The New Author, by Ruby Barnes – a review
The New Author is a very good book and highly recommended to anyone thinking of independently e-publishing their work. It’s full of detailed practical advice, including warnings about the pitfalls, and the style is very engaging. In fact it’s an excellent piece of writing, combining deceptive simplicity, lucidity and charm: a trick which in practice is very difficult to pull off. The book is also informed by considerable intelligence and analysis founded on first-hand experience. Ruby Barnes has succeeded in e-publishing and he (yes, it’s a bloke) knows what he’s talking about.
The book is simply and logically structured in three parts, but in this review I’ll reserve the second until last because it deserves fuller treatment. The first part deals with what can loosely be called the Rules of Writing. This is not specific to the e-format and, as the author acknowledges, the subject is dealt with more fully in many other works, and he seems to have included this section (rightly in my view) for the limited purpose of writing a primer covering all the basics as well as his own special contribution. As for the content of the section, he repeats the commonly accepted points of writing technique in a clear common-sense manner and with an appropriate level of scepticism as to the possibility of writing by rule. This section is a useful summary and most writers probably need nothing more. The truth is that the trick is in the practice not the theory, and what most aspiring writers need is informed critique of concrete pieces of work.
The third part is a detailed exposition of how to convert a manuscript into an e-publishable form compatible with commercial e-readers. It goes on to explain how to place the book with a free e-publisher such as Amazon, and various post-publishing matters such as reviews, pricing and tracking of sales. One would have to try it out in order to verify how correct and user-friendly this account is, but Ruby Barnes has been through the mill and writes well and intelligently, so I take this section on trust for the present.
The heart of the book is in the second part, which is explains how to parlay your e-book into a best-seller by leveraging the opportunities provided by Twitter and social networking sites to create a product brand and an aware and active readership. At this point I’ll digress in order to give my take on where we are and why Ruby Barnes’s book is necessary.
For six hundred years the printed codex has been the technical format of books. The cost of production has influenced the proportions and outlets for books purchased and books loaned, and to a large degree countries have maintained national literatures rather than succumbed to international authorial brands; and this has been the model of mass readership for a century or so. It’s this model, with its accompanying train of agents, publishers and bookshops, that has been largely destroyed in the last twenty years without its becoming wholly clear what the new model will look like.
I’ve never seen it clearly stated, but it seems to me true that the worldwide demand for commercial fiction can be satisfied with an annual production of a couple of hundred books. The success of translated Scandinavian crime fiction sold through superstore outlets along with a mere handful of other books seems to me to prove this point. The fact that historically many more books have been produced has been the result of a segmented, decentralised market and distribution system founded on technical limitations and cultural differences. The globalisation of economies and the creation of a homogenised international culture, driven by free market capitalism, lead with books as with any other product to attempts to simplify and control demand and achieve economies of scale. Although pundits talk of the loss of cultural diversity and reader choice, I don’t think this loss is in reality experienced by leisure readers of commercial fiction. The few hundred books that I refer to as one possible outcome of the current process still offer a broad enough range to feel like sufficient choice for a significant portion of the market. But this, of course, means death to the hopes of most aspiring authors.
The working out of these changes has been on various fronts. The Waterstones model (also followed by Ottokars, Borders and others) has applied general supermarket principles of piling high and selling cheap, and has covered these economies by depressing producer prices i.e. amounts paid to publishers, printers and authors. This model puts new writers and independent publishers on the spot. The anticipated sales won’t support the required discounts. Accordingly the works of new authors (and moderately performing existing authors) start from a platform of being not only less popular than the best-sellers, but actually more expensive. It’s very difficult for an aspiring writer to escape from this bind.
At the same time as the bookstore chains have been marching to triumph, their foundations have been undermined on three fronts. Firstly, the general supermarkets have recognised the truth that, when it comes down to it, the reading public doesn’t really need the selection on offer, and they have creamed off a limited range of best sellers that in the past cross-subsidised other works. Secondly on-line retailers, in particular Amazon, have created a low overhead distribution system that is also tax-advantaged. And thirdly, the e-book looks set to displace the codex as the preferred reading format. The last two developments are not yet fully worked out, and so we don’t know if they will wholly destroy the Waterstones’ model and the independent bookshop, or whether these will survive as low level or niche operations.
In predicting the future the following seem to me to be relevant considerations. There are many readers who are casual consumers of only a handful of books in a year – holiday readers, if you like. They may not consider an e-reader as a worthwhile investment, and therefore they may survive as a base market for the traditional hard format. That said, there may be a tipping point at which this residual market cannot be serviced economically from the standpoint of producers and distributors. The price of e-readers, and the cost of producing and distributing hard format books are in flux, and I don’t think one can be confident as to how this will all play out.
I can envisage a future in which books develop almost as two separate art forms, like theatre and film. A small stratum of best-sellers (my two hundred books a year) may survive as hard format books, sold through limited outlets suited to casual readers, and behind this will be the cloud of e-books. Where does “choice” stand in this scenario? In the world of the hard format, it will be very reduced, but, I suggest, not necessarily experienced as such by consumers. In the realm of the e-book, however, the range of choice will be vast as new entrants, who in the past would have been excluded from being published through bad luck or incompetence, pile into e-books. Here the question is whether the enhanced choice will be meaningful, or perceived as white noise, a mere cacophony.
Ruby Barnes’s book faces up to this changed scenario and says – rightly, I think – that predictable success can only happen through deliberate manipulation of social networking in all its forms. In the second part of The New Author he takes the reader in detail through various techniques for doing this and identifies key forums of opinion. His start point is a level of current engagement that, in fact, I don’t have (as with many Idiot Guides, I need to up my game to qualify as an idiot), and so I can’t speak with confidence as to the detail and whether it is described in an accurate and user friendly manner, but it seems to be. However this course is not for the faint hearted. Barnes explicitly warns against the trap that engagement at the required level can become obsessive and time consuming, and in a couple of nice vignettes he makes his point with wit and style. In fact, I’d go further. In my opinion the complete programme is only suited to the full-time writer. The demands are intense.
Speaking personally, I struggle with this marketing concept. At the risk of sounding pious despite my many failings, I value my friends for themselves: for their autonomous lives and intrinsic worth; and I try to apply these criteria to strangers to the point of not even demanding that people like me as a precondition of whether I like them. I find it hard to contemplate engaging with people with an outward show of interest and friendship and an inward agenda of using them instrumentally for what they can do for me; yet it seems to me that this is what lies at the heart of the e-marketing project and it makes me profoundly uncomfortable. My experience of social networking has been limited and I did do it with a view to promoting interest in my books. I had a spell in MySpace and have a nominal presence on Authonomy. The people with whom I’ve had contact seem to be individually nice, but Authonomy in particular seems at times to be a hell of screaming wannabes and fraudulent at its core. It presents itself as a market of opinion in which good books rise according to the estimation of the writers’ peers. In reality it’s a ruthless test of networking skills and “push” in which poor or mediocre books succeed solely through the promotional efforts of their authors, only to be winnowed at the “Editor’s Desk”, where books are rarely accepted for publication. This isn’t a realistic route to publication commensurate with the efforts required and the disappointment of those who achieve the Grail of the Editor’s Desk only to be rejected must be profound. It seems a cruel system. As for these two sites generally, I found them haunted by an indefinable sadness.
The New Author belongs to the class of self help books, a subject I studied when writing How To Be A Charlatan And Make Millions. It differs from those written by charlatans in that Ruby Barnes offers authentic, proven techniques and makes limited personal demands (“Buy my book,” not “Sell me your soul,”). However it shares certain characteristics common to the genre, including the frauds. Far more than the general run of novels, self help books (as distinct from mere technical manuals) pose profound questions of identity. They confront the reader with an existential choice between himself as he is, and himself as he wishes to be – or thinks he wishes to be, until he is forced to consider the price. There’s a reason why the number of self-help books sold is infinitely greater than the number of readers who’ve become high-earning sex magnets with the spiritual insights of the Buddha. Whatever their conscious beliefs and motivation, people only rarely overcome the inertia of their own nature. They are who they are for reasons, and those reasons have little to do with a lack of knowledge of the techniques for selling e-books. When it comes down to it, over the long haul few people are up to the discipline and demands that self-help courses impose. The New Author is an excellent book, but I doubt many readers will be able to follow its precepts for long.
And as for me? I’ve come to the sobering realisation that self-publishing e-books will probably not work for me. I’m not the person described in this book. I’m not sure I’m capable of becoming that person. And I’m not sure I want to be. However my choices bind no one.
The New Author is a terrific book and I recommend it.