the giant New York publishing houses isn't any good. When you say most e-books aren't any good, you're implying in the same breath that most books printed in New York ARE good. Do you really believe that most books being printed in New York are, for that very reason, good?

    It sounds like you're saying that a writer isn't a writer unless he is anointed one by the New York publishing houses. You put too much faith in the ability of the New York agents and editors to recognize literary talent. What gives them this ability? The fact that most of them attended Ivy League universities?

    Again, I think you put too much stock in the ability of New York agents and editors to spot literary talent.

  2. So I guess the real question is, how do you get better as a writer. And I mean beyond the whole idea of, write, write, write. That's not good enough. Imperfect practice only makes you perfect at imperfect habits. So short of getting a masters degree in English or something, "how do you get better as a writer, if you don't have access to editors that are giving you notes, and directional suggestions.

  3. Sure, I'd say that most self-published books are bad, really bad, and that most books printed in NY are good. But of course there are exceptions. Hey, I haven't had a US publishing deal in more than twenty years so of course there are exceptions. And believe me, I have no respect for NY publishers and agents. Horrible bunch of people, mainly....

  4. A masters degree in English won't help you write. Read the best and learn from them. Learn to recognise what is good writing and what isn't. And as Joe Konrath always says - DON'T WRITE SHIT.

  5. Dear Mr. Leather,

    I've been a fan since I read Vets, some time ago. I generally agree with your observations, though in some cases, I think the Rule of 10,000 is be a bit light. I invested at least that much time in attempts at Mandarin, and my utterances on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing yielded only bemused head scratches, or an escort to the nearest public toilet.

    I was more successful with writing. I put in 30 to 40 hours a week on my first book for 5 years (well over a dozen drafts). I read countless books on editing and craft, and when I thought my work polished to a high gloss, I hired an editor. When he declared it rubbish (kindly, because I was paying), I started over. Now I have what I (and the editor) believe is a commercially viable manuscript.

    It is here that I respectfully disagree with your premise “if the book is good then it will be picked up. Eventually.” From my unpublished perspective, the barriers to traditional publication seem to be rising as the barriers to self-publishing collapse. The world of ebooks might be exploding, but print is contracting, especially given the Borders bankruptcy.

    I tried for 6 months to secure an agent. I researched the process exhaustively, and wrote and polished pitches, query letters, etc. I targeted agents by genre and read their blogs to personalize my queries. I didn’t collect Joe Konrath’s +500 rejections, so perhaps in that regard, I haven’t ‘paid my dues,’ but I did log +75 rejections. A few agents requested partials and two then asked for fulls. One then inexplicably left the business. I heard nothing from the other until I sent a polite follow up query four months later, only to learn she had apparently misplaced the manuscript. I sent another, which also apparently disappeared into her ‘system.’ I believe your assessment of U.S. agents to be spot on, though I would amend it slightly to “horrible, self-centered, arrogant, incompetent shits.”

    At that point, I took a step back. Viewed objectively, the path to traditional publication (at least here in the U.S.) appeared anything but rational. Signing with an agent has become almost an end in itself, and a cottage industry has sprung up around the quest. Dozens of websites and hundreds of books are dedicated, not so much to publication, but to securing an agent. Being ‘agented’ has become a mark of success in and of itself, regardless of the pedigree of the agent. Would be authors rush to every new agent as if they were fighting for a place in the last lifeboat to leave the Titanic. Indeed, one new agent who recently signed a number of hopefuls has yet to sell a single novel. She’s nineteen years old.

    While mulling this ridiculous process several months back, I ran across Joe K’s blog. I initially dismissed his ideas. After all, I didn’t want to be seen as one of those pathetic individuals “not good enough” to make it traditionally. But the more I read, the more it made sense. I will concede that much (OK, maybe most) of what is currently being self-published is crap. However, I would point out that a lot of what is traditionally published is crap as well, and as profit margins in traditional publishing are squeezed, less attention is given to editing. I believe the quality of traditionally published work will decrease, even as the availability of quality self-published works increase.

    At any rate, I prefer to take my chances and succeed or fail on my own. Since I made that decision, and abandoned the soul-destroying agent quest, I’m enjoying life immensely. I’m back at work on the second book, even as my first is with a proofreader and an artist is working on a cover. I have no illusions of overnight success, but am confident that over time, my work will find a readership. As Joe points out, the only gate keepers who really matter are called readers.

    I do admire your work and respect your opinion, but given what I see of the path to traditional publication, I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to be published ‘eventually.’

    Best Regards,

    Bob McDermott

  6. I'm glad you did the post on Konrath's site. Looking forward to reading The Tunnel Rats and The Double Tap. I'm an author myself(children's books). Curious about your writing regiment. Do you aim for so many pages per day, or do you write when the story moves you to write? Thanks in advance.

  7. Dear Stephen,

    I saw your post over at Joe Konrath's, and I'm very appreciative for the guidance. I don't think most authors are naive enough to believe that they'll get rich like some sort of Ponzi scheme, but it's good to get a dose of reality from someone in the business that things aren't easy.

    I'm just starting out and my biggest fear is that people (friends, family, colleagues at the office) will be afraid to tell me when my writing is shit. As you know, this is problem in Thailand where no one ever constructively criticizes anyone else. My initial strategy is to try submitting some short stories and flash pieces to blogs and let the readers grill me. The power of anonymity can really make people impolite, which is what I need at the moment. I hope it improves my game a bit.

    BTW, I enjoyed your story in Bangkok Noir and thought it was one of the better ones. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  8. Oh, hush hush! Fun!

    Looking forward to the big reveal.