Driving toward the Maass of Shit Volcano and dealing with it

When I was writing a recent article for TIPM about an emerging hierarchy I perceive in self-publishing between savvy and entrepreneurial authors and those authors who perhaps approach self-publishing for fun and pleasure (you can read the article here), I wanted to explore a number of other issues on my mind, but I felt it would take the article off on too much of an unnecessary tangent.
The Feedback on Is self-publishing creating a hierarchical community for its authors?
Firstly, I want to address some feedback here on TIPM and elsewhere after the article was published. I want to stress that I’m not arguing that the self-publishing community has deliberately created a hierarchy within and of itself. Rather the two-tier class system is being pushed from above by highly successful authors, service industry people and very strong influential voices who don’t necessarily or often focus on what has made the community strong as a whole. Instead, what we get is the ideal author presented as some kind of sales person and marketer, first and foremost, and the importance of writing as a craft to be practiced and honed is somehow presented as something unimportant.
I entirely agree that the greatest strength within the self-publishing community is that it both shares author experience and a vast knowledge-base. But I’m hearing a common concern from many writers new to self-publishing who feel alienated by a perception that if they don’t want to sell a million books, run a small business, and only want to write and publish for fun and pleasure, then their output and efforts are deemed to be potentially diluting and damaging to the quality of higher tier authors.
The following article is very much directed at savvy self-published authors and the professionals running services aimed at encouraging, supporting and also profiting from this sector of the publishing industry. This isn’t a sign that all self-publishers (who don’t consider themselves a brand or the creators and administrators of a small business) should clear their throats and quietly leave the room.
Now, let’s begin with a video.
 

 

Sad Marketing Systems to Entrap Self-Published Authors

This is one author promoting the services and system of Adrian K. Danuf (Duante) and Douglas Petersen of Fast Kindle Cash, one of many, many get-rich-quick marketing ploys you will discover as an author cluttering up the Internet. I had wanted to link to a promotional video Adrian K. Danut (Duante also—he uses a number of aliases on the Internet) produced to launch his latest system for authors to make money from Kindle books. However, that video was a ONE TIME OFFER mainly surfacing through Facebook adverts and the link has since been disabled to the expired offer.  I originally discovered the video on one of his Facebook promotional pages and his FastKindleCash.com website, but again the video has since been removed. Lis Sowerbutts (yes, it is her real name!) does a pretty good job of dissecting Danuf’s clever goulash on this post over on Adventures in Self-Publishing & Making Online Income. The gist of Danuf’s system is that you hand over cash to his company, throw his team of book makers an idea for a Kindle book, they spin their creative and marketing stuff, and then you sit back and watch the cash roll in. I’ve come across plenty of these systems directed at the self-publishing community and most of them revolve around using public domain content and then gaming Amazon with clever keywords and website SEO. But hey, if that’s your bag as a writer, then by all means knock yourself out and drop Adrian ‘Kindle’ Danuf a line or two and sign up. Adrian likes the idea that his middle initial should stand for Kindle. I doubt his mom and dad came up with that one!

You will find dozens of these money-making systems out there with just a cursory check on Google, but let’s be very clear—they have nothing to do with self-publishing. As Lis Sowerbutts points out in her article, these marketing systems, like many large author-vanity-mills of past and present are aimed at exploiting the naivety and dreams of authors new to the self-publishing arena.
Wendig
You will note that I referenced an article by hybrid author and screenwriter Chuck Wendig in my recent post entitled—Is self-publishing creating a hierarchical community for its authors? Wendig has argued that this slush-pile of self-published material is not entirely harmless (what Wendig also refers to as the Shit Volcano) and that it is increasingly becoming harder for readers to ‘discover’ quality books.

 

The sheer number of releases is an issue all its own. It becomes increasingly hard to stand out merely by publishing a book in either form. It’s like trying to get a droplet of water to stand out in an entire goddamn ocean.

 

The issue becomes more complicated when you add in the fact that, in my opinion, a whole lotta these author-published releases are going to be the equivalent of smearing poopy handprints on the windows of your Plexiglas enclosure. This is par for the course, maybe, because one of the features of self-publishing is that the door is open to anyone. Everyone. Always. No bouncers at this nightclub door, which is fine, but that also means you get folks with no shirt and no shoes. You’ll get folks dressed to the nines in sharkskin suits and you’ll also get wild-eyed dudes who are eating goulash out of rubber boots and who are quietly masturbating in the corner. You let anybody swim in the pool and, well, anybody can swim in the pool.~ Chuck Wendig

 

Wendig argues, and rightly so, that traditional publishers (big and small) act as a quality filter and gatekeeper, and while such publishers can and do publisher stinkers, for the most part, this is good news for the reader.  I agree with that, but only to the point that modern publishers are commercial businesses, not as they once were—arbiters and curators of literature.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Self-publishing has been around for hundreds of years. Like publishing, it’s also evolved—mostly for the better. Self-publishing functions and thrives now because of the gatekeeper and quality filters in commercial publishing, not in spite of it. Those filters alone don’t exist to punish authors because they can’t always produce quality work.
I think a lack of quality and diversity in books has more to do with publishing economics, narrower mainstream markets, and in particular the populist culture for consuming media trends or what is sensational and easily digestible. I also believe Wendig is paying the ordinary reader an incredible disservice. Readers don’t have trouble discovering the books they want to read—rather it’s authors who have trouble with the issue of discoverability, and hence clumsy and unprofessional marketing systems are conceived to either piss readers off or simply game the system with poor quality books.
Sometimes the self-publishing community is quick to pounce and ridicule certain assisted publishing services and also external detractors from the traditional world, but there is as much deception, delusion and strutting peacocks in the self-publishing community as there are within the commercial world of publishing.  
Wendig doesn’t mention the thousands of public domain material cobbled together over a few days and issued in e-book and print formats when he discusses the Shit Volcano. I think Wendig’s Volcano is made up of a lot more than just the excretions of the self-published community. If you promise a few hidden speckles of gold dust in any piece of shit, people with turn up to shove their noses into that shit if it is offered for next to nothing in the hope of uncovering something of value. I think he has fallen into the self-protected trap of believing that if a book is edited and formatted well, it’s more likely to be a work of quality. I guess it’s a case of relative reader taste. Would you rather read a well-edited and formatted book even if it turns out to be a pile of shit, or read a great story you enjoy but is ultimately poorly formatted and full of typos and grammatical imperfections?
I’ve always argued that readers buy books based on word-of-mouth (and that means asking what everyone else is reading and recommending), first instincts, and author brand recognition. Instead, Wendig is attempting to sell us the publisher brand and gatekeeper argument over all else. The trouble with this is that all traditional publishers play the brand game through their marketing endeavours— this book sold a million copies, was translated into 32 languages and a New York Times bestseller for six months.
Experts. Fucking Experts!
Internet marketing gurus like Danuf, who I mentioned above, and many prominent publishing experts now profiting from the explosion in self-publishing and the growth of e-books have cottoned on to all this. What have they been telling the serious savvy self-publisher—and most other authors throughout the community—for the past few years? It doesn’t matter what your measure of success or motivation is for self-publishing a book—whether for fun or pleasure—if you are not publishing as a small business with heavy marketing for profit, then you aren’t doing it the right way!
So the experts tell us not to bother if we aren’t serious enough. They tell us to give hundreds or thousands of copies of books away for free or next to nothing to build author and business brand. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that if you are publishing for long term success and a career out of writing. Few marketers and publishing experts ever mention perfecting writing craft and ability to deliver a good story. Of course, that’s not their bag really, is it? With cleverer and more sophisticated systems the less desirable marketers and experts encourage us to game retail and online distributors with deceiving keywords and metadata to make a bestseller list. And retailers like Amazon have compounded this approach by categorising books to an extreme point—in an effort to aid book discovery for the reader—just about to make any pile of shit a top ten read. Yes, you too can have a number one bestselling book in non-fiction/education/marine life for your book on Teaching Dolphins to Sing Lullabies.
I simply don’t buy the argument pushed by Wendig and other powerful voices—often directly addressing the self-publishing arena—that readers can’t or may not be able to find good books because of the Shit Volcano. If anything, discovery of books in the most obscure categories is actually becoming easier for readers—just as long as the reader knows what he/she is looking for. Often the reader usually has some well-formed taste or specific author/book in mind. Even for the casual reader—the hunt is part of the experience of discovery. I think some of the biggest reasons why physical bookstores are struggling against online retailers are because of discounts, no effort needed to travel to purchase, increasingly quicker delivery times and the benefit of shopping in an environment offering choice, diversity and deliverability to a desktop, e-reader or tablet within a minute.
I discussed what I saw as an emerging hierarchy in self-publishing in my previous article and how there is now a dividing two-tier class of author, an agenda pushed by marketing and publishing experts downward and onto the community—not created by the community itself. That hierarchy is also alive and well in the traditional publishing world and the self-publishing community needs to ensure that it is not so quick to adopt the same hierarchy while attempting to become more professional.
Even I Can Change My View On Stuff When I Read Maass!
I’ve recently said that I’ve revised my opinion over the last year or two on big and small publishers (and literary agents) developing self-publishing imprints. I felt for a time that traditional publishers were becoming more accepting of self-publishing as a means to redefine how they discover authors outside of the recognised industry gateway, combined with the bonus of providing additional revenue streams through selling author and content services. I’m less inclined now to take such a conciliatory view, and my opinion is that publishers see self-publishing as a honeypot not for new talent, but solely as a mechanism to aid their transition from literary curators and gatekeepers to content service providers. I used to think that publishers understood the value of self-publishing and how one avenue of publishing expertise could potentially compliment another vibrant and independent form of publishing. But when I look at how traditional publishers—for the most part—have used self-publishing in recent years, by partnering with one of the most reviled author service providers within the savvy author community, I can only conclude that publishers’ motives are borne out of two stark considerations; that of profit and ignorance of the opportunity self-publishing can provide them.

For me, the last straw came this week with Donald Maass’ piece on Writer Unboxed, entitled, The New Class System. Maass announces at the start of the piece that he is departing from ‘my usual craft advice to give you my view of the new state of the industry.’ Oh how we all wish now he stuck with the craft! Maass describes something of the same class structure in the publishing industry as I have describes I see emerging in the self-publishing community. Again, take note: this line in the sand is not being necessarily be drawn by authors, but pushed down top-to bottom by those profiting, controlling and influencing authors. The trouble is—certainly in the industry, the industry—authors have been far too willing to accept this class structure, or at the least put up with it. It wasn’t just that Maass (a leading literary agent and author of writing craft books) reiterated what many authors—good and not so good, successful and not so successful—always believed about the motives of the commercial publishing industry, but that he was happy to have played his part in making it what it is.

 

Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.~ Donald Maass

 

Good times for all it seems except authors. Maass classifies authors as freight, coach and first class. I’m actually doing Donald a favour here by not quoting more of some of the misleading and utter offensive diatribe contained in the article. Cheers, Donald. Stay classy!
If there was ever an article to so blatantly define the nature of modern publishing, then this is it. But the disturbing fact is that Donald just doesn’t see it. It’s all still good in the publishing hood. When I read the article I had to keep reminding myself that Maass is a literary agent, not a publisher. That means he is supposed to be serving authors, not the good of publishers. I think this piece by Maass will be seen in years to come as a defining moment for him. Maybe not this week, next week, next month or next year, but Maass, I’m sure, will wake some morning and regret he ever wrote this article. He may spend the rest of his career in the industry retracting and trying to redefine what he meant, just as George Bush did when he uttered the infamous ‘No new taxes’ or when Bill Clinton insisted ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. I think Maass will regret the day he figuratively put his literary foot in the face of all authors. J. A. Konrath, not surprisingly, took Maass’ piece apart word by word and yet his dissection of the piece was best captured in one word—‘wow,’ just ‘wow!’
Every kid grows up and becomes an adult. Every writer becomes a better writer by writing. Every author becomes a better author with every book. A few writers will ultimately become successful authors—most won’t, and most who don’t, won’t want to anyhow.
If you read the above three lines and instantly thought, ‘Oh, yeh, self-publishing!’ then I’ve just wasted my time. I’m not a cheerleader for any specific form of publishing.

 

Never trust the so-called experts, me included, until you gather enough info to make an educated choice.~ J. A. Konrath

 

Trust No One And Believe What You Know And Understand
The traditional publishing industry might like to think its professionalism guarantees quality and perfection, but it often falls short on delivery, whereas, self-publishers, by their nature, motive and means, do not set out immediately to imitate or achieve perfection and quality. I think the critics and loudest voices of both paths to publishing often forget this differential.
I would like to think self-publishing will become a fundamental choice in The Future of Publishing 2020, but I do think it will always remain a creative stream of democratic expression within the greater publishing industry. Just as YouTube never threatened the TV or film industry, or iTunes didn’t ultimately herald the downfall of the music industry, self-publishing isn’t and won’t threaten the downfall of the publishing industry.
But what the self-publishing community (and I’m reluctant to call it an industry within an industry) should not do is accept the mistakes and author hierarchy of the other. What is happening is that self-publishing is becoming a mainstream trend—for wider media consumption (only because they like good rags to riches story and are happy to endlessly talk about Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking), and, as always, where there is opportunity for marketing and Internet gurus, there will always be voices and experts to speak loudest and speak loudest in an arena they often know little about.
Some Home Truths for the Self-Publishing Community
I’ve long suspected that the self-publishing community relies a great deal on its own community (just as it relies heavily on fellow writers to advise and help with publication) to promote, buy and review books, and propagate its success. It’s not necessarily a bad way to gain a foothold into any reader market—start local in your community—but more often than not that community comprises of fellow authors (readers who are actually not your readers), and it belies an uneasy marketing truth that many self-published authors launch a book and even a writing career with absolutely no reader-base to speak of.  The real writer community successes I’ve heard of have begun with prolonged interaction on sites like Goodread and Wattpad over a year or two, but often authors only plug into such communities after they have published a book.
Some weeks ago, when I reflected on 2013, and considered what would be the issues for self-published authors in 2014, I had a host of predictions—that translation and crowdfunding would be the dominant issues in the self-publishing community—and while I still think they will be big issues; I believe in light of the past few weeks of 2014 that self-publishing, like the greater publishing industry, will undergo a period of reflection and examination. The real discussion now is just how self-publishing will integrate into the publishing industry as a whole. Perhaps the real question in light of my article is who really is in charge of self-publishing and guiding it forward?
I for one don’t want the development of the self-publishing community to be in the hands of a few marketing and publishing experts with a vested interest in how it all plays out. But that’s the way it is going, and in the UK this year, one single author services and marketing company is being allowed take hold of the public perception of all authors who supposedly represent self-publishing UK, independently, and the agenda and role those authors present to the trade industry. I applaud any company organising and representing independent authors at an author and trade fair, but a part of me asks why does it have to be that way? Where are the independent author representatives to carry out this national and international role?
There is a hierarchy in self-publishing, just as there has been in publishing as a whole. As long as self-publishing exists without a credible guiding light and respecting the aims of all authors in the global community, that void will always be filled by those with their own agenda and profit sheet.
Self-publishing may be in for a tough year in 2014. Right now the wagons have come over the mountains and are beginning to circle. I’m just puzzled about some of the drivers of those wagons!

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

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