KEY TEXTS FOR EBOOK WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS
There are a number of books which I have come to think of as ‘key texts’ when it comes to eBook publishing. These are the books that inspired me to have the courage of my own convictions and take control of my career. I would recommend them to anyone considering eBook and other forms of self publishing. Other writers will certainly have different lists and it would be good to hear what has inspired you. (Visit the Festival Facebook page to tell us!)
The first on the list – a book I read some years ago – is called What Good Are The Arts and it’s by John Carey who puts forward revolutionary ideas in elegant and – for me, at least – persuasive prose. He says, essentially, that in pre-industrial societies, the idea of art was ‘spread throughout the community.’ Some years ago, I did a postgraduate degree in Folk Life Studies which included an intensive study of oral traditions, and to a great extent, he’s right. Although poets were respected, venerated and sometimes feared for the power of their craft, the arts were participatory. People joined in and their individual skills were celebrated. Poetry was not meant to be understood only by the favoured few. Later, literacy excluded the illiterate. But there still remained a healthy tradition of ‘the arts’ (in a general sense) made by and for ordinary people, characterised by music, song, story, crafts. It was in post industrial societies that the arts increasingly became the preserve of the intellectual few who considered themselves to be immensely superior in every way to the ‘masses’ – and, as education progressed, continued to look for ways of distinguishing themselves from those masses with an ever more exclusive definition of what is cultured, what is worthwhile. (Grayson Perry’s recent perceptive – and funny – television examination of Taste reminded me of this book.) If you also read Carey’s earlier shocking account of fascism among the intelligentsia, The Intellectuals and the Masses, you’ll see striking parallels between those ways of thinking and the current panic about the digital masses invading the hallowed halls of art, music and literature. Reviewing the book in the Guardian in 2005, Blake Morrison called it a ‘sustained intellectual polemic’ and that’s what it is. You may not agree with all of it – you probably won’t – but my goodness it’s stimulating.
My second ‘key text’, published just after Carey’s analysis, is another revolutionary book called The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. I’ve linked to the original Long Tail which was the one I read, but a revised version is available. Anderson’s theory has been debated, criticised, challenged and refined ever since, but I remember it being an eye opener when I read it, for the simple reason that it was the first time I had come across ideas of scarcity and abundance: concepts which have become so important to eBook publishers. Moreover, these are concepts which are still not fully grasped by many authors, especially traditionally published authors. The core idea of the Long Tail is that digital markets are abundant markets. A world with unlimited ‘virtual shelf space’ is quite different from a traditional business which must focus on getting as much value as possible from an increasingly restricted set of products. Think supermarket book selling, for instance: a very limited number of genre best-sellers in a relatively small part of the store. Anderson’s ‘long tail’ consists of a virtually unlimited (abundant) string of niches which each has an audience and finds its own level. Critics have complained about the simplistic nature of the theory, but as an established writer with a long career behind me, deeply frustrated by what seemed to me to be an ever smaller set of hoops that my industry expected me to jump through, the very idea of a long tail of niches seemed liberating in the extreme. The counter-argument, of course, is that these niches will only really be lucrative for the businesses which facilitate those who create the ‘tail’ (e.g. iTunes, Amazon) But since most writers, even well established writers, make very little anyway – with the exception of those handful of people for whom the scarcity model works very well indeed – tapping into the long tail makes sense. It also highlights another aspect of eBook publishing which too many writers fail to grasp. Getting a single book out there and expecting it to make your fortune for you is scarcity thinking. You are in the business of creating your very own ‘long tail.’ The more you publish, the more you will be able to tap into the abundance of niches out there. eBook publishing, on the whole, favours those who are either prolific and/or multi talented, or who have a long backlist of titles which are out of print or which didn’t suit the times when they were offered (‘Nobody wants historical fiction’ was the cry only a few years ago) and have therefore been shelved while the writer got on with something else.
My next key text is a book by an American academic called Clay Shirky: Cognitive Surplus, Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. I love this book. And one of the main reasons why I love it is because it gave me the perfect answer to those people who sneeringly say, ‘I don’t know how you can waste so much time online.’ Early on in the book, Shirky describes a meeting with a television producer. Hoping to discuss the uses of social media with her in a constructive way, he is horrified to hear her say, ‘Where do people find the time?’ Shirky – who comes across as a gentle and engaging kind of a guy – is unable to resist answering, ‘Nobody who works in TV gets to ask that question.’ Snarky, but true. He reminds us that television is an industry that has been ‘burning off the lion’s share of our free time for the last fifty years.’ He goes on to imagine treating the free time we spend on watching television as a ‘kind of cognitive surplus.’ This is, I should point out, a book which may not make comfortable reading for some of us. And I’d be the first to admit that it begs a number of questions, not least how we get paid for our intellectual property. But this is another book that will turn on light bulbs inside your head. It’s a cheering book about creativity, collaboration and sharing, full of insights into this brave new world – and another must-read for independent writers and publishers.
My final recommendation (there are others, but this is getting to be a long post) is John Locke’s How I Sold A Million eBooks in Five Months.–Locke’s way may not be everybody’s way. And that’s what you have to learn if you’re eBook publishing. Nobody does know anything even though some people behave as though they did. Therefore, all you can do is take advice from a number of sources, treat yourself and your work in a professional and businesslike manner, keep track of your own statistics and do what seems best to you, always remembering that you need to be adaptable. But in order to do this, you have to be well informed, both about what you want and about the state of play in a constantly changing industry. I like Locke’s book because he’s generous, enthusiastic and encouraging. Locke recommends, above all, building relationships with readers. So many problems with eBook publishing seem to result from writers talking constantly to other writers. (I’m as guilty as the next person!) We do it because we feel an affinity with other writers. We have a lot in common. But it gives us a skewed view of things. If we’re going to make any kind of success of publishing and selling what we have written, we have to be able to start thinking like, and engaging with, our readers. Oddly enough, this seems to be one area in which traditional publishing has lost its way. You’d think they’d have readers in mind but they don’t always, not nowadays. They have sales people in mind, who should know what their readers want, but sometimes – when you look at the limited selections they offer – don’t seem to have much idea of the sheer mind-blowing length of that tail of niche markets. Locke advocates engaging with readers in a big way. You may not want to go down his very specific route, but as with all these books, it’s definitely worth considering.
(Catherine Czerkwaska) Visit her festival Page