Throughout my publishing career, there have always been authors who complain that they are not fairly compensated for their writing. That complaint is often couched in a comparison of their income to someone else writing in the same genre who is doing significantly better. Furthermore, the complaining author has judged that person to be undeserving of their success.
Most complaints fall into two categories: 1) The book or article is deemed poorly written. Usually words like “pedestrian” or “lazy” are used in the description; or 2) Distributors (ebook vendors, bookstores, social media) don’t have a fair playing field and allow for cheaters to thrive.
Though I do understand the desire to have more control over one’s income, I believe that expending a lot of energy on complaining is a losing proposition. This is particularly true if the blame is against a distributor who has thousands of other authors waiting to become the next star.
The other thing that always concerns me is that the author rarely thinks that there might be something wrong with her work; that there is something to be learned from those who are successful. I always look at myself first and ask what am I doing that is different from those who are more successful. Most of the time it has to do with studying the market and understanding the impact of choices I’ve made about what to write, putting in more hours, and doing things that I don’t find fun — social media and list building — but are required to have a long term career.
Here is what I’ve learned about evaluating writing quality and how distributors operate.
Why Does Poor Writing Get Rewarded?
As the old adage goes: “Beauty (or art) is in the eye of the beholder.”
As a longtime published writer, both with traditional publishers and as an independent publisher, I’ve improved my craft with each book. Yet, I still have plenty to learn. I’ve found that I am a much harsher critic of books than most readers. What I may judge as poor writing is often not what most readers notice or pick up.
Even my husband — who was a professional editor and writer for major magazines and publishers for two decades — continues to read certain books, with some typos and the occasional grammar problems; and what he calls lazy writing. He rails against the craft of the writer when he finishes each book. When I ask him: “Then why do you keep reading him when you think he isn’t a good writer?” The answer is always because the story is so good. It draws him in and keeps him turning the pages, and he is counting the days until the next book is released.
Quality of story is always a personalized experience. What I judge as “crap” someone else thinks is amazing. I’ll give you a personal example. I really disliked Fifty Shades of Gray. Not only did the subject matter bother me, but I thought the writing wasn’t very good. In fact, I didn’t finish the book. However, this book became a bestseller along with the two sequels. It has had three successful movies made of the story. I am not a good judge of what readers want — particularly readers who don’t have the same interests as I do.
Why would this novel — which started as fan fiction for the Twilight series about vampires and romance for young adults — be picked up by a major publisher and made a bestseller? The answer is because craft isn’t everything, but story is.
This story resonated with a lot of people, particularly women. It hit in a time when our society was more open about women’s desires and sexual exploration. This story also used one of the most well-known romance tropes as its foundation — the Beauty and the Beast myth. It’s the wish fulfillment fantasy of an ordinary girl, with a heart of gold, finding a rich, powerful man to take care of her. The twist to the original myth is that there is no physical transformation from beast to handsome prince and there is some kinky sex that is tempered with the requirement of male emotional intimacy and transparency. Just as in the Beauty and the Beast myth, that requirement for emotional transparency allows the woman to “fix” the wounded man.
For those of you who loved the book, I’m sure you’ll tell me there was so much more to that story. Maybe there was. As I said, I didn’t finish it. However, the point is that many good stories are built on well-known mythical structures. And those structures provide us comfort and familiarity while introducing something that is perhaps not so comfortable. That’s the twist.
So, I may not have enjoyed aspects of the story myself, but I understand why it works and why it did well. With a little study, anyone can find out why any particular book works. You can determine what types of readers it is reaching, and then decide to write those kinds of books. I know a number of authors who do approach their writing that way. It’s called “writing to market;” and they are very successful.
For me, I’ve decided to write a different kind of book. I still use certain tropes. I don’t think I can escape that. But I don’t write straight down the genre and often mash-up genres in my novels. In making that decision, it means I have to find readers who are interested in my kind of book.
There are readers for almost anything an author can conceive. It’s just harder to find them if you aren’t writing straight down the middle of the genre or in a trending market. That is a decision I’ve made, and there is no reason I should complain about the success of other authors who have made a different decision and are more successful.
Distributors and How They Operate
Most distribution platforms are in the business of getting more readers. This applies to book distributors like Amazon, Kobo, Google, Apple, or any e-zine, blogging platform, or paper magazine you may write for pay. More readers means income. More income means profit. Distributor databases and algorithms are geared to finding out what readers want to read and then delivering to them more examples of what they want to read.
Let’s take Medium as an example. Medium is a blogging platform with a payment algorithm based on not only the number of people who choose to read an article, but on how much of the article they appear to read. When you become a member of Medium, you complete screens of information designed to find out what types of articles you are interested in reading. These screens are used to form a profile of your tastes and then deliver those articles to you based on the categories you selected, the keywords you identified, and other demographics about who you are.
But that’s not the only thing that Medium will do. They also track which authors you follow; and will give you opportunities to read more articles by those individuals. If you choose to read a featured article that perhaps didn’t fit into the pre-selected categories and keywords you provided initially, they know that and will give you an opportunity to read what they deem are articles similar to what you’ve read before.
Other distribution platforms do the same, with Amazon being touted as the one with the most complex algorithms to attract more sales and readers. Just like Medium, Amazon tracks what you buy and tries to show you other books like that based on each books genres, keywords, relationships to similar readers, and more. Amazon asks you to follow your favorite authors so they can always let you know when there are books available from that author. Amazon will always show other books in the category of your book in order to entice readers to buy another book before leaving.
Amazon will also show “sponsored” books before category suggestions. These are books paid by advertising for placement on specific pages. In the end, Amazon is out to make a profit and they will do it in the best way they can — whether that is with ads or with algorithms that match bestsellers to similar books in the category. Kobo, Apple, Google, and any other distributor you can name has some type of algorithm to promote sales. Some are better than others, but they all have it.
Whatever you may think of the various algorithms employed by distributors, it’s important to understand that their goal is never to have the algorithm work against a particular author or genre. The goal is to make it easier for the reader to find what she wants to read quickly and to make a purchase. In the case of Amazon, Kobo, Nook, Google that is the purchase of a book or audiobook. In the case of Medium, Amazon, Audible, and many other monthly pay platforms that is also the purchase of a subscription. In all cases it goes to income. That income then becomes a part of which pays authors their share and brings in more profits for the distributor.
As with any automated system, it is true that distributor algorithms can be gamed and that a certain number of people will expend a lot of energy gaming the system instead of looking to write better books. When you identify that, you can send that information to the distributor and hope it changes. However, in my experience, it takes an upswell of complaints before they act. When the cheaters and scammers begin to impact the business’s bottom line they do invest in change. I’ve seen this on Amazon in the past two years.
These complaints often begin with a suggestion that distributor payment is unfair, or that there is built in bias in the payment algorithm (e.g., certain people get selected for an extra push or feature, certain publishers get better terms than others). Certainly it’s possible, but not in the way I think of bias. Most algorithms are based on what is seen to be most profitable for the business or publication. For example, Amazon algorithms weight sales higher than anything else they track. (It is reported they track over 300 variables). That means if this month books about race car drivers are most popular, they will give an extra push to other books about race car drivers. If Amazon discovers that a certain number of positive reviews are correlated with more sales, they will push any books with that number of positive reviews. That number is about 50 right now by the way.
Authors often get very upset that those who are already popular get their books seen more often than those who are struggling but have equally “good” books. The algorithm doesn’t attempt to evaluate “good”. It’s a machine following rules. There is no person or gang of people who are reading books and making a good/bad value judgement. The algorithm evaluates clicks, how long people stay on a page, how often they come back, and ultimately sales. If a book is selling it is more likely to sell more and Amazon is a for profit company so they will feature it prominently.
Does it make it harder for those starting out? Yes. Is it fair? Yes. There is nothing that says Amazon or any other distribution platform owes any author a lift out of obscurity. That is not their business model. Their business model is to make a profit just like the author’s business model.
It took me eight novels before I really started to see traction in my fiction business. If you write articles for blogs or zines, or short stories to sell. It is significantly more than eight unless you’ve been picked up as one of those writers who can command $1,000 for 700 words. Whether you are writing long form or short form it takes time over a long period–often years to begin to make an income that will actually pay some bills.
It also means I have to decide each day where my typical four to six thousand words I write are going to go. To my next novel? To a blog or a zine? To a short story anthology? To a guest post? To a nonfiction book? To starting a new series vs adding a book to an established series? Every decision impacts each of those products that bring me income. Some of the time I’ll not write an article because I’m close to getting a book done and I know that when that book is released there is a certain amount of income I can expect. Other days, I’m willing to put in the time to build my short work portfolio with the plan that eventually the volume will pay off. Other times, I put in time that won’t generate a single cent of income in the short term. But I’m looking to expand readership through blogging here, through guest posts on other platforms. By expanding readership, I am investing in a longer term goal: more readers equals more potential buyers who already like me. Therefore more income over a longer term.
If I decide not to write that day, for any reason, I’ve made a decision not to make money that day.
As with any publisher, if you don’t like the rules or the compensation you have three choices: 1) Suck it up and do what you need to do to be successful 2) Provide constructive criticism and hope it makes a difference; or 3) Leave. Why would anyone stay with a publisher or distributor if it doesn’t meet their expectations?
What Did I Learn From “Crappy” Writing That I Can Use?
In the end, I think there is something writers mistake — that is that quality writing equals success. It can, but it isn’t required, and there are more pieces to success than just good writing.
Decent writing on a topic/story that people want to read equals success. If one’s writing is more than decent, all the better. But spending time comparing one’s writing to another author’s craft, and then making judgments that someone else doesn’t “deserve” high payment, is a waste of time and effort.
If high payment matters, then study why it is happening and mimic it. Study the market. Write down the middle of the genre. Be topical. Keep up with trends. Build large email lists and engage with fans. All of those can lead to success without having to be the best writing craft person.
If writing excellence matters to you, then study it and realize that great craft alone is not a guarantee. It has always been and will always be about the story. Does it grab enough people and interest them? Is the tension palpable? Can the reader identify with the character or with you, the narrator? Does it deliver on the promise you made in the beginning? Great story and craft together is an amazing combination.
Most of all write, learn, improve, and write again. Without product there is no success.