Thursday, January 7, 2016

Are You Deliberately Sabotaging Yourself?

There’s not a lot to say when someone claims, “I don’t care if my books sell.”

Good. Then there’s no problem. Let’s go get lunch.

It can be a bag of mixed emotions when you see a fellow writer unhappy. In some cases, it’s just empathy; you are hit with their frustration and helplessness, a subtle undertone of grief, all the same while trying to focus on your own problems or joys. There's not really anything you can do, even if you want to. In others, it’s compounded by the desire to smack them over the head and say, “Quit being stubborn, dumbass!”

People claim, “I don’t care if my book sells,” “I’m not writing for the money,” “I write for myself,” “I only write for the love of the craft.” It’s a sentiment that could be true, and fantastic if it is. But so, so rarely is it the unadulterated reality, and in some cases it’s just an outright lie. You are very distraught, you have been complaining about no one wanting your book, and now you’re sitting there writing off everyone’s suggestions because you don’t care? You do care. And the best way to solve your problem is by first admitting you care.

Why would someone do that? Why would someone go out of their way, completely unsolicited, to announce a lie like that?

In most cases, I assume people aren’t outright fibbing, and my first impression was that it was partially true, and/or the author was trying to find reasons why he really is meant to do be a writer via his pure intentions: “I may not be selling many books, but that’s because I’m not a sellout.”

This attitude is frustrating because every motivation convincing a writer to get published will be benefited by learning how to gain readers. Even if you're not about sales or figures, you got published to be read. The definition of “sellout” often changes to suit the argument. While it’s vital to stay true to your morality, there are many occasions in which authors cite artistic integrity about things that aren’t creatively beneficial, possibly completely meaningless.

Yes, a bad cover does not indicate bad content, necessarily, and yes, people shouldn’t use such arbitrary and uncorrelated methods to determine the quality of the book. But not only do they, moreover, what do you care? By allowing yourself to have a bad cover you are dissuading people from giving you a chance, and it’s not like you’re making an artistic statement, not like you think that terrible cover improves your novel. (With some exceptions, granted.) Refusing to do what sells because it’s not the book you want to create is one thing. Refusing to do what sells because you “shouldn’t have to” is very much another.

If your story is meaningful and important, if you want to get the word out there and all you have to do is make a professional cover, why wouldn’t you? Because it’s a lot of work?

The other day a gentlemen friended me with his new author page. Not long after, he posted a question about how much Createspace costs. I told him what I knew, stating, essentially, that Createspace takes a percentage for ebooks, and mentioning that percentage is higher for a 99 cent book. (I didn’t know the exact amounts, or where the price point changed.)

He went off on a rampage, trashing self-published authors, claiming that his book did not take two weeks to write, that he was going to charge $25 dollars. He said, “If it sells, it sells.”

He proceeded to state in other comments he would not be giving his book away—he spent far too much time on it—emphasizing how his manuscript was perfectly edited by an older school teacher who loved to read and only found thirteen errors in the entire thing. He told everyone who would listen that no one wanted his books, agents and editors wouldn’t touch them, wouldn’t get back to him, while simultaneously writing off every self-published book out there for being garbage that couldn’t get published. He announced that it would be a bestseller if he could get into the right hands. Every time someone made a suggestion, it started the cycle over, him stating frankly, “I will not do that,” and launching back into his tirade about how much his editor loved his book, how publishers only want celebrities, how he worked harder on his manuscript than anyone else.

Again came in the wave of mixed feelings.

There is a part of me that wants him to succeed, that wishes for him to not deal with some of the frustration he could easily avoid. Just knowing what he’s in for, having reasonable expectations, are key to not taking it so hard. I don’t want to see him go through the pain he’s bound for. It’s going to happen no matter what, but he can at least soften the blow. Self-publishers, I believe, are more prone to discouragement in earlier stages. When you are aiming for traditional publication, you can find excuses, get use to rejection, and use that to improve your chances. You can say, “Well, it was just this agent,” or “But when it gets into the hands of the public…” or “Then if I just change this and try again…” And hope that things will be different when you’re actually published. As a self-published author, you bring your book right out to the public to find… crickets. It can be disheartening to see how many indie authors are completely shocked to find out that the gatekeepers weren’t their biggest obstacle to the bestsellers’ list. And, somewhat irritating.

Everything about his attitude was something I had experienced before. I’m just glad it was prior to Facebook and the new ease of self-publishing. I didn’t expose these feelings to everyone I knew. I also had my share of disappointments, my unrealistic expectations—still do at times—but again, they were not only private, but excusable. As in, I could excuse them. “It doesn’t mean anything because…”

I’ve seen countless people making the same comments, just these last few months. Authors who have epic dreams for their books, yet don’t do their homework. He claims, “If it sells, it sells,” but I know better than to believe that. He thinks all he needs to do is get his work out there and everyone will realize what a great writer he is. Except he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He hasn’t put any thought into it. It never occurred to him that an ebook might not go for the same price as a paperback. “I’ll have to look,” he said.

Really? You decided on a price before you even examined what the going rates were?

I remember when I first came to Australia, walked into a bookstore, and saw that the books were priced at $25. It made sense because their dollar is worth 1.7 of Americans’, most of them are imported, and entertainment items are much pricier here, but it was still shocking. I immediately checked to be sure he wasn’t from Australia. (I saw more of their posts now that we were up at the same times.) Nope, true-blue American.

He claimed that he had bought poetry books from a small press for $20. Twenty dollars is not 25, sir. I have paid 30 for a paperback too, but that was a book from an author I knew I liked and deliberately went to the store to get. I remember thinking, being that it was from a traditional publisher, it couldn’t have been a sign of naivety. Maybe gouging. Or maybe prices have gone up. They do that sometimes.

Not only is 25 a lot for a paperback in general, traditional publishers can get paid more because they have credibility. As a self-published author, you can also charge more for credibility, but that comes from having a lot of clean and beautiful works out with many reviews and lots of people talking about you. You know, having credibility. As a debut self-published author, charging that much, especially for an ebook, is suspicious at best.

Whenever someone complains about how poorly their books are selling, I go to their page and look. In many cases, the reason is obvious. One, I can’t find it. They don’t include links in obvious places, and when you type in their common pen name online you can’t be sure it’s them—if anything even comes up. Their one-word title doesn’t necessarily bring up what you want either.

Or it’s an obviously homemade cover. Or it’s a lot of typos in obvious places. Or it’s a vague summary. Or, the worst case scenario, it’s not a bad anything—good cover, well-written summary—it just doesn’t stand out. Sometimes it has the “What am I looking at?” syndrome in which there seems to be no consistency between cover, summary, and other information, like in the case of one book where I had no idea if it was fiction or non-fiction, and in one spot it said it was meant for 12-18 year olds, while nothing about the cover or synopsis indicated it was a young adult book.

Occasionally, it’s very much the price.

I usually don’t relay this information back to the author because, honestly, they don’t want to hear it. These are the sorts of things that, had they done their research, would have known it to be the obvious problem. Often, they do know, they just say, “Well, the reader shouldn’t care about that.”

In the situation of this particular man, it was his belief he didn’t care if it sold well enough. I just wanted to say, “Don’t be stupid. You know that’s not true.”

I sat back and analyzed his words. Why did he keep saying that? He had actually stated he knew he had a bestseller on his hands. So when you say you don't care if it sells...

And if he didn’t believe that his book was going to be immediately be recognized for its genius, did he really think that charging above the market price and refusing to give out free samples was going to help him? (He did, in later comments, change his mind about giving away some freebees, despite his absolute response to the original suggestion with, “I will not!”) Even if, let’s say, his book was fantastic and perfect, that doesn’t mean readers will know it before they read it. As a debut, self-published author all he has is a few sentenced-pitch and the sample pages. And if agents and editors were passing him up, clearly these things not so catching that a person will immediately say, “Yes, this is worth my time!”

You can grab a reader when you couldn't an agent. Often, due to numbers—the more people it’s expose to, the more someone’s bound to like it—but also the cost of investment. An agent who picks you up is very committed to your manuscript, where as a reader only commits the cost of the book and the amount of time it takes them to realize they hate it. An accumulation of a few days, if they read the whole thing. The agent has a sea of manuscripts to get through, most of which are exactly what they seem to be, and even if they do think that something was good, it doesn't mean they want to work on it.

I am more likely to take a chance on a two-dollar book that I’m not sure I’ll like than a five-dollar book. If you’re going to charge me more than ten dollars for an ebook, I have to have very good reasons to believe I’ll like it. In fact, the only time I have ever spent that much on a ebook was when a brand new sequel came out from a series I loved and I was really impatient. But I don’t buy ebooks as much, it should be noted.

Not days before this conversation I had seen a writer post a very upset status, irritating a lot of people by a sense of entitlement—you guys are supposed to be my friends, and aren’t buying my book! I went to his page and didn’t remember much about except that he was selling only an ebook option for 11 dollars. No reviews, no prior novels for sale. My internal reaction was to roll my eyes and write him off as an arrogant amateur. I’ve done this many times for authors. In one unique case, I was really interested in the book, but her summary was very vague, she had no reviews, and she was asking for $15 with no paperback option. I might have paid for it if I had a better idea of what it was going to be, but I had not enough to go off of for the risk. Several days later this debut author took it down for “major revamping” due to a comment by a friend. Overpricing usually means inexperience.

The gentlemen in question kept saying that 99 cent books were all written in two weeks and were typo ridden. This is one of the reasons to always support other authors. I was distinctly getting the vibe that he didn’t buy many books, and certainly not by self-published authors. He seemed so naïve of what the experience of a reader is. Price isn’t indicative of quality and the means of marketing for self-published books is often very different than how traditional publishers work. Lots of good books are sold for 99 cents and a lot of terrible ones are sold for much more.

A 99 cent book is a book that the author chose to sell for that much. A 25 dollar book is a book the author chose to sell for that much. Reasons behind those prices vary drastically, but there are lots of well-written books being sold that cheaply—either because of a marketing plan, or the author undervaluing themselves, or perhaps they don’t care about the money, just want to be read. It would be great if quality was a gauge of price, but it isn’t. I would argue that a more constant correlation is that overpriced books tend to be valued by the author’s naivety or ego, two things that often directly contribute to bad writing. In fact, a writer who thinks that he can sell a book much higher than market value might very well be the one who thinks he can get away with less editing than others. Like, perhaps, one edit by a woman who only has academic experience and only found 13 errors with no content changes.

I don’t believe he doesn’t read at all, or that he doesn’t buy books. I have no idea why he came to that specific value. Yet, his staunch refusal to even consider other options was so strong that if he hasn’t examined his purchasing trends, it had to be motivated by something.

I reasoned, he does care if his books sell or don’t, he is just saying he doesn’t to sooth his fear. Whenever I am feeling terrified at a possible result, I tell myself that it’s not a big deal, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it. It can help.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Why is he charging so much? It’s not compatible with most books he’s being compared to, self-published or no. He keeps saying, “If it sells, it sells,” so he knows that the price might not make it sell. He’s charging so much not just because he thinks that destiny is on his side and he can get away with it, but because it will be a reason it didn’t sell. If he does find his books to be widely ignored, he can excuse it on the cheapness of the readers, those who are used to the “trashy crap written in two weeks.”

I’ve done it before. When I am feeling low but know I need to get my work out there, I submit only to highly competitive competitions and publications, ones that 3,000 people are going for ten spots. If I don’t get it, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about me or my ability; it was just competitive.

This can be problematic. If I had picked more reasonable goals, the rejection would have hurt worse, yes, but is also more likely to have given me a publication: given me some readers, taken away the isolation, gained me some money, a writing credit, whatever. I deliberately avoided success that might not happen for success that probably won’t.

I don’t believe he conscientiously made this decision, but the more I think about it, the more it rings true. He is operating under the typical impression that he is the Chosen One, that it will all work out for him if he can just get a foot in. If that is true, then people will still buy no matter what the price. If they don’t, then maybe he wasn’t destined for greatness. But then he can just throw out the destiny card and still give himself an excuse: “It was because of the price, not the content…”

Unrealistic expectations come from lack of research, and sometimes that lack of research can be deliberate. He’s choosing to blind himself to his choices for fear of making the wrong one. He got a fair number of comments on his status, each of them offering up suggestions and things to consider. His response was always stubborn. “NO.” First sentence was always, “I will not do that,” even when it wasn’t a suggestion or an instruction, but an agreement.

Knowing your path and not letting other people dissuade you is one thing, but listening and considering those opinions—asking yourself why they’re giving them to you—is also an important part of figuring out what’s best. He didn’t want to hear the discussion, he didn’t want to reconsider his options, he just wanted to see his book out there.

I don’t believe this in itself is a bad thing. But I hate to see an author deliberately sabotaging himself. I hate when someone prioritizes placating his fear of failure with a lack of trying. Do your research, strive for success, and assume the effort will pay off in the end. And if he can’t do that, then he is no different than the self-publishers he hates.

My recommendation to any new writer considering self-publishing: plan on succeeding and don’t consider yourself the exception. Dream big, but do your homework, expect the expected, and make sure you aren’t trying to sabotage yourself.

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