Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Newest Profession

The blog is littered with writer types this week, sorry. Today comes a guest post from deepest Cornwall as mustardy-shirted author Simon Forward takes the helm and tries to crash into the nearest landmark. I leave you in extremely unsafe hands indeed...

The Newest Profession? Independent authors, of course! They’re everywhere these days. Loitering on every virtual corner, peddling their innermost thighs – I mean thoughts, for a few pennies and bringing the internet into disrepute. As rampant and desperate as a sexbot, their responses are almost as automatic and you could be forgiven for not realising there’s a real live person on the other end of that Tweet.

They weren’t getting anywhere through the traditional route, so zealously guarded by agents and publishers (the two faces of an industry Janus, albeit both are wearing blinkers and looking backwards). So they removed the gatekeepers from the equation and struck out alone.

Unfortunately, even with the gatekeepers out of the way there’s this massive fence to climb. And it’s getting higher. Readers are building up the walls against the rabble. And who can blame them, with an mob of whores scrambling to find some way into their personal library? Pick me! Pick me! It’s like the X Factor audition stages out there. Tens of thousands of hungry souls – Zombies Got Talent. There’s a reason ITV show an edited version of the competition – who wants to sit through that lot of hapless wannabes? I pity the readers, I really do.

As a reader, I’m hugely selective. A book’s something you invite into your life, after all, and spend a fair chunk of quality, intimate time with. I’m very fond of my Kindle (if you turn that around you get kind of my Fondle, but I digress), so I’m very fussy about what I put on it. (In fact, I’ve ended up with a collection of reads queued up from people I know, so there’s a strange kind of non-industry nepotism going on there. Luckily, most have been good, but I’ll admit it’s possibly not the best filter for buying books.)

Currently, I buy hardly any traditionally published books except for firm, established favourites. I don’t buy into the notion that the backing of a traditional publisher is an integral stamp of quality. I’ve seen too many bloody good manuscripts passed over and too many not-so-good ones passed through the system and excreted onto the bookstore shelves. Too often it’s a stamp of mediocrity. It’s safe. It’s the soft option. It’s selling wool to sheep, which is what large parts of the industry are good at. Trouble is, any readers who are looking for something new may well be inclined to turn to the independents. But a brief scan of the internet will turn up a baffling array of authors bleating for attention, with way too many press-ganging a small army of friends and relatives into posting 5-star reviews on their Amazon listings. Trying pretty much any trick, in fact, just to turn a trick.

Readers, be afraid. Be very afraid.

But, on the other hand, as an author, what’s a whore to do? I’m reasonably sure batting my eyelashes and hitching up my skirts is not going to do me – or anyone else – any favours. There’s a great scene in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin is lecturing a bunch of losers on what it takes to succeed in sales. He reaches into his suitcase and produces a pair of brass balls. I’m not sure how far those would get you on the streets of Babylon, but it seems to me you need them for this business.

As a Doctor Who author, once upon a time, you could sit back and let the brand sell your books for you. And I remember attending two different conventions, one in the UK, one in the US. In London, the writers were like B-list (I’m being charitable) celebs, we had some fun on a discussion panel in a relatively small room tucked over on one side of the hotel. In Los Angeles, we were A-listers, welcomed and celebrated as near as damnit on a par with the stars of the show. I’d sit on the signing panel with fellow authors and fans would come coyly over to me and ask if I’d sign their copies of my book. One even brought a bag full of all the Doctor Who output – books, audio dramas, a novella – I’d written at that point. Sigh. I’ve come over all nostalgic for those days now.

Part of the reason I’m getting misty-eyed is because I wasn’t there to sell books. I was there to enjoy myself. Which has a lot in common with why I write. But yes, I’d also like people to read my books because, you know, I get exponentially more enjoyment out of other people’s enjoyment of the things I enjoyed writing. Still, for all my desire to share, I’m preternaturally shy. I pour my heart and passions into my stories – why the hell would I want to pour myself and my opinions out all over the internet? Yuck. I hate myself a little bit more every time I do it. Those virtual street corners are far from my natural environment – well outside my comfort zone. I have this conviction, you see, that anything interesting I might have to say is limited to my works of fiction.

Today I would rather be back in my shell, writing my latest sci-fi adventure. That will be of interest to readers. But the poor thing’s being (temporarily) neglected again in favour of promoting my latest release.

If a book is released on the internet and no-one’s around to see it, does it make a sound? Simple answer: no. Authors have to advertise on Facebook and Twitter and all the rest, and beg for a simple RT or a wall post to pass the message on, spread the word. And like wealth, the bulk of Retweets and FFs generally flows upwards to those who least need them. So authors have to work harder to make themselves heard, which in turn drives more folks away because, let’s face it, do we really want our Twitter streams flooded under a deluge of #PleaseReadMyBook?

So it would seem that while publishers, agents and self-whoring authors are all keeping good books safely out of the reach of readers, we authors are also keeping ourselves away from (writing) good books. Where, I’d venture to suggest, our time is best spent.

Back in 2008 when I first signed up on the Harper Collins’ authonomy site, there was so much wild abandoned pluggery it’s a wonder God didn’t step in to strike the whole thing down. The funny part is, there were two key figures most known for their shameless plugging. One Alexander McNabb and, er, me. Him in his field of sunflowers, me on my Cornish cliff top in my (then-infamous) mustard shirt. When it comes to whoring, he taught me everything I know.

But that’s the thing: it was funny. To start with, I was there to enjoy myself, to have a laugh – and laughs we had aplenty. And why not? It was a game. Until I suppose we all discovered there wasn’t a prize. But it was also, as I wrote in a post for the authonomy blog, something of a microcosm of the indie publishing universe. The experimental authonomy world was flat and when we all travelled to the edge we fell off into a bigger version of the same old circus.

Readers, authors, publishers. We’re all losers in this game, the way it’s currently being played.

Maybe what’s needed is some kind of convention. An organised virtual event or one-stop shop, a meeting point for readers and authors and publishers. Somebody is at least talking about something of the sort:
Is it the answer? I’m not sure what shape this new model should take. I have no idea - because that, like the whole whoring business, it’s outside my remit. It’s not my cup of tea. All I know is, something needs to be done by somebody.

“Change, my dear, and not a moment too soon,” says the Doctor at the end of the Doctor Who story, The Caves Of Androzani, and at the beginning of another regeneration. Of course, what was needed to trigger it was Peter Davison’s Doctor keeling over and dying.

I’m not sure what we should learn from that.

Meantime, if anyone needs a whore I’ll be the shy, reluctant one still trying to wear his author hat while accessorising with something sluttier.
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Phillipa said...

great post, Simon. I love Autho as a flat earth.

SAF said...

Thanks, Phillipa. As usual these things emerge in a stream of consciousness, but you know what they say, out of the mouths of babes and fools ;-)

Phillipa said...

so are you a baby fool, or a foolish baby?

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