What I learnt from Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO
About a month back, after fighting our way through 27 novels as our contribution to Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, we were able to announce our ‘champion’, Priest (Ratcatchers #1) by Matthew Colville. I’d like to spend a little time today talking about what I’ve learnt during this process so far, in relation to the state of Self-Published Fantasy Novels, and offer a little bit of advice to those considering Self-Publishing or entering next year’s competition.
The most important thing to say is that Self Published Fantasy of 2015 is far, far better than Self Published Fantasy of 2010 (if we take these 27 novels and compare them to those that I read in 2010). I feel this is most likely the case due to those getting involved in Self Publishing being able to research ‘Self Publishing’ and pick up tips on how to do it ‘properly’ from those who have had decent levels of success (or failure) as opposed to those blindly setting sail without a map 5 years ago.
The two most palpable things that appear to have resulted in this elevation of quality, again basing my thoughts purely on the SPFBO, were that more novels than I expected were professionally edited and of the 27 titles the majority had invested in getting a decent cover, professional layout, etc. The cover and layout investment may seem trivial, but when a novel has a terrible cover and layout you are instantly left feeling suspicious about how much pride the author has over their work and how serious they are about its potential. In addition to these two things, I’m willing to bet that a large majority of the Self Published authors were part of an online writing group / making use of beta-readers in order to gain the kind of feedback they’d not be getting from their Agent / assigned Editor*.
*Although I’m sure many hired an Editor, the dynamic between hiring an Editor as a Self Published author and having an Editor assigned to you as an author under contract at a publishing house is somewhat different.
All that said, myself and the Fantasy-Faction team working through these novels (thank you so much to all of those who did so!) did find that there were still too many books that had been self-published when the author was far from ready to begin charging for their work. I’m pretty polite (most of the time!) and so hesitant to relay this, but one F-F team members said of a book that it “deserve[d] to be shot, buried, exumed, decapitated, shot again, cremated, buried, exhumed and thrown into the ocean.”
That’s pretty brutal, but what he/she meant by this is that it should never have been allowed to walk amongst other living books (i.e. those in the forest of Amazon). Rather, it should have stayed hidden and have served merely as practice to the writer’s pursuit of one day becoming a published author. I know that to say something like that is controversial, probably cruel too, for who are we to judge when an artist is ready to unleash their work upon the world, right? But, honestly, some of the books we were sent felt like they’d been sent to us to mark and provide feedback for… and if I was a reader who had paid for such a book I’d be pretty upset. At their worst books were full of clunky sentences, spelling mistakes, typos, cut-out characters, blatant sexism, unrealistic dialogue, info-dumping, inconsistency with story/character and much more besides. Imagine buying a DVD with scenes missing or characters whose personalities changed from one minute to the next. The thing is, all of these things are just normal and unexperienced amongst the inexperienced and will gradually lesson with research, experience and feedback.
About 6 weeks ago I sent out a Tweet showing, in my opinion, the danger of Self-Publishing. I got a few outraged comments/blog posts in reply to my picture (in addition to about 500 retweets/favourites and comments showing agreement too – *phew*), and it’s probably my fault because I didn’t provide enough context as to why I drew it and what I was trying to say. Basically, my work colleague told me about her friend who had written a novel and hadn’t had a sniff of interest from the agents he had sent it to. He decided he was going to self publish it on Amazon. I asked her if it was his first novel and she said it was, so I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea. She asked why and I drew the picture to your left. What the picture essentially shows is my opinion that, as a new author, publishing your first novel on Amazon – as you sent it to an agent who turned it down – is most likely a terrible, terrible idea. Before you do it you need to take a step back and think about why that agent isn’t signing you up.
If you send your work to an agent, you obviously did it because you wanted to be traditionally published. That agent turned you down. Once you take time to think about why your novel was turned down it was very likely down to one of the following:
1. You aren’t writing to a professional standard.
2. The particular book you submitted is no good.
3. There isn’t a big enough market to make the agent/publisher enough money to justify the work put in.
4. The agent is too busy to take a risk on your very good novel or missed the fact that your novel is very good and has potential to sell well.
The vast majority of people pursuing Self-Publishing (and, indeed, Traditional Publishing) will fall into category number 1 and 2. In the case of number 1 my advice would be to move straight onto the next novel and not even bother looking back. As soon as you can join a writing group and/or network with beta readers. Just continue to enjoy the writing experience… right now it isn’t your job… you’ve no pressure to write a certain thing: just keep exploring the craft and playing around with new things (this is where the aforementioned research, experience and feedback is taking place).
If you fall under number 2 then there are plenty of times a good writer writes a bad book. Some of the bestselling authors have written books that probably wouldn’t have been published if it wasn’t for the fact their previous work has built up so many loyal fans that they are willing to buy anything with their name on the cover. Again, move onto the next book – maybe take some time to read a bit wider and see what works in other novels… what was yours missing?
If you feel that your book is a number 3 or number 4 then you’ve two options. The ‘old’ method is to modify your book in a way that it is more sellable. One author told me that upon finishing their book an Agent told them it was a book with a lot of promise, but it wasn’t sellable as it stood. He suggested a book called Writing To Sell to him and after taking advice from it that author sold his book to that same Agent and went on to become a NYT bestseller. The other option here is to Self Publish and this is where I do suggest Self Publishing for some authors. If there is a market for your book, but an Agent doesn’t feel it is big enough for them / a publisher to make money that doesn’t mean it can’t earn you a bit of pocket money or even a very decent income (some Self Published SFF authors make 6 figures yearly, so I’m told). When an agent takes your book he has to make a decent cut for the work he will put in, the publishing house needs to pay the artist, editor, marketing staff, distribution costs, etc, etc. There is also – as I say above – the possibility that the Agent/Publishing House just doesn’t have the time to risk working on the novel. SFF is massive right now and agents are being offered work in abundance. There is every possibility they may miss a bestseller (Anthony Ryan, for example!). If you have the time and are willing to invest that time into the Book Creation / Editing / Marketing process along with a decent amount of money too (don’t skimp on the editing / cover – please!) then Self Publishing could well be a logical choice. Authors such as Michael J. Sullivan and David Dalglish should be looked towards as inspiration for how things ‘could’ turn out should you nail it.
For me, the biggest problem with Self Publishing is, it is so, so easy to convince yourself that you are a 3 or a 4 when in reality you are a 1 or a 2 because… who wants to be a number 1 or 2, right? Certainly, if you ask your husband/wife, friends, father or mother to be 100% brutally honest with you then you are a 3 or a 4 and that’s whether they’ve read your book or not! Then, once you feel you are a 3 or a 4 it is even easier to upload your book to Amazon and consider the novel done. That is the real danger: the ease of publishing to Amazon. It’s stopping hundreds of people from becoming better writers because you can literally go from feeling terrible about your rejection to a ‘published author’ in a matter of minutes.
If it was your life’s ambition to be an actor and someone said OK, I’m giving you two choices:
1. ‘You can go to college, star in a few low budget movies and maybe one day – if you work incredibly hard and invest money into all your travelling and training – be in a Hollywood Blockbuster.’
2. ‘You can star in Avengers 3! No questions asked!’
You’d probably dive right on Avengers 3. However, after appearing in Avengers 3 the majority of us lacking experience would find we weren’t ready to star in such a movie and could very well see our career ruined (either by tarnishing ourselves or losing all motivation following negative/no comments about our performance). The person who went to college and who took their time building themselves up may end up being in Avengers 10 and doing so well they are called back for Avengers 11, 12, 13 and all the spin-offs too! I know, of course, that there is a chance that the guy/girl who flopped in Avengers 3 may make a comeback by the time Avengers 11, 12, etc come around and perhaps the brutal failure did them some good – but I don’t think it is the best approach for anyone in any walk of life to start out trying skipping steps. Everything gets better with practice and when you begin fighting to obtain that final goal too early often your ‘hobby’ becomes a ‘job’ too early too and you rob yourself of many hours of enjoyable practice, trading them instead for hours of stress and feelings of failure that lead to a burn out.
So yes, coming back to the SPFBO and leaving that over-extended metaphor behind us, although I felt there were big improvements in the 5 years since I last read Self Published novels there were too many 1s and too many 2s with too many 3s and too many 4s wasting a decent manuscript by skipping steps such as getting a professional editor.
That was expected though (by me and, I presume, by Mark Lawrence and the other SPFBO Bloggers too). What we wanted to do, rather, was cut though all the ‘noise’ and see whether there was a 3/4 that had put that work in to produce a novel that deserves its spot alongside authors such as Robin Hobb, Mark Lawrence, Myke Cole, Francis Knight, John Connolly, Trudi Canvan, and so on… Are there Self Published books on Amazon that are as enjoyable and as readable as those you will find talked about in coffee shops and sitting on shelves of bookshops and libraries? I, personally, set myself the goal of finding a book that I could give to a friend and leave them unaware that it was ever Self-Published. A book that would encourage as much enthusiasm and enjoyment as Michael J. Sullivan’s and Anthony Ryan’s work.
Finally, to address a few comments to my previous article, please take into consideration that in my picture both paths began with ‘write a novel -> send to Agent’ and that the original Tweet I sent out read ‘why I don’t recommend self publishing your first novel’. This is important. Some more experienced writers do Self Publish as they would like to retain complete control of their projects and feel they are better suited for this means of publishing. My drawing was addressing the potential for someone to publish a book through Amazon as a kind of ‘rebound’ response or means of skipping steps in the publishing process. Essentially: there are not enough forgotten manuscripts in bottom draws anymore and, in the long term, this new attitude that everything we write should be published and made publicly available will hurt the development of writers and, most likely, stop a number of Brandon Sandersons ever ‘making it’. Of course, there will be authors who Self Publish a book that probably isn’t quite ready to be published and go on to write better work – being fuelled by the failure or making use of any feedback – and even pick up traditional deals too. In this scenario though I do feel it takes a special person not to lose at least a little bit of that spark that fuels their desire to become a ‘published’ author.