Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013)

What does it take to become a success in the world of online self-publishing? Is there a particular kind of novel that is more likely to do well in an electronic format? And if there is, how would one go about writing such a book?

These are the kinds of questions that you don’t find authors and publishers debating much yet, but perhaps they should. Glance around your nearest bookshop or Amazon.com, and you’ll find a million manuals that explain how to create a novel, using chapter headings such as ‘Learning Your Craft’ and ‘Ten Rules for Good Time Management’. But few of these manuals discuss the importance of the space into which a novel is delivered, and what it means for the authors who are publishing now.

Make no mistake about it: publishing online is a totally different proposition from doing it on plain old paper. Think of the strain on the eyes of reading in an ebook format, for example. Think of the harried reader who buys a Kindle to read on crowded commutes. Think of the modern world, in which a million types of entertainment compete for our attention. And think of who is succeeding in this new world, and why.

Many self-published books which began life in an electronic format have now succeeded beyond the authors’ wildest expectations. Take the eyebrow-raising Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, for example; or new bestseller Wool by Hugh Howey, which is about to be turned into a big-budget Ridley Scott film; or Switched, the debut novel in the million-plus selling Trylle Trilogy by the 20-something Amanda Hocking.

What do these books have in common besides their humble origins? Actually, quite a lot. All the authors in question write within specific genres: S&M (EL James); dystopian fantasy (Howey) and trolls (Hocking). They are suspenseful and attention-grabbing, using blunt, effective (and sometimes very poorly rendered) prose to keep and hold readers. They are short, but allow for the possibility of sequels. They lack profound messages. “My goal was to keep people reading,” Hocking has said. “They have to ignore everything else and read the book.”

In his latest book, How Music Works, David Byrne talks about the importance of context in the area of music. The Talking Heads founder says that the type of music we make is vastly influenced by the space into which that music is delivered: so we get drums in a tribal space, which carry well over distance, and plaintive choir singing in a high-ceilinged church. At CBGB, for example, the small room lent itself well to the performance of punk rock – a sound which would have seemed ridiculous if performed in a church. The Ramones and Mozart both understood intrinsically what would work for their particular type of arena. They knew that environment plays a huge role in shaping the music.

For this new type of publishing space, it should be obvious that we need a new kind of book: one that grabs the attention fast, doesn’t bother with fancy language, relies on a clever idea and can be made into a series of books incredibly easily. Readers who choose to read in electronic formats will naturally want a different kind of prose. And the world of writers will have to learn to provide for that. So maybe it’s time for those self-help manual authors to take a leaf out of a new book – and begin to think about what it means to be a successful author in today’s world of e-publishing. After all, increasingly, it’s where the big bucks lie.

 

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4 thoughts on “Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013)

  1. “Think of the strain on the eyes of reading in an ebook format, for example.” For a lot of people, digital reading is actually much more comfortable than print.

    “Readers who choose to read in electronic formats will naturally want a different kind of prose.” Naturally? Then why are there so many digital books that differ only in being digital rather than paper? And why are they selling?

    “For this new type of publishing space, it should be obvious that we need a new kind of book: one that grabs the attention fast, doesn’t bother with fancy language, relies on a clever idea and can be made into a series of books incredibly easily.” If a writer is concerned only with major financial success, no argument. But it’s also the reason publishing in general (not just digital publishing) is drowning in ephemera — books that are read once and discarded, and that deserve no better.

  2. Pingback: Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013) « Tut … | Leaders are readers

  3. Hi Catana,
    Thanks for the post.
    On #1, sure, definitely some people will prefer the font sizes etc. available on digital. But most people do appear to still prefer a printed book — at least for now, or so surveys would suggest (most people say they like the Kindle etc because of the convenience aspect of it primarily).
    On #2 the piece isn’t intended to say that ALL books must become different in order to sell in a digital format, only that as writers publish and self-publish online, it is likely that a different style of fiction will emerge that will truly shine in that medium — see the cases I’ve listed above.
    On #3 There’ll always be dodgy books, but the thrust of the piece is that we might see a new style of fiction really come to prominence in this kind of digital space, a scrappy type of fiction that doesn’t have much in the way of finesse but might tell a cracking story. Does it count as ephemera? Probably.

  4. I suspect that, for all the agonizing over the demise of print, most people will eventually be striking a balance between print and digital. I certainly do, right now.

    #3. No lack of ephemera right now, of course — celebrities’ bios or tell-alls, flash fiction, etc. I’m sure there’s lots of experimentation coming up, but that’s being held back right now by lack of format standards. It’s an interesting time to be a writer — and a reader.

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