Consider Kindle Unlimited. For $10 a month, a reader in possession of an electronic reading device can access a library (Amazon advertises it contains over 1 million titles) of self, indie, and large house published stories and books. The sheer volume boggles the mind: all those stories, all those words, all those pages.
Over on Twitter, some published authors have recently broken taboo and shared their advances under the hashtag “publishing paid me”. Numbers range from the few thousands to, of course, the six figure and even millions (usually for a multiple book contract) of dollars. Many on twitter were astounded to find how small some authors advances were. An advance can be described as a publisher’s gamble on how well a book will sell. It’s not a gamble in the purist sense because publishers can control to some degree, through marketing, what sells. And clearly, sitting on a large advance and the freedom and time this gives a writer to create will impact the product. Some writers, most writers, have to keep their day jobs.
This commodification of books, or stories, has been a bit of a hang up of mine. I went to graduate school for creative writing. We spent hours in workshops sharing and discussing each other’s writing. We paid (a lot) for the privilege of doing so. To a lesser degree, we learned about and discussed how to make a living doing this, putting words on a page. And years on, some graduates are making a living writing or teaching writing or editing or other jobs that people who have studied words do.
I am not. Not that I wouldn’t love to get paid for writing or editing or teaching writing. But I don’t.
A classmate once compared the experience of being in a workshop with one specific professor to being tossed about in a rock tumbler and coming out of it as a shiny gem. I have to admit that, in those hallowed halls of higher learning, I applied that image to the whole experience of publishing. I really fell for the myth that the only good stories, the only ones worth reading are those that have been tossed around in the rock tumbler of workshops and editing and revisions and knocked into a smooth shine. I didn’t bother to examine that sometimes all that comes out of the rock tumbler is a pile of dust or that the dull, craggy rocks are usually a hell of a lot more fascinating than the sleek uniformity produced by the tumbler.
I still read words and consume and learn about the world in this way but lately, much of my reading and listening and general consumption of written ideas has been shadowed by a thought that seems to intervene between me and my enjoyment of the written word. Imagine, if you will, holding a smooth, thick piece of paper in a dark room. You’ve been told that this piece of paper contains another person’s story, their truth but you can’t see what it is. You move closer to a window in the room and the dim light reveals that the paper is glossy as well as thick and smooth. And then you look up a realize there’s a shade over the window and behind that a cloud has been intercepting the sun light all along.
The cloud and the shade are a bit like the publishing industry and workshops. And when those are removed and under the full light of the sun, you see that this is a photograph and you can make out all the finest details and little nuggets of truth and humanity. And this photograph is a story.
Sorry. I’m mixing metaphors now. What are stories? Are they rocks? Or are they photographs? They are both. And a lot more. Stories and poems and essays are even the shiny, tumbled stones. But in spite of what the NYT Bestseller list and publishers and even agents might try to tell us, that’s not the only thing they are. I’ve been staring at those shiny stones for so long, wanting to make my own just like them, that I haven’t been able to see all the rocks and photographs and birds and swords and trains and fountain pens and on and on and on that are also stories.
Not too long ago, I would have scoffed at an indie press book much less something self-published. If it hadn’t been through the tumbler, it would undoubtedly be riddled with typos and cliches and vague language and other crimes against language. This, of course, is a wrong-headed way of thinking. But, like I said above, I had sipped some of that kool-aid.
But not long ago, I read a few books that were NYT Bestsellers and I couldn’t shake the feeling that as much as I wanted to connect to the authors, their agents and editors and beta readers and conversations about “what would sell” seemed to keep stepping in between us like that cloud and that window shade as I tried to discern what was in the photograph in a dark room. So I pulled out my kindle and I started looking through Kindle Unlimited self published books.
I found one, Brotherhood of Secrets and Lies by Lashonda Beauregard. And I was captivated. It was a short, quick read in an efficient 80 pages not wasted on delving into character development or much exposition. It was a college campus murder mystery. It reminded me of an episode of Law and Order. I even thought, “This is like the old TV show 21 Jumpstreet,” and, lo, one of the characters was actually watching that show in an 80s flashback. And in that moment it felt like the author, Lashonda Beauregard, and I had some of the same cultural touchstones and that this is one of the things I had been looking for in a book, in a story. I wanted to be entertained, which I was, and I wanted to connect with the author even if it was something as seemingly superficial as a TV show, which I did. And I wanted to just read a story without feeling the presence of the agent and the editor and the beta readers, just me and the author. And I wanted to read something where there was no moral complexity or ambiguity in the characters. In other words, I wanted to escape the messiness of the real world for a place where the answers are all obvious and laid-bare. And that’s what happened. Thankfully, Beauregard has more books on Kindle Unlimited.
I’m willing (and thankfully able) to pay the $10 a month to pay for this access. And, in fact, I’m happy to pay for it to have access to self published authors. From my point of view, it’s a panacea to the monopoly that the big publishing houses (and even, although to a lesser degree, the indie houses) have had on story telling. And, trust me, I know that Amazon is the enemy. But I can’t help but think about how, in its original iteration, Amazon was a book distributor. And the other thing that I can’t help but think about is that this platform gives writers so much freedom and control over their own work. They can choose to spend money on editors and graphic artists and copy editors or they can choose not to. They can even hire marketers or do their own marketing or do nothing at all. Lastly, for those signed up with Kindle Unlimited, they are paid based on the number of standardized pages that are read. In other words, if people are really into what you are creating: YOU GET PAID. If not, then you don’t get paid. Now, of course, as someone who doesn’t have any work on Kindle Unlimited, I have no idea whether the amount writers end up getting paid is fair or not, but as a reader it makes me feel like by the very act of reading pages, I am supporting authors I like. If anyone knows of any platforms (electronic or otherwise) that allows writers as much independence and to have as much ownership while also connecting them to an audience AND paying them based on audience response and experience, please drop a link in the comments. Thanks.