Our Star Authors: Special Victims Unit

KyKyPy3HuK / iStockphoto
KyKyPy3HuK / iStockphoto

Their numbers speak more loudly than their words.

The “indie bestsellers”‘ among us become Million Kindle Club members when they hit 1 million sales. Most go on to become double Million Kindle Club members. Then triple. At least one of them headed for BookExpo America’s Author Hub (BEA) in May, Barbara Freethy, has passed the 4 million mark. H.M. Ward is on the other side of 5 million.

Me: Yes, but have you read them?

Authors: No, I sure haven’t.

Their bios are spiky with numbers. Big numbers. How many titles on the market? How many times on the New York Times bestseller list? How many weeks on the USA Today list? How many series out so far? How many books in each series? How many foreign publishers? How many followers? How many works in the pipeline?

And, oh yeah, they write, too.

Notoriety, of course, is one currency in which these “indie bestsellers” trade. They earn that fame the hard way, managing their sales, marketing, appearances, travel schedules, correspondence — most (but not all) with the help of literary agents, sometimes publicists, maybe accountants. They’re often backed by generous spouses, patient families, faithful friends.

And, oh right, right, they write books.

Me: Yes, and have you read them?

Authors: No, sure haven’t.

Most recently, I had this wickedly concise exchange many times in Charleston, South Carolina, where the PubSmart writers’ conference was having its inaugural run at the Francis Marion Hotel on King Street.

Me: You haven’t read any of them?

Authors: No. I really should, though.

Yes, you really should.

The Rise of the Political/Entrepreneurial Author

I’m talking “political” as in the industry! the industry! of publishing. Business politics. Not the kind of politics going down in Washington. In the rising class of non-aligned authors in the States, the stuff of politics is influence. Who can draw a crowd of 600 at a convention? Who can pull 1,000? Who can persuade fence-sitters to ante up $400 for a conference? Who can sit on three discoverability panels in one day and still be making sense in the third?

The publishing industry’s politics have become vested in two great parties: The Publishers Party might be most easily considered our conservative wing. The Authors Party comprises the upstarts at this point in history, so we might see them as the more liberalizing influence on the biz.

Far be it from me to pin this tale on anybody’s donkey or elephant, but we do a lot of mincing around the issue of industry politics because who wants to be called a politician? Nevertheless the role, loosely defined, is regularly thrust upon many in our community as we all stagger through the digital disruption of books…which designer Peter Meyers this week told me for The Bookseller’s #PorterMeets is going to play out over decades, not years.

That’s right, decades, not years.

Have another drink, I’m going to.

One creature on our landscape, then —  mindful that this isn’t what he or she may have set out to be — is the writer-political, the highly successful entrepreneurial author, the outlier, the Kindle Million Club member who is:

  • capturing everybody’s admiration with these stunning sales figures,
  • engaging with big numbers of faithful fans, and
  • sharing their myriad (count ’em) experiences with the rest of us.

At London Book Fair, a group of seven of the “Indie Bestsellers,” with more than 15 million book unit sales between them, took a booth together. In May, at least five of them, including Freethy, will be the headliners in BEA’s Author Hub, designed as a working base of operation for professionally dedicated entrepreneurial authors.

A squad of attendant figures relatively appears alongside these frontrunners. For example, there are leadership members of the UK-based Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), serving as guides and advisors to many other authors. And, thanks to the Internet’s worldwide platform for community, there are author-bloggers with vast followings and bustling commentary sections on their sites — these folks, too, are de-facto political figures, some of them tireless firebrands in rallying the self-publishing legions like eloquent carnival barkers at an international fair.

Me: Yes, but have you read them, either?

Authors: Nope, just don’t ever get time.

And isn’t that a remarkable thing?

What if you’re heeding the advice of somebody whose work simply sucks? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to find that out? The idea that high sales numbers mean a book or film or song or TV show are good is a myth, as we all know. Success in popular markets comes to some artists of excruciating talent such as violinist Josh Bell. It also comes to Justin Bieber. If you aspired to a musical career, wouldn’t you want to know which JB you were following?

When Women Were Women

It used to be that the way you became aware of an author as anything but a name was by reading that author. You read a review, or you happened to spot a book at a store, or you were tipped off by a friend to a good book. You got the book. You read the book. And this was pretty much what you knew of that author and how you knew her or him. That is to say, it was about the writing.

Granted, some authors have always been in the news for various stances on current affairs and so on. And many have been discovered by readers through film adaptations of their work.

But we probably are looking at a new variant of the famous author in terms of these fast-rising, articulate “indie bestsellers” who are looked to for guidance and followed so faithfully by the vast crowds of aspirational authors out there…authors who, if my own irritating questions’ responses are any indication, aren’t reading these leaders’ books.

Me: So which ones have you read?

Authors: Not a one. I don’t read romance or science fiction.

Hugging Howey, Learning Lyons

The two “indie bestsellers” I was asking about at PubSmart were Hugh Howey and CJ Lyons, both of whom were at the conference as able, energetic panelists and writing-community stars.

It would be hard to have found any conference attendees who didn’t know who Lyons and Howey are by reputation. And it would be nigh on impossible to find anyone who didn’t thoroughly enjoy meeting these two warm, personable, outgoing authors who together have sold some 6 million books.

Both Howey and Lyons are “hybrids,” of course, self-publishing some books, traditionally publishing others. Like most of their peers in the upper echelon of self-directed writers, they’re remarkably giving to others, always ready to explain the intricacies of what they do and to advise shy newcomers who want to learn from them. Howey has a little “Huggers Gonna Hug” campaign going. (Scrub in to timecode 5:10 on this video to see him unveil the new T-shirts.). As corny as he’ll be the first to admit it sounds, the positivist impulse is very close to the guy’s nature. It also may be a quiet clue to the emotional wear and tear of having industry players call you naive and misguided on a regular basis. Politics was never easy.

A fast and gracious tradition has developed among many of the seriously successful players in the entrepreneurial writers’ camp. This kind of “bring everyone else along with us” approach might be thought of as a true plank in The Authors Party platform. Community is not only where these people excel, it’s also an engine of their operations.

Howey engaged in an onstage interview with me at Charleston as a show-closer to PubSmart. In it, he had me question him in the time frame of November 2011— just as the original novelette that would become his flagship Wool trilogy was starting to sell. We heard from him about how he was happy in that autumn two-and-a-half years ago to make a mere $150 or $200 on his eight titles. (Yes, eight titles before the trilogy. This is no overnight success story. In November 2011, he had no idea that the triple-play of Wool, Shift, and Dust would catapult him into outlier status and draw a very promising film option from Ridley Scott’s team.

There are celebs who prefer not to talk about what it was like before their ships came in. But to a person, I find this dozen or so leading “indie bestsellers” today to be keenly aware of other writers as a major part of their fan bases — even as so many of those author-fans seem to skip reading them.

Lyons has a special site for aspiring writers, NoRulesJustWrite.com. Howey’s AuthorEarnings.com is his controversial effort to redress what he sees as an imbalanced perception of revenue potential for writers. Both writers blog prolifically for the benefit of other writers and other workers in the industry.

Aspirational authors do tend to read these folks blog posts, comments, interviews and other press. What don’t they seem to read? Their books.

And so it is that we see a new animal on the veld: it’s quite possible today to become famous as an author, particularly among other authors…who have not read your work.

Knowing, as we all do, that high-quality work (at least in the eyes of all beholders) is not required for major sales — not for nothing American Idol, right? — this means that an author whose work may not be of the caliber you might expect of an industry leader could, indeed, attain leadership status, purely on the basis of industry politics.

It’s important for me to tell you that I do read the “indie bestsellers” and I find their work generally very strong. A couple of them are genuine standouts with actionable talent in place and potentially rich artistic careers ahead.

And it’s worth considering as you watch the rank and file of the author community rightly follow the business moves of these bestsellers, that those same, applauding author-fans may be the last to actually read their heroes’ work.

Me: Yes, but have you read Wool? Or Sand? Or Peace in Amber? Or Broken? Or Blood Stained? Or Face to Face?

Author: Nope, any good? TC mark

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