Erase the Barriers between Writers and Readers in Canada

blog-post-nov-17-cancon

Canadian Heritage consultation site

“The federal government is poised to pursue the most significant cultural policy overhaul in over a decade and Canadian Heritage is holding a consultation on Canadian content in the digital world that will help shape new policy.” – Access Copyright email

It seemed important to me to contribute to this consultation, so I summarized my experience with the extraordinary changes that have hit the publishing industry over the past decade. Many of you who have been following this blog have already heard my story in bits and pieces, but now – thanks to Heritage Canada – I have it all in one place. Last week, I posted it on the department’s site (where there are lots of other interesting contributions which I encourage you to check out). I am reproducing it here:

A Promising Start

In 2000, I was well on my way to becoming at least a mid-list writer when I ran into an obstacle approximately the size of the Canadian shield – and almost as impenetrable and uncompromising.

By then I had published two novels and a collection of short stories. The first novel, The Woman Upstairs, had won a prize for excellence in writing from the Writers Guild of Alberta, and the print run had sold out. I had been eager to continue developing as a writer. However, my experience with the next two books, which came out ten years later (I’d been earning a living and raising kids as well as writing) was entirely different, and left me in despair. The second novel was published just as the director of the book’s publishing house resigned; she was not replaced for several months, leaving my book in promotional limbo. The publisher of my first short story collection went out of business shortly after the book was published. I doubt that either of those books sold more than 200 copies each, and it was no fault of mine: in those days, recent though they were, writers were discouraged from interfering with tasks that were considered to be within the proper purview of publishing – which included book promotion.

I determined to put all that behind me. I was working on a new novel that I hoped would find a larger, “national” publisher, allowing me to move slowly up the firmament of Canadian literary awareness as so many before me had done. My income-earning had included stints as executive director of the Writers Guild of Alberta and editor in chief of Lone Pine Publishing, and as well I’d served as a founding member of the board of the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts and on various other literary and cultural arts boards and committees. I knew how the writing and publishing business worked, and I was prepared to move forward with confidence.

When the third novel was complete (it was then called The Whole Clove Diet; it is now called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin), I began to look for an agent/publisher. After sending out nearly 100 queries and receiving fewer than five requests to see even a sample chapter, much less a manuscript, someone told me about BookNet – a data source accessible by booksellers, librarians, agents and publishers but not by writers – which keeps track of numbers of copies of each book sold in Canada. Given that most of the negative responses I had received from agents and publishers had not even requested writing samples, it seemed likely that agents and publishers were taking a look at my BookNet sales figures for my previous two books, and passing on the new book, sight unseen.

It was a tough time for publishers then, as well. Amazon had begun to do serious damage to bricks-and-mortar booksellers, which were the traditional sales outlets for published books, and e-books and other digital changes were eroding the perennially small profits of the publishing industry. As I learned more and more about how book publishing was changing, I understood that if I were not a brand new (preferably young and, even better, sexy) writer, or an already well-established one, I was going to be out of luck when it came to getting a reasonably-sized publishing house to even consider my new novel.

A New Tack

After blowing a gasket or two on my then-new blog (see the first two or three posts of The Militant Writer), I calmed down and assessed my situation. Despite my long-standing anathema for vanity publishing (which I had been actively discouraging fellow writers from considering as recently as 2008), I considered that, given my background in publishing, if anyone could publish a professional-looking and literate book all by herself, it would be me. So I did.

First I learned the ins-and-outs of the self-publishing process by republishing my first novel, The Woman Upstairs. Then I hired an editor and a cover designer, and published the book now known as Rita Just Wants to Be Thin. By then, my friend John Aragon in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had just published his first novel with a small press there, and the treatment his book received from his publisher was even more inadequate and discouraging than my experience with my second and third books had been. We didn’t even consider traditional publishing for our co-authored comic western, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid – we just went straight to self-publishing, releasing it as a print book and an e-book in 2012.

Battling My Way Uphill

The last four years have been interesting and frequently discouraging. Whether you are a publishing house or a one-person show, it is very hard to get your books noticed by readers. As a self-published author, I had no access to book reviews or bookstore distribution. Without a publishing house, I was not invited to participate in festivals, events like Word on the Street, or most reading series. My books did not appear in libraries, which meant that they attracted no proceeds from the Public Lending Right Commission, nor did they help to extend my reputation through a connection with my previous publications.

Worst of all, I was persona non grata just about everywhere in the Canadian literary community. Five years ago (and even today in many quarters), self-publishing was still considered “vanity publishing” – an indication that you did not write well enough for your work to be accepted by a publishing house. Self-publishing was not yet considered a “choice”: it was only ever a Plan B. I saw embarrassment or disdain in the eyes of my fellow writers and others in the business every time I tried to explain what I was doing, and what the advantages were – the primary one of which was that I now had total control over my books’ destinies and, as far as I was concerned, I had no one to blame but myself if they didn’t prosper. Furthermore, when I did sell a book, the royalty I earned was far more proportional to the work I had put into it than was the royalty on offer from most publishers. Granted, I had invested financially in the books’ publications (not a huge amount – certainly not anywhere close to the amount that many companies today are now charging ill-informed writers to publish their books), but since my books belong to no company’s fall or spring season, but will continue to be promoted by me for as long as I am able to promote them, they go on selling until the upfront costs are paid and the income is all gravy.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

I am not in the least surprised that the absolute mountains of indescribably awful, badly written, unedited self-published books continue to scare traditional reviewers, librarians and booksellers away from all self-published books, good as well as bad: these individuals and institutions have yet to figure out a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff without using up time for reading and evaluation that they do not have – and cannot afford to pay for. But the world is changing, and ways will need to be found to address this problem. This year, as an advocate on the National Council of The Writers’ Union of Canada, I am hoping to explore ways in which booksellers, reviewers, granting agencies and other literary entities can figure out how find the self-published books that are of literary merit amid the innumerable volumes of junk.

In my own case, there have been several bright spots. The Woman Upstairs experienced a selling flurry when Claire Messud’s novel of the same name was published: a lot of people bought mine by mistake. And during the past summer, I invested some money in a promotional strategy for Rita that actually paid off – 8,000 people downloaded my e-book for free during one day in July, and the e-book has been selling steadily at its regular price ($2.99) ever since, and has had a lot of reviews. Don Valiente has not yet had its moment in the sun, but those who have read it have been effusive in its praise, and I know its time will come. It is built to last. As are all of my books.

The Ground Settles

In 2016, I am far less of a pariah than I was in 2012. Canada’s professional book writers’ association, The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), now recognizes that many writers choose to self-publish either because they want more control over their own writing, or because they do not have access to traditional publishers, and it has begun to accept applications from self-published writers, who are then vetted by its Membership Committee. In 2014-15, TWUC invited me to present on the subject of self-publishing as part of a professional development workshop for members and non-members in cities across Canada. If still not respectable, self-publishing is at least becoming acceptable.

Today there’s even a word for writers like me: we’re called hybrid authors – meaning that some of our books are traditionally published, and some are not. I have decided that I want to publish my next book traditionally because I want to regain access to readings and other promotions, to the few review outlets that are still available, to bookstores (partly because of the PLR payments), to festivals and readings, to awards and prizes. And I want to re-establish my reputation with those of my peers whose lips still curl when they hear the term “self-published.”

I have no regrets about the choices I have made. Even in the midst of my times of greatest discouragement, when no books at all were selling for weeks or months on end, I did not regret my decision. I knew I was moving in a direction that many others would have to choose eventually, even if it was only to get their out-of-print books back onto the market. Throughout, I liked the control that self-publishing gave me over every aspect of the publishing process.

Keep Writers and Readers at the Centre

There can be no doubt that the writer is – and always has been – at the centre of the literary world: without writers there would be no publishers, booksellers, libraries or even readers – readers being the only other crucial component of the literary experience. Until this sea change, the publishing business had evolved to the point where the writer was an insignificant pawn in the entire process: the big business of publishing was happening around us, and we did what we were told to do, and we acted like we were grateful: even when our books were not delivered in time for our book launches; even when our books were not submitted for awards and prizes for which they were eligible; even when we knew that there was a market for our books that our publisher was not exploring; even when our royalty payments were one year late.

The world that is now emerging to replace that pre-digital world offers writers choice, power and control over the fate of our own writing, and that is where we ought to be. A cultural system that supports writers and writing in the future will be one that does everything possible to dissolve the boundaries and eliminate the institutionalized gatekeepers that stand between the writer and the reader, instead supporting all of us who live and work in the world of writing and publishing to move forward as a team.

BookBub and Me: 20,000 Downloads, 50 Reviews, and a Month (so far) of Daily Sales

I even made it onto three Amazon e-book bestseller lists

BookBubI’ve never figured that paying a promotions company to market my book was a worthwhile investment of my money, but in the past month I’ve discovered – yet again – that when it comes to promoting books, I’m a neophyte.

After a few writer friends experienced success with a site called BookBub, I decided a few weeks ago that I’d give the company a try with Rita Just Wants to Be Thin. At the time, Rita was languishing at an average of about zero sales per week.

I was prepared to consider the $165 US or so that I thought a BookBub promo was going to cost me  (for “worldwide” distribution of a book in the Women’s Fiction category) as money down the drain, but aside from the money ( ! ? ), I had nothing much to lose. I was curious. I figured it would at the very least provide me with the fodder for a post on this blog. As it has. But I never expected that I’d be writing such an enthusiastic review.

How BookBub Works

Millions of readers from all over the world have signed up at BookBub, and every day those readers are sent an email notification of one-day-only deep discounts on e-books in genres that interest them. Typically, e-books from publishers such as Random House and Penguin that normally sell for $11.95 are offered on BookBub for anywhere from $1.95 to $3.95. The e-books may be available through Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play, etc. (Please note that BookBub promotes only electronic books [e-books] – not print books.)

Although BookBub subscribers get one notification per day of books that may interest them, not all readers are sent notifications about all discounted e-books. Notices go out only to those who are interested in that genre, and only to those in the geographic areas selected by the publisher. Books are individually approved by BookBub’s editorial committee before they are scheduled for promotion. Once your book is accepted, you are able to set up your author profile.

The cost to the publisher (me, in this case) of the one-day promotion of a book depends on its genre and the geographic area(s) selected, the choices being 1) USA, 2) International or 3) All. Every few months, BookBub adjusts its prices depending on the popularity of various categories, and on recent sales figures in different regions. There is a list of prices – and typical revenues – on the BookBub’s “partner” site.

Bestseller July 8 amazon.ca

For a few days, I was on Amazon bestseller lists in Canada, the US and Great Britain

(I just checked how much it would have cost to list Rita in the women’s fiction category for All regions today, and the price might have scared me off. It has gone up considerably since I started my BookBub adventure. So if the cost for your book’s category seems too high, wait: maybe it will come down again in a month or so.)

Why I Set My Price at Zero

Since the regular price of the e-book version of Rita is $2.99, and since Amazon won’t let me drop the price below $1.99 without my giving up the benefits of being in the Kindle Select program (which I don’t want to do), and since giving a book away for free on BookBub costs a whole lot less than selling it, I decided that I would offer my book as a giveaway. Amazon allows Kindle Select participants to give their books away for a maximum of five days every quarter.

I was pleased that my book was approved by BookBub right away. I was also pleased that they suggested a less expensive category (Chick Lit) than the one I’d chosen (Women’s Fiction). I don’t consider Rita to be chicklit, but I figured, what the hell: the cost savings was considerable.

I then stood back and waited to see what would happen.

Wow!

I was amazed.

On the day of the giveaway – July 5, 2016  ­­–  19,159 people downloaded Rita for free! The following day, 740 more downloaded it for free (probably an international dateline thing). But more amazingly, on the day after the giveaway, nearly thirty people bought the ebook at its regular price of $2.99. The next day I sold eight copies, and I figured my moment of glory was done. But the day after that, I sold fourteen copies, and the day after that, 18. I’ve been selling e-copies of Rita ever since… at least one or two almost every day, and sometimes more. In addition, hundreds of people have read the book in the Kindle Unlimited library, and I get paid for those readers too.

One of the best results of the BookBub promo is that, since July 5, I have had nearly fifty reviews – most of them positive – on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, and amazon.ca. I even had one review on amazon.au (that reviewer hated the book, but I’m sure the next reader from Australia is going to love it, just to balance things out). I’ve also noticed an uptick on my reviews on GoodReads.

Next?


I was 
hoping to do a promotion of The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid on BookBub but my application was turned down. They say that sometimes they have too many books in a certain category already, and they invite publishers whose books are turned down to try again in four months. So I will do that.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 9.01.27 PMIn the meantime, I’m going to try out a few other book-promotion platforms. Rita will be featured on StoryFinds on September 1, but without a price discount. I don’t expect anything like the BookBub response… but then, what do I know?

In the meantime, I highly recommend that both traditionally published and self-published authors check out BookBub. I’ve made my money back and more – and the reviews the promotion garnered were worth the investment all on their own.

While you’re at it, you might want to sign up at BookBub and StoryFinds to get some great deals on some great books.

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I invite you to share your thoughts on this or any other subject related to writing and publishing – either in the comments section below, or directly via email.

PLEASE NOTE: I will be away from email for one week (until August 24) so I will not be able to approve/post your comments until I return. 

 

Not every editor is the right editor

I’ve just been reading an article called “The Trouble of Rational Thought” by Miranda Popkey in The Paris Review about a writer I’d never heard of until today – Helen DeWitt. The subtitle of the article – “How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers” – caught my attention immediately, and by the time I’d finished reading the article, I’d ordered the book. (Which shows how someone writing a review or an article about your book can help sales.)

Quite aside from how intriguing the book itself sounds, the story of how it came to be published gave it an irresistible mystique. (“News of it traveled by word of mouth—and if that word reached you, it said something about the kind of reader you were: attracted to the recondite, undaunted by formal difficulty, unconventional in your tastes,” Popkey says.) Due in part to the challenges built into the structure and content of the novel, DeWitt had serious problems back in the mid-nineties trying to find an editor who was interested in what she was actually trying to do with her novel – who was willing to allow the writer to write her story, as opposed to the story the editor thought she should be writing.

It is clear that DeWitt’s novel was both unusual and ahead of its time – we’d be less surprised today to find different fonts and different languages in a published novel ostensibly in English than we might have been fifteen years ago. However, her story serves as yet another reminder that despite how important it is to have an editor (two, in fact – one for substantive editing and one for copy-editing) for your book, you also cannot just settle for any editor. The one you work with must appreciate that the book she is editing is your book, and not hers.

“My view was that the book benefits from the undivided attention of its author. And this turned out to be a scandalous… I mean it wasn’t even scandalous: it was so outrageous a point of view that it didn’t even cross anyone’s mind that one might think that: obviously what you needed was guidance.” – Helen DeWitt

As writers, we can always benefit from the knowledge and guidance of good editors. The authors of (almost?) every brilliant book I’ve ever read have acknowledged the contribution their editors have made to getting the manuscript into its final format. However, we also need to be aware that just as there are times when we need to listen, there are also times when we need to push back – even just a little, by saying “that’s not what I am trying to say,” or “That’s not how I want to say it.” And if we can’t get the editor to hear us, maybe we need to find another editor.

The story in The Paris Review led me to watch an interview with DeWitt herself, which is one of The Paris Review‘s “My First Time” series. In it, she recounts her problems with editors of The Last Samurai. Check it out:

 

Subsequent poking around the Internet has led me to discover that DeWitt’s problems with the publishing industry were not restricted to the experience of getting her first novel published. Her second novel, Lightning Rods, took ten years from completion to the bookshelf, and that experience also nearly drove her crazy.

I don’t know why I find DeWitt’s story reassuring, but I do.

Get with the times, Ros Barber: “Self-published” no longer means “inept.”

(A rant, and a challenge)

Yet again a major media outlet has granted space to a writer who wants to rail against self-publishing and to denigrate those who have chosen to pursue that route, particularly those who write fiction.

None of the arguments Ros Barber sets out in her recent article in The Guardian  is new. In fact, they are all so old that they have begun to smell – or, at the very least, to bore writer-readers who are not already members of the choir half to death. (Writers who are in Barber’s corner love to read the list of self-publishers’ shortcomings over and over again. They will never tire of it –until they become one of us, or die, whichever comes first. Despite the fact that it would force her to rethink her views, I wish upon Ms. Barber no novel that fails to sell to her publisher’s expectations, thereby banishing her from the traditional publishing firmament forever.)

I am not going to waste space taking Ms. Barber’s arguments apart. I’ve been taking the same ones apart for years, as have dozen of other respected and respectable writers on blogs and in numerous other venues. What she (and, it seems, the team of editors in the Books section at The Guardian) takes as cutting-edge insights are merely misguided opinions that have already been widely and frequently debunked.

What bothers me are not the points she makes, but the tone in which she makes them – and specifically, the utter lack of writerly fellowship that her article betrays. Such supercilious opinions as “good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship,” which suggests that those who self-publish do not know how to write, are utterly insulting to the innumerable writers who have completed agonizingly long “apprenticeships,” but whose writing is deemed by agents and/or commercial and/or financially hard-pressed (!) literary houses to be too offbeat or too marginal or too kinky or too similar to something that came out last year to be worthy of their imprint. Barber’s success in attracting even a £5000 advance for her most recent novel speaks more to blind luck or favourable industry connections than it does to talent.

The one point on which Ms. Barber almost indicates a passing knowledge of what she speaks is the one in which she says that self-published authors must invest 9/10 of their efforts in marketing, leaving only ten percent of their time for writing. (Although I do argue with her numbers: she has failed to consider the time it takes for any writer to earn a living while building up a readership.) However, as I’m sure she knows, it is fallacious to use the marketing imperative as an argument against self-publishing. If Barber’s publisher does not require her to spend a good deal of her time promoting her book, she’s not having the experience of most of my traditionally published colleagues. (I think she does know: anyone who can get an article into the Guardian is no slouch in the marketing department.)

I am sick and tired of finding it necessary to apologize not for the quality of my two most recent novels (for one should never attempt to defend what one has written), but for the way in which they were published. Who the hell cares how books reach the market? Readers certainly don’t. Nowadays, only small-minded, defensive writers seem intent on railing against those of us who have chosen to take our fates into our own hands.

The challenge: I invite Ms. Barber (and anyone else who wishes to do so) to request a complimentary copy of either of my self-published novels (Rita and Don , to read at least a decent chunk of it, and then to point out either publicly or in private the precise locations where the novel displays either a lack of publishing quality or dearth of literary talent. But people like Ms. Barber won’t do that: they’ve made up their minds ahead of time.

Ros Barber, please do not tar everyone with the same brush. You may have chosen to publish traditionally, but increasing numbers of us are choosing to do otherwise. Canada’s primary organization of creative writers, The Writers Union of Canada, now admits self-published authors whose books have been approved by its membership committee. Granting agencies and awards programs everywhere are going to need to consider how to manage the books by many younger writers who (like young musicians and film-makers) are choosing to go indie from the outset.

We are all in this together. We are writers. Some of us write better than do others, but increasingly this has nothing to do with how our writing reaches readers. A traditional publisher is no longer the only imprimatur of quality, if it ever was. The opinions in your article show you to be as disdainful as you are out of touch. I hope your fiction, notwithstanding its apparently historical nature, is more current.

Everything you ever wanted to know about publishing but were afraid to ask, in case

Everything you ever wanted to know about publishing but were afraid to ask, in case

the entire publishing landscape might have changed since the last time you checked.

TWUCvid(Which it has.)

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The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-country workshop, Publishing 2.0 Tips and Traps, was held — to overwhelmingly positive reviews — in 9 cities across Canada in 2014-15. It is now available as an 83-minute video.

In it, Caroline Adderson, noted Canadian writer of fiction for children and adults, speaks to those who want to know how to work with traditional publishers today. And I share experience, advice, and cautionary tales with those who are considering self-publishing their back-lists or new titles. Most writers are interested in hearing about both approaches.

Through this video, you will gain the know-how and confidence to work within the current publishing landscape, and finish with an expanded and inspired sense of what it means to be an independent writer in today’s world. – TWUC web page

I was proud to be part of this comprehensive initiative because it spoke directly to writers as the creators who today have ultimate control over how their books reach readers. This video reflects that approach.

Why Any Writer Worth Her Salt Should Welcome Amazon’s Pay-Per-Page Initiative

Why Any Writer Worth Her Salt Should Welcome Amazon’s Pay-Per-Page Initiative

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.34.09 AMThere has been a whole lot of uproar and outrage out there in the books world in the past few days, ever since Jeff Bezos announced a new way of paying authors who participate in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs. The new system (which, by the way, applies ONLY to e-books that are borrowed from Amazon, and not to e-books that are bought outright), is to be launched in August.

The outrage has largely been fuelled by media coverage such as the item above from The Guardian, where the contents of the article are accurate but the headline misrepresents the nature of Amazon’s initiative. The dismay has been spread by those who read only headlines and then react — on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere – without reading further, and by people with a hate on for Amazon and Jeff Bezos in particular and self-publishing in general, due often to their loyalty to traditional publishers. (The dust from the Hachette fracas is a long way yet from settling.) Now I am seeing comments that denounce Amazon’s new method for paying authors for their borrowed books from people who don’t know the first thing about self-publishing, and may never have bought a single thing from Amazon, much less signed up to participate in its lending library.

In truth, Bezos’s announcement should be welcomed by every writer with any self-respect. Those of us who are writing books of fiction and non-fiction that we want people to read and find satisfying (or at least find to be of enough interest that they will finish reading them before they rip them to shreds), are the ones who will benefit from this new initiative. Those who will lose money are those who are churning out “book products” – page after page of illiterate crap that people download onto their computers but discard after the first sentence or first page.

The Particulars

Here is what you need to know in order to assess the new payment method that Bezos has announced:

  • The new royalty payment plan applies ONLY to books that are enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs. Writers who have self-published their books in paperback or e-book format for direct sale on Amazon do not need to participate in the KU and KOLL program. It is optional.
  • Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a program for which readers can register for $9.99/month, and subscribers can then can borrow as many e-books or audiobooks as they want during the month. (If you’re in Canada, this is the link.) After the month is up, the e-book is removed from your device. Until now, the authors of those books got paid a portion of the kitty collected from KU whenever their books were downloaded, whether the books were ever read or not. If a reader read the first page or first five pages, hated the book, and never picked it up again, the author still got paid. Or if a reader felt like downloading several books but never got around to reading any of them before the borrowing time was up (as some of us do at the library, sort of like trying on clothes at home and then deciding we don’t like/need/want them, and taking them back unworn), the writer still got paid.
  • The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is available to members of Amazon Prime. KOLL operates in a similar way to KU, except that there is no “due date,” when the e-book is automatically removed from your device, but you can only borrow one book a month. Again, many readers were downloading books, discovering they were not of interest to them and/or were unadulterated crap, and never picking them up again. The writer still got paid.
  • The money that is available to authors who choose to participate in KU and KOLL is called the KDP Select Global Fund. Each month a percentage of it goes out to authors. Currently, the money that Amazon makes available to this fund is divided equally among all books that are borrowed via KU or KOLL. Those authors with more books have the potential to make more money.
  • Under the new system, the money will be divided on the basis of the number of pages “read” (or accessed, to be exact) when a book is downloaded. There are downsides to this if you are a poet, or are writing genius flash fiction: these writers may chose to triple-space their text in future:) . But the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for most books and most genuine writers, because now payments will be made to authors who have written books that are of sufficient merit that readers want to keep reading — either because of the quality of the writing, the page-turning nature of the writing, or for other reasons (e.g., the reasons that made the Fifty Shades book sell so well, which still elude me). With her best-selling novel The Goldfinch coming in at 771 print pages, Donna Tartt would have been ecstatic about this new plan if she’d had the foresight to self-publish.

An Attractive Option

While it is optional for authors of e-books on Amazon to make their books available on Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select) — where they become eligible for KU and KOLL – there are definitely advantages to participating, such as a higher royalty rate on books that readers purchase outright from Amazon. This makes sense: Amazon wants to encourage readers to participate in KU and Amazon Prime. But it is still a choice: we can sell our e-books and our paperbacks on Amazon without participating in the KDP Select program. I personally have made almost as much from the KU/KOLL program as I have from outright sales since I enrolled in it.

Sorting Wheat from Chaff

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a whole lot of crap out there in the self-publishing world. I have seen “writers” on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere who laugh at those of us who ever write a second draft of anything. To them, revision is a waste of time. These people measure their output in the number of words written in a day (5,000 being a typical minimum) and work to attain those numbers like those of us with FitBits do to acquire steps. It’s not that they write inspired first drafts: I’ve checked out several of them. Quality is not an issue: the number of books (products) on the market is all that matters. Those self-described writers have been doing very well with KOLL and KU as it currently exists — who cares if people read your book? All that matters is that they download them.

Those who are the modern versions of Charles Dickens — who, given his deadlines, must have churned out readable first drafts — will continue to make money under the new system. But they are in the minority.

Those of us who have sweated over every single word we’ve written, and after much revision (usually taking several years, not several weeks) have ended up with a few books that we find of sufficient quality to publish — and then, before we dared to self-publish them, have hired editors and book designers to make the “package” a quality item in which to deliver the quality writing — are the ones who are going to win under the new system.

It has long been my belief that the new gatekeepers for books — those who decide what books other people should read — will in future be the readers, rather than the agents, publishers, booksellers and traditional reviewers who have dictated the confines of our reading decisions in the past. This new approach from Amazon brings us one step closer to that reality.

Wattpad: Engaging Readers as You Write

Note: This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in Write, The Magazine of The Writers Union of Canada

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Confession: Sometimes I have trouble writing the next page of my new novel. WPNot because I am short of ideas, but because I have a lot of other urgent matters that demand my attention. I have often envied the writers whose editors or literary agents I imagine standing at their sides like midwives, encouraging them throughout their labour, reminding them of the rewards of manuscript delivery, telling them how much the world wants to see their next baby, and finally urging them to “push.”

When I heard about Wattpad, an Internet platform for readers and writers that attracts 27 million unique visitors per month, and 200,000 uploads of writing per day, I thought it might be part of the answer to my problem. And it has been. But it is also other things.

What It Is

Wattpad is a social storytelling platform where writers can register to post all kinds of work – poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction – and where readers can read that work: all at no charge.

Most writers post short segments of their works in progress (1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, sometimes much less, sometimes much more), adding to it at regular (or irregular) intervals. Some writers are posting whole manuscripts in serial format that they have previously completed. Others (like me) are posting early drafts of longer works one section at a time. Still others slap up writing fragments like ill-mixed paint with hairs in it, and leave it there to dry — perhaps intending to come back and edit later, perhaps not.

Once the piece is up there, the effort to attract readers begins. You can contribute to this process (but probably only once) by emailing all of your friends and inviting them to check your story out, and by posting your Wattpad link to other social media sites (here’s mine). Of course, you also want to encourage visitors to your page whom you don’t already know, and you can do this indirectly by reading and commenting on the writing of others on the site, getting involved in the discussion forums, and entering the informal competitions Wattpad puts on from time to time. The goal is to get people to “follow” you so that they will be notified whenever you post a new installment or an update.

Every time someone takes a look at a segment you have posted, your “read” counter goes up. Readers can also vote for or post a comment on your work. The more reads and votes you get, the greater are your chances of being noticed by even more readers.

Some people use Wattpad as an end in itself – they are not interested in publishing elsewhere. Others are creating works ultimately intended for self- or traditional publication. Many writers have several projects on the go. Some ask for input and guidance from their readers; others just write.

Who’s on Wattpad?

The two Canadians who developed Wattpad (Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen) intended it for readers as much as writers, and Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content: Publishing, says that “Ninety percent of Wattpad visitors are there to read and comment, not to post stories.”

She also says that regular visitors include publishers and agents who are looking for new talent.

“Some writers use Wattpad to promote their books to publishers,” she says. “Perhaps their novel was rejected when they submitted it directly, but now they can demonstrate that there is significant interest in their work.”

Gardner also tells me that the Wattpad app for smartphones and tablets is downloaded about 400,000 times a day. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors now reach us from mobile devices,” she says.

The advantage of Wattpad’s mobility component is clear: your work is accessible to readers no matter where they are, and your followers will receive “push” notifications whenever you post something new.

Copyright and Other Concerns

Gardner says that the site features a very sophisticated data-checking system that not only protects what is posted, but also works to prevent piracy. “All work on Wattpad of course remains copyright to the author,” she says. “Further, it cannot be copied and pasted, and readers can’t download it.”

A few people have told me they’re reluctant to sign on to Wattpad because they fear it will lead to spam, but so far Wattpad has attracted no more spam to me than have Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads or Facebook (which is, in my case, none).

Wattpad has had a reputation for being a place where teens post stories for one another, but if that were true at one point (and wouldn’t it be great to know that there are millions of teens who are interested in writing and reading?), the demographics are changing. “The majority of visitors are now between the ages of 18 and 30,” Gardner says, “and the subject matter of the content is changing as the average age goes up.”

Making Wattpad Work

The important part of making Wattpad work for you is to remember that it is a social media platform. If you don’t engage with it (read others’ works, respond to comments, participate in forum discussions), you will miss out on the very important reciprocation factor, and your work will languish. Further, thanks to algorithms, the more readers you attract, the more readers who will find you on their own.

Networking is not as painful as you might think. While it’s true that the Wattpad platform sports lots of dabblers and thousands of very bad writers, it doesn’t take long to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there are also some very good writers there, clearly intending to do as I am — get the work written and noticed by intelligent and discerning readers.

I’ve found a few manuscripts on Wattpad whose next installments I am genuinely eager to read and I’ve also found a few very careful and helpful readers who will probably help me get through Seeds and Secrets far more quickly than I would ever have done on my own. There is a definite motivation to keep going when readers start asking when you’re going to post the next installment. (As of Jan 1, 2015, Seeds and Secrets had received 1,500 “reads” and 121 votes. It stands about 450 from the top in the General Fiction category.)

In addition to pieces of my novel, I’ve put up a couple of works of short nonfiction on Wattpad – one previously published, one not yet – and received encouraging – and immediate – responses on them as well. I am also posting blog posts from my 2011 solo trip to India – Watch. Listen. Learn – which seems to be very popular. In fact, the response is making me seriously consider publishing it as a book, which I had not considered doing before.)

For me, Wattpad is like a humungous writing group where no one has to make coffee or serve beer, get dressed before offering feedback on other writers’ works, or pay any attention to comments from readers who don’t get what they’re doing.

Wattpad is not for everyone, of course, but if it sounds like a tool you could use to stimulate your writing and find new readers for your existing work, check it out. I’ll be happy to read the writing that you post – as long as you read mine. :)

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Update: You can check out Wattpad’s 2014 Year in Review here. According to Nazia Khan, Wattpad’s Director of Communications, the company has noted some interesting trends this year:

  • People are writing novels on their phones
  • Episodic/serial reading is back (Dickens would be so pleased)
  • Everyone is a fan of something as evidenced by the growing number of fanfiction stories
  • Teens are reading. Yes, really.