Monday, 22 October 2012

A New Argument for Self-Publishing

I might have mentioned already that I'm in the final stages of mixing my first EP (you can listen to a rough cut here - and I'd really appreciate your thoughts). This is a project that I've done pretty much everything on - writing, recording, post-production, the works - and it's hugely improved my understanding of my own music and music in general. I've had to learn about audio interfaces (in the hardest of all possible ways) and the difference between VSTs and VSTIs (neither of which is any kind of medical condition), and now I'm in the process of learning how to get people to actually listen to the cussed thing...

And it struck me that something equivalent is or at least should be true for self-publishing in the writing world. After all, what I'm doing with my music just is the musical equivalent of the pure self-publishing path for authors. It's not just writing the material, it's editing it, polishing it, formatting it, releasing it and promoting it. And understanding all this stuff in the musical field has helped me understand a lot more about music as a field and as an endeavour.

So my argument is that every author should go through the self-publishing process at least once.

That should stir up a few tempers, right? ;D Hear me out. The publishing industry is a huge, sprawling system with a lot of specialists who do a whole lot of different things to a book before it sees the light of day, and a whole bunch more who work in marketing and supporting the book after its release. If you want to operate in that world - and all of us who aspire to making a living from our writing do, whichever side of the traditional/new fence we come down on - you need to understand it.

I'm not saying you have to learn graphic design and create your own cover, or that you have to learn how to write marketing copy and write your own blurb and press release. I am, however, saying that at least once, you need to take charge of the process of sourcing cover, blurb, press release and so on. If you're not going to make your own cover, you need to find a designer whose work you like and learn how to communicate what you want on your book with them. If you don't trust yourself to write a blurb, you need to get someone to do it for you, and oversee the process so that you get the description that is right for your book.

Why is this important? Because every aspect of the design of your physical book goes into the reader's experience. Some production activities, like editing, go directly to that experience. Others shape it by shaping reader expectations. And those expectations are really important to the way readers will receive your book.

Don't believe me? Here's an experience I had of a book where my expectations were mishandled. Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora is a very well-respected recent contribution to the fantasy genre, and Lynch is regularly upheld as one of the most promising of the current new generation of fantasy writers, alongside people like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss (both of whose work I love). Here's the blurb for Locke:

"The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a friend to the poor, a ghost that walks through walls.

Slightly built and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny. All of Locke's gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves: The Gentlemen Bastards.

The capricious, colourful underworld of the ancient city of Camorr is the only home they've ever known. But now a clandestine war is threatening to tear it apart. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends are suddenly struggling just to stay alive."

I read this blurb having just come off reading Patrick Rothfuss' brilliant The Name of the Wind, a story about a famous adventurer telling the real story of his life. I focussed on what the blurb clearly emphasises - the gap between the Thorn of Camorr myth and the reality of Locke Lamora - and I got quite excited. I expected the story to turn out to be about Locke learning how to use his unwelcome mythic status to get himself out of the strife mentioned in the third paragraph, perhaps by playing some sort of game - a murderous one, maybe - with his adversaries, spinning elaborate lies and so on.

The book is nothing like that. Locke gets caught up in the story because of his reputation, but other than that there's very little about the Thorn of Camorr in there, and it's mainly about Locke's situation getting worse and worse. At no point does he have the kind of control of the situation that I took away from the blurb. This, combined with the brutish, violent style of the narrative (not a problem in itself, but again, not what I was expecting), left me badly disappointed, and with such a bad taste in my mouth that I honestly have no interest in picking up another Scott Lynch book.

It's an extreme example, sure. And maybe this is the blurb that Lynch himself chose or would have chosen, in which case him having self-published Locke wouldn't have changed anything. But the blurb is wrong - it gives pride of place to an almost irrelevant component of the story, and while many people have been happy with the novel (even I wouldn't deny that structurally and stylistically, it's a fine piece of work), I am a lost customer to Lynch and his publisher.

And it works the other way, too. A few times I've been intrigued by a book's blurb and/or cover, and had my experience of the novel substantially enriched by the way my carefully-shaped expectations were surprised by the story. My second-favourite series of novels ever, the Hyperion sequence by Dan Simmons, did this with the Shrike, the terrible mechanical monster quite rightly emphasised on the covers of every book.

Certainly, when I'm writing my own blurbs for Second Realm episodes, the thing I think about most of all is the kind of expectations I want to create in a reader, and how I'm going to relate those expectations to the actual content of the story. I don't know if it's working, in my case, because I have very little in the way of feedback to go on (and please feel free to correct this shortfall any time. The whole series is free, remember ;D), but the principle is sound.

You need to know about this stuff and understand it because it will affect how your book is received, and no-one has more of a stake in how your work is received than you do. Not only that, you know your work better than any of the other people who will work on it. Sure, if you're gunning to get into the traditional industry, you won't have much if any control over your cover, but that needs to change anyway because the traditional industry has on occasion really ballsed cover design up, to the detriment of authors (there's a story somewhere in the archives of Joe Konrath's blog - I really don't have the time to scan through five years of archive looking for it - of one particularly terrible example which completely sunk the book until the author self-published it with a new cover years later).

My impression is that a lot of writers want all this stuff to be handled by other people - the number one reason I hear from writers who are still going the trad route is that they 'don't want to have to handle all that other stuff'. Well, fair enough, but that doesn't free you from the need to understand it so you can have a say if you think it's going wrong - and a cover artist working for a major publishing house is not going to know your book anything like as well as you do. Their paycheck will most likely not suffer if they don't do a job that serves your work well. Yours will.

And again, I'm not saying you actually have to study enough graphic design that you can do your own covers (though learning at least the fundamentals will help). You can hire a cover designer. You just need to have some experience of overseeing the design and production process.

I'm also not saying that you have to do it all yourself without any input from anyone else - this would be a very bad idea indeed. Just as you need to get your text looked at by other people to make sure it's up to spec, you need to get second opinions on your covers and blurbs (I'll admit to skipping this step with Second Realm episodes these days, though I didn't with the first few). But you do need to take enough of an interest in the process to understand it, and the more active you are about it, the more you'll understand.

And it's entirely possible to argue that this understanding is valuable in and of itself as well. It's not just that it will help you work with whoever else you involve in your publishing process on later projects to make your books - your livelihood, remember - better. It will help you understand the lives of people like cover artists and editors, people who are in their own way every bit as much artists as you are.

Getting an overview of the business of publishing can't hurt either, particularly with sharks like Author Solutions circling, looking to exploit naive authors who don't understand how all the different elements of this picture do and/or should fit together.

So self-publish something. You owe it to yourself, whatever business model you ultimately want to operate under. It really isn't as hard as it might seem from the outside.

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