The Self-Publishing Conundrum

I go back and forth when thinking about self-publishing.

That’s probably not the best way to open a post about the subject, but there you have it. A few years back I had written several short stories, only one of which managed to get picked up for publication. So I compiled them all and made a little book on Lulu.com to give to friends and family. It was even available on Amazon.com for a while. Nothing special, and I hadn’t done it with the idea to make a bunch of money or get my name out there. It was more that I felt like I needed to get those stories out of the way so I could do something else. I wanted them settled.

That book (The World Ends at Five) is no longer available. But I later had trouble when some markets showed interest in my stories, only to drop them when they considered them “previously published” just because I’d made a dozen books on Lulu. So in that light, I have to say I would probably only consider self-publishing again if I couldn’t get an agent or publisher interested first.

But then again . . .

Some works just don’t have a handy niche. A lot of my work is like that. People say, “What do you write?” and I’m like, “A little of everything.” A lot of my stories have a surreal bent. They’re not fantasy in the sword-and-sorcery sense, but they do involve magic or magical realism or alternate universes. It’s a pretty specific market with a limited number of outlets.

And then I’ve also written Sherlock Holmes stories. And a novella about a gay spy. And I’m working on a novel that appears to be a contemporary rom-com with a paranormal twist. (So . . . “paranormal romance” but not any of that over-the-top vampire/werewolf/ghost stuff.) And so some of this stuff ends up being not all that easy to place. And agents ask, “What do you write?” and I say, “A little of everything,” and they don’t know what to do with me. How do you market an author who skips around like that? So maybe self-publishing IS the way to go, not because it’s a last resort, but it’s more or less my only one.

Of course, then there’s the stigma. The whole idea that the only reason a person self-publishes is because they’re terrible writers “real” publishers won’t touch.

The problem with any stereotype is that it becomes a stereotype because it is (or at one time was) in some ways true. So yes, there are a lot of self-published authors who really could use some heavy editing. There are self-published authors who misspell and use terrible grammar and whose sentences hardly make sense for having been put together upside down and backwards. I know they exist because I’ve seen some of their books.

The idea, then, is that “real” publishers act as literary strainers: the good stuff gets through, the dirt and silt and impurities are kept out. But unfortunately, the mesh of the publishing houses is so fine, many good things also get kept out. And sometimes a little dirt gets through anyway. In other words, the system isn’t perfect.

And so there are some good self-published books out there. Even authors who have had success with traditional publishers are trying the self-pub route. And as it becomes easier for authors to do it themselves—therefore enabling authors to keep more of the money besides—there will continue to be an increase in solid self-published material.

The trick will be to find it. The good self-published books and e-books, that is. Now that every author markets themselves on Facebook and Twitter, it gets more and more difficult to weed one’s way through the blitz of status updates and Tweets. I’ll admit I’m still a little biased, still not terribly inclined to go check out a self-pubbed book or e-book unless I read a great review of it or a friend (better yet, more than one) recommends it. There are a lot of books out there, many I want to read, so to earn a spot on my stack, it needs to be pretty spectacular.

Wading through it all is like surfing the Web. There’s a lot of junk. Most of it can be ignored. And there’s more I don’t even know exists and I don’t really want to know, either. I have my select sites that I rely on. And every now and then someone says, “This site is cool,” and I check it out. And if it really is cool, it becomes a site I go back to regularly. The same rule applies to books and authors. I have authors I like, and subject matter I’m interested in, and writing styles I dig. I go back to those things. And if someone says, “Well, if you like so-and-so you’d probably like . . .” or “I read a new book about [interesting subject here],” then I might look into it. But some random person repeatedly shoving their book under my nose on Twitter probably isn’t going to sway me. In part because I’m pretty sure if/when I had/have a book to market, they wouldn’t bother with me, either. (That’s the problem with social marketing: everybody shouting and nobody listening. But that’s another topic.)

Let’s take fan fiction as an example. Years ago, fan writers had to submit their fics to fanzines devoted specifically to their chosen shows/genres. In that way, fanzine editors acted much as traditional publishers; they guarded the gates, made sure the best stories got through, or at least fixed the spelling errors. But then we came to the point where just about everyone had access to the Internet—hell, fanboys and -girls were some of the earliest adopters—and fan fiction began to pop up online. Everywhere. On collective sites like FanFiction.net, or on people’s personal sites, just . . . wherever. And it became impossible to find good fanfic any more because so much of it was just awful. (Sorry, folks, but seriously.) One had to shuffle through, or find a forum that had some recommendations, and those might or might not be any good based on whether you and whoever was making the recommendation had the same taste. (Kind of like whether you and a film critic agree; if you can find one you see eye-to-eye with, you’re in good shape following his or her recommendations on what to see—or not.)

So. Where does this leave self-publishing? Now that just about anyone can make an e-book, just like anyone can post a fanfic, it simply takes that much more work to find the good stuff. And makes it that much easier for an author and his/her work to get lost in the shuffle. I find that frustrating. Maybe because I’m not a marketing person, and so I know if I did self-publish something, it probably wouldn’t get me very far. But then again, even authors who get a traditional publisher might not get very far. It’s tough being a writer no matter which direction you go.

In the end, I wouldn’t rule out self-publishing. I’d like a few more traditionally published or produced pieces under my belt first, though. Credentials. Hey, if we’re now all in the self-marketing biz, I need to “establish my brand.” Or whatever.

Never mind. I’m going back to writing now.

Doctor Who: The Doctor Accessorizes

A Twitter friend (and on Twitter one uses “friend” loosely, since in a lot of cases one has never actually met any of the people) asked today: “If you were playing The Doctor [on Doctor Who] and had to have a gimmick as part of your outfit what would you choose eg bowtie, Converse etc??” [asked by @bluebox99]

My initial response was some kind of cool/weird coat or jacket because I have an especial fondness for jackets, blazers, coats, &c. And then I considered jewelry, maybe a signet ring of some sort. Could be interesting to build a story around the potential significance of such a thing.

But then I thought: What about a tattoo? How would it be if The Doctor regenerated with a tattoo? What would that mean? You could maybe build an entire series around that question and its eventual answer. What would the tattoo be of? Where and when might that image pop up? What if someone recognized it, even if The Doctor didn’t know what it was or what it symbolized? How cool could that be?

Those Twitter Phonies

Ah, well, the fun was short-lived. @mrcumberbatch and @mrmartinfreeman have changed their Twitter names to @missvsorry and @againimsorry respectively. I take it they won’t be tweeting under the pretense of their alter egos any longer. I do wonder if someone threatened legal action?

Oh! But there is/was this dark horse candidate going by @BTCumberbatch. Seems outside of likely to me that he’s legit either, though, because the Benedict I know would hardly join a social networking site just to prove a point. He’d simply have his lawyer(s) draft a C&D and be done with it. Points, perhaps, for playing good Samaritain and attempting to polish what was being tarnished by fools? ::shrug:: At least his few tweets have been articulate, and spelled and punctuated correctly. Or maybe I’m wrong and it really is him, but whatever. The entertainment lasted while I was ill, which was all I needed. And it’s finished up just in time for me to start feeling on the mend. Now off I go to get some real work done, no more distractions.

Fakes on Twitter

I’m sort of having to laugh because it’s like watching—or reading, rather—a soap opera. You see, there are these two people on Twitter masquerading as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I’m following them both because I find it highly entertaining. But I keep getting DMs from random people letting me know they’re fake. Yes, I do know this. But it’s like a train wreck, and I can’t look away.

I realize I shouldn’t encourage them, by following them or responding to them. But it’s a kind of a game. And I want to see how it all ends.

Anyway, the one pretending to be Benedict has followed me, and we all know the rule of Twitter: that you don’t unfollow someone who follows you unless you want them to unfollow you, too. This probably shouldn’t matter to me, and before long I’ll be too busy (really, I’m too busy now) to keep up with all the back and forth. But I’ve been getting over a nasty cold, and this is keeping my spirits up. Though “Mr Cumberbatch” has ceased to respond to me, I think because he’s beginning to be aware that I know enough to know better when he does reply. (Never mind his use of “use” for, from what I can gather, “yous”? As in “yous guys”? Boggling.) We’ll see what happens when they don’t get verified by Twitter, and/or are otherwise unable to “prove” themselves, &c.

I’m no lawyer; I don’t know if there are legal ramifications for pretending to be someone you aren’t on a social media site. It’s rather like role playing, I suppose, but when you use real people and real names . . . It seems to me there could be defamation issues or something.

Does make one wonder why someone would pretend to be a celebrity. I mean, besides the attention and adulation, I suppose. Is your own life really that bland that you need to soak up someone else’s? And impose yourself on the unsuspecting fan base at large?

Maybe they’re delusional. Maybe they’re fans who’ve gone a bit too far. No idea. But it’s weirdly riveting.

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For the curious, the fakers’ Twitter handles are @mrcumberbatch and @mrmartinfreeman.

Facebook & Twitter

Today I was out for a bit, and when I got back to my desk, I found myself thinking, It’s gonna take forever to catch up with my Twitter feed now.

And then I had to ask myself: what difference does it make?

It would be one thing if I received major information from Twitter. And while I do follow a lot of people in my industry and a few news sites, it’s mostly people I don’t know and have never met. Or friends who, if it were something really important, would send an actual e-mail or call me. (Except my closest friends wouldn’t really call me because they know I hate telephones and mostly refuse to use them. So they’d text instead.)

So what, then, was I so in a hurry to catch up on? I really don’t know.

The same seems to be true of Facebook, though the dynamics are different. On Twitter, one collects a rag-tag group of people, usually based on shared interests or occupation. You may or may not know the majority of the people on your feed. (You have to love that they call it a “feed,” as if you’re being spooned it, or even having it shoved down your throat. Or maybe it’s more of an intravenous thing.) Facebook, however, is for people you know. Or used to know. Or had a passing acquaintance with a decade ago. Or that friend of a friend you met at a party and, because you weren’t sure whether you’d ever run into them again, you accepted their friend request to keep them from feeling rejected and talking bad about you to mutual buddies.

Of course, I have a personal Facebook account and then my professional page. That’s something else again.

Anyway, regardless of whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or some other social media site, the bottom line seems to be that the founders of these sites have created a “fear of missing out” in society at large. And so people check in repeatedly, partly to avoid falling behind or getting buried under a few million updates, but in large part to feel like they’re participating in something. A broad conversation of some kind perhaps. Except there’s precious little back-and-forth. It’s like having a bunch of people standing in a room, each shouting something different. A “retweet” is the equivalent of someone actually having heard what you said and sparing a second to shout it, too, before going back to whatever they were yelling about before. Some people are louder—celebrities, you know—but it more or less amounts to the same regardless.

I was thinking about what I used to do before I had Twitter and Facebook to check every hour or so, and I’m guessing I was probably more productive. Or focused, rather. I think I produce the same quantity of work as ever (maybe even more), but it takes me longer because of my frequent social media breaks.

I’m not saying Twitter or Facebook or these other sites are bad. If I thought that, I wouldn’t use them. (Well, no, I probably would; they’ve shown in studies these things are addictive.) But it helps to take a step back and really think about what we give and get from them. From Twitter I get the sense that I’m not alone in my work and endeavors. But I also sometimes get the feeling others are doing so much better than I am that I can get depressed for a couple days at a time, thinking I’m a failure. That’s not helpful; I must guard against it. From Facebook I have the satisfaction of finding out what happened to that guy I went to high school with. It’s sort of a reunion without the awkward dancing and bad punch. And you can decide who attends. It’s also a way to keep in touch with family members who live far away and/or those you wouldn’t normally bother to write a letter to (distant cousins, great-aunts). In that case, it’s a reunion without them getting drunk and fighting before they pass out on the lawn. Not at all a bad thing, though it removes some of the human touch. No number of posts reading “((hug))” can stand in for actual contact.

I resolve, then, seeing as we are coming toward the end of the year and resolutions are on the horizon (and I have a whole other discussion about the arbitrariness of calendar years as “new starts” but that’s something else again), to be less worried about what I might miss when I’m away from my MacBook or iPhone. If it’s something I really need to know, the information will find its way to me one way or another. If I’m not first to know, well, a decade ago or so I wouldn’t have been, either, and so what? Ignorance really is sometimes bliss. And some things I can go my whole life without knowing . . . It’s not as if I’d be the wiser.

Now you must excuse me because @big_ben_clock is about to tell me the time . . .

Tweet Dream

You know you’ve been on Twitter too much when you dream in Twitter stream fashion. The first part of my dream last night had something to do with a Twitter conversation going on amongst me, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. I’m sure it was all very interesting, but I can’t remember any of it.

The dream went on to being about a garden in late afternoon sunlight, me trying to find a very specific kind of flower (none were the right color, and I recall the soil being dry; the flowers looked unhealthy). And then Steven Moffat turned out to be a member of some council, and the queen or one of her chancellors was chasing people through the gardens. I don’t quite recall how this was resolved; it may have ended in us jumping into a cab.

Meanwhile, I have an idea for a new play. So now the question is whether to plow on with my current story (novella? novel?) or switch gears.

Negative “Fans”

Anne Rice is having an interesting sort of discussion with her Facebook followers about how the Internet world enables obsessive negative “fans” to launch sustained attacks against authors they dislike. Rice asks the question, “Why bother?”

Authors deal with a lot of criticism; it’s part of the package when putting your work out there. In a way, criticism is good. For one thing, an open-minded author might learn a thing or two, or at least have something to think about when reading reviews of his or her work–whether the reviews be good or scathing. And of course you’ve heard that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. People criticizing your work means someone is reading your work. Always a good thing. And even hurtful reviews might garner interest, so that other people are tempted to read your work themselves and form their own opinions.

Okay, but then there are these singular individuals (though the bigger the author, the more of these there seem to be) who make it a sort of mission to berate an author’s work. These are the negative fans Rice talks about. These are the people who send letters and e-mails to the author detailing everything that’s wrong with every book–even if the fan hasn’t read them. Not one letter but dozens or even hundreds. The fan might also write about the author’s personal life, might take the author to task for any number of his or her life choices and so on. This person starts websites that are designed to slam the author, they go on chat boards and leave nasty comments, or they write long-winded Amazon.com reviews about how awful the books and the author are.

“Why bother?” Rice asks, and there are as many reasons why a person might do this as there are people who do do it. Some people simply can’t stand to see something they disagree with succeed; they have a sort of allergic reaction to what becomes popular and mainstream. They feel a need to show they are different, somehow more selective (elite) than the average person. Some of them–I’m sure in Rice’s case–have “religious” reasons for antagonizing a writer whose books they feel are somehow agents of evil. Some of them like the idea that they have a platform and are getting attention. It gratifies something inside them.

I studied fan psychology as part of my screenwriting degree (that probably seems strange, but there’s actually only so much screenwriting one can do in college, so I had to have an additional focus). As a fan myself, I found it interesting on a variety of levels. And certainly, as Rice posits, the Internet has made it all that much easier to latch on to something, whether it be pro or con. It’s easy to start a site or a blog, easy to search and find others who like or dislike something or someone, easy to form or join groups, etc. But the flip side is that there’s that much more for authors to sift through, too, and what’s funny is how these negative fans start to feel like they’ve made a connection when, realistically, the author they are hounding may or may not have noticed at all. Or even if she’s noticed, it’s just as easy to discount the ravings of one person online in the clamor of all the other “voices.” So while the Internet works for the negative fan, it also works against him.

I should know, since I spent a year writing letters to Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty on my old site Letters to Rob. I did it as a lark, mind you, not because I really had any particular beef to pick with any of them. In fact, I very much like their music (as unpopular as that makes me with my friends). It’s strange because you have to really like something or someone–or want to like them–to be able to feel betrayed by them. So negative fans must have had some expectation that was not met, some disappointment, in order to generate the kind of hostility involved. Though sometimes the perceived betrayal is that a friend, or many friends, or the whole world likes something that the negative fan cannot embrace, and so that person lashes out in frustration. The fan feels misunderstood and wants to enumerate the reasons he or she cannot be brought into the fold, the circle of fandom, that everyone else seems to inhabit.

I didn’t read Harry Potter for a long time, even though everyone else was insisting it was wonderful, I must read it, etc. And of course the more people told me I had to, the less I wanted to. But I didn’t start writing letters to J.K. Rowling about how she was ruining the world with her stupid wizard books. (I’m sure someone did, but it wasn’t me.) The negative fan that takes that extra step–some kind of switch flips inside them and they feel that need to go after whatever or whoever is irking them. Whether it’s that “God told them to” or they just hate that something or someone is more successful than they are–these fans are the people who often say they “could have written something better”–who knows? I would tell them not to waste such energy in fighting someone who has no interest in fighting them. I would tell them that if they really could write something better, do it. Why not try to be successful in your own right instead of detracting from someone else’s shine.

But as ever, it’s easier to ride the coattails of someone else’s hard work. These negative fans are still riding the author’s train, even if they are sitting in the very back.