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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Easy Part

An old friend of mine, who currently lives in the Washington D.C. area, was recently touring around Ireland with her husband and they stopped by to visit us. When I told her that I had published a book, she was very impressed.

“You’re the first of my friends to get their book published!” she exclaimed.

The fact that I had published it myself did not dim her enthusiasm.

One of her friends has been stuck forever in the writing—and re-writing—stage and finding it difficult to finish a manuscript. Another friend has no problem finishing manuscripts and even has a literary agent and has worked with a “book doctor,” but she has not been able to convince her agent that anything she has written will sell.

So, in light of those experiences, my friend thought that I had achieved something great by publishing Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead.

But self-publishing is easy, I told her. In fact, it is amazingly easy if you are publishing a Kindle book. Just register with Amazon, answer a few questions online, and upload a file. That’s pretty much it.

Having said that, I suppose self-publishing is—at least technically—easier for me than it might be for a lot of writers because I happen to have the practical skills to look after my own typography, formatting, and tech support needs. Not to be too nerdy about it, but I actually write my books in HTML with a text editor rather than relying on Microsoft Word or any other word processor. That is second nature to me after years of coding things in various mark-up languages. (Extra points to you if the names troff and TeX mean anything to you.) But obviously those skills aren’t a requirement for every author. There are various ways to get help with formatting and file generation or to have someone else do it for you.

I guess the main reason I tend to think that publishing is easy is because there are so many books out there. Sometimes it seems like so many that I figure that everybody in the developed world must have published one by now. But that math only works if you ignore the fact that nearly half of all books published seem to have been written or co-written by James Patterson.

But my friend’s story about the writer who can’t get her agent to take on anything she’s written illustrates for me the real challenge in writing these days. There seems to be more writers than ever and there seems to be more readers than ever. And generally speaking that’s a good thing. But it also means that books are more of a consumer product than they have ever been. Publishers, agents, booksellers and readers themselves seem to want their books to fit neatly into pre-packaged, strictly defined genres. Selling books is apparently about giving readers what they expect and want.

When I was getting ready to upload my book, I was stymied when confronted with the multiple-choice question about its genre. My book didn’t seem to fit easily into any niche. Maybe it is a YA book, but I didn’t feel comfortable with that label because of all the bad language spewed by the characters. (Probably just showing how old-fashioned I am.) Other categories didn’t really fit, although “adventure” kind of came close. In the end I went with “literary fiction.” Does that make me sound pretentious?

Yes, self-publishing is easy. But that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily simple.

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