Self-Publishing, Gatekeepers, and Broken Hearts by Jim Thompson

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This a complex subject, and I know it will cause controversy, even really piss off a lot of people. But right or wrong, I think my views should at least be considered. Publishing in whatever form is a tremendous investment in many ways: time spent writing, the emotional investment is huge, and if embarking on self-publishing, monetary. I’ve developed these opinions through either interviews or personal correspondence, which forced me to articulate them. As such, it seems to me that the most clear way for me to express myself is to repeat these articulations here, and then expand on them.

  1. You were first published in Finland. How difficult is for an author published in another country to break into the North American market?

“I’m not the best person to answer that question, as I took no active measures to make it happen. I did everything you’re not supposed to do to make it as an author. I hadn’t sent out a query letter in years. I refused to take advice to soften up my writing, as I was sometimes told it was too graphic and dark. Eventually, I was working in a bar and got into a conversation with an editor at an imprint of Northern Europe’s largest publishing house. He requested a novel, and before my first novel came out, we had a three book deal. Likewise, not too long after that, a prominent American agent, Nat Sobel (represents James Ellroy, Eddie Bunker, some world-class writers) heard about me from somewhere and requested a novel. I emailed it, and four days later he offered to represent it. Within weeks, I had a two-book deal with Putnam and a few other major publishers worldwide. The Cinderella story.”

This is somewhat self-effacing. I did spend well over a decade practicing the art and craft of writing. That’s far from doing nothing. I’ve believed for years that the world is thirsting for quality storytelling, and so it’s rare that a writer won’t be found if he/she writes a strong enough book. Usually though, you need to send query letters to agents, have to at least let people know you exist, so my example is an extreme case in point, but it does lend some credence to my thoughts on the matter. By the way, agents that claim to be taking on no new clients are almost always being disingenuous. It’s a way of avoiding a hundred plus query letters a week. If you write a brilliant book and dollar signs are flashing, of course they want you.

2. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

“Hmm. Writing is for people with obsessive compulsive tendencies. You’ll spend 1000-2000 hours writing a book. Your first will probably have little redeeming value. By your third, if you work hard, find a good writer’s group to criticize you so harshly they make you cry, have spent so much time in solitude that you’ve destroyed your relationships and social life—as all will have decided you’ve become some sort of deluded misanthrope—you’ll probably have developed into a decent writer. Even then, you’ll probably fail to get published, and even if you do, will probably fail to make a living at it. So there’s probably nothing in it for you but self-satisfaction or self-expression or self-therapy or whatever reason motivated you to start in the first place. Ask yourself if you really want to do that. If it’s worth it to you. If it is, write, but expect nothing in return. A woman—who left me—told me before leaving that I’d gotten everything backward. That fiction is a metaphor for life, but I’d gotten confused and thought that life was a metaphor for fiction. She was right. I knew it. I didn’t give a flying fuck. I don’t even remember if I even noticed when she shut the door behind her. Be like that.”

Yes, I realize this is extreme. Maybe I’m not as naturally gifted as some other writers, and I’m compulsive. Nothing is ever good enough. I’m sure there are a very few people so naturally gifted that they can sit down and write a masterpiece debut novel. For us lesser mortals, it takes years to develop our own voices, to create styles that are uniquely ours. I’ve worked in just about every capacity for publishers, and so have a variety of types of experiences to draw from.

One of those jobs has been as a reader. Finnish publishers must consider works for translation. For the most part, the manuscripts or advance review copies are in English, so given my experience, education, and that my first language is English, I have value as a reader. It goes like this: I read a book, write a report on it, and conclude it by making a recommendation about whether the book is likely to work for the Finnish market, even make an educated guess about how many copies the book will sell. I’ve only recommended one book for publication. Sometimes, the cover letters make comparisons. “He writes horror in the style of Stephen King and just as well.” Automatic reject. That author is irrelevant. We have plenty of Stephen King books to read. We need fresh voices.

I liken the honing of writing skills to learning to be a concert pianist. It takes the same dedication. I can write in many styles and voices, and have done so. I choose to write books in a particular voice that is mine and it’s a storytelling device for me. Further, the only way to achieve the development of voice is to ensure that the writer isn’t overly influenced by any given other writer. It’s difficult to accomplish that when concerns about publication become more important than the work itself. Putting publication out of mind is one of the best things a writer can do on the road to publication. Thinking about it constantly creates an inner battle between what should I write for others and what story do I want to write. Writing the latter will take you to better places.

And when I say publisher, I mean an accredited one. Which ones are they? Professional writers’ organizations decide that. They’re not only the so-called Big Six, but smaller, respected publishing houses as well.

3. From a private correspondence with someone at a major U.S. publishing house

“Thinking about ire and angst against major publishers. Among writers, I think it’s psychological. A very low percentage of would-be authors ever manage to get a deal with a reputable publisher in the traditional, write book, get agent, make sale way. Mostly because they never manage to write to a high enough standard and/or don’t have the fortitude to continue writing year after year without recognition. It’s far easier to let oneself believe that the fault lies with the system than with the quality of writing. By demonizing big houses, stamping their feet, and declaring that self-publishing is respectable, even honorable, thousands of writers hang the mantle of ‘author’ on themselves without going through the arduous and sometimes heartbreaking process of writing and rejection that, in fact, creates good storytellers. They don’t see that they’ve done themselves a disservice as artists and cheapened that mantle, and if they did, they wouldn’t care. It’s more important to them that they can show their friends and family that their books are for sale on places like Amazon and in their minds, legitimize themselves. An author colleague put it like this to me. ‘It’s the same as if they said they would prefer to have an indie film company and unknown director take their project than to have a Hollywood film company behind them and Martin Scorsese directing. Who is going to best relate their story and distribute it to the widest audience? No sane person would do that.’ I thought that was an astute observation and comparison.”

More hard words. The fact is, being an unpublished writer is terribly difficult psychologically. In most arts, even mediocrity can garner some feedback and encouragement. If you can play a few chords on the guitar and have a decent voice, you can go to an open-mike night, some friends will come and encourage you. Visual arts, dance, acting, can all get you immediate feedback that provides the impetus to persevere and improve. Not so with writing. Until you’re published, you’re just a jackass with hobby. People not in the know (almost everyone) tend to think that if you were any good, you would have books in print, and so you must not write very well. The truth is that whether you have been published has little bearing on your skill as a writer, and you should cling to that, but it’s hard to live with over the long term. That psychological hardship prompted me to write the correspondence above, and prompts writers to self-publish. It used to be a rule of thumb that vanity presses were the kiss of death if you wanted a real career as a writer. Now that self-publishing, which is in many ways no different than a vanity press, have been made respectable, writers flock to self-publishing in droves and avoid that psychological duress.

I don’t think self-publishing is all bad. An excellent byproduct of it is that it has hurt sham literary agents, the kind who charge for editing and make big promises. They were able to take advantage of writers anxious to be published for the psychological reasons I discussed, and often worked in conjunction with vanity presses—so they could hit writers in the wallet from two directions—but now writers, with self-publishing, have a better alternative.

Self-publishing has served a small percentage of writers very well. Some unknown and unpublished writers who entered the game early have truly prospered, and I’m certain that more will follow in the future (more about the future in a minute). Many published authors with followings, who have become disenchanted with their publishers or vice-versa, have flourished in this environment. They’re now able to keep their backlists in print and receive multiples of the royalties paid to them by their former major publishers. The list of advantages for them is long.

Here are the problems I have with self-publishing:

I belong to a few professional writers’ associations. “Professional” defined by the traditional standard: at least two books published by the aforementioned accredited publishers. They all have newsletters. The hot and heavy topic is self-publishing. They address issues and provide information not always available to the public at large, which tends to make writers pay more attention to shrill voices condemning the so-called Big Six and singing the praises of self-publishing. There are a few self-publishing evangelists who do little than harp on the issue, and critical discussions like financial breakdowns and analysis of the supply chain—the dry stuff—go to the wayside. I won’t go into these things at length here. You can find it all if you have interest.

Self-publishing has become an industry unto itself, and so it has become in the best interests of those profiting from it to tout it. Listening to the evangelists, one gets the impression that you need only have your novel converted to .prc (Kindle format), slap a cover on it, upload it, and the money will come rolling in. A company specializing in scanning made a special offer for members of the Mystery Writers of America, so as an experiment, I sent them a book to scan. The first thing that made me wary is that in their FAQ, they state that they refuse to scan books with sexual or violent content. Are they scanning them or reading them? Either way, they’re censoring them, and we exchanged emails about that. Then I received the product, which was fraught with scanning errors. In my view, un-publishable garbage. Then there are the covers. I’m not sure how many offers I’ve received for free or 99 cent books, but probably thousands now, via several social networking sites. I delete the offers out of hand, but have looked at the covers of God knows how many. The great majority are homogenous, the artwork generic and assembly line, not tailored to deliver a specific message about the novel you’ve worked so hard on. Then, of course, are the innumerable people and companies that promise they will get your book on the map, get you attention, make your work rise above the now ONE MILLION ebooks on Amazon. I’m not picking on Amazon in lieu of other vendors. I’m just using their numbers because I know them off the top of my head. So, self-publishing and the tentacles it reaches out to aren’t a cottage industry, but now a massive one.

By the time you’ve paid for all these services, most of which are low quality, how many units of your book do you have to sell at between 99 cents and say, five bucks just to break even? If you want to release a quality book, error free, slick packaging, a real publicist, and quite a few other less obvious expenses—do you have a professional editor, for instance? They don’t come cheap. So, although it’s nice to see your book for sale, between covers instead of as a sheaf of paper, there are a number of realities that should be taken into consideration.

Have you considered why major publishers have yet to compromise on ebook prices? I believe because they think that after consumers have loaded a thousand novels into their e-readers and discover that only a fraction are even readable, let alone compelling stories, they will see the wisdom of paying a higher price for a product that is far more likely to be something they enjoy. And although the majors may moderate their prices in the future, I suspect they’re right.

And finally comes the issue of gatekeepers. The now traditional model is the writer-agent-publisher triangle. Agents, the good ones anyway, know what publishers are looking for (and the publishers at least believe they know what the reading public wants, although we all sometimes find ourselves aghast at their choices) and ask as filters for them. They try to bring the best works possible to the publishers, who make choices, and between them, act as gatekeepers. Many people object to this, and sometimes rightly so, as works and genres, especially by unknown writers, even though many of us would take to them with enthusiasm, are locked out. In effect, censored. I’m grateful that indie publishing has gained ground and come further to the fore, so that this problem can be at least ameliorated.

Imagine though, if there were no large-scale gatekeepers. That the Big Six vanished in a puff of smoke. The evangelists say our advanced social networking system would take care of this, that bloggers, people who review as a hobby, etc., will rise up and fill that gap, that the public will become the gatekeepers, as they always should have been, and at long last, the best books will get the attention they deserve, purely on their own merits.

I wish that were true. It’s an admirable goal, but one that I don’t believe possible. There are just too many self-published books for us to deal with as it is. As the number grows exponentially, I envision a vast Sargasso Sea of texts, unread and unnoticed, for the simple reason that the number of them will overwhelm the social networking reader system, and behind each of those texts will be a heartbroken writer.

In truth, the public are the gatekeepers at present. They always have been. If the reading public refuses to buy what is on offer, those titles will disappear and others, in line with consumer desires, will take their places. The publishing industry is going through great changes, and I’m as clueless as everyone else about what the outcome will be. My only messages here are: Writers, take heart, have fortitude, write novels with passion and expose the world to us in a new way. Readers, you are empowered. Use that power and the world of books will change according to your wills.

James Thompson

Helsinki, Finland

March 13, 2012

James Thompson is an established author in Finland. His novel, Snow Angels, the first in the Inspector Vaara series, was released in the U.S. by Putnam and marked his entrance into the international crime fiction scene. Booklist named it one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010, and it was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards. His second Vaara novel, Lucifer’s Tears, released in March, 2011, earned starred reviews from all quarters, and was named one the best novels of the year by Kirkus. The third in the series, Helsinki White, will be released on March 15.

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