Self-Indulgent Nonsense?

I recently read an interesting blog post on SOL in which the poster responded to another SOL blogger’s posts, saying that he found it refreshing (or words to that effect) to read blog posts on SOL which weren’t merely “self-indulgent nonsense”. I thought I’d offer my thoughts on the topics discussed, but before that, the phrase he used made me think, is my blog self-indulgent nonsense? I do hope it’s more than that. But maybe it isn’t.

In recent weeks this blog has focused very much on the progress of my WIP. Indeed, the three previous posts to this one have all been on that topic. The next one back was about my sales figures and then all but one post in Feb was back on the WIP topic. The exception being a post about the character Donna Noble from Doctor Who which I wrote after seeing ‘The Runaway Bride’ again on BBC3 one night.

But, I am a writer, right? Okay, that’s not all I am, but my ‘Marc Nobbs’ persona is a writer and everything else that I am comes under the guise of my ‘real’ name. So surely you’d expect that as Marc Nobbs I’d write about writing, particularly given I’m as caught up in writing a story as I am right now. Does that make it self-indulgent? I don’t know, mine is not to judge, only to write.

In January, I posted an article on ‘details’ in fiction writing from a very general perspective rather than focused on a particular piece of work. And also in January there was a post about, for want of a better way to describe it, the state of life in my country right now.

Are they self-indulgent posts?

But that’s not the point of today’s post. Instead, I’d like to add my voice to the points raised by the original blogger, to which the second blogger was responding.

The first topic under discussion was the future, as the original poster saw it, of the publishing industry. The general ideas expressed in the post were that in the future, publishers may well be by-passed by amateur writers in favour of a system of, for want of a better name, ‘shareware’, where the writer posts his work for free and asks for a donation from readers if they liked the work. His argument is that if a writer only makes £1 per book sold in the traditional model, then readers would be willing to donate that pound to him after having read and enjoyed the work as opposed to paying £3 or £4 (or more) before reading the book. Which is a nice theory. His ‘points of sale’ for this model are sites like StoriesOnline itself.

The responder, however, pointed out that most people who read on StoriesOnline are more likely to read said story, think it was good and then move onto the next without donating at all. And I have to agree with this, I’m afraid. And here’s why.

At present, the ‘payment’ for authors on SOL comes in the form of high scores from the voting system and nice e-mails from readers. The voting form and e-mail form are right there at the bottom of the story page to make it easy for readers to ‘pay’ the writer.

Which is all well and good, but… Take a look at the stats for a moment. Now, this is based on my personal experience and may not reflect what happens to other authors. My most read story on the site is Reunion which has over fifteen thousand reads (not massive by the standards of some on SOL). That story has had in the region of six hundred of those readers vote on it and I’d say that over the six or so years the story has been on the site I’ve had less than a hundred e-mails.

So, of the people that have read the story, roughly 4% have voted. And of the those that took the trouble to vote, in the order of 20% give or take sent me an e-mail. This is around 1% of the people that have read it that wrote to me about it.

By contrast, one of the ‘best loved’ stories on SOL, Frank Downey’s Dance of a Lifetime has had almost one hundred and fourteen thousand downloads and almost three thousand votes. But that’s still only roughly 3% of readers that have voted, so perhaps these two together are a good guide to how many SOL members do actually vote. Obviously, I can’t testify as to how many e-mails Mr Downey received about his story.

Now, voting and sending e-mails costs nothing but a few moments of the readers time but how many would be willing to go further and put their hands in their pockets to reward the author. We have to assume that those who didn’t even bother to vote won’t. And we should also probably assume that those who didn’t e-mail won’t either. And I’d guess that even of those who e-mailed, it’d be a small percentage that would actually pay up, so to speak.

This, of course, is all speculation, but I’d be willing to be it’s not far from what would happen.

Having said that, for the true amateur writer – that is, those are not able to sell their work for whatever reason –  any income at all would be better than nothing so even if only 0.1% of those fifteen thousand readers donated £1, that’s a nice little bonus that might buy a couple of beers. Of course, Mr Downey would be happy (I’d wager) if 0.1% of his readers donated a quid. 🙂

I deliberately defined an amateur writer above because that leads nicely into the second topic under discussion in the posts I read. The gist of the original poster’s second post was an e-mail he’d received regarding editing suggestions on one of his stories. He said he was grateful for the advice, but ultimately dismissed it and gave his reasons for doing so. He spoke about consistency of ‘style’, be it good or bad, so that readers know what to expect. He also mentioned the many e-mails he gets each day from readers telling him how much they enjoy his stories.

The respondent basically said this was the wrong attitude to take, which, again, I have to agree with. But I’d like to approach my explanation of why from a different stand point.

To me, the argument ‘but my readers tell me they like it’ is one trotted out, time and time again and has never held water. The type of authors who use this argument have either never attempted to be published through the ‘traditional’ method of sending work to a publisher for evaluation, or have attempted… and failed.

When I came back to writing in around 2004 and joined The Fishtank with the purpose of learning how to be a better writer, I wanted to be published but didn’t believe I was good enough. And I did use the ‘my readers like it’ argument myself at times to justify not approaching a publisher. Of course, I ultimately did approach a publisher and it was the second best thing I ever did in my writing career.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve had a good experience. I know that. Phaze are brilliant. The editor they teamed me with has been brilliant. (I cannot even begin to tell you how sad I am that she is leaving after we’ve finished editing Eternally & Evermore, but she has agreed to continue to beta-read for me, which I’m very, very happy about) But I know that other people are not as lucky as me.

Another recent SOL blog post that peaked my interest was from one of SOL’s more popular authors – one of those guys that posts a lot of stories and those stories are pretty much guaranteed to get lots of downloads and high scores. He’d been on self-enforced hiatus from posting at SOL while he tried to get a story placed with a traditional publisher. It seems that he’d been told by many SOL readers that his stories were so good he was bound to get published easily, so he gave it a try.

Of course, getting published isn’t easy and takes a lot of hard work. Publishers don’t pick any old work to invest their time and money in. They pick work they believe will sell. After all, publishing is a business and businesses need to make money and to make money publishing you have to sell books.

His initial submission was returned with suggestions for changes. The author made those changes as best as he thought he could and returned the manuscript only to have the process repeated.

Essentially the publisher had told him to use third person limited point of view, which is the prevailing point of view in modern fiction. He tried his best, but ultimately decided that a part of his story could not be told from this narrow viewpoint and ruled that he knew better than the publisher. After all, the publisher is simply following the current publishing fashion and the author knew he was good because ‘his readers like it’.

The submission was ultimately rejected.

Now, in his blog post this author spoke about how the great authors of the past wrote the way he writes – he called it ‘storytelling’ – and asked if the publishers would have rejected them for not following the current trends.

But here’s the thing, I’d be willing to bet that those great authors of the past would, if writing today, listen to what their publishers and editors said because they were great authors and great authors, hell even merely good authors, know that the publishers know what sells and if you want to sell books, you listen to them.

There has been possibly one author in recent publishing history who didn’t listen to his publisher and that was Tolkien. And he could get away with it because he was Professor of English (Well, Anglo-Saxon) at Oxford. As his publisher’s son says in one of the documentaries on The Fellowship of the Ring DVD – You didn’t edit Tolkien.

But most of us are not Tolkien. Good authors listen to their publishers and editors. They don’t always do what they say but they are able to justify why they shouldn’t. And you certainly don’t do that as a first time author. And even if you’ve published a thousand works on a site like SOL, you’re still a first time author when you send off that initial submission. Why? Because the markets are very, very different. Readers go to SOL looking for something to read for free and as such they are willing to lower their expectations of what they read somewhat. I know I lower mine. Occasionally I get very pleasantly surprised and come across a real gem – but only occasionally. When you go to a publisher to buy a story, you expect it to be good. You don’t expect poor spelling, poor grammar, poor style, poor plot, etc. Unless, of course, you’re buying a Dan Brown book.

I’d like to ask, how many of those people who’ve e-mailed this SOL author encouraging him to try and get published would actually buy his book if it ever came out? Not many, if any, I’d guess. Why pay for a story when you can read lots of new stories for free – even if that one you’d be paying for would, hopefully, be much, much better?

Instead, the market he’d be aiming for would be the publisher’s existing customers. That’s why the publisher asked for changes – they know what their customers want to buy, what their customers will buy and what their customers won’t buy.

As a writer, I have never dismissed any advice or criticism I may have received. Yes, I might bristle upon receiving it, but I’ve learned to get over it and take on board what’s being said. I believe that doing this makes me a better writer. If I learned anything at all from The Fishtank, that is the most important thing – learn from your critics. A lot of other amateur writers would do well to learn the same thing.

I don’t consider myself a professional writer. I consider myself an amateur with a professional attitude. Amateur because I’m not doing this specifically to make money but I do believe me attitude is pretty professional.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not the greatest writer in the world. My sales sales figures haven’t set the world on fire and my stories at SOL are not the most read or the highest scored. But I do believe that I do everything I can to make my work the very best it can be. I enjoy writing. It’s a hobby not a career. I’m not going to make a living from it. Ever. And I’m not the sort of person who would ever think that just because a handful of people stoke my ego in the hope I’ll write more for them to enjoy for free that I know better than industry professionals who read hundreds of submissions a month.

Does that make me a better writer or a better person than those people who do have had their self image inflated by the praise of readers on sites like SOL? Hell, no, of course it doesn’t. Mine is not to judge others. I simply offer my thoughts having read a few blog posts recently. Maybe that’s self-indulgent of me. Maybe it’s not. But this has been my two-pennies-worth. I’m probably going to take some stick for it. I’ll probably get a few flame e-mails. So be it. I’ll respond to those e-mails with all the dignity I can muster. But for now, I have a WIP calling.

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