Boyd Tonkin: Down in the mine of self-publishing, fortune favours the digital-media elite

The Week in Books

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Some of the best-known shots by Sebastiao Salgado - to my mind, the greatest photographer alive – depict an ant-like horde of freelance gold prospectors as they scrabble in the mud for that elusive nugget in the Serra Pelada mines of Brazil.

I think of those iconic images when I read starry-eyed hype about the fame and fortune available through digital self-publishing. A tiny handful of hopefuls will find that life-changing crock of gold. Rather more will just about emerge unscathed. A vast crowd of thwarted wannabes will wallow in the muck, viciously at war with every rival, and scramble from the pit to nurse their wounds. All the while, overseers will crack the whip and make sure that the old bosses profit most from any glittering discovery.

Serra Pelada came to mind again when I saw Amazon trumpet the 2012 bestsellers from its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) programme. First, a health warning: all Amazon statistics emerge from inside a corporate PR machine with zero transparency. Trust them at your own risk. According to Amazon, self-published KDP authors accounted for 15 of its top 100 titles on Kindle. It says that 50 authors have earned more than £50,000 from KDP income, and 11 over £100,000.

So who are the lucky few who locate the nuggets in the mud? Almost all offer formulaic genre material – thrillers, police procedurals, sagas and romances – written according to commercial-fiction norms. Digital chart-toppers tend to mimic genre favourites in print but (at £1.49, 99p or even free) hammer them on price.

Nonetheless, big traditional publishers have begun – like vigilant gold-mine overseers – to treat the DIY e-books sector as a practice ground for mass-market fiction. At numbers one and three on the 2012 KDP chart stand a pair of David Nicholls-style romcoms by Nick Spalding, Love… from both sides and Love… and sleepless nights. Coronet will soon issue paperback editions of both. Prolific US crime writer Katia Lief also has two titles in the KDP top ten; another of her mysteries – Watch You Die – appears from Ebury this month. Thanks to Pan, the DS Jessica Daniels thrillers by KDP favourite Kerry Wilkinson will also be assuming physical form soon.

On one level, what strikes me most about this process is the paradox – very familiar in the history of media – that sets technological innovation in form alongside extreme conservatism in content. By and large, electronic self-publishing at its populist end still pours very old wine into pixellated bottles. Look at the backgrounds of those DIY authors who performed best, however, and a clear pattern emerges. Quite frequently, they turn out to be clued-up digital-media professionals.

Nick Spalding is a marketing specialist and copywriter; Mark Sennen (author of the DI Charlotte Savage crime series) a former programmer and web developer; Katia Lief a one-time publisher who teaches fiction in New York. Rachel Abbott, author of Only the Innocent and number two in the KDP chart, has run an interactive media company and designed software and websites. Not all the KDP sales stars belong to the expert digerati – Mel Sherratt was a Staffordshire housing officer – but the trend seems plain.

Such CVs tell a different tale to the legend of the plucky outsider who bypasses the closed doors of the publishing elite. Several of these DIY phenomena command all the moves required to work the system. It's as if a minority of Salgado's prospectors dived into the mine armed with doctorates in the geology of precious metals. Good luck to them. But for any fledgling author with a distinctive voice but without a repertoire of e-marketing techniques, a smart print publisher with editors who read remains the best option. It's rough, and lonely, down in the digital mine. If you fancy a punt, be prepared.

Dan Brown: Eco's dumber doppelgänger?

There's one critic above all whose verdict on Dan Brown's Dante-inspired novel Inferno - due in May - I yearn to read. You might even say that Umberto Eco invented Brown and the Da Vinci Code cult. Eco's 1988 novel Foucault's Pendulum both anticipated and parodied the whole occult-quest phenomenon. Dante has also played a part in the work of the Milanese polymath for decades. Sometimes, Eco must worry that he has a dumbed-down doppelganger in a preppy New Englander's tweed jacket.

The stag's leap from pain to poetry

Congratulations to Sharon Olds, who on Monday became the first American woman to take the TS Eliot poetry prize, ahead of an A-list shortlist, and garlanded by a stellar trio of poet-judges led by Carol Ann Duffy. Stag's Leap, her winning volume, recounts the end of a 30-year marriage and the scorching pain of abandonment with an intensity that has had critics reaching, as often with Olds's verse, for the "confessional" label.

But the poet herself points to the gap between life and work; the gulf of art any poet must cross. Though couched in the gender language of 1921, the aptest words come from Eliot himself ("Tradition and the Individual Talent"): "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."