Kindle, And The Bloody Burden of Expectation

Added on 29 March 2011

There's a great line near the end of Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner realises that the baseball player on the other side of the diamond is his father as a young man, brought back to him because Kevin built the field in the middle of a patch of corn. 'My God,' he says. 'I only saw him years later when he was worn down by life.'

The first time I saw the movie that line went whoosh, straight over my head. I was in my early twenties, it was just another line. The second time I say it, a few years later, it was not long after my dad had died, and I pretty much blubbed through the last ten minutes anyway so I missed it then too. Skooch forward eighteen years or so, and I saw it again quite recently. When he said that line, The Parent Currently Known As Mum and I looked at each other and fell about laughing. Not, of course, because it's a funny line; ours was a sad, maniacal laughter born of close on thirteen years of parenthood, low job satisfaction, and with the horrors of living with two teenagers still before us. And given that in the movie Costner was a teenager when his father died, presumably the fellow wasn't that much older than I am now. And he was worn down by life.

And just when you think that life is wearing enough, along comes another thing to suck dry the soul of a jobbing writer. Self-publishing on Kindle.

All right, self-publishing on Kindle does afford the average writer a wonderful opportunity. Straight to the reader, no publisher interference, and without the middle man, there's a higher cut of the profits. And, in fact, since there are no printing costs, aside from getting the cover designed and maybe editing and proofing if you can't get someone to do it for you for free, it's all profit.

The major downside, of course, comes from not selling as much as you'd like. And the trouble with Kindle is that the sky's the limit. With regular books sales, you look at the Bookseller Top Ten and it's all Jamie this and Dan effing Brown that and the Girl With The Blah de Blah, and you know you're not competing with them. One doesn't get depressed by the fact that Jamie's sold one and a half million of a cookbook that no one will use, because he's super-famous, he's on TV all the time, and he has the most successful publishing behemoth in the UK behind him.

But look at the Kindle Top Ten. It's a totally different set of titles (Larsson aside). It's completely rewriting the way people buy and read books. There are self-published titles aplenty. Anyone can get in there, with a good book, a decent cover and a minimum of marketing. Maybe the book doesn't even have to be any good. And they're selling hundreds a day, thousands a week, tens of thousands a month. Expectations of what a self-published author can achieve have just flown out the window.

I've sold a thousand downloads in the last two months. I've probably never sold a thousand books in two months in my puff, so more people are reading Barney Thomson than ever before... and yet it feels rubbishly unsuccessful, because I'm no longer comparing myself to Jamie and Nigella and Stieg, I'm comparing myself to all the other folk in the exact same position as I am. So instead of thinking, fucking check me by the way, I've sold a thousand books, I'm just thinking, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...

Then there's the time frame. With print publishing you write your book. You let it stew for a while. You send it to your agent. You wait. He reads it. He either says do this or do that, or he sends it to the publishers. You wait some more. Eventually you get an answer. The answers come in slowly, and you wait some more until all the answers are in. Then you either go back to the drawing board, or you get a publishing deal, in which case you wait a lot longer; waiting for the book to get published, waiting for the critical reaction, waiting to see if anyone will buy it.

It all happens at the pace of a tree growing.

With Kindle, the waiting is gone. You write the book, you put it on Kindle. You mention it in blogs and in forums, and then an hour later you look to see if anyone's bought it yet. And you go on looking. And then you look some more. You become attached to the computer. Eventually your children start asking where dad is.

For establishing what is marketing best practice, it's perfect. Finger on the pulse, instantly lets you know what works and what doesn't. However, for sanity, well-being, state of mind and for keeping you from being worn down by life, it's absolutely shit.

I like waiting. I'm used to waiting. Waiting is good. Sadly, waiting is very last century, which is where I belong.


And, of course, I want to sell tens of thousands of books on Kindle, so I have to keep going. So... I've changed the cover of the Barney Thomson novella The End of Days. It really is the "best thriller ever written". Click on the link below and buy it, and in an hour I can look and see if anyone has.

To paraphrase the corn field: Put it on Kindle and they will come.

Well they might. And they might not. But either way you're going to turn out like Kevin Costner's dad.