How Amazon Saved My Life

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I am an author.

I still can’t get used to that title, but I suppose after having written seven books–five of them traditionally published–that’s what you’d call me. The funny thing is that I feel more like a real author now that I self-publish than when I had the (supposed) support of a publisher behind me.

How did I end up on my own? It began when I couldn’t get my first YA book, Relatively Famous, published, despite getting stellar feedback from editors and nearly selling the film rights to a teen pop star. I was at a loss for what to do. I couldn’t keep writing books without selling them. What if the next thing I wrote flopped? I took a risk, in many ways, and wrote Flat-Out Love. It was the first book that completely came from my heart, and it was a book that ignored all the industry rules. I knew in the back of my head that I could self-publish it, but at the time it seemed like that would have been an admission of defeat.

I spent months thinking that I needed a big publisher in order to be a writer, to legitimately carry that “author” title. To validate me, and to validate Flat-Out Love. I needed a publisher to print my books and stick a silly publishing house emblem on the side of a hard copy. They were the only way to give my books mass distribution, and having them back me would mean that readers would know my book was good.

I also, apparently, thought that I needed to be taken advantage of, paid inexcusably poorly, and chained to idiotic pricing and covers that I had no control over.

I was, it seems, deluded.

It turns out that I was entirely wrong. I was missing what I really wanted. One of the major reasons that I write is to connect with readers, not publishers. The truth is that I couldn’t care less whether New York editors and publishers like me. I don’t want to write for them. I want to write for you. The other undeniable truth is that readers could care less that my books aren’t put out by a big publisher. They read for the content, not the publishing house emblem.

I have a lovely, smart, powerhouse agent, who tried to sell my next book, Flat-Out Love, to every major publishing house. She adored the story and thought it would sell. Fourteen editors turned it down, although each one said how strong the book was. But, editors seemingly didn’t give a crap about whether or not they liked the book. What they did pay attention to were their totally misguided ideas about what would and wouldn’t sell. I heard two things over and over again about my book. The first was that my story starred an eighteen-year-old college freshman, and that age was “categorically” too old for YA books and too young for adult books. It seems that one is not allowed to write about characters between the ages of eighteen and…what? Twenty-five? Because… because… Well, I’m not sure. The second thing I heard was that because my simultaneously-too-young-and-too-old heroine was not involved with anything slightly paranormal, the book wouldn’t sell.

Did I cry over some of these rejections? Absolutely. Did I feel inadequate, untalented, hurt? Yes. Did I doubt my ability to craft a story that readers could fall in love with? You bet.

And then one day I got yet another rejection letter and instead of blaming myself and my clear lack of creativity, I got angry. Really, really furious. It clicked for me that I was not the idiot here. Publishing houses were. The silly reasons that they gave me for why my book was useless made me see very clearly how completely out of touch these houses were with readers. I knew, I just knew, that I’d written a book with humor, heart, and meaning. I’d written something that had potential to connect with an audience. As much as I despise having to run around announcing how brilliant I supposedly am and whatnot, I also deeply believed in Flat-Out Love. I knew that editors were wrong.

And I finally understood that I wanted nothing to do with these people.

I snatched the book back from my agent and self-published it. With great relief, I should note. I could finally admit to myself that the only thing I had really wanted was to be told, “You’re good enough.” You know who gives me that? My readers. My generous, loving, wild readers.

Publishers pay terribly and infrequently. They are shockingly dumb when it comes to pricing, and if I see one more friend’s NY-pubbed ebook priced at $12.99, I’m going to scream. They do minimal marketing and leave the vast majority of work up to the author. Unless, of course, you are already a big name author. Then they fly you around the country for signings and treat you like the precious moneymaking gem that you are. The rest of us get next to nothing in terms of promotion. If your book takes off, they get the credit. If it tanks, you get the blame.

No, thank you. I’m all set with that.

You know who I do like, though? Amazon. Well, all online ebook sites that let me self-publish, but Amazon is the true powerhouse right now. Say what you want about this company, but it’s because of them that I can continue writing. It’s unclear to me how a big publisher thinks that I could live on their typical payouts, and why they think I should drop to my knees in gratitude for their deigning to even publish my book in the first place when I’ll do all the work myself. I’m not going to be grateful for that nonsense, but I am going to be grateful as hell to Amazon.

Bestselling trad-to-indie-author Barry Eisler, famous for turning down a six figure deal from St. Martins Press to go out on his own, took a lot of heat for having compared an author’s relationship with a big publisher to Stockholm syndrome. The truth is that it’s not a bad comparison at all. Snarky, funny, and exaggerated, perhaps, but there is more than one grain of truth there, and I just know that authors across the country were nodding so violently that we had collective whiplash. When writing for a publisher, you learn to be overly thankful for every pathetic little grain of positivity that comes your way. A disgustingly awful cover? Smile broadly and say how gorgeous it is. Contracts arrive months after arranged? Whip out your pen and sign with no complaints. You’re eating Ramen noodles while they are taking all of December and January off and while they essentially shutdown during the summer to vacation on the Cape? Slurp your soup and be happy.

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