Footing the Bill

There’s a story making the rounds of the publishing community.

Brent Underwood explains exactly what an author needs to do to create a best-selling book.

Note that I didn’t say “write” a best-selling book.

The TL;DR of Brent’s piece is that a trivially-easy manipulation of Amazon’s book categories allows damn near anything to become a bestseller.

Don’t take my word for it; go read his confessional expos√©.

Even worse, there are marketing agencies that use the trick to sell “guaranteed” bestseller status. That’s not surprising, really. This is, after all, a world in which you can buy positive reviews of anything, even the worst examples, for pennies. Category manipulation is the depressingly-logical next step.

So why am I griping about this here? I spend so much time on this blog talking about non-literary matters that it’s easy for y’all to forget that I’m trying to get my writing published*. This is largely by design. I’m sure a few of you would be fascinated to follow the ups and downs of the writer’s life in as much detail as I cared to post. The vast majority of you, however, are sensible people, and would quickly get bored with accounts of query letters written, short story submissions, and Twitter-like announcements of how many words I’ve committed to electrons each day.

* Yes, I will be doing the annual “State of the Fourth Estate” post in a couple of weeks.

Even the most sensible people make mistakes, and occasionally an otherwise-sensible person will ask me how my career is going. More often than not, the next question will be “Why don’t you self-publish? I hear that’s really easy.”

After I get done banging my head against the nearest hard surface, I explain that yes, self-publishing is easy. So easy, in fact, that anyone can do it, and most of them have.

Usual disclaimer here: I’m not one of those annoying people who think anything self-published is crap. I do, however, subscribe to Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of self-published material is crap. So, to be brutally honest, is 90% of everything. We could argue about the percentage, but IMNSHO, the proportion of self-published writing that’s legitimately worthwhile is no worse than for any other distribution mechanism.

The problem with self-publishing is that there’s just flat out so much of it that it’s hard for anyone to get noticed. I mentioned this just a couple of weeks after I started blogging, but nothing has happened in the last three years to change my opinion: to succeed in self-publishing, you need to either be a marketing genius or hire one.

Let’s face it: geniuses are no more common in marketing than in any other field. They’re rare. Good, competent marketers are much more common, but scam artists and incompetent louts are more common still–Sturgeon’s Law again.

And, as Mr. Underwood’s tale makes clear, those scammers and time-servers love useless “methods” like the instant bestseller that doesn’t actually sell any copies.

The result is that so-called promotion of that self-published 90% crap drowns out the real promotion of the other 10%. It also drowns out the promotion of the worthwhile 10% of non-self-published writing.

Which brings us back to why I don’t want to self-publish. At least publishers have full-time marketing people working on the problem of being found behind the garbage thrown up by the scam-artists preying on self-publishers. (I’m speaking broadly here–I’m well aware that smaller presses don’t have the same levels of staffing as larger ones, and rely on authors to do more of the legwork. But the good ones–again, my NSHO–still have some form of professional marketing.)

Yes, even with an established publisher, I’d still have to promote my own writing, but I’d have an ally. That’s important to me. I know I’m not a genius marketer, nor do I want to spend all of my time on promotion at the expense of actually writing anything else.

Moving on. Non-writing-related cat pictures tomorrow.


Honestly, I try not to be a complete grumpy curmudgeon, rambling on about Doom, Gloom, and The End Of Civilization As We Know It. I really do. The universe sure makes it difficult, though.

Between the NSA, Caltrans, BART and AC Transit, and the Baseball Gods, there’s a lot of depressing stuff going on out there. I know last week’s posts were on the grumpy side, and the subject I’ve got lined up for Thursday leans that way as well (or at least towards the curmudgeonly*), so I figured I should talk about something lighter today. I started looking for something cheerful. Instead, I found this.

* Blame Lior. He’s the one who sent the link that set me off. He’s frighteningly good at that.

Last week, The Kernel, source of “tech, media & politics for enquiring minds” published an expose of the fact that Amazon sells “depraved amateur literature that glorifies rape, incest and child abuse”. Apparently this is new information to them. They also revealed today that Amazon also sells Holocaust denial works. But I digress.

The story was picked up by other British news providers, most notably The Daily Mail, which pointed out that several other ebook vendors also sell “pornography”, much of it self-published, and that at least one store mixed erotica and children’s books in search results.

So what happened? Amazon removed a few specific titles listed in the various articles, then decided that didn’t go far enough and began dropping any book whose title or description used certain key words such as “babysitter” or “sister”. Barnes and Noble is doing the same. WH Smith blamed the “problem” on their partner Kobo and shut down their entire site until “all self published eBooks have been removed”; Kobo is deleting all self-published titles.

Yes, you read that correctly. All self-published titles.

Keep in mind that all of these sellers’ terms and conditions for self-publishing specifically ban pornography. But rather than enforce their own policies, they would rather throw out the entire concept of self-publishing. After all, that’s much easier and legally safer than reviewing works at some point during the publication process. And it’s definitely cheaper than adding a filter to the site search functionality to hide material tagged as “erotica” unless the searcher specifically requests it.

Of course, if one has a publisher (even one that exists only on paper or operates out of your garage), you should be safe from the ban, since Amazon and the other sellers assume that a publisher is exercising editorial oversight*. As several commentators have pointed out, that means that “50 Shades of Gray” and many works that straddle the ever-finer line between “romance” and “erotica” are safe, at least for now.

* I don’t blame them for making that assumption: having them pass judgment on what constitutes a “real” publisher would be just as slippery a slope.

What makes this even more depressing is that Banned Books Week was only three weeks ago.


Here’s something to cheer you up. Kotaku is reporting that a Japanese company has introduced “Nyan Nyan Nouveau”: wine for cats. It seems to be a non-alcoholic, catnip-infused grape juice.

Now you and your faithful feline companions can sit down together and share a toast to Doom, Gloom, and The End Of Civilization As We Know It. Kampai!