This weekend has been incredibly exciting watching Sophie’s latest book, The Dress, make Amazon’s top twenty Kindle bestseller list. It’s been going up and down, and up and down… and up and down. At times it seemed almost cruel of Amazon, watching a chart position and hoping to make sense of it, thinking, “Ah, it’s bound to slow down now as people go to bed” … and seeing the reverse happen.
The highest point it reached in the charts was #11 … tantalisingly close to being a TOP TEN book. It does make you wonder why we place such arbitrary divisions on numbers, I mean, it’s a TOP DOZEN book isn’t it? It’s starting to slide now.
At one point, it even was higher than We Need To Talk About Kevin, which has a film out, if you hadn’t noticed.
Up to now, I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of the Kindle. The “it does one thing well” argument always seemed like a cop out of sorts. But Sophie loves hers. It’s increased the amount and variety of things she reads. Before the Kindle she said she didn’t buy certain books because we just don’t have the shelf space.
From a distance, I must say, I do like its battery life, that’s impressive compared to my iPhone which now, on a good day, lasts a day. And I’ve always liked black and white screens, and the Kindle’s is nice. Oh and the price is good too.
But the most exciting thing about the Kindle is not about the device, it’s about the removal of middlemen and what that does. The Dress is self-published, and is one of Sophie’s experiments to find out what all the Kindle fuss was about. Sophie has taught writing, at universities, and online with her Word Sauce courses, and some of her students have gone on to do wonderful things. It was her dad who said to her, “when are you going to do this for yourself?” … and so, partly in response she started getting up earlier every day, and wrote The Dress.
Now, I know nothing about the publishing industry, but you need at least a literary agent and then a publisher to agree that your book is worth the risk of printing and shelf space and the effort of promotion. Getting a book from draft into a shop must take about two years. And that is the successful ones.
And then there’s the overheads to consider. I mean, how many books does a literary agent run with? Ten? A hundred? More? With their wages to pay out of your sales, the more books they work with, the less you get for your money. And whilst publishers seem to often claim that they are shit filters removing the swathes of crap that inevitably gets sent to them, have you walked into any bookshop recently? The HAVE to sell crap by the barrow load. Scale is the only model that works for publishers.
Self-publishing taps neatly into the whole Long Tail meme, which even though I kind of believe, it has always seemed somehow elusive, for me at least. That is to say, most niches have either proved to be too small to be sustainable or big enough not to be considered a niche. But what is becoming clear, probably for any business is that if you can knock out a couple of layers of middlemen, then you stand more than a chance of creating new possibilities. In Sophie’s case that possibility has turned into a reality where, from start to finish, in six months she has suddenly connected with thousands of new readers.
So what is it that publishers actually do? Especially in a world where high street book sellers are disappearing? And in a world where Sophie is competing with We Need To Talk About Kevin, if only for a few days… Being published by a “proper” publisher has long been the benchmark of quality, but that idea starts looking stupidly snobbish when the publishers themselves start chasing authors they previously turned down once their sales make their work suddenly interesting to them.
It makes you think… not only about what a progressive publisher should be doing, but also about what else a cheap bit of plastic connected to the internet might shake to the foundations next.