Sunday, January 13, 2013

Publishing and Marketing Your Crap

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



I get emails from The Writer's Store in Burbank, CA, because I teach there from time to time. It’s a great store that offers a wide variety of classes, many of which interest me. This one really caught my eye:


Publishing and Marketing Your Crap

Now there is an honestly titled workshop! Or so I thought for about a second. Then I realized what happened was that the subject line in my email viewer cut off the full title. And looking closer I saw that the C was really a G, and the actual title was: Publishing and Marketing Your Graphic Novel.

Nerts! I was really interested in the other one, just to see what the curriculum would look like. So, with a catchy title and no workshop, I now offer some notes on how to publish and market your crap.

1. Write fast, but with this caution: don't ever worry about growing as a writer. Believe that if you write in a genre, especially erotica, the quality of the writing doesn’t matter.  

2. Don't seek anyone else's opinion about your writing, especially people you have to pay, like a freelance editor. Save your money (you're going to need it).

3. Design your own cover. 

4. Upload your book.

5. Market your books by setting up robo tweets, at least eleven each day, urging people to buy your book. You don't have time to actually interact with people on social media. You should be busy writing your next piece of crap!

Okay, all seriousness aside, the issue of fast production versus quality of product is crucially important. It was recently given treatment by astute industry observer Jane Friedman. On her blog she suggested that “commodity writing” (as opposed to “literary writing”) has a chance to do well in the indie world because it can be churned out to an audience that reads these things “like candy.” She laid out the formula this way:

1. Write a ton of material.
2. Publish it yourself on all the digital platforms.
3. Repeat as quickly as possible.
4. Make a living as a writer.

Then Jane added a line that produced no small amount of blowback: “This model doesn’t care about quality.”

Indie sensation C. J. Lyons responded with a comment: “But I disagree with your point that indy writers are not concerned with quality. It's not just writing a book and repeating that leads to success, it's writing a GREAT book, one that will delight and inspire your readers to tell their friends and share it with the world, then repeat.”

Jane clarified that she was not advocating this view, but that it seems to be somewhat prevalent among those going indie.

The fertile keyboard of Porter Anderson tapped out a discussion of all this for his popular Writing on the Ether column, which prompted yours truly to add a comment of his own:

Re: "commodity" publishing. I've been saying this ever since "the boom" was a boomlet and people were going, "Whu?" about digital publishing: it's like the mass market boom post WWII. Fast, cheap, genre, and it sold a ton. And a lot of it wasn't, well, all that great. But guess what? Within that market emerged those who WERE writing with an obvious quality. John D. MacDonald. Gil Brewer. Charles Williams. Richard Prather. Ross Macdonald. And guess what else? They rose to the top. Or maybe not all the way to the top, but certainly more than halfway up the glass.
So "quality" (an amorphous thing like obscenity, which one Supreme Court justice defined as "I know it when I see it") is definitely something the indie writer ought to pursue if he or she really want to increase the odds of making real bank at this game. It's not just about numbers. My "formula" is quality + production + time.
How does one add "quality" to the writing? Study the freaking craft. Not just on one weekend. Every day, learn something, in what you read, in what you write. But carve out specific times for study, too. I don't want a brain surgeon who just surges. I want him reading the journals and going to conferences and learning to do what he does even better. Then I may be able to keep what little brain I have left.

So my bottom line is this. There may be some who argue that quality doesn’t matter and sheer volume will bring in the big dough. Allowing for the occasional exception, I say it won't. You've still got this pesky thing called a reader you have to please. If readers don't like the first book of yours they try, they're most unlikely to buy any of the other 37. 

Yes, quality is in the eye of the beholder. So behold your own work, and kick it up a notch. This is the only way to improve the chances that your books won’t get dumped into the great white bowl of literary obscurity.

Flush with optimism in 2013, I remain,

Your humble correspondent.

44 comments:

  1. I know it's late at night, because that closing line had me wiping away tears of laughter.

    New year's resolution: not to publish crap until it's been polished. :-D

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  2. I promise to not ever publish fecal matter. Not matter what. Because fecal matter published and sent to the public leads to bacterial infections and all manner of unpleasant odours that are conducive to scrinching of the nose and twitching of the eyes and people saying things like, "What the?...This is crap!"

    Therefore I vow to publish only non-fecal, crapless, down to earth purely good stories worthy of smiles, health, and generally happy populations of healthy people singing odes to joy and hugging and dancing and singing in the streets...tra la...tra la...tra le dee da....and so and so on...ad infinitum...

    Till death do us part...in crapless bliss and non-fecal harmony.

    a few years back I read about special charcoal filtered underpants that, upon flatulation, emitted a cherry scent to cover the unpleasant odour. maybe that is what writers of crap need...books that emit a cherry flavoured scent upon opening to warn readers of the amount of crap contained therein...whilst good books smell like vanilla and almonds maybe.

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    1. We can always count on you, Basil, to expand upon the posted material. You have a nose for this sort of thing!

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  3. LOL! Wonder how fast registration would fill up for the "Publishing and Marketing Your Crap" class? 8-)

    I promise to keep my crap in my drawer(s) and work hard to put the good stuff before the public reading rooms. 8-)

    BK Jackson

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  4. Too funny. Got me to click over and read. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. James

    I agree with you on the learn something every day principle. So here's a question for you: when you isolate something you can learn....do you specifically practice that? And if so, how do YOU do that?

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    1. Excellent question, JJ. In fact, I urge writers to regularly look at the seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, voice, theme, and see where they are in each. Then try to improve, even a little, in each, but concentrate on the area you're weakest in.

      Then design a self study course. I will pull writing books off my shelf that deal with the area, and restudy. I will gather some novels I know do that thing well, and read them over again, or at least passages. And then I will indeed practice what I learn. I may do an exercise I design, or actually incorporate it into a scene I'm working on.

      It's just like off season work in sports. Strengthen what's good, work on what's weak.

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    2. Thanks for the answer...good answer too.

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  6. Hilarious. I am writing and polishing my crap as fast as I can! Thanks for a good laugh and some good advice!

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  7. Jim, In the end, I see mostly two general types of writers putting out ebooks--those who care about quality, those who care about money. Rare indeed is the writer who cares about both. I congratulate you on being one of a tiny minority of authors, and appreciate your teaching this philosophy as well as living it.

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    1. My thanks, Doc. And I do happen to think that consistent quality over time does lead to more dime, as a general rule. Again, with some exceptions, you don't have the latter without the former.

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  8. Remember to polish your crap before publishing it, so it will stand out from all the rest of the crap out there.

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  9. Awesome title!

    When I got to the part about quality of writing doesn't matter my mind did a double take. "What's wrong with Jim?" I thought. "Has he been replaced by one of the pod people?"

    Then I kept reading and I got the joke. I'm a little slow this morning. I blame being up and down with the baby all night.

    Love this post!

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    1. Thanks for reading on to the end, Elizabeth. And no worries. The question "What's wrong with Jim?" has been asked many a time before.

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  10. Loved the post! The scary part is that too many aspiring authors will take those five steps to success way, way too seriously.

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  11. You know, this is a funny post but it's also a very important one. Because the advent of eBook self-publishing (and the success of some "commodity" authors) has all of us at least thinking about this.

    Personal anecdote: My editor and agent suggested we write an eBook novella to fill the gap before our next Kincaid novel comes out (Feb. 26). We were willing and excited. But the editor wanted it done in two weeks. (even though they would not "publish" it for five months!) We thought, no way, we can't do it. Well, we could have, but it would have been crap. And we knew it.

    So we decided to publish it ourselves and take as long as we needed. It comes out next week and it's not crap. Plus we are getting 70% royalties vs. 15%.

    Hold out. Don't put out crap. No matter how much you are tempted.

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. Kris, that is awesome, and absolutely the right move. Well played. And your publisher should be pleased, because you will make a lot more readers over the long term with the novella you've written than with any "crappy quickie."

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    2. Kris and Jim,
      I'm really interested in how you did that because I'm thinking of writing some short stories or novellas along the way to keep readers interested in my current series, like a Christmas novella I would publish myself. Have very little idea how to do that but I have been studying, Jim, honest. :)Kris, maybe you could post on that when it comes out? I'd love to hear more.

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    3. Thanks for the reminder, Jim. And the cover was one you or your son did? Was this through Smashwords?

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    4. Nancy,
      I am posting this Tuesday about it but only in the context of designing covers for eBooks. But I could do something else on it later. It was actually pretty and we did everything ourselves. Formatting for Amazon et al is not the easiest thing to learn but it CAN be done! What would you like the hear about? Novellas? Or the whole process?

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  12. One last thing: Some writers are hares and some are tortoises. The time it takes to produce a book has no real bearing on its quality. You can spend five years working on your masterpiece and it's still...crap. Then there's Joyce Carol Oates.

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  13. I wish I could make as much money as some of those prolific indie authors, good quality or not.

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    1. I dunno, Nancy. I think you care about quality more than you let on!

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  14. Yeesh, Jim. It's only mid-January and I have to take "make a million by publishing crap" off my resolution list.

    Awesome post. In my oft-mentioned newbie group, I asked for writing resolutions. One of them replied "write 6 novels this year." Okay . . .

    Terri

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    1. Six? OK, well, if that writer learns from each one, maybe...

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  16. I value my time, so I'm not going to pick up another book by an author if the first turns out to be crap. Though I've noticed quite a few books I picked up on recommendations by friends were crap, too. So then I wonder if the crap indie novels are the new normal...

    If they are, I can do better!

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    1. Well, as Theodore Sturgeon put it, 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. So we can't expect books not to be the same, except now there are just so dang many of them.

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  17. I don't think "indie author" and "writing crap" are necessarily synonymous. Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there. But many of us have been writing novels for years, collecting rejections, even signing with an agent who couldn’t sell our novels to editors because they were too dark, not genre-specific, not written in the “author-of-the-day” style, or for a myriad of other reasons. We have a backlist no different than traditionally published authors. We’ve worked hard on these books, employed editors, and learned how to format them ourselves. I worked for over 20 years in advertising as an illustrator, so I did my own covers. We network, do all the obligatory promotion, and join organizations, two of which I’ve recently opted out of because they exclude self-published authors. That will change as more good indie writers rise to the top, which I’m sure will happen--not to mention many traditionally published writers who are taking the indie route. Many of us are serious about quality, and our quantity comes from years of improving our craft by continuing to write while pursuing the traditional paths to publication that left closed doors in our wake. My two cents.

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    1. Right you are, Polly. Those two terms are not synonymous. My post is a plea to get more writers to keep them apart.

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  18. Super premise for a post, Jim! Entertaining and informative. May many more such accidents inspire you!

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  19. After reading some of the comments here I went and read a sample of "Fifty Shades of Grey" since it is the prime example of self-publishing eBook success. God knows I wish I could rake in the money like EL James did (enough to give every employee at Random House a $5,000 bonus? The mind boggles). But that said...

    It. Is. Horrible. Just. Wretched.

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  20. Jim,

    Thank you for the great post. You touched on something specifically that I would like you to further explore if you have time now or in the future as a full post on this blog. The subject is that of having a good twitter feed. I do not mean to come across harshly, but I feel that so many twitter feeds, particularly by indie authors, tend to have the 11-posts-by-bot/follow-back-everyone-engage-no-one/promote-promote-retweet-promote mentality. Yours thankfully does not, and I am sure this due to a great deal of intentionality when engaging the twitterverse (Twittersphere? Twittyville?).

    Anyway, do you feel that twitter runs on a similar dynamic as the one you have described--i.e. a great deal of indies on twitter are producing "crap feeds"? And, if so, how does an author in the modern era maintain a solid, high-quality feed without becoming another "if-you-retweet-me-I-retweet-you" feed-clogger? Any thoughts at any time would be of great value to me as I continue exploring this social media tool.

    Thanks for your work; I continue to glean insight and value from it.

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    1. CJ, you have hit on a great point. In social media, quality counts as well. If someone becomes, as you put is, a "crap feed" producer, it won't be long before that author is completely tuned out. I've seen it happen. It's a waste and a ruin. That writer will have a devil of a time earning back trust.

      I follow a 90/10 policy. I try to make 90% of social media truly interactive, being original, re-tweeting what looks useful to others, adding value as I see it. When I have something to bring to market, I feel I've earned the trust to be able to do that.

      I've seen even well known authors (or their ghosts inside a publishing house or PR firm) make this mistake over and over, and they need to know they are whistling past the graveyard. Some say, "Well, it's a numbers game, just keep doing it."

      Those numbers will not add up.

      Great question, and worthy of contemplation by all who enter this game.

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  21. I especially like your point about robo-tweets. When I was new to twitter I was shocked to figure out that one of my first followers was a certain writer was posting a tweet every hour on the hour of every day (and he only had about 12 different tweets in the rotation).
    No sale, amigo.

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    1. I know! On the naughty list for sure. Santa's not going to be delivering.

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  22. The temptation to "publish faster" is sometimes overwhelming in the indie world. It's hard to keep your eyes on your own page, intent on making your story the best it can be, the full expression of what it's meant to be before releasing it into the world.

    Only the terror of knowing it will be out there forever makes it possible. :)

    #greatpost

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  23. The quality doesn't matter, lol. Yes, tons of crap quality will win everyone over, hahaha.

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  24. 1. The assumption there's a direct relationship between the quality of a work and the time it took to write it is simplistic, highly variable by author, and fallacious. IMHO.

    I believe MADAME BOVARY would have been just as good even if Flaubert didn't spend 5 years putting in a comma in the morning and taking out the same comma in the afternoon.

    And I doubt Frederick Faust (Zane Gray) could have turned RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE into a "literary" classic even if he'd fiddled with it for years.

    2. Who defines what is crap? The 50 Shades books have been dissed in earlier comments. For me, I agree - but who says my opinion is somehow "better" than the millions who have bought and enjoyed those books?

    Or the readers who enjoy some of the indie published authors who have disappointed me?

    I recently read the most recent book in a series by a big -- BIG! -- name author. IMHO, utter trash. Silly without being funny. Were I a first reader, I would have paperclipped the standard rejection slip after one page.

    Yet that author is traditionally published, has many fans who obviously see value where I don't, and makes millions per year.

    Writers should keep learning, true. And the more they write, the faster they'll learn.

    Some will never learn -- at least, not enough.

    Some will turn out what thee and me see as crap, and yet please other readers and make boatloads of money.





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  25. So totally fucking right on I got a literary boner reading it, especially since it essentially mirrors a blog I wrote in November:

    "Just as there are legions of 'filmmakers' with cheap camcorders shooting unscripted badly-lit pimply amateurs replete with cellulite, and selling it to wankers inured to digital dreck because if its pervasiveness, there are countless hacks spewing their jackoff fantasies onto Wordpad, uploading their rough draft to Kindle and calling it 'erotica.' This is akin to coating a turd with golden spray paint, mounting it on a cheap walnut base and calling it an 'award.' On free sites like Fictionmania or Literotica—where the Google description reads, 'porn storys updated daily'—I don’t expect any better, and I certainly won’t waste my time sifting through all the 'awards' to find a genuine piece of erotic prose."

    I may be writing with a pseudonym but I care about the quality as if my legal name were on it, because I know I wrote it. Thank you so much for saying this so well.

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  26. Ok, this title totally caught my attention. I thought, gee, I can publish my crap? Yay for me!

    Thanks for the entertainment AND the good advice.

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