Essential writing skills: tackling the invisible hurdle

I’ve been posting these past few weeks about the challenges facing writers in the new environment. The biggest hurdle, of course, is so huge it’s invisible.

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine...
Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine…

Let me explain. A few years ago the challenge authors faced in being published was – being published. The road was paved with hurdles. A starting author first had to write something good enough to be competitive with the professionals. Then they had to find the agent, who in turn had to get a publisher interested in circumstance where publishers, more often than not, went with previously published authors who had an established record.

Eventually, if everything went well, the book would appear. And – usually – not do too well. Most books didn’t do much more than break even – and publishers know the odds. The figure I’ve seen is that about one book in ten does really well. The rest don’t, and publishers accept that because having a reasonably broad range of books in their lists is part of the deal.

These days the paradigm’s changed. That world is still there, but authors also have the option of self-publishing through Amazon.

I could hear the cries of ‘squee – no entry barrier!’ all the way down in New Zealand.

There are two problems with this. The first is what Chuck Wendig calls the ‘shit volcano’ quality issue. Everybody can publish, so everybody does. ‘I learned English in school, so I can write…right?’

That sudden flood of authors (no pushing at the back) creates the second issue, which is just as big a barrier as the old agent model. Discovery.

In July this year Amazon listed 32.8 million separate titles of all kinds for sale. In that same month, they shifted 120,000 e-books a day, as best-sellers, of which 31 percent were indie published. You get the picture. Any individual book is going to be lost in the noise, no matter how good – or bad – it happens to be. Yes, the review system’s there, but a good book that doesn’t get good reviews – perhaps because nobody’s found it – won’t float to the top. That isn’t a problem for Amazon – they profit from the aggregate. But it’s a major issue for any individual author.

So – all that’s happened is that one ‘filter’ has been, effectively, replaced with another. One that cannot be reasoned with because it’s part of the environment, like gravity. The question is what to do about it. How can a writer – armed with an identical tool-kit to every other hopeful out there in internet-land – get found?

And when they are, how can they sell their stuff?

It’s a new paradigm. More soon. Meanwhile – what are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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12 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: tackling the invisible hurdle

  1. Still looking for my silver bullet that will put me over the top. I haven’t been real aggressive while I work up some older pieces for Amazon. As I move to the next phase, I need to step up my promotional activity.

    1. Ditto. The issue we’re all facing, alas, is that we all have the same tools for doing so – hence the way stuff gets lost in the ‘noise’. But there are ways around it – and one thing, I think, that always pays off is professionalism, consistency…and persistence – particularly not being disheartened by lack of results.

    1. I am too…🙂 My original plan to write a genre novel that appealed to all readers – a boarding school, magic, vampire, undead urban fantasy crossover – just wasn’t gonna work… Actually I do have some thoughts which I’ll be sharing soon…

  2. Yep, it all depends on discoverability. This post by Jason Kong on The Book Designer blog has some of the answers. http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/09/warning-discoverability-dependency-is-hazardous-to-your-fiction-marketing/ In short, he says it’s about finding the influencers in your target market and attracting their attention. If they like you, they’ll recommend you to their followers. I’ve seen this in action – when you mentioned my book on your blog, Matthew, there was a visible uptick in sales over the following days. (Thanks for that!) I’m hoping my shares of your books on Facebook will be having a similar effect for you. To stay afloat in the sea of available titles, personal recommendation is a powerful asset.

    Can’t wait to see your genre novel!

    1. Thank you for the support. And you’re right – everyone’s in this together. This is also why ‘spam’ doesn’t work – just ramming the ‘buy my book’ message to others put them off. It seems to me that the ‘business concept’ we’re working with here isn’t hard-sell in a shop – it’s friends chatting in a coffee lounge about things they like. And that, of course, is a good thing.

      I have a title for the genre novel, anyway ‘Harry Dracula’s New Age Zombie Boarding School Urban Fantasy Adventure. Part 2.’ (There is no Part 1, the idea being that everybody will go frantically searching for it and thus up the profile of Part 2…)🙂

  3. I LOVE Chuck’s shit volcano. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve downloaded and couldn’t get past the first couple of pages.
    I am waiting to hear back from an agent and am on pins and needles. I’ll exhaust all my tradition options before going indie.

    1. Sounds like a good approach – and I hope all goes well! It’s curious but true – actually writing the book is often only the very beginning of the mountain one has to climb for each publication.

  4. I would love to know whether the massive backscratching societies like Wattpad and Authonomy actually work. It seems that you authors have transferred to politics of appealing to publishers to appealing to each other. It’s ugly in my opinion. My hope is that the art of the review will get recognised someday and good reviewing wiil be able to actually attract some kind of remuneration.

    1. I’ve not looked at either site. However, I do find the ‘Amazon-inspired’ appropriation of the word ‘review’ to mean ‘reader comment about a book’ as opposed to ‘feature article discussing the merits and subject’ to be a little irksome. Review-writing is an art and a writing skill of its own, like any other. That said, even the professional stuff doesn’t earn a return – I used to write reviews for the Listener, Sunday Star-Times and a few others, and the amount actually paid can only be considered a joke. Certainly not a return either on the time or the expertise that Fairfax, APN et al were buying. I was better off putting that time into books of my own. Or cleaning the car.

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