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Why Self-Publishers Need to Start Minding Their Manners (and a Name Change!)

Article by Catherine Ryan Howard © 31 August 2011.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Welcome to the new-look Self-Printed blog!

Previously Double-Spaced, we’ve changed the name to reflect the new self-publishing focus I’ll have in these parts, starting today with Why Self-Publishers Need to Start Minding Their Manners. This was a guest post I wrote a while back for Taleist, a great resource for any writer who has published to Amazon’s Kindle or is considering doing it, and it’s my attempt at bringing some humility back to the ranks. In the coming months I’ll be telling you all about my own self-publishing journey and hopefully inspire and help you to start on your own. Don’t miss our interview with one half of the biggest self-publishing story this side of the Atlantic, Mark Edwards, who self-published a novel on Kindle that ultimately got him a six-figure deal with Harper Collins. You’ll find it on the main Writing.ie page.

Back in late 2009, I put a book I’d written away in a drawer. It was a travel memoir about the eighteen months I’d spent working in Walt Disney World and the culmination of over a year’s work. But it was going nowhere – editor after agent after editor had told me that while it was well-written and they enjoyed reading it, there just wasn’t a market for it.

A few weeks later a friend of mine sent me a link to Lulu, which ultimately led me to CreateSpace. Reading the information on the site, I thought that surely there must be some mistake. Were they really saying that I – or anyone – could upload a PDF file, make up a cover and within days, have my book for sale on Amazon, the largest online bookstore in the world?


Yes, and it got even better. By uploading Microsoft Word files to the likes of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Platform and Smashwords, an e-book edition of my book compatible with every major e-reading device would also be for sale within hours. Amazingly, there were no stipulations, conditions or entry requirements; if I had a written a book, I could upload and sell it. And no matter where I was in the world, a check would arrive in my mailbox once a month, paying me the proceeds.

Fifteen months later I’ve sold over 6,000 copies of Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, and I’ll self-publish two more titles – another travelogue and a novel – this side of Christmas.

And I still find it absolutely amazing that I can do this.

Sadly – and annoyingly – many self-publishers don’t appear to feel the same way. I hear things like:

  • “Why did CreateSpace put ‘PROOF’ at the back of my proof copy? Why would they put something in my book that I didn’t want put in it? No one else does this. How dare they!”
  • “I tried to order my book at my local Borders and they told me they couldn’t. But I paid for the ProPlan! CreateSpace have lied to me – and stolen my money in the process!”
  • “Smashwords need to pay me the id=”mce_marker”.08 I know they owe me because my friend told he bought a copy of my book last week. If it doesn’t show up in my sales data this week then I’m going to send them a solicitor’s letter.”
  • “Amazon never discount my book, no matter how many times I ask them to. It’s so unfair because [insert other book’s title] is always discounted and so of course it’s going to sell more than mine.”
  • “I refuse to use CreateSpace until they start doing matt cover card that’s as thick as the books I see in stores.”
  • “I cannot believe Amazon are cracking down on tagging. How else are people going to find our books?’ And in a similar vein: “I cannot believe Amazon are cracking down ‘clever’ subtitles like The Abraham Codex: For Fans of Dan Brown. How else are people going to find our books?”
  • “My book still hasn’t appeared for sale on Amazon. I uploaded it yesterday morning. I mean, come on. How long is this thing going to take?”
  • “The only way I’m going to sell any copies is if I organise for everyone who knows me to buy a copy of my book within the same one-hour window on the day of its release so my book gets pushed into the bestseller charts. Who’s with me?”
  • “I’m not going to publish with CreateSpace/Amazon KDP/Smashwords until they lower their cut. Down with evil, greedy capitalists! Personally I’m just in this for the art…”

If I had written my book five years earlier it would still be in that drawer, unless I somehow managed to find the few thousand bucks it would cost to get a self-publishing company to edit, typeset and design it and then run off a thousand or so copies, and then somehow managed to persuade local bookstores to stock them, and then somehow managed to persuade the people who lived near those bookstores to stop by and buy them. It would be extremely hard work and even if I was fantastically successful, chances are I’d still end up with dusty boxes of books in my hallway and a bottom line in the red.

Instead today I can create, sell and promote my books without leaving the house or incurring any real financial risk at all. I don’t need an agent, a book deal or a marketing budget to make a living as a writer. I can now take several routes to achieving my dream of becoming a published novelist, instead of painfully pursuing just one.

As can everyone else.

I think self-publishers have forgotten how lucky they – we – are. Independent film makers don’t get to click a few buttons and, hey presto, their movie is showing in a Times Square multiplex with the costs being take out of the ticket prices. As Chuck Wendig so eloquently put it on Terrible Minds, what we can do is akin to “[making] my own clothing line out of burlap and pubic hair and being allowed to hang it on the racks at J.C. Penney.”

And that’s just it: some of it is the book equivalent of burlap and pubic hair. While Amazon are undoubtedly making a tidy profit out of us POD and Kindle self-publishers, I can tell you it’s not a scratch on what they’re making out of their book-buying customers – out of readers. They are the group whose tastes and preferences call the shots, not us. So if we all keep doing things like uploading The Abraham Codexbefore we’ve even read over it once, using Cover Creator to makes Things That Hurt Eyes, abusing systems that have been put in place purely to improve the customer experience (like tagging) and all the while complaining loudly about it all, Amazon’s customers are going to start complaining too. They already are; I only saw on a blog post this past week about how Kindle owners are now avoiding the Science Fiction category because it’s become so clogged with self-published junk and are sticking only to the bestseller lists instead. And as Laura Miller reported on Salon, the Kindle store has also started filling up with spam.

If it came down to it, who would Amazon side with? I can tell you it won’t be us. What would happen, for instance, if Amazon split everything into traditionally published and self-published? If they made a two-tier store? How many people would be buying our books then?

Amazon is effectively the adults’ table, and we self-publishers have been allowed to join. (And yes, I’m using the word allowed, because Amazon is a privately owned business who can sell what they want, not a democracy.) But the stunning success of a very few has imbued some of us with a rebellious over-confidence that seems to make us think we can put our elbows on the table, make faces in our food and throw peas at the other guests, and that we can do it ad infinitum without ever being asked to leave.

But that just isn’t the case. If self-publishers don’t buck up and start acting professionally, if we waste these opportunities that have been handed to us on a plate, if we insist on taking advantage of the situation without keeping up our end of the bargain – producing quality content – then we’re going to get sent back to the kid’s table.

And I can assure you, there are no opportunities there.

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Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer and blogger from Cork. She self-published her first book, a travel memoir called Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, in March 2010. Her first novel - women’s commercial fiction with a side serving of satire - has a big “FOR SALE” sign on it and the second is making the arduous journey from her brain to her Mac. In her previous life she worked as an administrator in the Netherlands, a campsite courier in France and a front desk agent in Walt Disney World. She wants to be a NASA astronaut when she grows up. (She’s 28).

Read Catherine's post chronologically.

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