After the gold rush

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prospector

One of the fascinating things about being a self-published author is watching the industry grow and change.

It feels like the California gold rush. There’s gold in them thar hills! So saddle up an ornery mule, pack a Winchester rifle and a banjo, and let’s grow a beard. This time next year we’re going to be zillionaires.

You just know it’s going to end in tears, don’t you?

The vast majority of gold prospectors didn’t get rich. They found themselves trapped in a job with long hours, little pay and huge risk. Some got struck it lucky and hit the mother lode. Most either struggled to get by or gave up and did something else.

The only people who got rich from the gold rush were the ones selling the mules, Winchester rifles and banjos. Running the saloons, selling burgers, making jeans. The hard-headed business folk who made money out of other people’s dreams.

The self-publishing industry is the same. Everyone dreams of being the next JK Rowling. Most end up selling a few dozen or hundred copies in a niche market.

And we now have a whole industry who exist only to sell us banjos and mules. Amazon is stuffed to the rafters with “how to” books. How to write a best-selling book. How to market it. How to promote on Goodreads. The list is … apparently … endless.

And in some ways that is a good thing. For a small fee we can tap into the experience of someone who knows more than we do. We can avoid some of the mistakes that new authors make. Our investment in a “how to” book will be repaid many times over. Life will be sweet.

But there is a problem. A few canny authors have spotted this need and have found a quick and easy way to fill it. We are seeing a rash of skinny books that promise the earth but only barely qualify as a book. I am talking about books that are 50 to 80 pages long.

This is how it works…

  • you find a topic that you know something about and that other people might be interested in
  • you write a quick book of around 70 pages.
  • pad it out with diagrams and lists.
  • Get the information you need from the internet. Google is your friend.
  • Market it as “50 secrets for ….” whatever
  • Price it at coffee money – around £2 or £3.
  • Promote it aggressively
  • Write another one.
  • Repeat.

In the past few months I have bought a fair few of these “how to” books. I am close to publishing another novel and don’t want to make some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past. It’s sensible research. At least, that is what I have been telling myself.

And what I have found is that roughly half of the books are genuine books. They are 200+ pages long with lots of relevant information. The author clearly knows what they are talking about. You can tell that the book took them a long time to write. It’s a quality product. You feel like you are being fed a proper meal.

The other half of the “how to” books are far less substantial. For some reason they always seem to pitch in at around 70 pages. They make bold claims on the cover. They contain some useful information, but just as you are getting interested the book ends. There is only so much you can cram into 70 pages.

Perhaps the most useful thing in these books is that they often have a list of useful websites for further information. And that’s when it hits you. These books have a list of useful websites because that is what the author used to write the book. They take their own experiences, add a little bit of Google research and – hey presto – we have a book. If something only 70 pages long can be called a book.

This isn’t a satisfying meal. It’s a starter. A snack.

Let’s not call it a book. It’s a pamphlet. A Googlebook. A goo book. Goo.

Here I am in two minds. Part of me wants to applaud the authors for having the gumption to spot a gap in the market and to fill it. These skinny books are often well produced and well marketed. Some get good reviews, although it is open to question how many of the reviews are down to astute marketing.

But another part of me can’t help feeling just a little bit cheated. I’m paying £3 for a third of a book. That’s equivalent to £9 for a full book. And any book would need to be very special for me to pay that.

There is a solution. Readers will eventually get wise to these tricks. They will vote with their feet and avoid the skinny goobooks. Soon, readers won’t just look at the covers and the “look inside” section. They will also check out the number of pages.

There is also a lesson here for authors. If we want the self-publishing industry to flourish then we need to give value for money. That means that we need to give our customers more than a pretty cover, a promise-it-all title, an appealing blurb and a slew of reviews that we have managed to procure.

We need to provide content. There has to be something useful inside the covers. More than just 70 pages.

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