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Publetariat Dispatch: Indie Author Discrimination

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!

In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author Melissa Conway addresses the bias against self-published authors and books.

I thought I’d write about some of the issues that led to the creation of my popular video The Indie-Author Lament.  By “popular,” I don’t mean viral or anything, I just mean it hit a  nerve with a lot of self-published authors like myself – you know that  nerve in your elbow when you bonk it that hurts like hell but makes you  laugh helplessly like a loon? Yeah, that one.

From the feedback I got on the video, it’s pretty clear that just about  every self-published author out there has a story similar to mine. I  decided to write the song after two weeks of intensive marketing that  left me feeling like a dog that couldn’t quite catch its tail. The video  was never overtly intended as a marketing tool, even though I did have  it in the back of my mind that almost anything that gets me attention  can be used to direct people to my product. So in that respect, I  accidently stumbled upon a unique marketing tool in itself. People have  asked whether the song is true; it mostly is, but I exaggerated some  parts to make it funnier – and to make a point. The song is a composite  of what the average indie-author goes through.

For those of you who aren’t writers, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

There are two roads to getting a book published these days, the long  road and the shortcut. A simplistic description of the long road is that  it’s the traditional route where your book has to pass muster with  first an agent and then an editor at a publishing house. The shortcut,  referred to by its detractors as “vanity publishing” is where writers  self-publish their manuscripts. Usually they attempted to take the  traditional route, but roadblocks and detours prevented them from  reaching their destination. So they chose to self-publish, which on the  surface might appear to be a smart move to shave off time in their  journey, but more often, like many promising shortcuts, leads them  through alligator-infested swamps.

I know I’m pushing the metaphors, but in the war against bad books,  agents have traditionally held the front line. They function as the  roadblocks; well-armed with opinions on what the reading public wants,  and they only allow a chosen few books to get past them. Those that do,  must detour on to another set of roadblocks set up by the editor. In  this way, books that eventually reach the public are supposed to be  error-free and high-quality.

The books that don’t get past the agent are a mixed bag. Some are good,  some are bad, some are very bad – but some are excellent, because agents  aren’t perfect and sometimes they reject based on what’s hot in the  market at the moment, etcetera. There’re a lot of subjective reasons why  an excellent novel wouldn’t get traditionally published, but on the  other hand, there’s no vetting system in place to prevent the very bad  self-published books from stinking up the shelves. Anyone who wants to  publish a book can do so, but the bad books erode public perception of  indies as a whole. If someone reads a traditionally published author’s  book and hates it, they aren’t likely to give that author’s next book a  chance, but they probably won’t boycott the publisher. If someone reads a  badly written or poorly edited self-published book, there’s a danger  that they will lump all indie-authors into the same category and avoid  them altogether.

The marketing advice most indie-authors are given is twofold: establish  an internet presence in forums and on social networking sites, and  solicit book bloggers to review their book. So whereas publishing houses  can provide advertising and obtain reviews from professional book  reviewers for their stable of authors, indie authors are on their own –  and unfortunately, some do a piss poor job of promoting themselves.

In a certain subset of self-published authors, I’ll refer to them as the  Spammers (because that’s what they are), there’s a decided lack of  professionalism as far as marketing is concerned. Spammers are not  subtle. They are the ones who tweet the link to their book every hour on  the hour. They are the ones with seventeen links in their signature  line. They dive-bomb forum threads, comment off-topic on blog posts and  generally make a nuisance of themselves – and a bad name for indie  authors in general.

While the forum and book blogger advice has worked in some cases really  well for authors who didn’t abuse it in the past, there’s been a recent  backlash. Some forum administrators purportedly fielded so many  complaints about spam that they were forced to create separate groups  within the forums, effectively segregating self-published authors – who  can now spam each other to their hearts’ content – because you can bet  readers won’t venture to the back of the bus. Amazon UK, in a move they  have yet to explain to their customers, has just banned indie promotion  on their forums altogether.

Major book review publications like the New York Times actually have  policies in place that exclude self-published books. Whether this is a  result of pressure from publishing conglomerates who advertise with them  or an unwillingness to dedicate the manpower necessary to sift through  the chaff: they won’t touch them. So indie-authors are forced to seek  out alternative ways to get reviews, which are essential to sales.  Indie-authors’ family, friends and peers often volunteer, but what they  need most in order to avoid the appearance of dishonesty is unbiased  opinions, and that’s where book bloggers come in.

The majority of book bloggers don’t accept self-published books, but  those that do have unwittingly taken on the road-blocking role of agent.  They get the exact same kind of queries agents do and perform the same  basic function of filtering out poorly written or badly edited books.  This is ironic to the author given that taking the shortcut to  publication was supposed to bypass these sorts of roadblocks in the  first place. Book bloggers have popped up everywhere and some have  become extremely popular: they weather a steady deluge of requests from  indie-authors. Many are backlogged several months or even years, so even  if they agree to read your book, it won’t be any time soon. Many also  have a policy of only posting reviews on books they liked. Some do that  because they don’t like negativism, but in others it’s a defense  mechanism to avoid confrontations with disgruntled authors. There have  been cases of self-published authors engaging in very public and  embarrassing flame-wars with reviewers.

So you can see how the aggressive, unrelenting actions of a few have  severely curtailed the already limited marketing options of the many.

This anti-indie shift is understandable, but very very frustrating for  most of us. My song was a spoof – it didn’t offer advice on how avoid  these minefields because even though in general indie-authors stick  together and support each other, at the end of the day, marketing is a  very personal commitment. Each of us has to budget our time and  resources as best we can and something that works for one won’t  necessarily work for the other. But just because things look dire right  now for indies doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Public opinion  swings back and forth, and indie-authors themselves are scrambling to  think up unique ways to market themselves and their books. The majority  of us keep tight rein on our marketing efforts so we don’t humiliate  ourselves or compromise our integrity. It’s not hopeless, just another  challenge. Until someone comes up with a viable solution to the lack of a  cost-free, unbiased vetting system for self-published books, the best  defense is to have a solid product and to maintain decorum. And it looks  like the best offense in today’s climate is to think up a unique,  non-spam generating marketing platform to wow your potential audience.

This post, from indie author  Melissa Conway, originally appeared on her Whimsilly blog and is reprinted here with her permission.

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