Reviewing the review…

An exercise in reflexivity?

Because I was a bit concerned about posting The Care Home review – see PREVIOUS POST –  (being as how it might not seem as upbeat as my usual ones) I contacted the author Lee Carrick (something one can do in this exciting revolutionary world) to get his permission  to put it out.  There’s nothing more destructive to a young writers confidence than a review out of the blue which they feel either misinterprets or simply damns their work, and because I feel that Lee has some real potential as a writer, lacking perhaps a bit of direction, I didn’t want him to be thus crushed. I know had I received such a review 30 years ago I would have gone and hidden (if not sulked) for a good few days.  But the inestimable Mr Carrick got straight back to me, thanked me for my review and advice, explained to me the circumstances in which this novel came to be written and generally was a good all round egg about it – showing great insight and never once telling me to bog off! Which is great because now I know more about his process and his goals in writing.  I know that his influences are not works I’ve read, so that I was potentially on sticky grounds suggesting it wasn’t ‘working’ for me.  It may ‘work’ for fans of Bukowski etc and who the hell am I to say it doesn’t fully work ‘for me.’ What does my view count for? It’s something I think we all have to think about as readers now.  I recently read a comment on a 19th century novel where the ‘reviewer’ baulked at how it wasn’t written as well as a contemporary novel, but once you get past that it’s interesting.  What rubbish.  Context is everything.  To be as ignorant as to condemn a work from 100 years ago because the grammar, style etc are not ‘a la mode’ of today is reminiscent of all the ‘blah’ that goes round saying all indie writing is ‘rubbish.’  It depends on your expectations folks.

So now I’m reflecting upon ‘reader expectations.’  I’m personally not a huge fan of the ‘new indie’ concept of ‘publishing’ work and then getting feedback and then making it better. Using a paying readership as your editor seems somehow to be going arse ways round to me.  When I invest time and/or money in a work I want to know I’m getting a) the best the author can write and b) their intentions (as far as they understand them.) But equally, given the opportunities of publishing afforded to the new writer, what else should they do? The Care Home reminds me that the writing ‘journey’ does take time.  Lee has already moved on from this story and adapted his writing style and developed in many of the ways I suggested – but he’s happy for my criticisms of the work ‘as it is’ to stand. He’s not about to go and rewrite it, (certainly not to order to my ‘expectations’)  but he’ll use the lessons learned to write something else, something more mature and coherent, something that will probably knock our socks off. And The Care Home will stand as a debut indie novel.  In the same way as the early Orwell isn’t a patch on the mature Orwell (I’m talking depth, coherence, purpose – Down and Out and 1984 are both great but one IS more complete/mature than the other) so Lee Carrick will develop beyond The Care Home. But he wanted to be published. Reasonable enough for a young writer in these days.  I mean, anyone can publish so why shouldn’t he?

My current assessment of ‘reader expectations’ in the indie ‘marketplace’, is thus (and will probably keep changing) that it is a place for everyone. In fact it is many places. It’s a place for young writers to experiment. It’s a place for oldies like me to put out their backlist. It’s a place for ‘niche’ or controversial or non mainstream writers to finally gain recognition from like minded folk.  It’s many, many things and expectations of the reader should be tailored accordingly. If you are looking for heavily edited, mainstream traditional accepted work, go THERE for your reading matter. If you are in ‘indie’ world/s you need to be a bit more proactive. It would be nice if price could be your guide (it can to an extent) I’ve noticed that as the market ‘matures’ many new writers put their work out really cheaply. This is because they lack confidence and perhaps experience and accept this and just want ‘a readership’ but don’t want people to feel they’ve wasted their money. That’s another reason for putting work out for free.  Experimental or off the wall writers also use this pricing structure, where the most important thing for them is to make their voice ‘available’ rather than try to cash in on the process.  It can be a political act, a social act or an act of personal confidence.  How is the reader to judge?

Many more writers are coming to understand that if you are working in the non-mainstream environment you will NOT become a multi millionaire. Some writers (usually genre writers or those with a following from previous traditional publishing) are making a decent living out of ebooks at the moment.  Many, many more are not. Some don’t care. Some are deeply angst ridden by this fact because they see ‘indie’ as a short cut to the fame and fortune which has eluded them by never getting ‘picked’ off the slush pile (or perhaps never entering the slush pile.)  A right to publish does not come with a right to fame and fortune and I think that most writers who engage in the indie process are fooling themselves to imagine it will.  We need to wake up to the hierarichical ‘market’ system and realise that most of us are at best foot soldiers.  Trying to replicate or hang onto the coat tails of the mainstream ‘market’ is not what it’s all about.  It’s about giving a voice to those who otherwise are silenced.

And this I think is a great thing.  But I still feel that a writer should have written the work to the best of their ability before they publish. That’s my personal view. I have read (and reviewed) a couple of books which, after feedback (and an amount of success) from many readers, the author has decided to re-version or re-edit.  Will I go back and read them again?  Maybe. But will I be happy to do so? No. Because when I read something I work on the basis of ‘author intentionality’ that the author has entered a pact with me and if I come back a year later to find a substantially ‘different’ or ‘corrected’ work then I just feel like they pushed the publish button before they should have. If I’m to be a ‘beta reader’ or a ‘guinea pig’ I’d like the chance to know that before I buy thanks.  Getting editorial feedback by stealth seems wrong to me. It also seems counter-productive.  I can re-read books I’ve loved time and again. But I don’t want to go back and read a ‘different’ version of something I’ve already read.  I’m not talking about typos and cleaning up grammar or whatever here, I’m talking about the ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ changing from one version to the other.  I just feel uneasy about that. I’m sure there are reasons for writers to do this, but I feel that in many cases it undermines the author. There are enough voices calling for indies to be ‘properly’ edited and authors using the paying reader to provide editorial comment – I find that somewhat odd and distasteful.

But maybe that’s just me. I accept there may be all kinds of reasons why authors ‘republish’ and ‘reversion’.  All well and good.  It’s just that for me time is valuable and I like to think I’m getting the ‘finished’ product.  I’m not as flexible as many other readers that way. Maybe I need to adapt my expectations. And to an extent I have.  Adapting my expectations in what I read has led to a real renaissance in my reading habits but I, like everyone am trying to work out how to gauge what I’m going to read in advance. The look inside feature is great, but increasingly one can find the beginning is great and then the ‘whole’ doesn’t live up to it. This is exactly what I used to find when working as a script reader. Writers were told that script readers only read the first 10 pages of a screenplay. So they made that 10 pages brilliant. And all too frequently the rest tailed off. That, to put it bluntly, really pissed me off. I always read ALL of every script and nothing annoyed me more than someone who clearly COULD write as their first 10 pages showed me, but who got lazy and didn’t complete the job. I’d rather have the honest try-hard than the lazy genius any day.  Starting a work (script or fiction) is not the same as completing it. Having a good idea is not the complete narrative. And the reader deserves the best the writer can give them ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

I may shrug my shoulders these days if I’ve got the ebook free (I rarely do this any more, I’ve been bitten too many times by the starts well, finishes up wasting my time syndrome) or under a quid, but I’m beginning to worry about pricing my own work this cheaply. I know there’s lots of good free/cheap writing out there but it’s getting swamped by the ‘other’ stuff.  And it seems the market which is more than saturated with free and cheap work  is selling itself as much less discriminate than the ‘market’ I want to reach. I want to reach readers who actually value the writing experience and expect depth, coherence and want to know that the author ‘intended’ what they wrote and could defend their position in a discussion about it.  If I place myself square in the middle of a market filled to the busting with works that are less ‘complete’ (to avoid the quality debate) then I’m not doing myself any favours am I? I’m not that bothered about the ‘royalties’ because I’m not a mainstream writer so I do not expect a ‘living’ wage from the work I publish. But I don’t want to sell myself cheap.  I don’t want by being ‘cheap’ to give the wrong impression.  The worker should be due his hire.

It is a very interesting debate. And an ongoing one.  Brendan Gisby, who runs McStorytellers and who published The Care Home, has a different and deliberate model. He prices cheaply so that voices are heard. He publishes work by those who would not find a mainstream publisher for a variety of reasons (none of them because the work is substandard). He is good at finding ‘voices’ that deserve to be heard and his own voice is worth much, much more than the 77p he charges you for one of his ebooks.  You are getting a bargain with McStorytellers. I understand why he does it.  And in fact maybe he has a smart model because you can buy the ebook and paperback version of most McStoryteller publications for under a fiver. And for those of us who still love paperback it offers the possibility to ‘try’ the ebook and if we like it also ‘buy’ the real book.  My main point though is that I think we need to be more transparent and educate readers as to pricing issues.  What price is free? What value does the author/publisher place on their own work and why?

While McStorytellers as publisher is championing ‘new’ and ‘unheard’ voices, I think that many writers who have been on the margins (or beyond the margins) of publishing for years, feel a bit sick about underselling their work as ‘bargain basement’.  It’s not about the money, by more about placing oneself   into a ‘market’ as wide as mainstream, but a market with less discrimination and the reputation for lower ‘quality’  that makes us think twice.  For sure it’s absolutely ridiculous to be selling ebooks at £5 or more but I think that that £3 mark is more acceptable and potentially this price point shows that a writer has ‘confidence,’ ‘experience’ and expects to be taken seriously.   Yes, their work may be niche, but that doesn’t mean it’s rubbish.  And it’s how the non mainstream author positions their work out there which is interesting to me.

As I said, my views on this constantly change. But I think reader expectation goes beyond the actual text.  Readers are becoming more ‘savvy’. Some just fill their boots with free because that’s what they like to read. Some are happy to pay for what they perceive as either ‘quality’ or something that accords to their own non-mainstream reading habits.  And the publisher (which is what the writer becomes when they press SEND on their file transfer) needs to work out which ‘readership’ they are aiming for.  Trying to do sums which say if I give them all away for a while then people will hear of me and loads will buy, or if I price it too high everyone will avoid me, are spurious.  We are all victims of the market. None of us can ‘predict’ it. This is a ‘free’ market. There is no ‘fair trade’ in writing. Perhaps there should be. I think the best that indie writers/publishers can do is to work out their pricing based on their principles and place their work in the pricing points they feel happiest in. Not where they hope to hit pay dirt, not where they feel ashamed and embarrassed or that they are selling themselves cheap.

Some great writers offer their work for free because of their unease at the whole ‘capitalist’ marketplace. I have great sympathy with these people.  But equally, writers who have earned a professional living and now turned indie may find it inordinately hard to justify writing and publishing time out of a life if they ‘give it away.’

Daoism teaches us that ‘the way that can be named is not the way’ and that each person’s path is individual so I’m not advocating anything for anyone, just opening the debate for each indie writer/publisher to think and re-think their publishing ‘strategies’ which includes pricing, visibility strategies etc.  I guess my ‘dream’ is that some indies would get the courage of their conviction and form niche groups which set price structures deliberately and can explain clearly to the reader why they do this.  At the moment the big boys have us running scared. They can put out ‘mainstream’ work at £7 or £8 for ebooks or they can drop the price to 49p. It’s very hard for the reader to work out what they are getting either by price or by visibility.  And the ‘indie’ who publishes before they are ready and then charges actually makes it hard for everyone. Indies need to try to protect the reputation of non-mainstream media. And we need to be our own gatekeepers. How hard that is when you are a new writer I can only imagine.

But on reflection I think it’s positive that McStorytellers published Lee Carrick’s ‘The Care Home.’ It got a monkey off his back, it gave him the chance to ‘enter the fray’ and sundry other opportunities including being subjected to my ‘views.’ At 77p I don’t think anyone should be asking for their money back.  And this is ‘voicing’ the unvoiced. Which is a good thing.   Would there were more publishers like McStorytellers who are committed to this rather goal than to making a buck and flooding the market and peddling unlikely dreams.  We have a long way to go in this revolution. Everyone needs to play their part. We need to keep talking about it. Not about ‘quality’ and ‘bad writing’ but about how to understand reader expectations and how to meet them.  About how to present ourselves to the readership in the best light, not just about how to achieve maximum visibility.   I have much, much more to say on this and I think it’ll probably come out during the Edinburgh eBook Festival in August.

Meanwhile, there are interesting things afoot with McStorytellers.  I’ll update you on that when the ‘cat’ is ready to come out of the bag. Soon.  But till then, enjoy the suspense.

Thanks Lee for taking constructive and well meant criticism so well and for giving me not just a story to think about but so much more. That’s what I mean by adapting reader expectation folks.  For 77p I not only got a novel but also much food for thought. 


About callyphillips

6 Responses to Reviewing the review…

  1. Jan Needle says:

    thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, cally – and it made me buy the book! pricing is a constant weirdness, and not only in the ebook world. last time i went to the theatre, in manchester, my seat was priced at thirty odd quid. sixty for two. and nobody seems to think that’s too expensive. then a novel comes out at eighteen pounds and everyone seems horrified. the play lasts three hours, the novel several days – and then goes to anyone else who wants to borrow it. in the eworld, if i priced one of my novels at eighteen pounds, people would call the men in white coats.

    • I think £30 is too expensive for a seat at the theatre. But that’s why I don’t go any more (or one reason of many) I’m not sure I’d pay £30 for ANYTHING any more entertainmentwise. But you urban cultured types can afford it ha ha. I’m not sure that people are selling lambs for much more than £30 these days. As you say, pricing is WEIRD in the capitalist world. Lucky I don’t believe in money really.

  2. Brilliantly debated, as ever, Cally. I suppose my motto (and therefore that of McStorytellers) is readership and author promotion at little or no cost. That’s Stage 1. Then, once we’re all famous, we’ll proceed to Stage 2 and hike up the prices. Aye, right…

    • Brendan Gisby. I would happily pay £2.99 for your fiction. £1.99 for the short stories. I have an inbuilt ‘Callyvaluesystem’ (patent applied for) which I adopt and your work is certainly worth market value. BUT I think you may be onto a ‘marketing’ strategy of selling ‘boxed set’ of paperback and ebook for under a fiver. That’s the bargain of the century to my mind. And must more or less be cutting your throat with every sale. Readers, of course need to wake up to the fact that writers are NOT getting anything like the full sale price as royalties – and think about where the money IS going.

  3. Mari Biella says:

    Interesting post, Cally. I tend to price my work cheaply, and have even considered just giving it all away for free, and I think that yes, this is indeed partly due to a lack of confidence. If I didn’t have faith in my work then I’d never consider publishing it, but at the same time I am an unknown and something of a beginner, and I’ve only a vague idea of what readers’ expectations are. I certainly do worry about people feeling that they’ve wasted their money, and want to avoid that.

    And yet, having said that, as a reader I can’t remember ever finishing a book – even a book I really didn’t enjoy – and thinking ‘That was a waste of money.’ I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so bad that I couldn’t get anything at all from it (and I’ve read a handful of really terrible books in my time!) And so there is, perhaps, much to be said for placing a reasonable price tag on books. My ideas on this are not yet fixed, and I find myself being swayed first one way and then the other.

    I agree that a writer should certainly have written a work to the best of their ability before they hit ‘publish’. When I publish, I am in effect saying ‘This is the best I can do at the present moment.’ More to the point, perhaps, that is what I tend to believe other writers are saying, too. I’d feel disappointed if I read a published book only to find that an author largely rewrote it later it on the basis of reader comments.

  4. Julia Jones says:

    Quite agree that using paying readers almost as sounding boards, then taking the work back down to re-write is NOT good practice. Perhaps if clearly stated as a first draft, and priced accordingly … ? All the same not to be done lightly or wantonly

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