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Opinion: We Need to Talk About Content, Not Sales Figures

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Indie novelist Catriona Troth

British indie author and journalist Catriona Troth provides a constructive riposte to the media’s often over-reductive response to self-published authors’ success. She also generously offers an excellent opportunity for all self-published authors to draw attention to the quality of other indie authors’ books.

One of my recurring frustrations is that 95% of the media coverage given to self-published authors is of the ‘Oh, my, what big sales you have’ variety. Too often the tone echoes Samuel Johnson on Quaker women preachers: ‘It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

Of course many wonderful book bloggers review indie books. But on the rare occasions an indie author is included in the wider publishing discourse, the focus is inevitably on sales and chart positions. Can you imagine an interview in the New York Times or the Guardian in which Gillian Flynn or Kate Atkinson was asked only how they had achieved their sales figures? Where is the discussion of indie authors in terms of voice, style, inspiration? Is this another, subtle example of how things can be skewed against the indie author? If so, what can we, in the indie community, do about it?

Making the Case to Porter Anderson

A little while ago, the journalist Porter Anderson challenged indie authors about their attitude to their self-published ‘heroes.’ Do we actually read their book, or are we blindly taking their advice in the hopes of increasing our own sales? Porter was quickly disabused by a slew of up-and-coming indies (many of them from ALLi) who made it clear that they DID read other indie authors that they sought to emulate – be they big-selling genre novelists or more modest selling literary authors.

But small wonder Porter has that impression if, even within the indie world, so much of the public conversation focuses on sales – who’s achieved them and how they did it. Are we overlooking the thing that ought to matter most – how well an author tells a story?

Putting the Spotlight on Great Content

Bookmuse logoOne of the regular items on the Triskele Books blog is our monthly Book Club, where we review books we love – usually alternating trade- and indie-published – and interview their authors. We make a point of discussing style, voice, inspiration – all things that are too often ignored when indie authors are discussed. We’ve also launched the new book review site, Book Muse. And of course, like most of us, we review books by indie authors on Goodreads and Amazon. But is that enough?

It’s tricky. Many of us try to keep the articles and blogs targeted at authors separate from those we write for an audience of readers. Perhaps when referring to the success of other authors, we could remind our audience (in concrete, specific terms) why it’s worth reading their books as well as emulating their tactics. But might that risk blurring the point we are trying to make in a limited space?

Offering to Share Great Indie Books

Chorleywood Literature Festival logo

Chorleywood Literature Festival logo

I do have one concrete proposal to make as a contribution to the Open Up to Indies (#PublishingOpenUp). In November, ALLi and Triskele Books are hosting an Indie Author Fair at the Chorleywood Literary Festival. Of course, only a relatively small number of authors will be there selling their wares. But I would like to bring the wider indie community to the Fair by creating the equivalent of the ‘staff picks’ you see in bookshops these days.

I invite any of you to send me your top three Indie Picks. At the top of the page, give me your name and a line about yourself. Then for each of your three selections, write the title, author and a killer paragraph about why people should read this book, and email it to me at catriona.troth[at]gmail.com. I will print them out as posters and on Sunday 16th November, paper the walls of the hall at Chorleywood with your suggestions.

To make it easy to share this excellent call to action with others in the self-publishing community, here’s our suggested tweet:

“Why indie authors should talk about content, not sales: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/lets-talk-about-content/ by @L1bCat for @IndieAuthorALLi #PublishingOpenUp”

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19 Responses to Opinion: We Need to Talk About Content, Not Sales Figures

  1. David Rory O'Neill May 19, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    A whole hearted cheer from me. I could not agree more with the idea focusing more on quality rather than quantity- however there is a sting. I write literary fiction that gets wonderful reviews from the very few readers that have discovered me. Therein lies the problem. Very few – so if I am to depend on other ALLI member to nominate me for the show as you suggest – I have no chance.
    I seriously doubt if any ALLI member has read any of my work.
    This is not a complaint – I read very little right now as I’m too immersed in writing.
    I feel nomination very much limits the scope of such showcases to those writers who have a very tight local network supporting each other.
    There remains a conflict between content and market acceptance. Writers of genre busting literary fiction still face a huge struggle with discoverability.

  2. Anne Stormont May 18, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    Yes. Excellent post. You say it all really. Mainstream publishing has come down to lowest common denominator – selling and to hang with content. Thanks, Catriona.

  3. clare weiner May 14, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    FIrst apologies for the mis-spelt ‘there’ in my first comment, above!! Of course I can spel reelly…

    Now, SO agree about CONTENT. Big commercial publishers get this so wrong, as well: many books (from big publishers and well known authors) I’ve begun have been abandoned because they are cliche-ridden, both in plot and in phraseology, and read as if they’ve been written by a computer stringing tropes together like beads on a string. Content is all important: I always hope that Indie authors will do better, as are not on a contract to rush through something which is on-trend and must sell, so it has the opportunity to be more interesting… Though of course, indie authors also need to pay attention to all the details and look as good as the trade.

    It’s hopefully by being interesting and well written that we shall break into the public notice as worth buying.

  4. Rasana Atreya May 14, 2014 at 4:58 am #

    Excellent post, Catriona, and very timely for me. I get interviewed a lot in India’s media because I’m one of the first self-published authors. The focus of all my interviews has been why I chose to give up a publishing contract in order to self-publish. The fact that my manuscript was shortlisted for an award is seldom mentioned, and the content of the book – never! I’m going to see how I can change this. Thank you!

  5. John P. Wheeler May 14, 2014 at 4:36 am #

    Thank you for sharing your valuable insight on how to measure self-published authors’ success. I believe that indie authors are in a position to make a stand, and make some changes in the publishing industry.

    The Self-Publishing Author’s Checklist Before Converting PDF to EPUB –
    http://www.spi-global.com/blog/innovation-lab/author-checklist-before-convert-pdf-to-epub/

  6. Catriona Troth May 13, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    Thank you! It’s good to hear that I have struck a chord with many of you.

    The first few Indie Picks are trickling in already. It’s very exciting to see recommendations for books that I know nothing about. That’s exactly what this is about, so please do keep them coming.

  7. Jess C Scott May 13, 2014 at 12:13 am #

    A lovely post and very inspiring. I hope to see the mainstream media become more inclusive of the works of indie authors in future. I would love to see quality work highlighted because of the substance, instead of focusing on the number of units sold as a result of marketing/promotional efforts.

  8. Larry J Dunlap May 12, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    Very timely post, Catriona (and what a lovely name). Perhaps the biggest issue is finding sources for where the best self, or indie published books can be found. Easy enough to find the LA Times, or NY Times bestseller lists her in the US of A, and we have to assume they’re high quality since they’ve been reviewed on high. However, there is no source for the popularity of self-published books, which would greatly enable audiences to find them. I will definitely save the links about in hopes that your reviews will lead to great books, but it would be an excellent idea for someone to try to compile enough statistics about well liked self, and indie books that could easily be pointed to. Carry on.

  9. Warren Shuman May 12, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    CONTENT is the precursor to high sales marks. The marketing platform is a series of tools that will develop exposure to our audiences in the most cost-effective manner. The best marketing program won’t be as successful as possible, without mesmerizing CONTENT.

    Best of Success… Catriona…

    Warren.

    • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 13, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

      Whole-heartedly agree: I don’t recommend anyone’s books to anyone unless they are absolutely stunning in the CONTENT.

      By that I mean idea + characters + plotting + quality of writing + presentation (formatting, cover, layout) – miss one of the marks, and it’s Meh! for me. And I probably won’t get very far into your magnum opus.

      There are a lot of places to fail in self-publishing a book. The knowledge that the big publishers, with their hallowed staffs, still manage to bomb is irrelevant: I want to emulate successes.

      And that starts with CONTENT – and is very hard to do well.

  10. David James May 12, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    Excellent points, Catriona, and let’s hope the Festival will be the first of many Indie celebrations. Presumably, the recommendations should be of other indie authors rather than the writer’s own work – we get rather too much of that, I feel, and it’s edging towards the commercialism you warn against. Also the supporting critique should not be of a friend’s work or one intimately known to the critic. Perhaps the heading might me something like ‘Latest Discoveries.’

    • clare weiner May 14, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

      Just finished your Big Greek Family book, Maria! (Sneakily digging in their to better imagine my grandfather’s growing-up, and why his sister refused to be taken to Athens to marry a good Greek boy!!) Good fun, enjoyed the story v much 🙂

  11. Maria Constantine May 12, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    It’s encouraging to sell books but nothing equals the satisfaction of interacting with the readers and being told they enjoyed reading your book – and then hearing what they liked, what stood out for them, what scenes they loved, who their favourite character is … Focusing on content is what I think most authors love to do, so thanks for shifting the spotlight on this important area. Great idea about the Chorleywood Literary Festival.

  12. Dan Holloway May 12, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

    Not a lot to add. Hurrah!

  13. Jane May 12, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Well said, Catriona. It’s amazing what some of the leading self-published authors have done with their sales figures and it’s very generous of them to share their business and marketing theories. However, like you, I feel very dispirited that there is so much focus on the business side and not the artistic side. I went to a real-life working writers’ group the other day where we critiqued manuscripts – and no one discussed the pros and cons of selling their book for 99p for over two hours. It was such a joy:D

    I would add to your challenge: it should only be non best-selling self-published authors.

  14. Philippa Rees May 12, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Bravo post, Brilliant suggestion. ‘What big sales you have’ only augments the ‘market’ as determinant and single judge.

  15. Pauline Baird Jones May 12, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    I think you’re right, but I also think there is something a bit…heady about finally being able to see our numbers in real time. We’ve lived so long in the dark. It used to be, when we talked “business,” it was theory and conjecture and yeah, craft — the things we could control, which were precious few. All we could do was pursue our craft and hope, even knowing that it might not matter. That craft still would have to tilt with “marketable.”

    In the smaller places where I get interviewed — mostly blogs, of course — those questions are asked. It’s the major media that is looking for the sensational and the shocking. Because it is shocking that authors doing it themselves are making money. The sky is falling. (grin)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Throwback Thursday at ALLI #TBT | Self-Publishing Advice - November 20, 2014

    […]  Opinion: We Need to Talk About Content, Not Sales Figures […]

  2. The Measure of Success | jjmarsh - May 12, 2014

    […] On ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice blog today, my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth, tackles the troublesome question of why indie-published books only ever make headlines because of sales. And asks a question. What matters most to the Indie Writer – quality or quantity? […]

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