Facebook Bestsellers and the Death of Writing

Writing is dying a very slow, painful death at the hands of self-publishing.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Self-publishing alone isn’t killing Great Writing, though it has set the bar increasingly low.  Facebook Bestsellers are what’s killing Great Writing.

Let me explain:

A Facebook Bestseller is a book that ends up on the Amazon Top 20 list, or something, due entirely to the Clicks of thousands of FB “Friends”.  Usually they’re derivative, repetitive, absolutely painful, damn near unbearable, poorly written pieces of crap.  If you can make it through the Free Sample without screaming out loud or falling into fits of laughter, I applaud  your strong constitution.  I can’t.  I’ve tried.

And you can spot a Facebook Bestseller pretty easily.  Take a look at a handful of those couple hundred five star reviews.  Do they read something like “OMG, this was SOOOO good!”, “Loved this SOOOO much”, or “YES! Another winner”?  If so, then it was probably written by someone who A) hasn’t read the book, but B) wants to show their support for their FB “Friend”.

Now, go ahead and take a look at those few, very brave One Star reviews.  You know, the ones written by “Friends” who are probably “Friends” no more?  That’s where you’ll find the real story.

Yet, still, there it sits at the top of the Amazon Bestseller List.

Because of the best of intentions of “Friends”, we now find ourselves faced with the stomach-churning reality of truly Great Writing by Writers with long, celebrated careers they’ve earned through hard work and talent, writers who actually know what they’re doing, sandwiched between Wannabes whose painful, amateurish prose wouldn’t make it out of an 8th Grade Creative Writing course.

This is the danger with Facebook and all those click-happy “Friends”.  Those who write Facebook Bestsellers, wrapped in the breathless, unquestioning support of FB, believe they’re really good.  They ignore the One Star reviews because, you know, they’re not nice, and continue on, having no clue how bad they really are and how deeply damaging their celebrated mediocrity is.

Readers who may be Writers someday are growing up believing Bad is somehow Good.  These Readers, surrounded by nothing but bad, will soon have no memory of what Truly Great Writing is, having to search before the Time of these Facebook Bestsellers for Good Writing.

You see, a Writer is more than someone who puts words on a page.  A Writer  listens to the words, hearing and honoring their rhythm.  A Writer knows that if there’s one word too many, or one word not enough, the structure will fall.  And that structure is everything.  That’s what cushions the Reader in this fictional world.  A Writer can recognize the balance in a sentence and know when it’s off, feeling, in his or her bones, that it’s not right and what to do to fix it.

A Writer would never be satisfied with what ends up in these Facebook Bestsellers.  He’d immediately see how amateurish and clumsy it is.  He’d FEEL it was wrong as he’s writing it.  He would not rest until it was edited and put right.  It would haunt him.  In fact, it wouldn’t even make it past his fingers TO the keyboard.

I believe a Writer, a True Writer, could never bring themselves to leave their worst masquerading as their best on the page and click Publish.

Yet these Wannabes do it all the time, without apology, without regret, and often to great applause.

I’ve often railed against Traditional Publishing and how, because of their penchant for guarding the Gates a bit too vigorously, a revolution like self-publishing was needed.  But at least, for the most part, we were spared moronic drivel ending up on the bookshelf, let alone the Bestseller List.

But now even that’s changing with Traditional Publishing abandoning all pretense of being an arbiter of taste and strong writing, and following the money to sign Facebook Bestsellers to contracts.  And, once again, the delusion that they’re “good writers” is perpetuated, their oafish efforts being celebrated and rewarded.

But a Publisher following the money is not supporting the writer.  A Publisher biting their tongue, smiling, and eagerly hoping to cash in on the last breath of the author’s FB Bestseller status — these “Friends” tend to tire within a year or two and move on to newer, equally abysmal voices, so it’s best to move quick if you’re a Publisher –doesn’t give a shit about the writer.  They’re read the words, they’ve winced and groaned and shook their heads.  They know this writer doesn’t have the chops to reach beyond their Facebook circle.  And they know, once the writer’s new books hit a wider audience, that’s when the chickens come to roost.  That’s when the One Stars outweigh the Five Stars and those “Friends” start second guessing that all important Click.

A Publisher signing a FB Bestseller is hoping to eke out a book or two before the jig is up, the lie is unmasked, the numbers drop, and people move on.

So, what can we do about this?  STOP FOLLOWING THE HERD!  If you’re one of those “Friends” who buys a book as a show of support to the Author, even when you know it’s not good work, STOP!  If you’re not sure about the quality, read the Sample.  If it feels off, read the lowest rated reviews to see if the issues you’re finding are issues they mention.  And, if they are, DON’T BUY THE BOOK!

It’s as simple as that.

Buying abysmal writing as a way of being “nice” doesn’t help anyone.  It doesn’t help the writer.  It doesn’t help the reader.  And it doesn’t help the industry produce and celebrate better, stronger work.

My hope is once we rid the publishing world of these Facebook Bestsellers, it’ll be easier to go back to once again celebrating the truly great writing of real Writers, not Wannabes who would be nothing without their Facebook Friends.

 

Nope. Non. Nein. No way.

You can never make a bad deal good.

Once you sign the contract, you’re stuck. Maybe you can jump through some legal hoops to change X, Y and Z if the terms are illegally egregious. But I doubt it and it’s damn expensive.

But more importantly, why SHOULD you? And why WOULD you enter a contractual relationship with someone who would even OFFER you a bad deal?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days. Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself saying No to a few different agents. Nice people, I’m sure, but if I find them hesitating when faced with (what I believe to be) simple questions about publishing and publishers and contracts, I know right away they’re not the one for me.

And if they even begin to suggest that I should accept a publishing contract that offers no advance, shifts the costs of publishing to the author (including “set-up costs” and “printing and binding”), takes away my Subsidiary Rights without Reversion, and then offers me 50% of “net profits” — aka due to clever accounting on the publisher’s side, I won’t see a dime for a year or so –, then they’re definitely not the agent for me … or ANYONE.

I consider myself somewhat smart. Have taken the time to learn about the business side of the various businesses I’m in. I find it interesting and incredibly useful coming to the table not as a neophyte, but as someone who can ask good, strong, wise, pertinent questions that lead negotiations to the next step or, more importantly, can recognize a clusterfcuk waiting to happen.

You know, like this. (courtesy of David Gaughran)

I’m also proud that I respect myself enough to say Thanks, but No Thanks, stand up, and walk away empty-handed. Nothing wrong with that. Like I said, you can never make a bad deal good. And my work is strong enough to wait for, at the very least, a good deal.

These days there are unfortunately a lot of agents preying on self-published authors, their interest more in the money currently being made than in the totality of one’s career.

When I sign with someone — and these shockingly were deal breakers with one of the agents I said Thanks, but No Thanks to –, I want to know at least three things:

1) there’s the potential for a long-lasting relationship
2) their interest in the health and longevity of my career outweighs their desire to make a deal, especially a bad one at my expense
and
3) they’re willing to stand up and leave the table with me if a deal is obviously bad

You see, I don’t want someone who’s going to ride the gravy train when the money’s coming in and then suggest I find another agent when the money stops.

Yeah, I know, I know. I’m asking for the moon here.

But a career isn’t just one success after another. There are successes and disappointments.

Any agent worth his or her salt is going to know that and be prepared for it. An agent who loses interest during the lows and is happy only when the money is coming in is an agent I don’t want. Because those lows are inevitable. No matter how many books you’re selling or how many Best Seller Lists you’re on, the sales stop. They just do. Period.

I’ve seen friends picked up by agents and publishers when times were good only to find themselves basically orphaned and thrown into the bargain bin when the sales stop. And, still, they’re locked into a contract. Possibly even a contract with a publisher. A bad, bad, bad contract.

That’s the kind of relationship I’m avoiding. To be trapped in a legal relationship with someone who’s lost interest in you, lost interest in your work, no longer believes in you or what you can accomplish, and has discounted what you can bring to the table because the numbers on your last book were disappointing is a completely avoidable headache.

It may take me awhile to find the right fit. But this is my business we’re talking about. My career. I cherish it and anything that becomes a part of it, is destined to strengthen its foundation and support its growth, is worth taking time with.

I’m a writer. Agents need me. Publishers need me. Without me and others like me, their industry doesn’t exist. You work with me, I’m definitely going to work with you. My success is OUR success. You work against me, I’m leaving the table. Life is too short and I have too much to do.

At the end of the day, though, it’s important my fellow writers remember that agents and publishers need us. Ironically, with the growing strength of self-publishing, I’m not sure we necessarily need them.

Perhaps it’s time they started realizing that.

Wipe Out the Upstarts

Today’s NYTimes has an annoying, infuriating, ridiculous, idiotic article on Amazon’s (insert previous adjectives here) recent decision to eradicate book reviews they deem — apparently via a crystal ball or a blind throwing of darts — not fit to print.

In other words, if they suspect (again, darts or a crystal ball) that a review for your work was submitted by a family member or a good friend or someone whose objectivity can be questioned, they will delete it.

So, for writers like me who DON’T have hundreds of reviews, one or two being wiped off the face of the earth is a big deal, not that my family or good friends read my work or review it. (They don’t)

For someone like Star Author A who has hundreds if not thousands, it may not matter as much.

Then again, I doubt Star Author A is the focus of Amazon’s Wipe Out the Upstarts Inquisition. They’re going after the self-published writers who slip under the Big Six radar and dare to find success — and make a boatload of cash — without them. They’re going after the self-published writers who are, more and more, turning their noses up at the offers Traditional Publishing is making for their now successful books because the royalty structure is better if they remain on their own.

They’re going after the self-published successes because, well, they can!

And they’re doing it via the ONE marketing tool left to us: reviews.

If you’re Timothy Ferriss and published by Amazon, it’s apparently okey-dokey to begin Day One with 60+ Four- and Five-Star reviews about a book many of them have yet to read just because, you know, they know they’re going to like it. And, for Amazon, their belief — with work put out by their own Imprints, evidently — that one doesn’t have “to use a product to review it” feels to me like a blanket excuse to absolve Mr. Ferriss and other favorites from the purge.

If you are a self-published author who has spent months rounding up beta readers and working your tail off to get a healthy handful of reviews to accompany the book’s release, knowing that strong word of mouth is a key component to success, the chances of most of those being erased because you’re not lounging under the umbrella of the Big Six or draped in Amazon’s cloak of invisibility is pretty darn high.

And that’s just depressing.

Why would Amazon create a self-publishing platform and give thousands if not millions the chance to live their dreams as writers only to knee-cap ‘em at every turn and make it increasingly difficult to, you know, make a living and pay some bills?

I don’t know.

But what I do know is I’m going to head over right now and read the fourteen (yes, fourteen!) glowing reviews for Martuk and the six or seven for The Wounded King and The Elder before Amazon decides they were written by Grandpa Joe and Cousin Clyde (they weren’t) and steal them away from me in their obsession to Wipe Out the Upstarts.

:(

Killing us softly

Although the dust is still settling and no one — not even Barnes & Noble, evidently — is sure just how indie authors might be affected, this latest decision to not carry or make available ANY books published by Amazon or Amazon’s KDP (and perhaps even CreateSpace) in their stores, both online and retail, is just one more sign of Traditional Publishing’s push-back against the growing success of indie authors.

How’s that?

Books published by the Big 6 aren’t limited to one pipeline when it comes to sales. They can choose B&N, brick and mortar, Amazon, and anything else out there that makes their work available to the widest readership.

Independent or self-published authors? Well, hell, B&N obviously doesn’t give two shits about us. To choke off potential sales and Nook readers for those of us not repped by Traditional Publishing in order to fight back against a company that’s playing the game a lot better than they are is the height of both arrogance and stupidity.

So, in the short term, this may hurt sales as we self-pubs recalibrate to NOT include B&N into our marketing plans. And, perhaps in the long term as self-pubs continue to climb the ladder of public success, Nook readers will openly question why they can’t get the latest hot release from Author X.

But nothing will kill my desire to write, to publish, and to forge something of a career out of it.

You want to compete with Amazon, B&N? Convince me to publish with you, make the process easy and quick, and give me a strong royalty rate. To throw me — and hundreds of thousands of writers just like me — overboard to make a point to a behemoth who will just laugh at you like the petulant ingrate you are then go on to sell even MORE of my books (while you won’t) does nothing but turn the self-publishing community against you.

And I find it somewhat laughable that you think any self-published author is going to choose you over the powerhouse that is Amazon. And, again, this cutting off my nose to maybe hopefully perhaps maybe spite Amazon’s face isn’t endearing me to you.

At the end of the day, this latest move by B&N won’t kill my career or even the careers of other self-published authors. In fact, as mentioned earlier, I trust as self-pubbed books go on to gain notable success, the Nook will become synonymous with NOT getting the latest bestseller everyone is talking about. This could end up hurting them in the long run more than it will me and my self-pubbing compadres.

They’ll going to have to try a little harder to do that.

Lasher King Koontz

One of the downsides of being a writer is you oftentimes find yourself so busy writing that you barely have time to read.

I recently decided to rectify that and, in the process, made an interesting discovery.

See, I picked up three books, one I was familiar with, one where the author was somewhat known to me, and the third written by someone in my genre I’d never read. So I ended up with Lasher by Anne Rice, The Stand by Stephen King, and Brother Odd by Dean Koontz.

Here’s where the interesting part comes in.

I’ve read Lasher a few times. The sequel to The Witching Hour (one of my favorite books, if memory serves … it’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it), it’s a fairly strong piece of work. Not a fave, but not bad. I can pick it up, open to a page, and know exactly what preceded it and what’s around the corner.

What I discovered this time, though, is the writing.

Anne Rice writes lyrically. Her sentences are sometimes long, her dialogue tags are either solid and basic or creative and overwrought, and the woman loves her commas, relying on those to give her Writer’s Voice its rhythm instead of full stops.

Compare that to Stephen King. He’s what I call an economical gasbag. His words are carefully chosen and each does its share of the work in the sentence, but he also can have paragraphical prose. It’s written very well, of course, but the words don’t carry the same sense of lush lyricism that Anne Rice’s do. Again, economical. And a gasbag (sometimes).

I say that lovingly. King is king, no matter how you slice and dice it.

Now, on to Koontz.

He’s new to me. Very short sentences, more or less. Full stop, full stop, full stop. There’s an almost truncated rhythm to what he does. And then he’ll throw in a descriptive phrase or sentence … okay, A LOT of descriptive phrases and sentences, albeit brief ones, that kinda throw you. Several times I’ve had to stop and Scooby Doo. Then I’d unravel the mystery, pat myself on the back for being a clever fellow, and get back to reading.

Is Koontz an author I’m enjoying? The jury’s still out. I can appreciate the syncopated, often interrupted way his Writer’s Voice speaks, but it’s taking me a moment to dive deep and lose myself, like I do with Rice and King.

Regardless, I am learning two other things:

1) I still enjoy a great book and need to carve out time in my weekly schedule to read for pleasure and not just for research, and

2) It’s time to get busy on the two books I need to write. Not that I would compare myself with Rice or Koontz or King, but I do find myself rewriting them (sometimes) in my head and then feeling hungry to get back to telling my own stories.

Now that I think about it, besides a great story, that’s one of the gifts great authors give us: inspiration.

A quiet cul de sac

A couple days ago I caught snippets of an interview with Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling author of the Scarpetta series, among other things. She talked about her work — which I found mildly interesting –, she solved a staged case — something a team had spent three days planning which she walked into and nailed in an hour –, and she spoke about her wife.

Yeah. Her wife. Which makes her gay, I guess.

You see, this is one of those issues that both Matters and Doesn’t Matter. If you’re curious Why It Matters, head over here. If you want to know why I believe It Doesn’t Matter, keep reading.

You see, there are readers who will now no longer enjoy her books. People who loved her work, loved her characters. Adopted them into their lives as if they were real people dealing with real problems. Eagerly looked forward to the next installment. The next leg of the journey. Knew they could find a solid escape from their lives between the pages.

But now because Miss Cornwell is different — and she’s been fairly open about her sexuality for several years, but it’s new to me, so I’m writing from that perspective –, they’ll turn their backs on her.

You see, she’s not like them.

Because she doesn’t think crumbling tortilla chips over a casserole, tagging the word Fiesta on it before insisting on being applauded for her culinary genius, they won’t buy her books.

She’s not like them.

Because she doesn’t spend every third Saturday staring at the ceiling wondering if she turned the oven off while the Mr. plugs in an impressive thirty humps before popping off, they’ll deny themselves the joy of her talent.

She’s not like them.

Because, in their minds, Miss Cornwell and her Mrs. — her MRS!! — are “others” who more than likely suit up every night for sexy intercourse with enough power tools to make a mechanic piss himself with envy, she’s not worth the read.

But it doesn’t matter.

Miss Cornwell writes books. Has been doing it for years with bestseller after bestseller with the next bestseller, her 20th, released this week. And for anyone who knows what the writing of a book entails, trust me, it ain’t easy. Who she loves, who she sleeps with, doesn’t really enter into the equation. The books she writes from here on out will more than likely adhere to the familiar, quite successful formula established by her earlier work.

In other words, I doubt her characters will start trolling Home Depot before heading home to Dykesville and their quiet cul de sac off Clitori Corner.

And, for some, that won’t be enough. In my opinion, that’s their problem. No one is obligated to reveal the truth of who they are on the Front Cover just so you, a potential reader, will feel comfortable.

The readers of hers who are mature and have their priorities in check won’t be thrown, won’t be bothered. Will continue to read and enjoy what she offers, wife or not.

Anyone else is welcome to donate those books of hers they refuse to revisit and enjoy to their local library or used book store, head on home to their own quiet cul de sac between Raging Hellfire and Eternal Damnation Lanes, light a candle, crack open the Good Book and begin working their way through all those “begat”s and “so sayeth he”s.

Personally, I’ll take Cornwell.

I’m not King

If you’ve published a book, you’ve probably found yourself asking “Why isn’t my book selling?”

Heck, let’s just be real here. If you’re independently published or even lounging under the umbrella of the Big 6, you’ve most definitely asked that question.

Oh, c’mon! Of course you have. We all have.

In this vast ocean of pages and ink and black pixels on white, Why isn’t my book selling? is the bond that links us, all of us — rich, poor, newbie, old salt, superstar, anonymous hack –, together.

And if you haven’t wondered Why isn’t my book selling?, well, let me be the first to welcome you, Mr. King. Or is that you, JK? Mr. Patterson? In any case, Hello!!! Glad you could drop by.

Any-hoo …

Trudging your way out of NoSales Desert isn’t always an easy thing. And, in the end, the answer to your How the Heck Do I Get Out of Here may not be up to you anyway. I’m as proactive as the next guy, but sometimes the What of what has to happen isn’t a Something you can do.

I mean, there are the usual culprits to look at first. The inevitable chaff to separate from your literary wheat. Your formatting sucks or your writing isn’t what it could be or your cover throws people off or the lack of reviews makes potential readers skittish or your price is way, way too high or, swimming in a sea of millions, people just don’t know you exist yet and you’re still stuck believing that somehow the book will magically market itself.

It could be any one of those things. And those are things you can fix. Sometimes.

What you can’t fix is Time.

Someone once said to me that a good book — a really good book with great writing and professional formatting offered at an appropriate price with a cover that is genre specific and really pops — takes a solid 6 months to a year to find its audience.

Yep, six months to a year. If you’re lucky.

Do some writers bolt out of the gate and become overnight sensations? Sure, if by “overnight” you mean a couple years spent building a readership on fan-fiction sites or laboriously crafting an online platform for the past three years via their blogs and websites and social media.

But most of us aren’t that prescient — or smart –, so instead of working our already strong internet presence, we spend the first several months wondering where in the heck we went wrong.

Which is where the second piece of advice from this very wise Someone comes in.

Instead of waiting for your book to sell, obsessing over the big, fat 00 on your sales chart, and wondering when it’ll get better, write.

That’s right.

Write.

His point, this Wise Someone of whom I speak, was that writers with more than one book tend to sell more. As if somehow readers feel more likely to commit to an unknown if they see the journey has the potential to continue past that first book. Furthermore, he insisted, books in a series tend to attract readers who prefer, well, reading series. They’ll buy one and then another and another until the end. And then look for your next one. If your work is good, of course.

I guess the point of this rambling missive is this:

You’re a writer, so write. Don’t worry about sales. Don’t worry about your plummeting ranking. Don’t woulda, coulda, shoulda yourself to death. It is what it is.

Just write.

If it means writing another book, write another book. I think every writer has more than one in them. You should by all means offer as much as you can to potential readers. If they like what you do in one, the chances are great they’ll follow through with your next.

So, get busy. Type The End, publish the book, open a new document, type Chapter One, lather, rinse, repeat.

If it means writing on a blog, go for it. In this day and age, the more readers interact with you, the better. For some, having a glimpse behind the Chapter Headings and discovering an opportunity to talk with the author of a book they’re considering reading could be a key selling point that tips it in your favor. Or slamming out a guest post on someone else’s site. Abso-frigging-lutely. Brilliant. Being a part of a community never hurts. And, again, the more who know you exist, the better.

Whatever can draw more eyes to your work, that’s what you want to do.

Besides, anything is better than looking at those double doughnuts on your sales chart, right?

JK’s Casual Vacancy

I was going to title this Post “reality bites”, but decided to play nice.

A rousing discussion got me thinking about the Why of a celebrated author receiving 1 Star Rankings from a staggering 42% of people over on Amazon. Are people just vindictive little howler monkeys — yeah, I used that phrase over in the comments elsewhere, but loved it so I’m using it again — and eager to tear down something they’ve built up because it’s become too successful?

Perhaps. Oh, okay. Probably.

But I think it’s a bit more complex than that.

You see, for the last hundred years or so, JK Rowling has been carried by a once in a lifetime marketing juggernaut not seen since Jesus was body slammed into immortality on the back of the Bible (a very clever bit of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th century PR if there ever was one).

Am I overstating things? Yeah, but a point is being made. Bear with me.

Having left the Potter Universe, the door of Hogwarts closed and locked behind her, she’s now trying to create a new universe. Give new people life. Dazzle with a new story. Mesmerize us in unexpected and, more importantly to her, different ways.

But it doesn’t seem to be working.

You see, if we look at things realistically, the success of Harry Potter was less about the brilliance of the Writer JK Rowling than it was her talent as a storyteller. It was the boy Harry Potter tapping into the angst and struggles and difficulties of being different and disliked. For being hated because of who he was, his scar forever branding him as an Other. It was about being trapped by a Fate others couldn’t understand. And being punished for it despite the fact you were going to save the world and the butts of everyone who now hated you. And beneath all that it was about the world not recognizing just how special and unique you were.

For YA audiences — a genre that was forgotten and on the verge of death before Potter came along — it was the equivalent of hitting their G Spot. Over and over and over again. They were Harry and Hermione and Ron. And so were their friends. Even if you were an adult, the books spoke to you, the hapless Potter and his wand exorcising your adolescent ghosts.

And that’s where the juggernaut comes in.

But it wasn’t about the writing. It was NEVER about the writing.

Now JK is asking that it be about the writing. And therein lies the problem.

No longer insulated by the success of the Potter Universe, people are rediscovering the WRITER JK Rowling and not the Hogwarts storyteller. And many aren’t liking what they see.

Which could be a good thing for her in the long run.

THE CASUAL VACANCY will be a hit based on the curiosity factor alone. But, if early reviews are to be believed, it won’t be beloved. In fact, it might even be universally panned as the worst steaming pile of dog dookie since 50 SHADES. Which lowers the bar for ol’ JK. Which makes the feverish excitement surrounding the release of the book after this a bit less daunting. Having been disappointed by her last one, people will expect less. Expecting less, they’ll go in with an open mind.

And that gives her a chance to start from scratch, really break the bonds of Harry, and have people rediscover her as a Writer who writes and not the woman who created Harry Potter.

Five books from now, will we remember the 42% who hated her first foray away from Potter? Probably not.

But I guarantee you we’ll be looking at JK Rowling as more than just the woman who brought us Hogwarts.

Obsession and Oblivion

From a recent guest post I wrote:

Why do I do what every indie writer does every single day?

Because I’m curious. No, scratch that. Because I’m obsessed.

This obsession can’t be stopped by the absence of a Big Publisher brandishing a goody bag of guidance and media connections. This obsession won’t be quieted by the lack of a sizeable advance propping up my bank account or the implicit promise of three martini lunches in suit-and-tie restaurants. With tablecloths. And flowers. Or not.

In fact, my obsession — perhaps I should be calling it a sickness by now? — isn’t even disheartened by this apparently endless wandering among the parched, wind-blasted dunes of NoSales Desert.

My characters, my stories, my books steamroll everything else into oblivion.