I Decided To Publish Directly Through Amazon
by Ellen Finnigan
by Ellen Finnigan: What
Fifteen Years Can Do, a Sad Night in Georgia
The free market
is overrated. In fact, I think it kind of sucks. Forget what all
of these people at LRC have been telling you. So the free market
is dead or dying? Good! I want it to die. I will watch as it happens
at its pain.
I am an artist
jilted and scorned.
In 2006 I quit
my job in D.C., sold every possession that wouldn’t fit in my car,
and drove west to pursue my M.F.A. in Creative Writing. In case
you didn’t know, "M.F.A." stands for "More F*ckin’
Around" – they don’t say that for nothing, folks! Pogo sticks.
Bacon parties. Dance parties. Halloween parties. Staring contests.
Intramural Softball Champions 2008 (holla!) But after graduation,
I decided to get serious, to really do this thing: write a book.
So I moved
to a small town in the Rockies where snowstorms were already tearing
the leaves off the Aspens like they were nothing more than tissue
paper. Mid-September and winter had already arrived. For eight months
I lived as a cold hermit and wrote, wrote, wrote. Goodbye career
trajectory. Goodbye M.F.A. parties. Goodbye social life. I’ll miss
you, muscle tone.
said, "Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which
the hair often falls out and the teeth decay." I found this
to be true. I emerged from a writerly reverie sometime in midwinter
to find myself throwing a tennis ball against a wall. The computer
screen was blank as it had been when I sat down, nine hours earlier.
During a whiskey-fueled bout of procrastination, I wandered into
the bathroom and gave myself a haircut. The dentist informed me
that my gums were, indeed, receding. By spring I had to start putting
"shower" on my to-do list. I was so cabin-fevered and
carpal-tunneled that, perhaps prematurely, I began querying literary
They all said
the same thing: "The writing is good, but where would this
book be shelved at Barnes & Noble?" The book, they said,
had a couple of flaws that would prevent it from being bought by
a mainstream publisher: 1. It was segmented structurally, very experimental
in style. (Yeah, it’s called "art," people.) They all
wanted a boring straightforward narrative. 2. It had a serious genre
problem, meaning it would be hard to classify, thus market, thus
One agent I
really liked. He was smart and witty and seemed to really get what
I was trying to do. So I pulled off my hiking boots, bought a new
dress, and flew out to New York to attend a party at his agency’s
penthouse office in Manhattan. I strode toward him in my heels,
ready to sell him on my
book and the brand that is "Ellen."
(I guess writers are supposed to have brands now?) He greeted me
with, "Hey, you must change your book into a straightforward
narrative. You know that, right? As it is, it is not commercially
viable." I refrained from stomping my foot, imbibed what was
left of my martini, forced an amiable smile and told him I would
think about it.
was reputable and, okay, the manuscript was, admittedly, a mess.
(Hey, it’s called a first draft, people.) The agent said he would
help me edit it in return for first dibs once it was complete. Then
he got my dream editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG) on the
phone and pitched it. The editor was interested! He asked to read
it! What can I say? That was all I needed. A straightforward narrative
it would be! Commercial viability is the brand that is me! Where
do I sign?
out of an M.F.A. program, writer lands literary agent and gets the
attention of an editor at the most prestigious publishing house
in the world.
This part of the narrative is known as the "false climax."
two years, past two summers spent waiting tables, four subsequent
drafts, an epic game of Dodge-the-Census-Worker in 2010 (this should
really be its own essay), and I am living on a commune now (anything
to buy time to finish the book), and the agent, who has thus far
been a tremendous help to me, asks me for another revision, a sixth
draft. It was now the requisite straightforward narrative (and
admittedly, a better book), but that pesky genre problem persisted.
He said, "Marketing
will never go for this. Do you have any idea how hard it is to sell
a book these days? Editors are terrified of losing their jobs. Nobody
wants to take a risk on something ambiguous."
send the damn thing out!" I said. "I can’t eat any more
tofu! I have flying squirrels living in my bed! They like to snuggle
in my hair at night! Pretty soon, it’s going to be my turn to clean
out the compost toilet!"
him to send it to the FSG guy. He finally did. The editor rejected
I said, "So
what? Just send it out to some more! Everyone at LRC is telling
me to buy gold – I can’t even afford socks!"
The agent refused.
If publishers couldn’t get a clear idea of where the book would
go at the store, then his conclusion was that there was something
wrong with the book.
So off to Barnes
& Noble I went to do some research. Once inside, I walked past
the puzzles, greeting cards, wall calendars, journals, tote bags,
scented candles, stationery, yoga mats, muffins, flavored coffee,
stuffed animals, board games, and devices on which to read books.
I found the books. Then I walked past the cookbooks, the books written
about celebrities, and the books written by celebrities to find
those other books. I looked for a shelf labeled Creative
Nonfiction or Literary Nonfiction (which is what I write). There
was no shelf for that.
I saw many
shelves for different kinds of non-literary nonfiction: Business,
History, Computers, Self-help. I saw one small, far, dusty shelf
labeled Fiction-and-Literature. This question of where my book belonged
was truly perplexing. The
Me Years is a work of nonfiction, but it borrows heavily
from techniques of fiction and reads, mostly, like a novel. One
would think (or hope) it could be classified broadly under Literature
or Memoir, but there is no Memoir section at Barnes and Noble (memoirs
are shelved under Biography for some reason, and that shelf seems
largely limited to public figures, historical figures and cancer
survivors), nor does the book have a tacit secular worldview. To
a lot of folks in the New York publishing world, this is a big red
flag: It means that the book cannot possibly be literature.
it would go over there," they thought, "on the Christian
shelf?" But if it was going to go over there, then they
thought it needed to be more consistently and devoutly religious.
As one agency person put it: "You need more church scenes."
I didn’t feel that the book called for more church scenes and I
didn’t think that the scenes in my book should be determined by
a shelf. After my trip to Barnes & Noble, I still did
not have a clear idea of where my book would go at the store, so
I concluded that there must be something wrong with the store.
can now purchase my book, The
Me Years, directly on Amazon.com!
(Oh, by the
way, I did walk over to check out Borders, but it had gone bankrupt.)
directly through Amazon made sense to me for a few reasons, some
of which have to do with the state of the industry, some of which
have to do with my book, and some of which just make me feel better
about never getting invited back to that fancy penthouse for cocktails
and a skyline view (sigh):
A genre is
a marketing tool, a way of describing a product to consumers. It
is essential to business, not literature. Consumers like to know
what they can expect from a product. Look at McDonald’s. Every cheeseburger
you order, no matter where you are in the world, will look, taste,
feel, and smell the same: same toppings, same number of pickles,
no sesame seeds. McDonald’s became successful using a business model
that emphasized consistency and repetition. People tend to buy the
same products at the grocery store over and over again not necessarily
because they are the best, but because consumers feel comforted
when they know what they can expect. With this in mind, one can
see how important it is to sell books and films that fit the formula.
have a lot to do with demographics, which is the reason why the
second most popular question you are asked when you are trying to
sell a book is: Who is the audience for this book? This is why Science
Fiction, Paranormal Romance, Travel, and such are all separated
from "Fiction and Literature." This is why "Fiction
and Literature" takes up, I would say, less than 5% of the
floor space at Barnes & Noble. After all, does it make any sense
to ask: Who is the audience for The
Great Gatsby? (Answer: humanity? How do you market to "humanity"?)
We hear a lot
about the mainstream media and think of companies operating in the
field of journalism (I use the term loosely). However, the big
six media corporations own most of the major
publishing companies as well. The tentacles of the establishment
extend pretty far. Take the establishment worldview (limited, reductive,
regulated, politicized, polarized) combined with corporate incentives,
extend the line of thinking about product consistency and repetition
into the realm of ideas and the world of letters, fairly assume
that readers are not necessarily lovers of literature but
are often seeking in books merely one more source of information
(I use the term loosely) or entertainment, or one more product brand
or cultural signifier ("I own a Lexus, so I am successful";
"I read Miranda July, so I am quirky"), and you have megastores
full of "books": glossily bound ideological cheeseburgers.
I look at the
"Christian Inspiration" shelf: I just get depressed. The
books all resemble each other, in style, in content, in approach,
in look and feel, in tone. I believe this is worse for our society
than the left/right paradigm in politics! So this was my main reason
for publishing directly through Amazon: There was never going to
be a place for my book on that shelf, and I believe that if there
are only certain ways that we can write about faith, if there are
only certain kinds of stories we are allowed to tell that
include dimensions or discussions of faith, then there will eventually
be only certain ways we can think about faith, thus limiting, ultimately,
our understanding of faith.
no shelves. There is infinite space. Amazon can rely on the viral
potential of the Internet to allow a
to find its audience. Or not. It doesn’t make much difference to
them (see "Supply = Demand" below). Hence, no genre problem.
That was the
main reason. Here are a few others:
Control: Amazon is never going to tell me to write more church
scenes into my book, nor are they ever going to request an accidental
decapitation, a street race, or a steamboat fire. (True story:
My friend’s publisher asked him to write these events into his
novel.) Through direct publishing, I also have control over my
own book cover, my own website. No one is going to stuff me
in their lame little brand box!
I get to set my own price. If I want to sell my book for $.99,
I can. (I don’t.)
Count: Amazon will never give me an arbitrary word limit.
If I want to write a longer book, I might eventually make less
money on the print version due to per page cost, but that is my
decision. Length is determined by the work itself, not market
pressure or financial spreadsheets.
So this is something I never realized, or really thought about,
until I pulled my head out of the ephemeral clouds of creative
consciousness (or some might say my ass) and actually thought
about this writing venture from a practical, business-y perspective,
but when you sell your book to a publisher, you sign over the
copyright. In return, they give you about 15%. 15%! When publishing
through Amazon, you still own the copyright, and for eBooks, Amazon
only takes a 30% cut. The rest is yours. There is some really
great information about business-y stuff, money and the economic
side of publishing and stuff like that (yawn…ooh, maybe I do need
an agent) here,
in this dialogue between Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Go read
it and you, too, will want to kiss "legacy publishing"
is fast; legacy publishing is slow; I’m completely impatient;
the world’s about to end: I read a friend’s completed manuscript
last winter. His book will not be available until March. March!
He had an agent and a book contract, and it is still going to
take his book over a year to get to market. Imagine how long it
would take me if I had to start over: find a new agent, submit
to more editors, the inevitable clash with Joe Marketing, revision
requests, additional drafts. It could take years, literally! By
then, the entire world economy could collapse! The process would
be soul-sucking, probably artistically eviscerating, definitely
exhausting. I’d rather put that time and energy into writing another
Amazon, supply = demand: When I launched The
Me Years a few weeks ago, I ran a
free giveaway on Goodreads.com.
I was monitoring how many people signed up to win free copies
and comparing it with other giveaways that were ending on the
same day. A snapshot:
So you can
see why I’m drinking some Haterade when it comes to the free market.
Yes, I’m slightly bitter. In terms of demand, my book was on par
with the books of poetry! Hey, don’t laugh: I wear this as a badge
of honor. (I salute you, poets!) Now, I’m not saying that everything
that gets published is crap, or that people only want to read crap.
Last time I checked, Cormac McCarthy was still getting book deals.
And I’m not saying my book is high art or anything. I’m just
sayin’ that if this kind of stuff is what the market demands,
then that’s fine, the market doesn’t owe me anything, but I refuse
to go churchin’ up my book because readers of Hearts of Darkness,
who buy most of the books, wouldn’t know what to make of it otherwise.
As a writer, I can honestly say that I would rather have 1,000 readers
of my difficult-to-classify book than 30,000 readers of some horrendous
marketing mutation that that was revised into unrecognizability
because some suit wanted it to appeal to the widest possible demographic.
I have one
friend who is a very talented writer. He couldn’t sell his (very
good) short stories to a legacy publisher but he could sell a young
adult series that he pitched to his agent only as a joke as "Dick
Cheney meets Inspector Gadget." So now, that is what he is
service (through subsidiary CreateSpace) assures that supply always
meets demand by eliminating the guesswork inherent in legacy publishing
and thus the risks associated with printing thousands of copies
of something that might not sell and could be left to rot away in
a warehouse. Amazon brings to market good books that might otherwise
be left to rot away on a hard drive because the market for them
was considered too small (or nonexistent) or they were considered
too risky. By doing so, Amazon encourages writers to write what
they want to write, not what the publishers think they can sell
to the most people.
wrote in Culture
Making: "It is not enough to condemn culture. Nor is
it sufficient merely to critique culture or copy culture. Most of
the time, we just consume culture. But the only way to change culture
is to create culture." Amazon, by opening up quick and easy
avenues for writers to circumvent the establishment and get their
books to market with little or no upfront cost, helps we, the people,
create culture! Legacy publishing, on the other hand, not always,
but often, encourages the squandering of talent while degrading
culture. After all, do we really need another "Dick Cheney
meets Inspector Gadget" in this world? I think not. James Joyce
would agree. (Though whether the world needed Finnegans
Wake is probably just as debatable, but that is the subject
of another essay.)
to trees. Amazon’s print-on-demand service and pioneering
in digital book distribution means less need for paper, warehouses,
shipping and such. As a result, it’s nicer to trees. My friends
back at the commune would be proud.
directly through Amazon going to solve all of my problems as a writer
toiling away in obscurity? Not likely. It is difficult to match
the publicity power of legacy publishing: You are a lot less likely
to get reviews from established publications, for instance. A magazine
or newspaper owned by News Corporation, for example, is a lot more
likely to review books published by HarperCollins, as they both
have the same parent company. The New York Times is likely
to review only books published by companies that have paid millions
in advertising. "Self-published" still has a loser stigma
associated with it. And then there is the stubborn problem of the
moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point.
It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers – the
people, the common man – prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories
to serious books…The entrepreneur does not make greater profits
in selling ‘bad’ things than in selling ‘good’ things. His profits
are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers
with those things they ask for most intensely."
The only solution
to the free market problem, that I can see, would be to run for
President, get elected, and appoint a Czar of Literature or something,
to oversee and "regulate" the populace’s literary intake.
Until I have the power to ensure such progress, however, I will
cast my lot with Amazon, the viral potential of the Internet and
the democratization of technology, which lowers the cost of access
to the marketplace, eliminates cultural gatekeepers, counteracts
EstablishmentThink, widens the selection available for consumers/readers
and, hopefully, in the long run, will improve and enrich our culture
and the quality and depth of intellectual discourse – just like
did! Wait: just like YouTube
reader will point out that by praising Amazon as my publisher of
choice, I am not shunning the free market so much as embracing and
affirming it, as Amazon has provided an improvement in the market
for writers and readers by making it more free. I realize
this, but what better way to get a bunch of cantankerous contrarians
and staunch pro-market libertarians such as yourselves to read an
article than by dissing the free market? (Cheap trick, I know.)
friend recently said to me, "Ellen, deciding to self-publish
after receiving one rejection from FSG is like deciding not to go
to the prom because you weren’t elected queen."
But I don’t
know. I feel more like one of the cool alternative kids who skips
prom altogether. The clock has struck twelve at the publishing industry’s
party, the (slow, cumbersome, expensive, outdated) carriage is about
to turn into a pumpkin, and the after party has already started,
baby: on Amazon! Out here in a sketchy hotel room on the outskirts
of town, it’s like the literary Wild West: no institutional supervision,
no silly themes or signed wavers, no fussy chaperones to rubberstamp
your ticket, no dues that need to be paid, no expensive dresses
to be bought, no probity of civil society, pomp, and circumstance,
or, for that matter, standards of literary merit. It’s just you
and me Amazon, a cheap handle of vodka, my quite possibly compromised
judgment, and a long, fun night ahead, the unexplored frontier –
Will it lead
to fame and fortune? Personal ruin? Crippling regret and crushing
self-doubt? Nothing at all, really, to speak of? Only time will
analogy for you: I like to think of the Gas
N’ Sip scene in Say
Anything. Remember that film?
Court (traditional publishing) has just broken up with "basic"
Lloyd Dobler and super depressed one night and driving around aimlessly
in his car, he runs into a bunch of dudes from school hanging out
behind the gas station. The dudes see how upset he is about the
break-up and start giving him advice about how to get over Diane
Court and move on.
After a while
Lloyd becomes skeptical. He says, "Hey, I have a question for
you. If you guys know so much about women, then why are you here
at, like, a Gas 'n' Sip on a Saturday night, completely alone, drinking
beers, with no women anywhere?"
leader shouts: "By choice, man!"
still a default for losers? No way, man.
Finnigan [send her mail]
graduated from the University of Montana with an M.F.A.
in Creative Writing. She recently published her first book, The
Me Years, and currently teaches
writing online to homeschooled kids.
© 2011 Ellen Finnigan