Fading Flower or Why Bestselling Self-Published Authors Are Just Better
Donald Maas puts it that agented selected traditional published ‘crème de la crème’ bestselling authors are the first class of books, the midlist being economy or coach class, and the ordinary self-published Joe is freight class. Hmm. Obviously he is as skilled in logic as he is in his understanding of the word ‘cull’. I do understand with a background in the rarified world of NYC publishing that such vulgar agricultural matters may not come his way much, despite the vast quantity of male bovine excreta produced there. In fact, as I will now attempt to prove in terms of that other obviously agricultural matter which obviously isn’t well known in NYC publishing circles, logic — in terms of talent, on average, agent-selected, traditionally published authors are… third class bestsellers, and quite possibly of less value than even midlisters, or largely indistinguishable from those.
Hugh Howey’s excellent data-crawl analysis here included the star rating of Indy and other including big five bestsellers. It’s noticeable that the big five bestsellers had lower average star ratings, which Howey puts down (quite kindly IMO) to price expectation. After all if you pay a Rolls-Royce price, you expect Rolls-Royce quality. While I appreciate his effort and find most of his post accurate, (Update, they are now saying further examination shows price-point for price-point Indy still licks the big 5) on this I must differ. This is not price expectation. This is the Bumiputera effect*. This is why Donald Maas’s big five bestseller clients are, on average, not as good as the Independent bestsellers. This is why on average independent bestsellers – or even those achieving midlist sales, are better than I am.
Maas and his fellow travelers inform us that as they filter, it means that what gets to the top (through them) is better at the top… because it is filtered first. But the final measure of quality is not what it went through to get to the top, it is being at the top of the sales. To put it in slightly different terms. Many skiers wish to get Olympic medals. Three will get medals. The final measure of quality is the medal (a bestseller), not the process that got them there. (A million writers will put their books up for sale, a hundred will become bestsellers). The million entrants and their origins and methods are irrelevant. What counts is that they are bestsellers (or medalists) NOT the run-up to that.
One skier may have been picked up by a talent scout (literary agent) at a minor competition and had all their training and support at the expense of the state and more sponsorship than they can spend (publisher’s dahling), and the best equipment and training money can buy.
Another skier was self-taught, and got there by sheer determination and endless self-training, won competition after competition without sponsorship and without support, and had to sell his home to be there. They’re both in the Olympics. They both win medals. Which had more talent? (Odds on the self-taught got the gold, but that aside.)
On average, the independent bestseller is a better writer, works harder, and deserves more credit for their achievement (and generally seem nicer, more supportive of others, and less insecure too). They had a bigger mountain to climb and needed more skill to get there. Given the degree of support that the Big Five dahling had, the average Indy midlister would eat their lunch. Being an agent’s pick, a Big Five dahling… is NOT the imprimatur of quality that being an Indy bestseller is. Actually, all it may be is the mark of a spoiled brat or a good kiss-up artist. It’s something I’d love to see those in that position show they can rise above, show independence of mind and generosity of spirit, but alas, so many fail. So, in the interests of not being one of them, and with a reputation for insanity to keep up… (I was told I was insane to promote other authors and not myself. Hey, what can I say? You’ve blown my cover.) Here are some Indies that have shown me what hard work and good writing are. (The pictures are links to Amazon) I can recommend all of them, and they cover all types for all tastes. There is something there for you unless you like bleah grey goo.
A-pleasure-to-read sf series. At last.
Our Kate at her snarky best. If you ever went to a sf/fantasy con… do not read in front of a keyboard with liquids.
I wrote cover copy for it. I do not write cover copy. Do I have to explain?
Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job but someone has to write decent shapeshifter/urban fantasy/romance-ish stuff. And a lot of people like it.
As for Maas’s ‘luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd’: Yes, this is quite an accurate assessment of the future of publishing. Only I wouldn’t call it a ‘luxury’ so much as a ‘total disaster’. And we may differ about what we see as the ‘the herd’ — I see as those well-domesticated cash-cows who are ‘farmed’ by NY publishing, rather than indy writers, who don’t placidly get herded into cattle trucks . Culling the prize cattle – killing the future breeding stock — certainly seems to be what they’re heading for. You know where that ends, don’t you? Just as bankers are finding out the boring bits of banking exist for good reason. They’re reliable and work. Gambling is just that. (Gamblers who are consistent winners or even above break-even aren’t ‘gambling’, believe me.) Maas’s weird daydream that: “Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves” – and then somehow give this for love to help poor little agents and the publishing industry, without it costing said Industry more than they can make without them, is straight delusional. Firstly, I’ve yet to meet an author who chose to do their own publicity because they enjoyed it, and thought that seeing it was so much fun they’d write a book. It may happen, but it’s not just a black swan, it’s a Higgs-Boson black swan. They chose to do it, because they had to. Some are good at it. But having borne that expense and put in that effort, they know what they can reap from it. They will only agree to a deal with a publisher (who 10:1 is from an industry that rejected them) for a serious multiplier of their own effort and income. And they will be setting tough terms, often only possible for a publisher by robbing Peter – existing authors, to pay the new Paul. What is Peter going to do about this, if he can?). In short, the only clients that agents (who, contrary to popular belief, do not, by-in-large work for authors, but are little more than slush filters that publishers generously allow authors the luxury of paying for) can look forward to having, and being eager for publishers to exploit in the traditional way… are losers. Those with no skill, who can’t sell without publisher push, or no self-confidence, will still want the third-class validation.
There are going to be some culls happening, but methinks not quite where you thought they would. Don’t forget that SASE with your resume.
*The Bumiputera Effect – as displayed in Medicine in Indonesia, where historically, most of the Doctors were ethnic Chinese. So in effort to make the society ‘indigenous’, hurdles were put in front of ethnic Chinese students, meaning it was far harder for a non-Bumiputera (look it up, Google is your friend) student to get in to medicine and to graduate, whereas Bumiputera had fantastic support and needed lower marks to proceed. The end result of this was if you were really, really sick, or had a precious sick child or partner, or parent, you took them to a Chinese doctor, because while Bumiputera Doctors MIGHT be good, Chinese ones almost had to be brilliant, because it was so much harder to get there. Yes I know, the entry to making a book available for sale has no barrier for self-publishing, and a huge barrier through an agent. But we’re comparing SALES, not availability. And authors who have been accepted by an agent and a big 5 publisher, even if they’re no better than one who hasn’t, have a substantial bookstore exposure, and supposedly professional help with covers, publicity, editing and proofing. If you’re a dahling, push with promotion and marketing too. If someone who hasn’t had that, has equaled or bettered your sales, they’re more popular with readers = better than you are, in that sense, and that’s the sense the world measures, not Hugo awards.