A couple of weeks ago, I came across an advert on Facebook, thinly disguised as a 'suggested post'. It immediately struck me as not quite right. It was one of those 'too good to be true' adverts, and as this particular ad was clearly targeted at aspiring writers who might be a bit naive about the horrible exploitative culture directed at them, I decided to investigate.
It only took me two clicks to get to the bottom of what I believe is verging on a scam. I posted a comment to that effect on the 'suggested post.' My comment was deleted. I posted another comment, which was also deleted. Now, I am unable to post further comments. I have been 'banned', for sticking up for the fair treatment of new and aspiring writers. However, I will not be silenced.
First of all, here is a screenshot of the 'suggested post':
(The screenshot is actually a variation on the original ad I saw. The original made more 'in your face' claims about how to be a successful 'author'*.)
So, this screenshot shows an ad that is encouraging 'authors'* to learn how to sell their books successfully. This is just one example from a whole industry that is making money out of aspiring writers. Now, you may be wondering how this ad is going to get any money out of aspiring writers**, when it is offering a FREE course. I'll get to that shortly. But first, a word about this industry that is leeching money from aspiring writers** who should be earning money from their writing, not giving their cash away.
There are magazines aimed at writers that are published monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, whatever. They don't come cheap. These magazines offer tips about writing, inspirational quotes from famous writers, interviews with famous writers, lists of publishers, how-to guides on getting published, etc, etc. If you were to subscribe to a couple of these magazines for a year, it would make a serious dent in your income. And yet, these magazines are targeted at aspiring writers** (why the asterisks, you may be wondering - I'll answer that at the end of this blog post). These magazines also contain page after page of adverts for writers' courses, books about writing, residential writers getaway breaks, etc, etc. Everything and anything to try and persuade aspiring writers** to spend their money. But ask yourself this - do you think JK Rowling goes on these courses? Does she read book after book about writing skills from writers far less successful than herself? What about Stephen King? Ian McEwan? Did Charles Dickens need them? Jane Austen?
The art of storytelling was laid bare thousands of years ago in Aristotle's Poetics, which you can read for a small outlay in paperback, or next to nothing on various e-readers, or totally free from various websites. If you want to learn more, you can buy some excellent paperbacks or e-books by some bestselling authors who really know what they are talking about (see my recommended list, below). Not failures riding the coattails of the famous by publishing interviews and tired old 'inspirational' quotes in expensive glossy magazines.
Let me make myself clear: The art and craft of writing is not a secret. It's intricacies are as old as storytelling itself, and they need only practice and a self-critical eye to master them.
But wait, I hear you cry, the advert you object to is pushing selling, not writing. True. It is a tricky new entry into the field of exploitation of aspiring writers**. And it contains a nasty, evil deception. Read on.
If you were to click on the ad on Facebook, it would take you to a web page, a screenshot of which is below:
Now, under the rather self-satisfied, some might say smug, expression of this self-declared high-earner, we see some icons intended to give the guy some authenticity. And I agree with the assertion that this is indeed a golden age for writers (thankfully, he drops the term 'author' on that banner). Notice in the body text, the word 'FREE' - in bold, no less. This guy is offering, from the goodness of his very heart, to give you a FREE course that will help you to emulate his success, and become a best-selling 'author' (here we go again) and build your own six-figure annual income. This is FREE people! FREE, I TELL YOU! So, what happens, do you think, when you click further? Well, see for yourself on the screenshot below.
Yes, you may have already guessed it - the FREE course is about using a PAID advertising service on Facebook! EUREKA! For FREE I can learn how to spend my money on Facebook ads! You know those ads that everyone ignores? THEM! AWESOME! Below, is a screenshot from the web form you have to fill in to place adverts on Facebook - you will notice that it asks you how much you want to SPEND.
Not only that, but Facebook will require your bank details, in order to take payment:
Now, some of you may be thinking that it's worth it. That you would spend your money to advertise your lovingly crafted, self-published book on Facebook. Hey - it's your money. But I would implore you to do four simple things first:
1: Put a value - a cash value - on the time and effort you have put into writing that book. In other words, decide on an 'hourly rate' you think you deserve to earn as a writer. Work out how much profit you make from the sale of each copy of your book that you sell. (For most indie writers, you'll see it as a few pence / cents per unit... and that's before you account for the cost of all the stationery / electronics you used when writing. Then work out how many copies of your book you'll have to sell to cover your hourly rate and costs in order to make some money. Then ask yourself how many conversions of Facebook ads into sales you would need to make it happen. Try not to throw up.
2: Ask yourself how many of the truly successful writers you think had to pay to get their books advertised. Or did their publishers pay for the advertising, as well as giving the writer an advance and royalties because they could see the writing was good enough to sell?
3: Bear in mind that recently released figures showed that the average professional writer in the UK earns an annual salary of £11,000. Not enough to live on particularly comfortably, and when you consider how much time goes into writing and rewriting a book, well below the minimum wage!
4: Ask yourself this: Is your drive to write really about money, or about the art? Think about this one seriously. I would suggest that if you are chasing money, your focus is not on your art. Furthermore, if your writing is good enough, word will get around. It might not happen in your lifetime, but hey, why are you writing? For the expression, or for the cash? If you just want fame and cash from your writing, you will need a huge dollop of luck. For most writers - even talented, brilliant writers - it never comes. And it certainly won't come from little squares on Facebook pages that most people barely give a WTF to. Here is a short list of writers who became famous only after their deaths.
Lastly: Write well. If it's good enough, you won't need a course on how to advertise on Facebook.
*'Author' or 'writer'? Most people use the words inter-changeably. I would argue that there is a subtle difference in usage, regardless of what any dictionary might say. Most people would agree, I think, that author has a slightly higher register to it. It has hints of the word authority, for example. It also assumes that the work is complete. In other words, you can say you are writing a book, but you wouldn't really say you are authoring a book. To be a successful author, you need (only) have a successfully published book to your name. To be a successful writer, you have to write. You have to work. Katie 'Jordan' Price is a successful author. You'd struggle to find anyone who would seriously call her a writer, though. Someone does it for her. The distinction can be quite subtle, yes, but when it comes to sending sneaky, subliminal signals to unwary aspiring writers**, it's worth pointing out.
**'Aspiring writers'. I hate this term. It helps perpetuate a myth that there is some secret key, some mystical gateway, to becoming a writer beyond simply writing. And it is this myth that is exploited by the leeching industry that preys on those who see themselves as aspiring writers. They are looking for the key, the magic wand. People - there is none. Let's get this straight. If you write, you are a writer. There is nothing aspirational about it. As for success - success is in your mind. All too many people who fall for the myth, and consider themselves as aspirational writers, seem to think that success equals money. I'm not going to repeat myself here - re-read point 4, above.
I'm sure most of us would love the opportunity to sit down with our favourite successful (whatever that means) writer, and pick her or his brains. In the unfortunate circumstances of this not happening, there are actually a few really good books about writing out there that might cost you a small outlay, but are of high quality, and will cost you a lot less than subscribing to a half-arsed magazine for a year, or forking out for a residential writers' course run by failures and wannabes. The list below is not exhaustive, but in my opinion these books offer some of the best thoughts, advice and coaching for writers you can get. Here they are:
The Poetics by Aristotle. Where it all began, people.
Story by Robert McKee. This book was intended for screenwriters, but its study of story structure is incredible in its scope and detail. Many fiction writers keep it by their side. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
On Writing by Stephen King. This one has a slightly different approach, and contains a large amount of autobiographical detail. It certainly illustrates the fragile and slender line between financial success and failure in writing. King's approach to the craft of writing won't work for everyone, but it forms an interesting counterpoint to the structured approach of Robert McKee.
How to Write Damn Good Fiction by James N. Frey. Now, Mr Frey has come in for a certain amount of criticism over his behaviour (google it), and rightly so. However, in terms of advice and coaching for writing page-turning popular fiction, this book is simply terrific.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2015