From the time I started publishing in 2012, I was aware of David Gaughran, first through his historical fiction, then through his two self-publishing how-to books. Over time, I grew to admire him because he seemed to be putting more time and energy into helping others than he did himself. Plus, he has tackled scummy vanity presses like Author Solutions. Here’s an interview I did with my favorite muckraker, David Gaughran.
Shawn: You’ve written two books to help indie authors – Let’s Get Digital, and Let’s Get Visible. You released a second version of Let’s Get Digital, but as fast as our publishing world changes, are you anticipating writing a new version of either any time soon?
David: I’m not closing the door forever, but I’d be surprised if I return to the subject before releasing another four or five novels (and I’m not a fast writer at all). I do try and use my blog to fill the gap and cover any developments, but, really, despite all the surface-level turbulence in publishing, the fundamental currents don’t change that much. When I was working on the second edition of Digital, it was less about rewriting stuff that was out of date, and more about expanding the scope of the book and trying to make the central argument more coherent.
Shawn: Your blog has a sizable following, but I am willing to bet that the majority of the subscribers are fellow indie writers.
David: Oh sure, it’s mostly self-publishers. I don’t even cover the slightly more general interest topics that I used to – i.e. vaguely crafty stuff, quasi-reviews, speculative pieces on the novella etc. I got pretty burned out from blogging/campaigning a couple of years ago and decided to step off the treadmill and pare things back to focus more on my fiction – and also not feel like I have to cover every bit of breaking news in publishing.
It was starting to feel like a job, and there were enough blogs out there doing that already (and some like The Passive Voice doing it better). I decided to play to what I reckoned were my strengths or what was relatively unique about my particular blog: longer articles and more in-depth analysis of a particular story, especially those not being covered elsewhere or perhaps important angles which have been ignored.
I also began to focus on something I have a morbid fascination with: the media framing of stories and how our opinions were being actively shaped on various issues, whether that was Amazon or cheap e-books or the death of the novel or wanton self-publishers despoiling the literary landscape.
Shawn: Do you think your blog helps your book sales, or does it raise your visibility in the writer’s community, or both?
David: Blogs don’t really sell books. They can raise your profile and open various doors for you, but I don’t believe that author platforms in general (mailing lists aside) shift books in meaningful numbers – not enough for the required time investment, and certainly not on an ongoing basis. I think author platforms can launch books, very effectively too, and that distinction is important.
I actually have some data on this!
I always suspected having a popular blog did very little for an author’s book sales – and I’ve heard Joe Konrath say likewise – so one day I decided to test that theory. I ran the numbers, compared blog stats, link clicks, affiliate codes, sales, tracking data – the works. It was an interesting exercise and the conclusions were pretty clear. First, my blog was selling virtually no fiction for me. This is as you would expect. If I had built up a popular blog about history, perhaps I would have seen some traction there.
It got more interesting when I looked at the self-publishing titles, as these were aimed squarely at the blog audience and Let’s Get Visible in particular was designed to answer the questions we were all wrestling with. But there was little nuance in the results. Even during Visible’s launch month, I directly drove less than 20% of Amazon US sales – and that’s tracking my blog, newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The following month that percentage halved, and by the time the book was out six months the portion of sales I was directly responsible for (that I could measure) was less than 5%. And that percentage then continued to decay in the manner you might expect.
Unfortunately, I lose any chance at the Data Tiara by not using distinct tracking codes to weigh the relative effects of each element of my platform exactly, but my rough estimate is that my reasonably popular blog and somewhat considerable social media presence combined have less power than, say, 1,000 names on a mailing list.
So, yeah. Platforms are good for launches. Social media can be great for deepening connections with existing readers. But neither are as effective as people might think for actually increasing your readership. Obviously, I can only see part of the picture and I’m sure my blog/platform drove further sales than I can measure. But blogging, when done right, is a huge time sink and I don’t think most authors can justify spending that amount of time working on something that isn’t the next book.
If you are one of those super-organized people that has their word count done every day by lunch and you are kicking your heels in the afternoon looking for trouble AND you write non-fiction and you fancy putting some serious time and effort into building up a blog and social media presence targeting the exact same readers as your books, then… maybe. But only if you enjoy it, and only if you aren’t telling porky pies about hitting your word count.
However, it’s not all about money. I [don’t] get a huge amount from blogging. I can campaign on the issues I care about – occasionally even getting some movement – I can call out crappy behavior by publishers, I can warn about scammers, and I also benefit from it personally in other ways that aren’t directly about book sales. My blog was the testing ground for the ideas in Digital and Visible. The arguments were poked and prodded and improved by those reading along in the comments. My blog might have helped some writers along the way, which is cool, but it helped me hugely too. And I guess those books would never have happened in the first place if I wasn’t blogging, so there’s a whole ball of contradiction for you.
Shawn: You have several short works available. Do you think writing short stories, novellettes, and novellas is a viable way to earn a decent living as an author?
David: It’s funny to look back on some of my blog posts from 2011. When I started, I was pretty convinced that short stories would have a renaissance with the shift to digital, that the inherent limitations of the print format had suppressed the potential of shorter work, and I confidently predicted we would all be reading and writing more shorts in a digital world. I was only half-right. Short stories are still relatively unloved by readers (erotica aside, which makes – and breaks! – its own rules). Writers still like writing them, but they also like eating occasionally, so they tend to avoid focusing on them.
Novellas, on the other hand, have exploded. I don’t think anyone expected that because novellas were always this weird hybrid that no one knew what to do with – often marketed to readers as long short stories or short novels. Readers might still not be overly familiar with the term itself, but they sure love buying them. And it has worked out very well for those writing them too: HM Ward has hit the NYT list 15 or 20 times now with novellas. I think it’s safe to call it viable – in certain genres at least.
Shawn: Aside from writing a good story, what do you feel is the single best thing authors can do to help themselves get discovered?
David: The template is pretty straightforward: 1. Work in a popular genre. 2. Write a series. 3. Produce as fast as you can (without compromising on quality). 4. Market aggressively with price promotions, advertising, and, of course, a mailing list, because the author with the biggest mailing list wins.
You don’t have to do all those things but you should be aware you are making it a little harder for yourself. Can you be successful without writing a series? Sure. It’s possible, just harder. You will also make it harder for yourself if you choose to write literary fiction over fantasy, or short stories over novels. The choice is still yours, but it’s something you should factor in if you are trying to build a career.
The only non-negotiable is marketing. You have to do something to get your work into the hands of readers – books aren’t magically discovered. But remember to keep your priorities straight. Once you have grabbed the low-hanging fruit of running discounts and ads every so often, and you set up a mailing list, your primary focus should be on writing. The return available from additional marketing is pretty limited, especially if you only have a couple of books out.
Shawn: You’ve spent a lot of time and energy tackling scammy, vanity publishing outfits. Do you see that business model – high pressure sales, overcharging for services offered, etc. – changing or evolving over the next ten years or so?
David: I’d be surprised if Author Solutions-style vanity presses have ten more years left. It’s a business model predicated on customer ignorance and the asymmetry of information in publishing is being rapidly dismantled – which is having all sorts of wonderful effects. These guys are on a shrinking piece of ice. There’s only so long you can get away with charging $4,000 for an hour-long book signing at an event where booths for the weekend cost a few hundred. There’s only so long you can get away with charging five figure sums for Hollywood pitching services before people start to realize that no one is getting movies made this way.
The whole issue is something that encapsulates the contradictions inherent in the modern world. We live in an era of unprecedented fraud – whether that’s political or corporate or even sporting. It’s frustrating that the authorities won’t act, that the legal system hasn’t been able to do anything on this, that the bodies which are supposed to protect authors have done nothing (other than keep them in a state of learned helplessness), and that the media has been completely silent.
On the other hand, it’s incredibly heartening to see ordinary people fill that void and expose this scam and make so much noise. We’re taking on a company with around $100m in annual revenue – plus all the famous names in publishing associated with it – while getting absolutely no help from anyone in the press… and we are winning. It’s pretty amazing, and it wouldn’t be possible without (much maligned) social media.
That doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Author Solutions may well be on a shrinking piece of ice but the scale of deception is so great that they still manage to get their claws into more than 40,000 writers every year – so we should continue doing everything we can to hasten that ice-shrinkage. Of course, Author Solutions is far from the only vanity press, and there are plenty of other scams pulled against writers. I tend to focus on Author Solutions because of that jaw-dropping scale (probably bigger than all other vanity presses put together) and because this is when the mask slips and we see what publishing really thinks of writers.
Shawn: Ten years from now, do you expect more people will be reading eBooks, or paper books?
David: E-books surely. We must be near that point already if you are talking about adult genre fiction in the US. Other segments have been a little more sluggish. I think readers of literary fiction are probably more likely to frequent indie bookstores (which have fared better than the chains) and are probably less price sensitive, so they have had less push and pull factors influencing them overall – certainly less than, say, a voracious romance reader who was left without a bookstore in her town when Borders collapsed.
The price of e-readers and tablets, historically, probably held back the kids market too, although that is changing rapidly with today’s rock-bottom prices – a trend likely to continue. Non-fiction has also been slower to transition. It’s one of the few things I still read in print and I hear the same from a lot of digital readers. But one would assume that the next generation of e-readers, apps, and tablets will better solve that problem, with superior note-taking, highlighting, search, navigation, and so on.
The narrative being pushed by publishers (and their proxies in the media) is that e-books have peaked or plateaued or even dipped. In fact, this line has been pushed every year since, I think, 2012 – it’s just starting to get traction now. Of course, any indie paying attention knows that is bunkum. What’s really happening is that indies are grabbing market share from publishers at such a rate that they think a growing pie is a shrinking one.
However, the really interesting part of the whole story is the cheerleading from publishers and journalists. “Hooray! E-books are down!” It’s insane. Publishers were handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to switch to a format where they don’t have to print and ship and store, one which could have solved the painful issue of returns in a flash, one where they kept most of the profit instead of splitting it with authors… and they reacted in the most negative way! Price-fixing, windowing, dragging their feet on digitization – trying everything possible to slow the growth of e-books.
They had strategic reasons for this, of course. Large publishers essentially had a lock on print distribution – and indirectly controlled which books were recommended to readers too. All that changed in a digital world. Distribution is open now and an entirely new and distinct (and chaotic) grassroots recommendation ecostructure has bloomed in place of the fusty old top-down co-op and review system. In more prosaic terms, small publishers and self-publishers have a level playing field for the first time and they are kicking ass. So large publishers want to slow or halt the transition to digital.
It makes a kind of sense, I suppose. But it’s like locking a golden goose in the basement so that it doesn’t disrupt your lucrative chicken-egg business. And because they spend half the time either underestimating self-publishers or pretending they don’t exist, they seem to have forgotten they aren’t the only ones with a golden goose!
But if we get out of the weeds for a moment and zoom back to consider all the reading we do, it’s predominantly on screens, which should indicate where this is all headed. Consider the amount of time we spend reading on the internet alone. That time used to be spent reading newspapers or journals or encyclopedias or magazines or books. Physical, tangible objects. And that’s mostly digital now, something that would have seemed crazy not too long ago (to everyone except Arthur C. Clarke).
Shawn: When you are writing fiction, are you a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid?
David: I’m a disaster, that’s what I am! I find non-fiction much easier to write than fiction (maybe why I enjoy the latter more?). I guess I’m a former pantser who realized he could bump his speed from “very slow” to “slow” by embracing the dark arts of plotting. I highly recommend Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker. Even if you don’t even own a single pair of pants, you should still read this book. Libbie has wonderful insights on things like pacing and story structure too even if you remain an unrepentant pantser.
Shawn: What projects are you working on, and what’s coming up for you in the next year?
David: I’m taking my own advice for once and writing a series. I never thought I’d write a series, or tackle Irish history but, it has been incredibly enjoyable to work on. Not only is this the smart move commercially, the process has been far more rewarding creatively than I had imagined. The first book – Liberty Boy – is pretty much done, but I haven’t published it yet. I’ve been researching the sequel over the last few months and I’ll be starting that today, actually. I had planned to write two or three installments in the series before releasing the first, but I’m rethinking that now. So I could actually launch Liberty Boy sooner rather than later. I’m excited about it. It took longer than I would have liked but it feels like a step up in terms of the emotional resonance.
That was another area where Libbie Hawker’s book was incredibly helpful – how to hit certain emotional notes at key points in your hero’s journey. I had been muddling along, trying to achieve that by trial-and-error but Take Off Your Pants has a more structured way of handling that and it feels like the emotional core of Liberty Boy is more powerful than my previous work. Whether that translates into people enjoying it and recommending it to others… well, we’ll see. As I gain more experience, my respect grows and grows for those already kicking ass creatively and commercially. There are so many moving parts to writing a satisfying story which truly resonates with readers.