The Anchovy Who Made Millions

Posted on Mar 2, 2011 in Blog
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Today, via the wonderful world that is Twitter, I read about a twenty-six-year-old American novelist who has written and self-published nine books.  She sells them as e-books on Amazon, and makes approximately two million dollars per year.  As this insightful article points out, that’s more than most mainstream authors make in a decade. 
I feel, I don’t quite know what, about this news.  My first reaction on reading this was to think, Good for her!  Because in a world where every day brings more news about the Death of The Book and the Encroaching Doom Of The Printed Page, it’s awfully nice to hear that an author has managed to ride this new twist in the system to financial success.  Margaret Atwood recently spoke at a conference on publishing, specifically to impress on e-book enthusiasts the importance of paying authors adequate compensation for their work.  Authors, she said, are the bottom of the food chain in the way that anchovies are the lifeblood of the sea.  If you take away the author/anchovy’s way of survival, a whole lotta other things are bound to collapse, and it’s just that simple. 
Of course, this isn’t new.  The music industry is no doubt looking at all of us book-centric people and saying something along the lines of “Har har, knew it would happen to you eventually!”  The Internet is revolutionizing the world, and books are merely a small part of the whole.  Maybe a decade from now we’ll be looking at bookstores kind of like the way that I look at my friendly neighbourhood music store – something of a novelty shop, a place that’s interesting to go into but not really necessary, anymore, in the grand scheme of things.  Maybe a decade from now it will be all e-readers and electronic pages and fancy devices that try to look as much as possible like the real thing.  In fact, there’s no maybe about it.  This is the future.  We all know this is the future. 
So, that being the case, it was refreshing to hear that someone, at least, will be able to survive off e-books alone.  But the fact that this author is self-published also, I think, brings up other interesting questions. 
I am also self-published.  I published a book of short stories and my first novel back at the beginning of 2009, via the wonderful website and organization that is these lovely people.  For a writer who was beyond broke and struggling to get her voice out into the world, it was an absolute godsend.  I was able to oversee every aspect of the production of my books, from the formatting to the choice of cover (side note: issues currently exist with the cover for the novel — I did not mean for it to be naught but a blank white page), text, jacket blurb, everything.  It was an immensely valuable experience, and the fact that the novel is still available both to buy and to read online means that I am still, slowly but surely, establishing a fan base.  It’s nothing like the fan base of the author that I mentioned earlier in this post, but still – publishing these books allowed me to get my voice out in the world.  It also allowed me to move on from that novel and work wholeheartedly on my next one, which I think I’d have been hard pressed to do had I also been working to get the first book published in a mainstream house.  Plus, once that novel was published, I could use it as a selling point in my letters to other agents and publishers.  I did, and it worked.  I have an agent now, and that is in no small part due to the fact that this novel made its way into the world, in however small a fashion. 
Having said that, and two years after the book’s publication, I confess to some … hesitancies, now, about the self-publishing process.  Specifically, I worry about the fact that my first novel is now out there in the world without having gone through the editing process that typifies publication from a larger house.  My agent has hinted at finding a new home for this book in the future, and I can foresee a great deal of editing.  I want there to be a great deal of editing.  This self-published novel – it’s not bad.  But there are so many things I would change about it now, so many things I’d do differently.  And if I’d had an editor with me two years ago, I might have had them point out to me these things that needed fixing, these things that it has otherwise taken me two years to learn.  After all, book publishing has employed editors since, well, there’s been book publishing.  And all of this for a very good reason:  namely, that we authors can’t always tell exactly what’s best for our books.  As a writer, you need to have that outside reader, that other eye that can look at your manuscript and point out what things might not be working.  It doesn’t matter if you write an unbelievably good novel – books can always be better, and besides, the next book that you write could be crap.  You need to have another pair of eyes on board. 
Years ago, in one of my university classes, we had a discussion about a prominent Indian novelist and how the quality of his writing had decreased with his fame.  “He doesn’t listen to his editors as much now,” my instructor said, “because his name is enough to sell the books.”  This has also, apparently, been the case with Anne Rice in recent years.  Or so sayeth Amazon.  “I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me, and I will never relinquish that status.”  End quote, merci beaucoup Ms. Rice. 
The point:  editors are an important part of the writing process.  I don’t care what anybody says.  Writing starts as a solitary activity, but if you’re writing for publication sooner or later that activity becomes collaborative.  Sooner or later, you have to take into account what your editors are saying.  Because if you don’t, the chances are very good that your book will end up being not quite as fantastic as it could be, the authors showcased above being a pressing case in point. 
So, then.  Tonight I read about someone who has managed to bypass the traditional method of publishing, overcome the e-book hurdle, and make themselves a millionaire in the process.  On the one hand, it’s fantastic news.  Because the other sad fact of the matter is that it’s harder than ever to get your work published now.  And even if you do, there’s no telling if your book will take, or make money, or instill enough faith in your agent to have them hang around for your next work of art.  So writers need to be creative, of course we do.  We need to make use of all the tools at our disposal – to market ourselves and our work in as many ways as we can.  We need to take the plunge that this author did and embrace e-book sales, and the launch pads that self-publishing can be.  (If, that is, we are not fortunate enough to have landed that agent, or that book deal, already.)  And if even one of us can succeed in doing it, that’s a plus.  More will follow. 
Still, I worry about whether the prevalence of self-publishing in today’s market is in fact entirely a good thing.  I haven’t read the novels of the author in question, so I can’t comment on the style of the books.  The reviews seem to mostly be positive, which is good, and she has an agent, which no doubt speaks to her writing ability.  But if I were to read these novels, would I find myself editing as I go?  Does the rise in self publishing mean a decrease, ultimately, in the type of editing and therefore the type of books that are being published the world over? 
I don’t know.  I do know that I must sound like the worst kind of snob right now.  But the trends in mainstream publishing, it would seem, are outlining this in a big way.  It’s impossible for a first-time novelist to get a book deal now unless their novel has been rewritten numerous times, and all this before it even arrives at the publisher’s door.  John Berger’s recent article in the Globe and Mail brought this into stark relief.  And while the article ends on a happy note – I for one am happy to know that someone thinks Canadian literature is always on the upswing! – the larger picture has me … conflicted.  It just does. 
Maybe some writers will manage to beat the market, grab innovation as it happens, and make that work.  And if so, more power to them.  But I’m cautious about abandoning everything as the e-book world takes over.  Innovation is all well and good, but good editing lasts … a lifetime?  (Haha.)  And maybe this is all a bit rich coming from the self-confessed self-published mademoiselle (though I must protest that self-publishing was never the goal, but merely a doorway into the mainstream world).  But there you have it.  I worry that the rise in self-published novels is going to mean a decrease in the quality of literature.  I worry that the marriage of e-books and self publishing will take us far from rich, beautiful stories and create a Walmart of a bookstore, where everything is more or less quickly and easily produced and available for cheap.  Where editing has gone the way of the parchment and quill. 
Feel free to call me the hugest of hypocrites.  But there’s a balance, here, somewhere, and I think it’s a balance worth seeking.  And maybe we can find it in such a way as to ensure that those authors make enough to keep writing. 
After all, that’s the dream, isn’t it?

1 Comment

  1. Sirrah
    March 9, 2011

    Being such a fun of your novel's cover, I was distressed to see it missing! What is going on with that?