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Scams to make your jaw drop!

E-publishingPosted by Barbara Sat, April 28, 2012 18:00:09

To get in the right mood for this blog, I want you to think of the famous music from the Jaws movie. Just get that sinister “duh- duh, duh-duh” thing into your head. Got it? Good. Because the sharks are coming – to an indie author near you.

I’ve always hated the idea of ‘vanity’ publishing. I don’t even like the phrase itself. It’s not because I’m averse to spending money (ask anyone who knows me!). But that whole ‘pay-me-to-publish-your-work’ racket seems to me so exploitative as to be borderline criminal.

The phrase ‘vanity publishing’, with its connotations of low-quality writers with more money than sense, was coined by Johnathon Clifford in 1959, after he spotted publishers charging for poems to be published in an anthology. Presumably the rise of literacy from the 1960s onwards increased the numbers of people with aspirations to be published, and those numbers never seem to decrease year-on-year. But most writers know that any outfit which asks you to pay to be published is to be treated with extreme caution.

It’s easy for those of us who’ve never fallen prey to such a scam to dismiss its victims as gullible at best and delusional at worst. Yet I can also understand why some frustrated authors felt that they would never break into the cabal that is the traditional publishing world, and so ended up trying to do it for themselves. So many hopeful writers ended up as prey to an industry that fed on people’s dreams.

One of the attractions of e-publishing is that a writer can do it for no cost at all – apart from time and effort, of course. And because of the various high-profile platforms on which you can be e-published, there’s a reasonable chance that your work could reach a fair number of readers and be judged on its merits, which I think is what writers most desire. It seems so simple, so democratic and revolutionary.

But obviously I’m very naive, because when I joined the indie author ranks a few weeks ago, it came as quite a shock to see how many sharks are already circling the e-publishing waters. My novel Kill and Tell was written and had already been ‘tested’, in the sense that it was shortlisted for two high profile national writing competitions. But that was the easy part. The whole idea of self-promotion and marketing is new to me and I’m not entirely sure how to go about it.

Social networking – particularly twitter* – means that some friendly support is out there. But sharks are out there too. In the great democratic world of e-publishing, no one seems to want to share their knowledge on how to get your work noticed without charging a whopping great fee.

A short twitter trawl, for example, found a hugely repetitive series of tweets encouraging authors to sign up for a “free” tele-class in online marketing. A click on the link, through, revealed that the class is actually priced at almost $300 – the “free” part is something called a “preview call.” Writing magazines advertise “courses” telling you how to publish on Amazon – although of course the instructions are laughably simple and can be found free of charge on the site. Even some of the most recommended sites for promoting e-books are charging steep daily advertising rates. We’re told by those who’ve had e-book success that reviewers are out there, who will read the work for free, judge it on its merits and post reviews. But I’m struggling to find them. Anyone any ideas about what I’m doing wrong?

I have asked some successful e-publishers for some hints, but whatever they did right seems to be something they want to keep to themselves. Which is odd, I think – after all, it’s not like I’m asking for their ideas for their next novel. I asked one writer with a phenomenal number of twitter followers – which is essential - for a hint on how to build up numbers. He told me he has followers “because [he] is awesome”. Thanks for that. Another just advised me to “network.” No clues as to where to start or what exactly that may involve, in the e-publishing sense. I asked another how she attracted 25,000 subscribers to her blog. “Write interesting stuff,” was the reply. Really? And then readers will find it by osmosis or something?

So while the people who’ve made it work are keeping their methods close to their chests, rather than sharing them, the waters are left open for the sharks who promise to help you with all that promotion stuff – as long as you have a big budget. There are also all sorts of people who want to charge you for things that you can (and maybe should) learn to do yourself, such as formatting and designing basic covers. At least here, if you want to have someone else do the work, you are buying some expertise – but remember there are some very poor practitioners out there too, so be sure you know what you’re paying for. A possible exception to this is paying a professional to do your proof-reading. There certainly is an argument for this, because the pickiest of us read what we think we’ve written, rather than what’s actually on the page, which may still contain some embarrassing errors (Scroll down to my earlier post on this, The Perils of Proofreading, for a most salutary tale).

I’ve just started on this whole e-publishing journey. So far I have spent £0.00 on the process, but that’s because I haven’t charged myself for my own time and labour. Everything I do that works, I promise I’ll share it here on this blog. And everything that turns out to be a waste of time, I’ll warn against. And I won’t even ask you to sign up for a tele-class. But maybe you’ll also add your helpful hints and tips too? Let’s send the sharks off to circle some other waters.

(*Oh, twitter - why don't you use a capital T? You make me go against all my instincts!).

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A Brave New Blog!

E-publishingPosted by Mark Sat, April 07, 2012 09:12:20

I am an experienced blogger. And yet, this is the first time I've written a blog for myself. For three and a half years, I've written a blog for the Berwick Book Group, which until this month was funded by New Writing North. That funding's come to an end and so too will the related monthly posts. I've also blogged as part of the Write Around the Toon project, where I'm one of the writers-in-residence. And for most of my working life, I was a journalist – in other words, Will Write For Cash. And Will Write on Any Given Subject.

And here I am, suddenly able to write on anything that pops into my head. For someone who's made a career out of writing to other people's orders, it's impossible to overstate the weirdness of this situation. Come on, somebody, I want to say: tell me what to write about, and it will be done. Give me a deadline and I will always meet it. But let me choose my own subject and timescale and suddenly I have a case of literary vertigo.

In a bid to get over myself, I'll start by mentioning the other strange thing I've just done, which is to self-publish my first novel on to Amazon Kindle. It's something I never thought I'd ever do. Like so many would-be writers, I always longed for the day when some perceptive agent or traditional publisher would take me on and find me that six-figure deal. I share the common desire among writers to see my book on the shelves of a shop (or more accurately, flying off the shelves of a shop). And nothing would induce me to spend money on so-called vanity publishing, where writers are persuaded to part with their cash for a poorly-made product that will never, in all reality, be read. But things are changing in the publishing world and I can't think of a reason not to be part of it.

This novel, Kill and Tell, was written a few years ago. It had quite a bit of acclaim – it was a runner-up in the first ever Andrea Badenoch Awards run by New Writing North and in 2009, it was shortlisted in the Luke Bitmead Awards, described as "one of the most prestigious awards in the country for unpublished writers." (Being a runner-up, I've discovered, is a particular talent of mine). And when an extract went up on a national website a while ago, it received very good reviews. So I'm confident that it's worth a read. But after just a couple of potential agents turned it down, I lost my resilience, stuck the novel into the computer equivalent of a bottom drawer and moved onto another writing project instead.

It was only when the self-publishing phenomenon started to take off that I thought again. I'm a realist – to the point of pessimism, according to my partner – so I'm not expecting to become one of those rare self-publishers whose work takes off and earns millions. I just thought: this novel is good, according to some fairly authoritative sources, so why shouldn't it be read? It didn't cost me anything, apart from a little time, to upload. And all the work that went into the writing of it won't have been wasted.

Some writers – and publishers, of course - are very sniffy about the whole self-publishing issue, arguing about the potential lack of quality and of course the notion of selling your hard-wrought novel at such a low price. These are interesting points for discussion and I certainly can see all sides of this debate. But as a journalist, I've seen this sort of change before. Citizen journalism got the same frosty reaction, with predictions that it was a temporary fad, that it would be poor quality and unreliable and (shock, horror) that it may undermine those in the establishment. They were wrong. Now the journalism gatekeepers at the likes of the BBC and the wider newspaper industry rely very heavily on citizen journalists, who turned out to be of no more mixed quality and reliability than those in the traditional arm.

It's my prediction that self-publishing will do for literature what citizen journalism did for news – bust past the gatekeepers and refresh a tired, old-fashioned and elitist system. Of course we will continue to love our printed words, but there will be room for us 'upstarts' too. And some of us, believe it or not, have some talent. So I'm not going to apologise for becoming an 'indie' author. This is one of those moments where you realise the world has turned a fraction, and existing models are breaking down. So I'm excited to be part of it.

If you want to follow how things go for me, please sign up to get my regular blogs via the RSS feed button at the top of the page. I'll also be posting on issues such as creative writing, teaching the craft, journalism and related subjects. It would be great to have you with me!

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