Monday, 22 August 2011

Doing It Yourself

A lot of people in publishing will tell you that self-publishing is the mark of failure. It's the last ditch resort, they'll tell you, of anyone whose work is so terrible they have no chance of publishing through conventional means. Unlike a band who put out their own record, or a director who funds his own film on a shoestring, self-publishing is considered to be the last refuge of the talentless. Her work is so bad, the received wisdom says, that nobody else believes in it enough to put it out.

In the punk scene, it's the norm to put out your own record (or agree to let a friend do it for you). A large part of the culture of punk is the strength of feeling against mainstream culture, and the corporations who control it. Large entertainment corps like Sony EMI make millions of dollars from the exploitation of musicians. They own the creative endeavours of those who work for them - the music and words they write, and their performances. They can even shelve a band's album, and stop the band from releasing it themselves, if its in their interests to do so.

"Is the publishing industry really as bad as all that?", you might ask. "Surely it's not so corporately driven as the music industry." It's true that there are lots of small presses doing excellent work. It's often the small presses that take the risks; they're often run on a shoestring, by people who have day-jobs who run their publishing house in the evenings and at weekends. These sorts of presses are usually run for love, not money, and they don't make a lot. (One of my favourites is Nightjar Press, who have been putting out a series of short story chapbooks for the past couple of years now.) Big publishing houses, on the other hand, have a responsibility to generate profit for their shareholders, and that isn't always going to mean that they're publishing great literature. Katie Price biography, anyone?

In some cases, the publishing industry actively works against the wishes of its authors. Once the manuscript is sold, the writer may lose a certain amount of power over what happens next. You may not always have a say in how the book is marketed, or what the cover looks like. If you care about whether people will read your book, and whether the content of it is accurately represented by how it looks on the shelf, you will care about the cover. Some publishing houses (hello, Bloomsbury) are well-known for grossly misrepresenting their authors' work with egregious covers. As recently as 2010, Bloomsbury published novels by Justine Larbalestier and Jaclyn Dolamore, both of which had non-white protagonists, with white models on the cover. Why does it matter? Simple answer, it matters because it's racism. The same thing has been done to Ursula K Le Guin's work. There's a comprehensive article on 'whitewashing' on BookSmugglers here.

The tools for self-publishing are now within the reach of most authors. As Zetta Elliot says in her HuffPo article on self-publishing, "Writers today have options. We don't have to wait for someone else's stamp of approval".

There are loads of different ways to self-publish, from e-publishing to offset printing to print-on-demand; each has their advantages and disadvantages. Time spent researching the various methods to decide which will suit you, and your work best, will definitely pay off here. In short, as writer Hamish MacDonald says in his article Do-It-Yourself Book Press (on the No Media Kings website), "Generally, self-publishing involves an inverse relationship of work to money: The more work you’re willing to do, the more money you can save; the more you want to just skip to an end product, the more it’ll cost you".

Self-publishing isn't by any means an easy route, and to my mind if you're going to do it you should endeavour to do it well. There's nothing worse than a self-published book that looks self-published - dodgy formatting, spelling errors, unbelievably shonky sentence construction. You shouldn't look upon this route as a quick route to publication because the simple truth is, if your work is bad, nobody will want to read it. Your work should be the best it possibly can be before you bring it out into the public eye. There's an excellent, if somewhat acid, article by the writer Chuck Wendig on common errors that self-publishers make on his blog terribleminds: "You think publishing is full of mean ol’ myopic gatekeepers and you can do it better? How is anybody supposed to take you seriously when you can’t even approach a fraction of the quality found in books on bookstore shelves, books put out by publishers big and small? ... [if] you’re going to put something out there, make it count."

In other words, make sure your work is ready. Rewrite it, edit it, keep on polishing it the same as you would if you were trying to impress a 'professional'. Going down this route requires much more dedication and self-discipline than does a conventional route. The person breathing down your own neck is you. You must be the one horse-whipping yourself into creating something great, into something that other people actually want to read; and once it's out, you have to be the one who gets around, who networks, who gets the book into shops and libraries. It's not an easy route, but it gives you more control, and maybe more satisfaction.

More information on self-publishing on the No Media Kings website

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Next to Nothing

It's been a busy summer. The second rewrite of the novel is almost done, and as well as getting ready for a spoken word appearance at the sadly cancelled Beacons festival, I've also been preparing some flash fiction for an exhibition. Next To Nothing, a collaborative project by art collective Black Dogs, will open on September 15th in a disused shop unit in The Light in Leeds. It will contain works by various artists, performers and musicians exploring our notions of worth and value. My contribution has been to write and letterpress two short stories on the theme. Above you can see some of the words from the story 'Hourly Rate'. The typeface, Secession, is one that I bought on a recent letterpress expedition. I like this typeface because it's got a nice Art Deco look to it. Have a look below at all of the copies I printed!

Currently reading

The scheme for full employment Magnus Mills

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Bringing home the bacon

Recently, I've had a couple of strange conversations about how much I make from my work as a writer. Having these sorts of conversations always reminds me of that David Sedaris joke: at parties, when people find out what he does for a living, people ask: "You're a writer? You've written a book? Oh, I might write a book. How much do you get paid?" The joke isn't always obvious to non-writers. They don't see how many hours of toil go into working on a novel, nor how little money you'll ever see back from those hours. Very few writers make money, and there are lots of great writers who worked their whole lives, leaving behind works of massive importance, who never made any more than the minimum wage.

Commercial success isn't necessarily a great thing to aim for. The problem with writing for money, as the saying goes, is that you'll have to write for money. But if you remove the burden of having to generate profit through your writing, you can devote yourself to writing whatever you like. That doesn't mean you dash off whatever crap comes into your head, and never push yourself to improve. All it means is that you're writing the work you think is important, the work that matters to you. It doesn't matter whether or not it has commercial potential. It matters that you care about it.

When you decide you want to be this kind of writer, you also have to figure out how you're going to do it. Above all else, you make sure you write, and that you've got as much time as possible to do it. It's not always easy, but there are a couple of ways to make sure you can write, and still have enough money to live.

One way is to find a job without much responsibility, where you can spend most of the hours you spend at the day-job writing. Raymond Carver, (ONLY ONE OF THE 20TH CENTURY'S GREATEST WRITERS, IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW) spent many years as a hospital porter. He used to get all his work done in the first hour on the job, then spend the rest of it clacking away on his typewriter. (Or scribbling in his notepad, I don't know which method he used). That's RAYMOND CARVER, one of the greatest writers of OUR TIME. He wasn't above working in a hospital, and it will have given him a great deal of material to write about, too. Go figure.

Another way is to find a job well-paid enough to allow you to only work part time, so that you've got a couple of days a week to spend at your writing desk. Charles Ives, one of the forefathers of American composition, worked as an insurance clerk - AN INSURANCE CLERK - his entire life, and in the evenings composed some of the most groundbreaking works in the American musical canon. You didn't catch Charles Ives bitching, "Ohhh, I think I'll give up my day job as an insurance clerk to take a job writing advertising jingles, just so that I can truthfully say I'M A COMPOSER!" No! Charles Ives did not write music for money! He dutifully worked away in the evenings at his work, never allowing his lack of commercial or critical success to deter him from getting on.

In any case, an imaginary third option of making as much money as Dan Brown, and rolling around in bales of bank notes on a yacht, isn't really available to most of us. And if it were, would you really want to take it up? (Remember, when you give your answer, that you would have had to have written a book as bad as Angels and Demons). You'd basically be writing books for people who don't really like books very much. You think about that, and you get behind your desk, and stop worrying about being poor, and bloody well get on with it.

Currently reading

In American with Greenday Aaron Cometbus

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Untitled Books - August 2011 issue

Too excited about it to post in detail just now, but my short story Things that are Lost, and things that are Broken has just been published in the August 2011 issue of Untitled Books. Last night, on my way back from holiday I received a lovely text from them to say that they thought my story was excellent and that they would like to include it in the next issue. Would I mind terribly? No I would not. In fact, only being cased in the steel body of a car stopped me jumping all over the place in excitement. Click the link above to read it.