Lucinda Elliot

The shrinking opportunities for self-published authors – and to write for the market or for yourself?

grey outcastIn the last week or so I’ve read two articles about the current and coming changes to the self publishing market, and their effect on ebook sales. Both, as a matter of fact, are by authors I know and are excellently written. Here’s the links:
Happy New Year. The Party’s Over.

Excellently written and full of lucid reasoning as these articles are, my reaction was probably typical: Aagh, just the news I didn’t want to hear! So much for the apparently rosy future that seemed to be opening up two years since. Now, that future seems a lot less full of possibilities of eventual success for the Indie Author, either by developing great sales through staying self published, spurning with a majestic hand the craven approaches of mainstream publishers, or through graciously accepting one…

The first article recommends those whose goal is to break into mainstream publishing not to go down the Indie route, but to pursue that goal single mindedly from the first.

I’m going to be frank and say that I did pursue that goal initially. I came to dread that THUNK! of that SAE with those first three chapters and covering letter on the doormat, with the responses: ‘Not suitable for our reading list’ and ‘Too cross genre’.  As for that notorious piece of advice, ‘Get an agent’ – the responses of agents were the same.
So, with the advent of Indie publishing and the coming of the Kindle, like countless other writers, I took that route.

I’ve learnt a lot since I started out, particularly about customers’ tastes and the whole issue of genre, and I have to say that unfortunately, what I most like to write still tends to be too cross genre. It’s often paranormal; it usually has an historical component; I like to write funny scenes, but the humour often tends to be dark. I like to include a love story, but I don’t want to be limited to providing a happy ending. Therefore, it’s hard to classify and runs the risk of attracting dissatisfied readers who expected something else.

You can tell the potential reader that this isn’t a conventional romance, or whatever in the blurb, but I’m sorry to say, one of the things that I have learnt  too over the past couple of years is that a sizable number of readers skim read everything, including the blurb, and won’t heed the warning.

I don’t quite know why or when this habit surfaced and how far it concerns lack of concentration and how far we can blame the Internet (it’s apparently responsible for so many undesirable developments that it might as well shoulder part of the blame for one more). I’d certainly say that my bugbear The ‘culture of hurry’ must be involved.

But, there we are; unless we write high faulutin’ literary fiction, we authors should recognise that we are writing for a public who largely have a short concentration span and want a fast beginning, escapism, excitement, a simple plot, a happy resolution of those conflicts that are supposed to drive a plot and generally what’s known as – I don’t like this phrase at all, but can’t think of a suitable alternative today  –‘a feel good factor’.

imagesObviously the form that this will take will vary according to the genre, but I think that this is roughly true of most popular fiction.

This ‘feel good factor’ particularly applies to the genre of romance, though also to some extent to most genre fiction, which is after all meant to be escapist in tone. I even read an intriguing article recently that, rather abstruse as it was, did raise some important points. One of these was that the Freudian pleasure principle, obviously a factor in the enjoyment of romance reading, requires repetition.


This did intrigue me, as it seems to give the answer to a question that has always puzzled me: how can so many readers of genre – and of romance particularly, be satisfied with continually reading ‘more of the same’? All over the web, you’ll find articles by writers of romance who argue that they don’t write ‘according to format’. But it seems to me that they must when they follow the requirements of a market that demands fairly limited options to the structure of a story including the one that must surely still seem at least questionable to many feminists, whether they admit it or not – that the main business of life for a woman should be the emotional, romantic and domestic. Also, too many of these portray a heroine whose problems are solved by the man, not by her own actions – and within the ethos that all a woman needs to set her life right is to discover romantic fulfillment.

Meanwhile, writers of adventure fiction aimed at a largely male market continue to strive to portray an environment equally removed form the tedious demands of that emotional sphere.

Both seem to me woefully limited.

I entered self publishing as a novice, eager to try and extend the borders of genre fiction – especially paranormal historical romance  –  further towards those of literary fiction and adventure. How far I have succeeded in making people question these limits and how far it has inspired anyone else to have a go, I don’t know, and thank goodness it isn’t up to me to say: I’m hardly the first writer to attempt it; Pushkin tried it in his (sadly unfinished) early nineteenth century robber novel ‘Dubrovsky’, as I have said on here before.

I do think, though, that in a future of restricted sales of ebooks there will be more temptation than ever for authors to ‘write what the market demands’ and write to form to draw in those sales.

As for the hazards of writing something unexpected – well, eight months ago I published a spoof of the clichés of historical romance ‘Ravensdale’: in this, the hero is a disgraced Earl turned highwayman who, framed by the machinations of a conniving cousin, seeks to clear his name. Isabella, the gung-ho heroine in the story, is a male chauvinist’s nightmare come true.

Well, many loved it. I got some wonderful reviews and I’d like to thank anyone who gave me one. Many lovers of traditional historical romances said they found it hilarious and enjoyed the outrageously role breaking heroine.

Still, though my blurb did state that this story was a satire, when I categorized it as ‘Historical Romance- Regency (there isn’t a Georgian sub category)’ and ‘Historical Romance – Comedy’ the backlash from more conservative readers soon came in a rash of furious one and two star reviews.

I don’t see why a morally scrupulous author shouldn’t give the link to these;  I hardly think I command an army of devoted followers who will rush to pulverise these readers, nor would I want them to had I such a following – so here they are, both on

and on

My favourite is one of the two star reviews,  where I’m accused of giving the reader brain damage: perhaps, like packets of cigarettes, my books should come with government health warnings on them?

A fellow writer of spoofs advised me to change the category to ‘comedy/spoof’ and the backlash has reduced.

In this uncertain future, though, I, along with all other Indie authors, face the same old challenge in a different form: to write for the market – offending nobody and probably inspiring nobody either, but making a fair amount of money if you hit the right note, or to write something you feel has some originality and makes some telling points but will either not be a commercial success  or may sell well, after all, but may meet with general critical misunderstanding and  an outraged rash of one star reviews?

Well, there will always be the exceptions that encourage everybody and that work may well be by someone reading this; the book that is contentious, sells brilliantly, and is well received, AND leads on to offers from mainstream traditional publishers. Of course there will; and the publishing market is never static.

Like  my fellow writers Ann R Allen and Mari Biella, I don’t want for a moment to discourage anybody: there are always exceptions to any rule and innovations which change what is seen as commercially acceptable happen all the time.

A tip for those who want to write something commercially successful: I know writers who are doing very well with BBW romances. I don’t think I could write them straight myself, though. As a matter of interest, why does nobody write BBM romances? There must be a market for those out there, surely?

2 Responses

  1. Thought-provoking post, Lucinda – and thanks for the mention! Speaking personally (and only personally), I can only write what seems true and real to me, at least if the end novel isn’t to ring horribly false. I quite literally can’t write for the market! I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, either, though I admire and respect anyone who can and does, as I’m pretty sure that it’s a great deal harder than it appears.

    However … sometimes novels become commercially successful against all expectations and all odds. I’m pretty sure that no one could have foreseen the startling success of Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series. Likewise, before JK Rowling broke the mould, the general consensus appeared to be that children’s writers really were doing it for love and not money, simply because there wasn’t felt to be a great deal of money in it.

    Bad reviews may be down to a reader not appreciating a certain aspect of a book (such as its being cross-genre), or it may simply be because he or she just didn’t like it in general. You can’t really argue with personal reactions. Some reviews you can learn from, and others you can’t, but in general I think the best thing you can do is just not worry about them too much.

  2. Very astute points, Mari. I find it near impossible to write for the market either. You are right, too, about those exceptions, and I came on this morning in fact to update the post making mention of the fact, in case it should come across as too discouraging in tone, which I didn’t intend. I quite agree you should ignore bad reviews, but feel that I ought to warn any new innovative writers who read this that those are what you might well get if you want to experiment – particularly with humour, and as they do bring down those abominable star ratings on Amazon, say, they can to some extent indirectly adversely affect sales over time as so many ebook promotion sites demand ridiculously high star ratings which they I think wrongly, equate with a good quality product: it could be something totally commercial and bland.

Leave a Reply