Welcome your new gatekeepers…


photo courtesy James Cridland

I’ve been wrestling with several publishing related issues lately (What do I mean lately? It’s become my life). Trying to get a feel for the market and how to reach the right audience with fiction which is professional, yet not written directly with “the market” in mind.

It’s a daunting task and flies in the face of all the advice an author receives – write to market (or at least a market – subverting genres isn’t the smart money move), find your niche before you even set pen to page, build a following.

I simply want to write stories and I’m aware that isn’t quite enough.

Lately, there’s an explosion of fiction on Amazon. An entire wave of authors are following the latest advice craze telling them to release as often as they can, as fast as they can, all in order to stay fresh in readers’ minds but also to stay on top of Amazon’s algorithm.

That elaborate puzzle has become a singular rite of passage. A holy riddle which every writer must seek to unlock and navigate if they are to ever make it in this brave new world. Thing is, I’m not entirely sure it is shaping a future I have a place in.

I’ve had decent success, don’t get me wrong. I’ve moved thousands of copies of my books. But I’m still running at a loss as I try to keep my production at professional levels and provide the kind of story I, as a reader, would like to see. Those kinds of stories take a lot of time. Deceptively dense, re-readable, and something more to be savored than devoured, I’ll likely never throw one together in a month or two.

Every time I stumble across a self published author doing exceptionally well on Amazon in my genres, I start to dig around. Knowing the paths others took to their success is supposed to be both informative and, in a sense, reassuring. If they did it, I can too.

Aside from blistering publishing schedules, most have one other thing in common – an audience built somewhere else and unleashed on the Amazon algorithms. Frankly, the end result of all this is that the quality of the product has very little to do with their success.

This is why the science fiction and fantasy lists on Amazon have become something of a clearing house for fan fiction. These writers very often draft their stories in open forums, build up supporters, and then publish straight to Amazon.

Another tactic (the one I’ve been experimenting with) is to build a mailing list. This entails essentially buying subscribers. You either give away product, pay for ads, or find other means of directing traffic to your subscription page. Eventually you have a mass of readers large enough to register a blip on those all-important algorithms through purchases and reviews.

(Yet, Amazon will squash reviews it deems from sources close to the Author. Many suspect they are trolling authors’ social media profiles for links though evidently they aren’t scouring Fan Fiction forums.)

There’s nothing wrong with either tactic. Both are legitimate ways to build a fanbase. What’s wrong, in my opinion, is that the effort often seems to stop there. Gather your loyal, uncritical horde, point them at the Amazon puzzle, and you’ve got no need to ever grow as a writer. Editing? Only if they care (and they mostly don’t). Professional covers? For those books created on fan forums, all your supporters have already seen it with the stock image you slathered with Papyrus so why bother?

Some might say I’m lamenting the loss of gatekeepers – which I’m not. I’m all for open expression, unfiltered creation, and the wild freedoms self publishing allows. But I do have to wonder, isn’t there a new gatekeeper in town? And how much of writing is about stories anymore rather than monetizing relationships?

I definitely don’t have the answers. Maybe those two things are one in the same or always have been. However, it seems clear the traditional path has been inverted in a terrible and wonderful way. Fans are in charge of your fiction, their whims writ large by an algorithm which can be as arbitrary as it is inscrutable.

None of this is news. These are (and have been for some time) the days of the crowd. Funded, written, backed, kick-started. But how long before they figure out the behemoth that is Amazon is just in their way?

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2 replies

  1. Russ, you know I like your works. I appreciated something you said above about writing dense, re-readable, and devourable books. That is exactly how I perceive your books and one reason that I like them so much.

    I am now retired but in my old IT related job, I saw an increasing demand for speed to deliver with seemingly little concern for quality and maintainability. I see it as paralleling your dilemma. I had a glimmer of an idea for an application in the early ’80s. I tried various ways to develop it but each failed because it was either not “dense” enough or too difficult to maintain, i.e. “re-readable”. Eventually my employer decided to fund full development and I made sure that the quality, scope, and maintainability were built in. The application was first deployed in 2001 and has been running no major issues since. There have been three major changes but they were due to business changes, not to fix something. In the past five year, many of my “younger” colleagues wanted something like my application but did not want to pay the price in time, money, and personal commitment. Sound familiar? The current generation appears to want instant rewards with little concern for the work involved. There are those vendors who will give people what they want now with little concern for how long it will last. “Get off my lawn, youngns”

    Russ, stay strong and very courageous. Hang tough.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Harold! I definitely don’t want to leave you or any of my readers with the impression I’m giving up – I don’t think I could if I tried. But the current market landscape isn’t a place where I quite fit and it can be frustrating. I’m likely going to try some very off the wall strategies in the coming months to see about getting traction elsewhere.

      You and my wife could swap war stories about the state of IT today I imagine. Your personal experience does sound very similar to mine and I’m also not one to ever favor the quick and easy path. I’m trying to build something lasting as you did. A long tail curve as opposed to a quick spike. Hopefully that’s still possible!

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