Hits and Niches by Julia Jones

The kindest of all the publishers who turned down The Salt-Stained Book sent me an email when I told her I’d decided to publish it myself. “I predict it will become a cult classic,” she said. I’d been deeply disappointed by her final refusal of the book. We liked each other personally and she’d expended time and trouble thinking about the book and offering suggestions. In the end, however, she had decided that she had to separate herself as an individual from herself as the CEO of a large and successful international publishing company. The Salt-Stained Book just didn’t fit the way they worked. “I can’t tell you how I wish we could have published it,” her message finished.

To be honest I wasn’t that grateful. The bit about the “cult classic” sounded patronising and if she’d really wanted to publish the book, I couldn’t exactly see what was stopping her.

Ewan Morrison is an author / journalist who is making a good living prophesying gloom. He has been on an End of the Book reading tour since last summer and his latest call to repentance was published in the Guardian last month and directed at us, the self e-publishers. In fact, I currently sell more copies of The Salt-Stained Book on paper than on line but, as far as Morrison and his admirers are concerned, all of us indies are beyond the pale. Andrew Franklin of Profile Books claims to turn away from self-published authors if he finds himself sitting next to them at dinner. “Free is far too much to pay for the overwhelming majority of books self-published,” he announced at last year’s London Book Fair. “If you self-publish on the internet, you might as well not bother. You will be silent.” As silent as we would all be if we waited for Franklin and his ilk to condescend to take on our books.

There is such arrogance and rudeness here. What other groups of workers or even hobbyists is it socially acceptable to dismiss or ridicule wholesale? And when Morrison writes about doom which awaits “the self e-publishing bubble”, agents and publishers twitter approvingly and paste links on Facebook with complacent schadenfreude. Our doom is nigh apparently.

“After a long year of trying to sell self-epublished books, attempting to self-promote on all available networking sites, and realising that they have been in competition with hundreds of thousands of newcomers just like them, the vast majority of the newly self-epublished authors discover that they have sold less than 100 books each. They then discover that this was in fact the business model of Amazon and other epub platforms in the first place: a model called "the long tail". With five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author – since they had to cut costs to 99p – has made only £99 after a year's work." Muggins!

But is that so? I went to the blog page of Wired whose editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson was the first to articulate the theory of The Long Tail. “The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.”

He gives a graph: “The vertical axis is sales; the horizontal is products. The red part of the curve is the hits, which have dominated our markets and culture for most of the last century. The orange part is the non-hits, or niches, which is where the new growth is coming from now and in the future.”

What we self-publishers are doing is difficult but it’s neither vain nor silly. We are trying to connect with readers who are discovering a vastly extended range of choices, just as they have in the music and video industries. They are finding a new freedom. “As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought – or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture.”

I think it was Jan Needle who described The Salt-Stained Book as “a weird one” or maybe it was a reviewer on Amazon. Or both. They’re right of course and finally I think I’ve understood with that well-meaning publisher was trying to say. Perhaps some books cope better than others with the sell-or-pulp culture of instant exposure that corporate marketing offers, before it moves relentlessly onwards to the next new product in its hungry search for hits. If an independently published and individually marketed book finds its niche then perhaps there will be the time for it to grow slowly. I'm still not comfortable with the word cult but a niche that gradually gets populated could reasonably hope to grow into ... a teeny, tiny ... hit?


Elen C said…
I have seen Salt-Stained book around for a while now; the cover online, the memorable title. I had no idea it was self-published. You've done a great job on the cover. I haven't read it yet, but I have been intrigued. I have now added it to tbr.
CallyPhillips said…
Well said Julia. Revolution or evolution, it's too early to tell. And just because a vast majority of self published work is poor doesn't mean it should be dismissed as a valid medium for good writers. These days one has to be much more active in finding good literature if one's tastes don't adhere to market trends. But there is good writing out there, and plenty from self/independent writers. I'm just glad so many are freeing themselves up and making their work available for those prepared to look. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or maybe throwing the toys out of the pram, seems to be a somewhat childish response to the changing face of publishing. Writing it a communicative act and reading involves personal communication between writer and reader... the publisher is the conduit not the controller! (Fat or otherwise)
madwippitt said…
Nothing wrong with cult classics - they are greatly loved! Although from the point of making a living, 'best seller' is more helpful.

I love that cover though. It immediately makes me think of Swallows and Amazons, which I grew up reading and loved. So now I have to rush off to go find out what it's all about!
Jan Needle said…
it's a bit cruel of julia to say i (maybe) described the book as a weird one, because if i did i certainly can't remember doing so, which doesn't mean i didn't, does it? what it does NOT mean is that i had reservations about the book. i loved it, and love it, and can't wait (as my grand-daughter would say) for the trilogy to be complete. i love ransome, and i'd eat my sou'wester if he didn't love these books.

as to the publisher who 'couldn't' publish it, what is there to say? it's a sad illustration of the fact that publishers, despite the evidence of getting on for two hundred years, still think they know what sort of books sell. they don't, of course, which is why rowling and richard adams and countless other mega successes did the rounds and did the rounds and did the rounds. if the publisher had risked his/her neck and taken the saltstained book on, it might have been a best seller. and if it had, the publisher would have been bathed in glory, and claimed to have bought it on years of expertise. and it would have been all baloney, naturally.

one of the (many) reasons i love germany is because it gave us the word schadenfreude. i've got a feeling it's increasingly relevant in this brave new indie world. my fingers are crossed for julia becoming a best seller, and never mind a 'cult success.' it's what we're working for, surely?

yo, julia. weird - dein buch? nie in der welt!
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, this is one of the most perceptive blogs I've yet read. Congratulations on The Salt-Stained Book. Like Jan I'm a Ransome fan since childhood,so I shall certainly download it and in so doing reduce the gap between ebook and paper sales.

But no, people like Franklin really don't get it. When these publishers shrug off perfectly good authors with good books still left in them, what do they think these authors will do? And do they think that getting rid of them mean they suddenly lose the power to write? And that all their readers will disappear? Besides, in what way can publishers call themselves reliable judges? They have no more forecasting ability than bankers. How many editors have actually confessed that they rejected Rowling or Adams? Only once have I heard heard an editor confess to having missed a subsequently successful author, and that was Pam Royds, friend and prop to both Jan and me, an editor who was honest, perceptive and highly professional, confessing that she had rejected Penelope Lively. I taxed her once on Adams and she vehemently denied it.

Like all of us I can take criticism and frequently have to. But when it's expressed with such arrogance, it's then I get really angry. And making me really angry is actually not all that easy.
julia jones said…
Thanks to all for your comments - especially people who said they like the cover. It's a detail from a Claudia Myatt but the reason it brings a lump to my throat is that it was designed by my friend and neighbour Roger Davies. And it was the last cover he ever did - so to see that little chap sailing off into the unknown tends to bring on the tear-stained book syndrome without the trouble of having to read the blessed thing. Roger was such a great man. I wrote his obit for the Guardian. Might dig around and find it again.
But thanks anyway.
(And you did, you know, Jan - it was for Watercraft. I took it as a compliment. Anyway pots and kettles!)
Dan Holloway said…
It's good to see Chris Anderson being talked about - when epublishing started to take off in 2009 there was a lot of talk about his freemium theories, but many commentaries have become less and less analytical and we hear less about freemium and long tails and 1000 true fans. I still think the latter, the 1000 true fans theory proposed by Kevin Kelly, is the single most important thing for writers wanting to make a living from their writing to think about.

My understanding of the Long Tail is that where it really sees the revolution in digital technology is in distribution - stores no longer need to hold stock, so 10,000 items that sell 5 units each can for the first time become as profitable as 5 that sell 10,000 each. As writers this is great insofar as it means that we don't have to have anticipated stellar sales to be a key part of the model, but we are not going to benefit greatly - it is through pursuing the 1000 true fans that we can do that, which is where what you say about niches really shines.
julia jones said…
I hadn't heard the 1000 true fans as a theory but it does make perfect sense with my experience to date -- and also in another context I would guess with your experience atthe Albion Beatnik --? A practical spin off of the long-tail theory that I have come across is the suggestion that when one is tagging a product it is actually the narrower, more specialist tags that actually attract the potential customers. From my point of view I think thattranslates into focussing on members of East Anglian sailing clubs - the 1000 true fans - and perhaps for many people deliverately thinking small and local will establish a genuine niche. Or a platform onwhich to build. Thanks so much for commenting
julia jones said…
Have put Roger Davies's obit on the AE facebook page. One of the great craftsmen of th Book trade. Makes me feel quite pleased that we are going to be collecting together the names of the freelancers who work conscientiously and imaginatively to make books (and ebooks) good.

Bravo, Julia. Publishers really don't do themselves any favours by making such crude, sweeping statements. If nothing else, someone will gently remind them that Charles Dickens self-published.
Peter Dowden said…
See that long-tailed curve? It's sort of an 'L' shape, but a nice curvy one. The curve represented by the "old" system is a straight 'L' curve: a big cliff with unpublished authors at the bottom and published ones at the top. Very hard to get started. Self publishing adds curvature to the situation: it gives somewhere to start. It's obviously cooler to be Britain's third most popular author than Britain's fourth, but now we have the ability to know who is Britain's four-millionth most popular, and watch that person move up (or down) the curve.
Peter Dowden said…
above comment made by me, Peter Dowden
Jennie Walters said…
Very informative and encouraging post. Thanks, Julia - most articulately expressed. I think Andrew Franklin may come to regret having revealed himself as so out of touch and arrogant. A timely reminder to add the SSB to my Kindle!
julia jones said…
There is a nice cartoon version of the curve that has it as a dinosaur with short head and long tail. I was desperately trying to remeber which dinosaur it was who had a brain in the end of its tail. But as all now extinct decided it poosibly wasn't the most immediately telling point!

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