09 December 2011

The Kindle Rush

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against Kindle. I own one for goodness sake and, while it might take a long time or even forever to lose that thrill of the texture, aroma and sight of a 'proper' book, I am in awe of the way I just click on buy and there before me, in less than a minute, the words are downloaded onto my sleek, slim Kindle. I even stroke it from time to time (sad person that I am) but it has its advantages and disadvantages and I have yet to fall in love with it.

But this post is not about the Kindle as a reading devise. It's about Kindle as an easy way to download that manuscript those stupid agents and publishers have rejected. 'I'll show 'em,' you say. 'I'll sell shed-loads of copies because I know my book and believe in it and know how to sell and market it. They'll be sorry.'

Maybe they will. After all, there are plenty of authors who have become famous for doing just that. We've all read about them. But that doesn't make it a sensible option for the majority. Notice as well, I am not talking about publishers who download their author's books on Kindle as well as in paper from or those e-publishers who work like traditional publishers in that they don't publish anything that comes their way, edit scrupulously and market judiciously. Nor do I include authors such as Nicola Morgan who has a wealth of writing and publishing experience behind her and knows exactly what she's doing. And more importantly, knows about the writing and publishing worlds backwards and more to the point, writes brilliantly. (Holds that last thought. I'll refer to it later.)  

No. I'm talking about the frustrated, disillusioned and probably stubborn writer. We writers all rail about rejection. It goes with the territory like a tendency towards alcoholism. But rejection has its advantages.  You may have been unlucky and targeted the wrong manuscript at the wrong agent or the agent just doesn't 'get' you, but by and large it means that your manuscript is not yet good enough to be published. That's a tough lump of gristle for any aspiring writer to chew on. It sticks in the throat. After all, a novel takes a huge amount of time to write and you're damned if it's going to languish. Well now it no longer has to. At one time you might have--and still can for that matter--pay a 'publisher' to publish it for you, the upshot being it will sink without trace and you may end up out of pocket.

That happens less and less these days and particularly so when you can create an e-book, usually but not exclusively on Kindle and for nothing. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy. No snarky agent, no editor telling you that that scene must go, that section stream-lined and speeded up and that character altered.

Freedom! Power to the People!

But with freedom and power come dangers. What happens to that manuscript now it's out there, published, albeit electronically, and for instant sale? Usually, it's nothing. You friends and family may download it, although some might expect to be able to read it for free. Friends will tell you it's great. You may well get local press coverage or appear on local radio. After all, in the eye of the general public, you're as much as published author as Lee Child, Barbara Erskine or Salman Rushdie et al.  Then there's always the dream that sales will pick up and suddenly everyone will be beating a path to your door. Yes, it happens. But taken as a whole the chances of that are as remote as winning millions on the lottery. Yes, it happens but it's statistics that matter. For every single winner of lottery mega-millions there are millions who win nothing at all, week after week. So you might as well forget that.

What usually happens is that your Kindle masterpiece will languish in exactly the same way it would have languished under your bed or on your hard-drive. Worse still, it's highly unlikely you'll be able to dust it off, rewrite it and resubmit when you've improved your skills.It's published. It's dead in the water.

You see, if you are really dedicated to being the best writer you can be, you'll strive hard and continue to hone your skills and learn everything you can about the world of writing and publishing, in the same way that even the most gifted sportsman or woman will continue to train even after he or she has won that top prize; that gold medal. Far too many people who are today downloading their work onto Kindle or other e-reading system it is an easy, quick-fix solution.

And, as we know quick-fix solutions are prone to failure. You build a chest of drawers. You don't know how to fashion a dove-tail joint. Who cares? You stick it together with super-glue. It looks okay but it will soon start to rock and wobble or even fall apart. And those who know these things will instantly tell it's shoddy. The same goes with writing. You won't have taught yourself more skills and you might end up even more disillusioned and frustrated than you were before.

That's why I won't go down that route. Writing is as much about development as anything worth doing. I look back at my early published work and cringe. (I cringe even more when I think of the rubbish that mercifully remains unpublished.) And I want my work to be assessed by the most ferocious critics. I want to find an agent who will help me find the right publisher and I want an editor who will work long and hard with me to add that final polish before it goes out alone into the big bad world.


  1. You make very good points, and that's exactly why I won't go down that route myself - I'm going to slog it out the old-fashioned way, with lots of rejections. I also think that with more bad writing in the public domain, the harder it will be to find good writing, and eventually, perhaps, the standards we look for as readers will start to fall. A slippery slope?

  2. I absolutely agree. I'm one of the "lucky" people who's managed to do reasonably well by making my books available on Kindle - by reasonably well I don't mean well enough to make a living - people who've done that can be counted on the fingers of a mitten - I mean I've sold now about 7,000 copies of one of my books, whcih is still sufficient to put it *well* inside the top 1% of self-published books on Kindle. That equates to about £1400, or about a quarter to a third of what a debut author in receipt of a meagre advance would get. Which puts it in context. I'm very happy. I was dedicated to self-publishing long before the option to make my work available for Kindle was there. I know why I self-publish, what I want out of it, and what I can expect out of it. More to the point my goals for my work are very much creative goals - I know where I want my work to go, and will do everything in my power to get it there. Once a book is at the stage it's at I self-publish it and get on with the next one. I have no interest in getting a publisher down the road, or in making a fortune (or even a living - that's just absurdly unlikely, whatever happens, so I carry on with a full-time job and write when I can. I have no expectation of doing otherwise). What I really thrive on creatively is giving live readings. I'm very lucky to live in an area where it's easy to read to reasonable crowds on a fairly regular basis. Yes, I have regular very dark moments. Mostly when I read something one of my colleagues has written that's so brilliant it makes me hang my head. But that passes, and I'm spurred on to do better. The point is, I'm very happy. And I have all my eyes open. Sadly I think most people who put their work on Kindle don't. They read the evangelists and see pound signs, and a lot of the evangelists are very persuasive (glossing over the fact that we all know the names of the Kindle successes precisely because there are so few of them) so I can see why. My question to anybody considering putting their book on Kindle would be "Are you 100% sure you know what you want out of writing? Not tomorrow, or next year but full stop." and then "Will putting your book on Kindle further that?" And if they have to wriggle for room at all to let the answer to the first question accommodate their itch to put their book out, they really shouldn't do it

  3. Interesting thoughts from Dan. He's such a great advocate for self-publishing, and still makes sure his work is the best it can possibly be.

    My travel memoir is also on Kindle. But only after winning a place on a mentoring scheme at Exeter uni, having a mentor help me reshape a tedious manuscript to something significantly more entertaining, and then him telling me that it would have found a publisher 10 years ago but not now - and so he advised me to self-publish.

    So neither of us disagree with you, Sally. There is an ocean of self-published eel vomit out there (Nicola Morgan's term). But there are also some of us you have sought - and taken - every ounce of advice, honed, edited, honed again, and then taken the Kindle plunge.

    The problem is spotting the nuggets of wonderful writing among the self-published dross.

  4. We are living in impatient times - it's not so long ago we had to wait until someone was home before we could phone them, or write and post a letter if we wanted to mail them. People no longer have the patience to spend years perfecting their craft; they want it now. As you say Sally, think of a book you want to read and with a kindle you don't have to walk to the bookshop to see if it's in stock; you can have it instantly, like everything else. Self-publishing makes me think of the way that these days if you want a Doctorate and don't want to study for 7 years you can download a certificate from the internet. Yes, you may have a certificate, but it doesn't ACTUALLY mean you're a Doctor. I may be a dinosaur, but I shall stick to browsing in bookstores for books made of paper that have been traditionally published (apart from Dan's of course. Hi Dan)

  5. Hi Neil :) I know several Neils - are you one of them? :)
    Yes, I agree with you about people calling themselves published when they mean self-published (if you do self-publish presumably you don't think there's anything to be ashamed of, so why not just say so). My books *are* paperbacks as well, and in several bookstores, who aren't all that inimical to self-published books if you do it well - and there's nothing like a paperback for taking round with you to readings.

    Jo - it's phraseology like that that's why Nicola's done so well!

  6. Thanks for all your comments and especially Dan for his thoughtful analysis. I hope I made it clear at the beginning of my post that I am not against self-publishing as such. If, like Dan and Jo here and Nicola whom I mentioned in my post, know exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it then I'm all for it.

    And Neil. You make a very good point. Whilst I am in awe of the speed in which I can buy and download onto my Kindle, I am a little frightened of it!

    My worry is that those writers who have not honed their skills enough before they download their work on Kindle are shooting themselves in the foot. I fear tears before bedtime. Or at least disillusionment.

    Caution: mixed metaphor coming up. I suppose I am a bit of a dinosaur and am probably viewed as an elitist. I can only apologise if I ruffle a few feathers. But sometimes feathers need to be ruffled.

  7. Sally - don't apologise for ruffling feathers. This is an important discussion, and it's inevitable that some of us who are self-published will prickle. Just because we can publish easily is no excuse for doing so without taking every ounce of advice, reworking out efforts over and over, and then finding someone independent and trustworthy to say yes, this is good enough.

  8. @Dan..it's Neil Ansell, we shared a stage together at the Brighton Festival.
    I agree by the way that self-publishing seems to work a bit better for those on the performance circuit, where people hear their work and it doesn't just disappear into the ether.

  9. I think we're all in violent agreement. My personal learning, having toyed with the idea of self-pub, and then having been offered (& withdrawn from) a contract by an e-pub/POD publisher, is that

    (1) if you only THINK your ms is ready, it ain't. If it's been knocked back more times than mother's bread, then polished, honed and edited until you KNOW it's ready, then it might be. If you still collect endless rejections, then it's either not ready after all or it's not being well submitted.

    (2) I can't do the Twittersphere/Facebook/self promotion thing, at least not to any effective level. Therefore even if the ms IS ready, it will bomb if I self-pub.

  10. Hi Neil :) (and apologies - it seems sometimes as though half the writers I know are either called Neil or Lucy!) I remember very well - I was very moved by your reading, as well as impressed by the idea of seeking out such extreme solitude - I live in what feels like the wilds of the country, and when I need to be alone I always head for the city - I'm very much an alone-in-the-crowds person. I think the other thing about performing is that performers often write shorts and poems, which both make lovely chapbooks and don't do very well at attracting publishers.

  11. Sally, I so agree. (Well, obviously!) Thanks for the name check. You said, "Writing is as much about development as anything worth doing. ... And I want my work to be assessed by the most ferocious critics." Absolutely. Yes!

    And yes, Dan is a great advocate for self-publishing. I also like how he fully engages with the other side of the publishing world, working with it, with readers and booksellers, and with writers of all thoughts. Good for you, Dan, and I look forward to meeting you at Blackwells in Oxford in January! And good for you, Sally, and everyone who looks sensibly and rationally at what's going on.

  12. Terrific, useful post - as always. And terrific, useful comments as well.

    Certainly, there is a 'I want it now' mentality around, and not just in the writing world. That, for the writers about, depending on what your aims are, is rather dangerous, isn't it? Like you, Sally, I look back at earlier work, and if I don't cringe, I giggle. But the point here is, at the time, I thought it was wonderful. So - had it been as easy as it is today, to self-publish, I might have done just that in a rash moment or nine. So thank heavens it wasn't easy, is all I can say.

    For me, one of the most important things I had to learn was the ability to look dispassionately at a piece of my own writing to see it for what it was.

    Not easy - and time helps, still!

  13. At this point in the thread it would be more interesting if I weighed in and disagreed with everyone but that's not the case. Your post is one of the most sensible and balanced pieces I've read on this emotionally charged subject. I am just preparing my first novel for submission to agents having spent two years writing it full time(i.e.instead of having another job - although I do have a family as well.) I belong to a terrific writers' group with a published mentor, and have stuck my neck out at every stage asking for input from readers. People keep asking me when I'm sending it out and the answer is 'when it is as good as I can make it'. In the new year my own book group and a group of American readers are going to read the whole thing, and if it gets past that lot, I will consider it ready to take its chances. I so agree with what you say about wanting to submit to the judgement of the toughest critics. I'm going to try very hard going down the traditional route because to me that's what it means to be a published author.

    Like the rest of you, I am not knocking the concept of electronic self-publishing at all, it's just the quality control issue that bothers me. I have pretty much stopped downloading self-pubbed titles on Kindle unless they've been recommended by someone whose judgment I trust or I know the author. I had to stop following some people on Twitter because it annoyed me so much to see them talking about starting a new novel in July then publishing it on Amazon in December. I think it takes a great deal longer than that to write anything of length worth reading.
    Thanks for a stimulating start to my Sunday !

  14. Thank you, Vanessa, Nicola and Isabel for adding to this discussion. I do try and see both sides of any topic and not to be polarised towards any one view. (Which is why I loath party politics, by the way.)

    Some writers feel the need to be published for their own personal self-esteem and maybe to make some spare cash without facing years in the wilderness and if they're happy with that, then who am I to rain on their parade? It just makes me a little sad, that's all.

    I am not in any way religious but Browning's words seem spot on to me: 'A man's reach must exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?'

  15. Isabel - "I had to stop following some people on Twitter because it annoyed me so much to see them talking about starting a new novel in July then publishing it on Amazon in December." Oh yes!

  16. I agree with everything written here. It comes down to why you write. Personally I write because I enjoy it so much; I find it liberating and challenging and fun. It's painful sometimes and sometimes I write rubbish, but there's nothing like writing the words "the end." And then waiting. And then reading it again and redrafting. And then entrusting it to friends and family. And then to harsher critics. Writing for me is a journey; the destination of being published is not necessarily the fun bit, although I do want it at some point. Although like everyone says, not until the work is ready. And when it is, I might just self-publish, because if I've put the work in and taken the advice and made it the best it can be, then why not? If I've done all that I'm not sure I would want to go through the long process to get it to print through a traditional publisher.

  17. Definitely good points. Computers and the internet have changed the blue print of many industries. In certain ways the publishing industry is like the music industry. The major labels in music are still reeling from the "do-it-yourself" artists and independent labels that invaded their world in the internet age. Many artists who were rejected by the majors went on to establish themselves on their own. But this takes a tremendous effort that most probably are not willing to give. There is just as much, if not more, rejection when you choose this path.

  18. I am so glad to see more and more self-publishers talking reality. For much too long we've been hearing only from the cheerleaders, making it sound as though the only 'smart' thing to do was self-publish. I have found that when I hear the words 'dinosaur' and 'legacy', I know exactly what the mindset is going to be - and it typically means false hopes and self justification. Those considering SP need to hear more from folks like you all - you do a much greater service than any cheerleader could hope to.

  19. Sally, some very good points, but something you have not remarked on is the massive change the publishing industry is undergoing at the moment. Quality, award-winning writers are being dropped by their publishers. Publishers want something which is virtually publication-ready, not something they have to copy-edit, so it’s take it or leave it as far as they’re concerned, and it seems more often they’ll leave it, even cracking good yarns, if it needs any work doing to it. Agents are overwhelmed with choice and are taking on very few new writers. I don’t know where Dan gets his figures for “meagre” advances, but I suspect £4000 would be higher than a lot of debut novelists get nowadays (bad news for writers and agents). Some publishers would rather not pay any advance at all. The publishing industry is more cautious than ever. It has to be or go bust.

    Traditionally a reader could only take what is offered in paper form, a luxury item (unless bought second hand, which is of no value to publisher, author or agent except that it brings the author’s work to the attention of a reader who might buy the next one). I simply can’t afford new books. Years ago, publishers might have taken a chance on a new sub-genre. Now they dare not, so while a novel might appeal, they may not “love it enough” to feel confident in the instant payback. Anything which is the least bit out of the mainstream is unlikely to get paper published nowadays because publishers want a safe bet.

    This is where e-publishing comes into its own. The costs for a publisher are manifold; the editor; the copy editor; the building; and the printing, the publicity, the networking, and last of all, and probably least paid of all, the author. Publishers are not going to take a risk on publishing something which might, but might not have a market… why should they? They’re there to make money. This leaves potential readers of this hypothetical sub-genre with nothing to read, and writers of this hypothetical sub-genre, unpublished and frustrated. Kindle puts the two in touch. There are a lot of happy writers and readers as a result, especially in the States.

    I should imagine e-publishing is a real boon to literary fiction, where the market is small and capricious.

    x Linda

  20. PS

    Now, I’m sure this post of yours is inspired by my venture into Kindle publishing. I know you have had many kindly-meant misgivings over my Kindle novel, but I have surely reassured you on several points? One major one is that I had an excellent agent who put in a lot of work on the manuscript. Another major point is that the publishers who declined it had good points, which were taken into account when I rewrote it. And of course I have rewritten it since then. Now, though my current agent has not read this particular novel, she has enough faith in my abilities as a writer to say that putting it onto Kindle is worth a punt.

    And that’s what it is; a punt; an experiment, a toe in the water. It may well fail; I know that. But it might not. In any case, it’s better off out there giving pleasure to a few people rather than sitting on my hard drive mouldering past its sell-by date. I know gritty crime is not a genre you enjoy, but there is a market out there for that sort of novel.

    The biggest difficulty is raising the visibility of my novel above the ones which are published prematurely, full of holes and clunky writing – the ones I think you are talking about. We will see if I can do that.

    I will admit it was scary actually committing it to Kindle, despite the confidence that I have in it being the best I can make it, and clean of plot holes and typos. It’s nice to rely on another person to do that, though sometimes even professional editing leaves something to be desired, especially when the industry is so stretched.

    Of course I hope my other novels are picked up by a paper publisher, and success of my Kindle novel would be very beneficial in that respect. I think the industry will go the way of debut novelists being e-published first, and only if someone’s novel is hugely successful will the publisher paper publish it, and then only for a few pounds for rapid turnover at the bargain outlets, and niggardly advances for the writer.

    Remember, fortune favours the bold (especially if the bold are careful as well as brave.) x Linda

  21. This is such a good blog post, I feel everyone should read it - and all the comments - before being allowed to start downloading their ms.

    And can I point people towards another very good post - Nicola Morgan on http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com/ on some of the hard realities of self-publishing.

  22. Thank you, Linda and Sarah, for your comments. I'm sorry they did not appear here sooner but sometimes I forget to check my 'comments awaiting moderation' page.

    I am well-aware of the changes in publishing, Linda. And nor do I think the 'traditional' way is all roses. My main concern in this blog, and generally, is the quality of writing. Of course, there's a great deal of self-pubbed e-books that are well written, structured etc etc but the majority is most definitely not. And I'm worried that the good gets mixed up in an awful lot of mediocre work, all of which would have been improved under the watchful eye of an agent and publisher's editor.

  23. And as we're still debating, I found this excellent blog post by Harry Bingham. A very fair assessment of what a publisher does or doesn't do in this digital world.


  24. To be honest, this horse has bolted. Amazon is now awash with really terrible books, which can usually be spotted by their terrible covers. But the rush to self publishing has also showed that there are niches out there with a willing audience that have been ignored by publishers - the huge amount of successful old-style pulp coming from self publishers, for example. This weekend's Guardian reviewed a book of short stories that were self published - well, if you're a writer of short stories, where on earth would you go to get published? If you're a writer of erotica, who is going to publish you now that Black Lace has closed? Yet Kindle sales show there's a huge audience for the stuff.

    Publishers should be very worried about this phenomenon, as authors in some genres - particularly romance - are discovering a new model. Get published with a mainstream company and get known thanks to their superior marketing clout. Then once you have a name established, go off and self publish your next books and take all the profits yourself. This is already happening in the US.

  25. As a short story writer, I was frustrated that there was no viable fiction reprint market. Once a short story was in print, it had no future. That changed with the ebook revolution. Now all my short stories appear as $0.99 ebooks after the exclusive period ends (I.e., a year for most anthologies). My writing income is split between print sales and ebook sales, with ebook sales growing at a faster rate.

    Unlike a dead tree book, an ebook is not set in stone. If I revisited an ebook for one reason or another, and don't like the writing (usually grammar issues), I'll rewrite and release an updated ebook.

  26. A slightly different take to add some fuel to the fire? I had an agent once upon a time (from a top-notch co with a fearsome reputation!), who raved about my book but couldn't get a publisher to commit as it wasn't commercial enough, and as an unknown I didn't have an "author platform". I was getting lovely personalised rejections at one point, all with the inevitable BUT at the end.

    But when I self-published, I didn't need to be commercial. I don't need to earn back advances. I've more than covered the costs of my cover-designer. I understand that the traditional publishers can't afford to take a chance in the current economic climate - but I can. I've sold 1000s, I've proved there *is* a market out there. So I'm happy and it works for me.

  27. You're absolutely spot on here. Most often, manuscripts are rejected for a reason. And frequently that reason is that they are terrible. Good writing is a learned skill like any other, and fiction authors particularly must have a significant range of other skills to make it all work - including marketing nous. Ambition or aspiration to "be" a writer usually doesn't translate automatically into quality writing.

    The issue of established authors using the same mechanisms to publish (or re-publish) outside the framework of the publishing industry is, to me, a different matter.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    Matthew Wright

  28. Thank you all for your comments. I'm very happy with the concept of self e-publishing and I am aware that it can work as a viable, if not better, alternative. If it works for you, then I'm all for it.

    But there is still a huge amount of dross out there in the form of self-pubbed e-books and it's hard to to wade through the sludge to find the gems. At least the traditional gate-keepers and their slush-piles keep most of it away from the bookshelves, even though there is always some leakage.

  29. Your English is appalling but the points that you have made are valid enough.

  30. I may not be the best writer in the world but at least I have good manners.

  31. Highly interesting post! At one depressed point years ago I also contemplated self-publishing until I realised it was not economically viable for me. I also realised that my book had sloppy parts and perhaps was not being targeted well. I persevered, revised, eventually signed a contract with a small and dedicated publishing company, and have spent the past six months going over and over the text with an editor. My version of many years back was just not good enough and only now, as you say, does it feel good enough to begin its journey out into the world.
    Thanks for this. Best wishes, Catherine

  32. I really enjoyed this post (my first visit to the site) and the insightful comments, as well. I have another thought I'd like to add. I think that the urge to publish an ebook before it's really ready is a direct outcome of a major societal shift, not just a writer's caving in to temptation to prove themselves. In today's world, there's a proliferation of what I like to call "false urgency."

    Since people can do things fast (send news at once to everyone via Facebook or Twitter, buy things instantaneously from their own home, for example), people feel like they HAVE TO do things fast.

    I see it everywhere, from people sending out emails they'll later regret, to speeding and running stop signs because they think they'll get someplace faster. If people just slowed down, they'd make fewer mistakes.

    False urgency can be downright addictive! I think that the artificial feeling that it's necessary to rush actually gives people pleasure, because people used to rush only when things were important. If they "have to" rush, they must be doing something important. Right?

    Unless you write for a magazine or are already under contract, there is no deadline. It's better to take your time to do it right (whether you plan to create an ebook or to publish traditionally). I used to spoil my submissions all the time by sending them out when they really weren't ready, and I'm pleased today that some of them weren't printed yesterday.

  33. I've just self-published on the Kindle. I'm a graduate of the MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. I sent my novel to agents and publishers last year. One agent read the entire novel and enjoyed it but said that she couldn't think of a market for the novel (it's a young adult novel set amongst animal-rights activists and "New" travellers). I decided to self-publish my novel, following a thorough editing process and professional artwork donated by a friend. I know that there is an audience out there for my novel and it's up to me to publicise it. Being able to self-publish on the Kindle has given me a chance for people to read my work. However, it was also my responsibility to ensure that I published a top quality product. I hope you'll agree!
    Outside Inside by Anne Grange: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Outside-Inside-ebook/dp/B006QVZHWI/ref=cm_sw_em_r_dp_VIh.ob1AJ9B0J_tt

  34. Thank you so much for your information. It was of great interest to me. Especially when the writing is constantly in motion (referring to the content). Kindle has created the avenue that many important ideas and concepts can be shared, in real time, around the world. Even in areas where people need so much help "catching up."

  35. The problem is that EVERY self-published author will agree with EVERY point that Ms. Zigmond makes.

    I've long read many articles about self-publishing. They all make the same points. That self-publishers must behave as professionals, and hone their skills, and be patient, and edit, and market, and only self-publish professional quality work, and even then, only a few books will succeed.

    And every self-publisher nods in vigorous agreement, and agrees that most self-published books are awful and poorly edited -- alas! -- but not MY book!

    Every self-publisher agrees about all the pitfalls, then pats themselves on the back that THEIR self-published book is one of the few professional, well-written, witty and exciting self-published books, which is why THEIR self-published book will be one of the few to eventually succeed in the marketplace.

    Every raindrop imagines their special. No raindrop accepts blame for the flood.

  36. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.