Get yourself comfortable, buddos, because I have OPINIONS and this is going to be a long one. In fact, I have so much to say that I’m dividing this up into two sections. This one is about my issues with the advice given by Authortube, but it will be followed by a connected post about the Dunning-Kruger effect and the danger it poses to writers.
I watch a lot of YouTube videos about writing. The community of YouTubers who talk about writing is informally called Authortube and if you follow it you may be aware that SHIT IS GETTING REAL over there just now. I don’t have anything in particular to say about that specific situation but if you do care have a look at the #arcsarefree tag and you’ll find out what’s going down. No, what I want to talk about here is a more general issue I have with Authortube and the bias in the advice given, which encourages viewers to act outside of their own best interests, and sometimes actively against them.
Some Authortubers are better than others. If you’re interested in recommendations:
Ellen Brock doesn’t seem to post new videos anymore, which is a shame. She’s excellent and if you want to learn how to write a good novel, she’s where you should start. She also has a freakish resemblance to one of my exes.
Alexa Donne: pretty good, particularly if you want to be traditionally published.
Shaelinwrites: very good. She’s young, and she looks even younger than she is, which may put some people off. Don’t let that fool you: much of her advice is solid gold.
iWriterly: pretty solid. Some of the videos are on the short side.
Brandon Sanderson’s lectures… ugh. He’s a good teacher. I don’t like his writing much, and I like his homophobia even less. But I can’t deny that he’s a good teacher, especially if SFF is your thing.
Terrible Writing Advice is brilliant.
BookEnds Literary Agency: very good for understanding how to find a literary agent and not screwing up the querying process. They give some real insight into what agents are looking for in a query. That said I’ve slavishly followed every last detail of their advice and they’ve still rejected me, so… WHAT DO THEY KNOW ANYWAY?
I’ve actually found it much more illuminating to watch videos from editors and agents than from aspiring authors. Writers like to talk about writing – often about their own process. Editors and agents know what constitutes good writing and bad writing. They know how to make a mediocre book better, cleaner, and more engaging. And you can bring that shit right over here, friends.
When it comes to writers talking about writing, however, Cantatrice here has some issues. The Authortube audience skews young: many are still in their teens. They’re probably not very good writers. I’m not saying that to be cruel. Writing is a skill that usually takes a long time to build. There aren’t many utterly brilliant violinists or painters in their teens, either. There are painters and violinists and writers who are brilliant for their age; they may have incredible potential. But other than an extremely small number of total prodigies, they aren’t there yet.
When I was a teenager, I was a brilliant writer for my age. I had a ton of potential.
I was also an absolutely terrible writer.
I wrote a 40k fantasy novella when I was twelve. It wasn’t very good but it’s not as embarrassing as the work that followed it. When I was eighteen I wrote a 66k novel. I’m not going to tell you the title because even that makes me cringe. It was a drivelling, angst-ridden, plot-free, melodramatic abomination. There are no copies of it in existence and for that I am eternally grateful. I spoke to my best friend about it recently and she said “I remember that! It had that sex scene in the graveyard!”
It did not have a sex scene in a graveyard. It was so bad that my friend invented a scene that wasn’t in the book. This tells you two things:
- She remembers reading it but can’t remember anything that actually happened because it was so crap, and
- A sex scene in a graveyard is something that I didn’t write, but could have written. It would have fit into that book just fine.
I believe these things tell you everything you need to know about that book. I printed it out on A4 sheets on our shitty printer which cut off the last word of every line. But printing it took so long that I considered those words an acceptable sacrifice. I think I knew that it was really not good enough (or even long enough, although length was the least of its sins). But of course not that many teenagers write novels, so if you’re someone who does, there follows a lot of “holy shit you have to get this published!” I skulked about and eventually sent it to one publisher just so that I could say I had done. It was the 1990s and you could still send unsolicited manuscripts to respectable publishers in those days. I think the print-out I sent off had all the words, but I’m not certain. A couple of months later, I received a form rejection slip that addressed me as “colleague” and somehow managed to fit a sneer into it. It had been photocopied and re-photocopied so many times it was washed out grey.
When I was a teenager, traditional publishing was the only option. Now there is also self-publishing. Some people call it indie publishing, but that’s a term that is also sometimes used to denote that an author is published through a small press rather than one of the “Big Five” publishing corporations. So I’m going to stick with calling it self-publishing. I’m not here to hate on self-publishing, although I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong option for me as a writer, and for the kind of books that I write. There are excellent self-published books and there are circumstances in which self-publishing is the business-savvy choice. I’ll get onto that in a bit.
Self-publishing is an attractive option to the teenagers who are currently writing books just like the one I wrote 20 years ago. You can have a shiny professional-looking copy of your book in your hand within a week, and then you can tell everyone you’re a published author. You don’t have to face the terrifying, disappointing, frustrating querying process with all its rejections. It’s so straightforward and quick to put their work out there and let destiny take over. You can totally do this and pursue your dreams and hit the bestseller charts if you just BELIEVE enough.
As somebody twice those teenagers’ age it’s really hard not to sound like a total dickhead with: “Hey, that’s great. Now keep reading, writing, and thinking for another decade or two, and then you might be good enough to get an agent. Or you might not. There are no guarantees. And if you are good enough to get an agent, you might snag a publisher. Or you might not. Again with the no guarantees. Then after that you might (or might not) achieve some success which will probably be modest. Money? Well, maybe. But you probably won’t earn out your advance. You might be one of the lucky ones who… hello? Hello?” It’s honest, but it’s not much of a pep talk. Even I wanted to slap the person who just wrote that.
Here’s where we return to the Authortubers. Many of them have themselves self-published a book or two. They post videos about their decision to self-publish and they come down HARD in favour of it. It’s the more modern way! You retain total editorial control! You don’t have to pay an agent! No more gatekeeping in publishing! You get 70% royalties on ebooks, which is waaaaay more than traditional publishing can offer! It can be out there, on Amazon, immediately! It’s possible to get it into libraries and bookshops! If (when!) it’s an enormous success, a traditional publisher will pick it up and offer to take it from there anyway!
The frustrating thing about all of these assertions (which are all over Authortube) is that they’re not exactly false, but there’s an enormous YES, BUT about all of them. To whit:
- Not everything new is better. And even when it’s better for some people, it may not be the best choice for everyone.
- The reason editors exist is to make books better. The changes they suggest can be refused, although there’s usually a good reason to make them.
- The reason agents exist is to support authors, advocate for them, and get them the best possible deal. Almost every writer who has one will tell you that they’re worth every penny.
- Sure. No gatekeeping. But gatekeeping isn’t always a bad thing. A degree from a prestigious university helps you get a job even if the field of study is irrelevant to the job. This is because it tells your prospective employers that you have a good brain and enough discipline to use it properly. Someone without a degree can be smart and successful, of course. A self-published book can be brilliant. But it’s a lot easier to persuade people that it’s worth their time if a publisher is prepared to invest in it.
- Royalties are higher in self-publishing. This is absolutely true. BUT. You don’t get an advance. And if your book doesn’t sell, you don’t get anything. 70% of zero is still zero. Self-published books generally command lower prices as well. This is probably the bit that annoys me the most. There is much, much more that factors into earning a living as a writer than a simple comparison of royalty percentages.
- It can be put on Amazon immediately! Along with a LOT of other self-published books.
- Technically it can be sold in bricks and mortar stores. Technically it is available to libraries. But it won’t be on the shelves at Foyles. You might be able to persuade your local bookshop to stock a copy or two. Someone who is a member of a library could ask them to stock it and they might do. But they definitely won’t buy it unprompted. You can pretty much write off both of these revenue streams.
- Very occasionally publishers pick up a self-published book that has been massively successful. But the reason why cases like Wool by Hugh Howie have been so widely reported is because they’re rare. If you want your book to be traditionally published, this is not the way to go about it. Editors like an exciting debut, and if you’ve already self-published anything, you’ve thrown that away. They want a book that hasn’t been let loose on the world. Yours has, and some percentage of the people who are going to buy it have already done so. If you want to be traditionally published, do your damndest to find yourself an agent instead.
Then, having said that publishing houses are useless rip off merchants, the Authortuber immediately illustrates why they aren’t. When you self-publish, everything the publishers do for a writer is now on you. Are you good at this stuff? All of it? Probably not. So they’ll tell you that the things you absolutely must invest in are:
- Getting an experienced editor. Or possibly more than one. You see, developmental edits (the ones that look at the plot and structure of the novel) are extremely useful. But then line edits (making the book cleaner, easier to read, and less clumsy from bad habits) are also useful. A sensitivity reader can help, particularly if you’ve included characters from a very different background from your own. And let’s not forget the proofreading. It’s extremely difficult to proofread your own book. If you’ve not seen the typos when you were going through it yourself you probably won’t see them now. My beta draft had one spelling of “is” as “is43w” and I must have missed it twenty times. And I’m pretty thorough with my spelling. If this thing gets a launch party one day I want a cake with “is43w” on it.
- Getting a professional cover designer. Sure, there are templates you could use but they’re all a bit naff. (This is entirely true.)
- Oh you’ll need some money for publicity too. You’ll need to have ARCs (advance review copies) to send to reviewers in order to generate some buzz. Don’t send me your ARCs though. I’m savage. But not just ARCs. Launch party! Promotional items! Traditionally-published authors sometimes do splurge on these things from their own wallet as well but often the publishers will cover at least some of it.
If you’re thinking that this sounds like a lot of money, then you’re right. The editor is going to be the most expensive bit. Each runthrough generally costs £10 per 1,000 words. That’s not a ripoff when you consider the time and skill involved with a thorough edit. But there’s only so much even the best editor can do. If you want them to try to turn a bad book into a good one, they’ll either tell you it can’t be done and you need to work on your craft, or you’ll go through several rounds and you’ll be well into four figures of currencycash. A cover design will likely cost you a few hundred poundeurobucks. Sensitivity reading? Proofreading? The cost of doing all of the suggestions above generally seems to fall around £3,000 to £8,000.
So it is indeed a lot of money. Teenagers don’t typically have that much money to spare. A few may come from the kind of rich families where this sum is no big deal. Others may either save up every penny they have from a part-time job, or dip into savings accounts that their parents have been depositing into to help them with their futures. Without a moment’s hesitation the Authortuber will tell them that this is an “investment” into their “business” which makes them sound an awful lot like an Herbal Life distributor.
And as with the MLM distributor, they’re kissing that money goodbye. They will never make it back. In the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, self-publishing can be lucrative. But the average number of books sold for any self-published title is fewer than 50. Your friends and family may buy it but it won’t break out, especially if it’s badly written. Now I absolutely agree with the adage that you should never start a writing career looking for money. But you should not lose money either.
So what’s going on here? If you want to turn your self-published book into something that looks, feels and reads like a trad book, you need to invest in at least some of these things. But what you’re then doing is investing a four figure sum to take one animal and dress it up as another one, failing to persuade Waterstones that it’s worked. If Waterstones sold animals. SHUT UP MY METAPHORS ARE FLAWLESS. What has happened is that – once again, like an MLM – you’ve stepped into this “business” full of hopes and dreams and enthusiasm. But you haven’t asked the vital question that lies at the heart of every business: is this something that someone wants to pay money for? Persuading someone to pay money for the privilege of listening to a stranger drivel on for three hundred pages is hard, especially when they have many other options. Your book means a lot to you. It means nothing to strangers. They are not obliged to want to buy it just because you wrote it, no matter how hard you worked on it. Where self-published writers roll their eyes and complain about “gatekeeping” they’re really talking about the fact that publishers have to consider whether or not they’re going to make a profit.
When I say that the two kinds of publishing are different animals, it relates to the question of who this person is who’s going to buy the book. They might not be different people: lots of people dip into both markets. But the markets are different. You could think of them as being movies and TV shows. Traditional is more like a movie: lots of investment of time and resources; longer in length; more ambitious in scope; more marketing. Self-published is like a TV show: shorter; often a serial which people will dip in and out of; frequent new releases. Self-published books are often made for binge reading a series. They may have a sexy or romantic element in there, particularly if it’s for niche tastes. Erotica sells far better in the self-published market than the traditional one – probably because horny people would rather click a mouse and download the next book in the Kinky Werewolf Firefighters series than go off to the bookshop to buy something. It doesn’t have to be sexy though. Thrillers, murder mysteries, horror, westerns… all sorts of books that are quick to write and read, follow a formula and leave readers wanting their next fix can do well. Many writers who self-publish get as far as fifty or sixty releases before they start making money: it’s all about building a body of work so that a fan can find you and then read your back catalogue.
The self-published market also likes non-fiction books with topics that are too obscure for Waterstones, but Goddamn, every last one of the people who DOES want to know about that topic will buy YOUR book. (This, incidentally, applies well to books about fountain pens. There is no section in Waterstones for BOOKS ABOUT THE LOVELY, LOVELY PENS and this is entirely a failing on their part.) Craft books (as in arts and crafts, rather than the craft of writing) with a fun theme often do well in self-publishing. There’s a big market for small designers in the production of handmade stuff. Etsy is full of sewing and cross-stitch patterns from random creative people all over the world: you can pay a couple of quid and download them instantly. Ravelry has the same thing for knitting patterns. Crafty people (and I know because I Am They) are already interested in picking up designs this way. Throw a dozen of them into a short pdf book, list it on Amazon and there’s a good chance it will sell.
If you want to be a successful writer you have to think about what sells where. In the discussions about whether to pursue traditional or self-publishing, that is the most important question, and when this subject comes up on Authortube, it is almost always ignored. Instead, people present reasons like: “I don’t want to give up ANY of my editorial control” or even just “traditional publishers are all bastards.”
Sadly, when it comes to selling something to paying customers, those customers don’t have to take into account what you want.
You are not acting in your own best interests if you self-publish a book that is not suited to the self-published market. If you aren’t great at self-editing, you either have to put it out there and hope that people aren’t too put off by the errors that snuck in, or you pay someone to remove them but know that you’ll almost certainly make a loss on this one. If you self-publish a book that needs publicity (as opposed to people searching Amazon for “kinky werewolf firefighters”) then you’re going to have to spend a massive amount of time on it. This is time you could have spent writing. Instead you’ll be spending a lot of time working on a brand-centred social media presence, in which you have to constantly interact chirpily with people so that you can plug your book without constantly spamming them. This you will definitely do on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You should probably have a blog too… How about start an Authortube channel!
(I’ll be back with pen talk soon, and more OPINIONS as well. I’m going to move on to some of the reasons why aspiring authors are the worst judges of how good we are at writing, and some of the problems that can cause.)