Why self-publish? My talk to Goldsmiths’ MA in Creative Writing students

15 May 2014
link to original

I spoke at Goldsmiths College yesterday about my ventures in self-publishing. It was a bit of an “honour” to be there — and I genuinely don’t mean that in an ironic sense — because there were some serious luminaries from the literary world, some of whom I won’t name because I want to quote their candid views in full. I think I can fairly name the wildly successful novelist Evie Wyld as one of the panellists though because she seemed pretty comfortable in airing her views. She explained how she had completed the brilliant MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths and then went to do a succession of so-called menial jobs, working in lots of supermarkets and so on, while writing her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009) which went on to win the John Llewellyn Rees Memorial Prize and the Betty Trask Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Author’s Club Memorial Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 2013, she was named as a Granta Best Young Novelist. Her new novel is All the Birds, Singing. She is brilliant, innovative but accessible writer, who is appearing shortly at the fabulous Literary Kitchen Festival. She spoke eloquently but with deep humility about her success, and the resulting commissions and work that has come from it. After numerous jobs which were done to sustain her writing career, she now runs a small independent bookshop in Peckham. She discussed how she has enjoyed working for the British Council and show-casing her work abroad, but that she has found it difficult to juggle working with writing: there are now too many distractions, although they are vital distractions in that they enable her to live. Even though she is possibly one of the most successful young novelists in the country, she realises that she can not live by solely writing fiction.

Her talk was followed by an agent who was very witty and entertaining: he explained how the agenting process works, how an agent safeguards an author’s work, makes sure he or she gets a good contract, and, if the book is popular, gets the best deal from a book auction, where different publishers are bidding for the same book. He was particularly scathing about Amazon as the event progressed, feeling that it was under-cutting bookshops and publishers and effectively trying to put them out of business,  but not offering good products in return. His view was that many self-published e-books on Amazon were shockingly poor quality — even ones jamming up the best-seller lists — in that they had poor covers, poor content and were full of typos and mistakes. And yet, because they were selling for 75p they were doing better than the quality work. He compared Amazon books — particularly self-published ones — to battery chickens and “properly published” books to “organic, free-range” chickens. Publishers were working hard to nurture their chickens in a free-range, organic fashion but, in the current climate, receiving very little reward for the quality and value they were adding to writers’ work, while Amazon offered cheap battery-reared work, churned out at great speed and with no quality control — my summary of his words. He was actually wittier and funnier than this but I was not tape-recording the piece and he didn’t want to be named so I’m just paraphrasing here. I then spoke. Here is a YouTube video of my slideshow with an audio commentary:

This is the slideshow itself:

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Why self publish? from Francis Gilbert

I was followed by a Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury PublishingAlexa von Hirschberg, who was articulate about the processes that occur at an effective publishing house: she talked about how editors buy their books (she reads about ten agent-submitted manuscripts a week), how there are “acquisitions” meetings with publicity and other relevant people to finally decide on whether a book will be bought; and after that, the collegiate working with an author to get the book right, the design team who put it together as a finished product, the publicity and distribution strategies that happen, the use of the right printer, and the marketing of the book when it is published. The big publishing houses have a lot of staff who really care about books — and are increasingly seeing their profit margins shrinking because of Amazon. I was shocked to hear that a publishing house doesn’t know their precise e-book sales on Amazon whereas I, as a KDP self-publisher, get a run-down of all my sales. This doesn’t seem fair to me. She was followed by a poetry publisher and organiser of the Troubadour readingsAnne-Marie Fyfe. She talked about how she had built up her name as a poet by first self-publishing and then leap-frogging around various publishers, building her reputation by giving readings, entering competitions and generally being involved in the world. She explained about the various opportunities that poets can take part in, including becoming a member of the Poetry Society, going to readings, joining various writing groups etc. Finally, there was Gemma Seltzer who is a Relationship Manager for Literature at Arts Council England, where she has responsibility for supporting the development of the literature sector in London, working with publishers, magazines and arts organisations. She advises all kinds of individual writers – from poets and novelists to authors of children’s and digital literature – at all stages of their careers to develop funding proposals and realise projects. Championing equality and diversity in literature, Gemma is particularly keen to support artists less represented in the mainstream and exciting, innovative writer-led projects that find new ways to engage readers and audiences. She was particularly good on giving advice about all the various grants, groups and competitions there are around now for a writer to take part in. I scribbled down the names of them furiously, and wrote down the major ones on the last slide of my PowerPoint, which is above. 

The discussion was lively but there was tension in the room about the future of publishing. I was possibly a bit of the “ugly duckling” at the table — but I have to say I was never made to feel unwelcome! — in that as a self-publishers are still regarded with scepticism by the mainstream publishing community. The very fact that I was invited to speak amongst such seasoned professionals showed how the landscape is changing: writers like me can publish their books very cheaply to a world-wide market in a way they couldn’t even a couple of years ago, especially not paperbacks. I argued that publishers need to “wise-up”: they are holding onto amazing intellectual property, much of which is going to waste. Why not set up themselves as self-publishers and enable people to write fan-fiction in say, “Margaret Atwood” world, or “Martin Amis” world, or “Ian McEwan” world — this notion raised a laugh. While this “blue-sky thinking” sounds ridiculous, I think it’s no stranger than Amazon setting up the facility for people to write fan fiction for Kurt Vonnegut world. Too many publishers and agents are, by and large, still clinging onto the hierarchical, “top-down” model where the editor is judge and jury and not the public at large. Amazon has filled this void and while they do things that I don’t like — like not pay much UK tax etc — I have found them very useful as a publishing platform. They are also approachable: you email an inquiry or phone them and they get right back to you. While my experiences with mainstream publishers have been overwhelmingly positive, I know many authors who have found it very difficult to even speak to the right person to sort out problems with their book. Amazon clearly have protocols in place where helping authors is a priority.

The issue of the gate-keeper

Having reflected upon this fascinating discussion and listening to comments from MA in Creative Writing students afterwards, I’ve come to think that at the heart of the issue is what I’d like to call the “issue of the gate-keeper”. In the old model for publishing, the cost of the technology necessitated a gate-keeper, usually an editor, who decided on what texts or writers were worth investing in: this was important because it was expensive to publish a book, market it, and distribute it to the shops or the chosen audience. There was, and still is in some cases, potentially a very lucrative business model here: let’s not forget that tycoons like Robert Maxwell made their money with the Pergamon Press which sold medical books and journals. In the literary world, figures like Andre Deutsch and Weidenfeld and Nicholson made a lot of money publishing fiction: these were, by and large, literary men of pretty good aesthetic judgement who were gamblers and willing to take a punt on books they liked. While there were misses, they had enough hits to make a handsome profit in a world where there were fewer distractions and much more focus upon literary matters in the press. Publishers like them, along with writers jobbing as editors like T.S. Eliot and Diana Athill, were effectively arbiters of the nation’s literary tastes. They were the ultimate gate-keepers, with the power to make or break a literary career. Until quite recently, this was still the case, but the internet, e-books, print-on-demand books and Amazon have changed all of this because they have set up a structure which has swept away the gate-keeper: the prohibitive production and distribution costs of books has disappeared. You can publish a paperback book for nothing on Amazon without anyone telling you that you can’t do it. What Amazon has shown is that the public at large has an enormous, possibly gargantuan, appetite for WRITING books. The only gate-keeper is the market itself really: it’s what people want to read. And when they are paying as little as 77p, they don’t mind paying for books that may be quite low quality: e-readers like Kindle mean that actually many people don’t read more than a few pages of a book. They are buying many more books though.

What does this mean for the writer? I have lots of evolving thoughts on this. First, it means that a published book is no guarantee of quality. But wasn’t this ever the case? I can remember reading crap in the 1980s, stuff that had been supposedly edited by a major publishing house and hadn’t really been edited properly at all. I am avid reader of contemporary realist fiction and I have to say the mainstream publishing houses still are publishing poor quality work in my view: I can find very few good writers to read out there, many of them are doing courses like the MA in Creative Writing or the PhD but these writers, with a few exceptions, are not published by mainstream publishing houses. Second, it means that it’s the market which is the effective gate-keeper, not the “expert” editor: internet search engines mean that people can find books on the topics they are interested in much more easily than before. This is both good and bad; you can find work on topics you like very easily, but how much of it can you “trust” to be reliable, well-informed, particularly with non-fiction? Third, it means that readers can easily become authors: the rise of fan fiction is a case in point about this. Books that sell are becoming increasingly “genre-focused”. This is a real problem that “multi-genre” publishing houses: they have no particular brand identity. No one can quite figure out what say what publishing houses like Jonathan Cape or Picador stands for and, to be honest, I think the public at large have little clue about the publishing houses because, beyond possibly Penguin and Faber and Faber, few of them marketed themselves as a brand. You only have to look at their websites to see what a rag-bag of stuff they are publishing; all good writers individually I am sure, but there’s no sense of a holistic mind at work when you look at them, plus with these websites, there’s very little chance for inter-activity, no chance to “self-publish” through them, it’s all very much “we at this publishing house know what’s best for you”. Put simply, the publishers haven’t found a way of entering into a meaningful, productive and properly remunerative dialogue with their readers — or even their authors. Obviously, some have tried with book clubs and things like writing courses, which are very popular, but you don’t get a sense of them building on this. Possibly this is deeply unfair, I am not an expert on the industry, and I am sure someone at the Bookseller could put me right. However, I think publishers need to start putting a value on the things that are valuable within them, which is the fact that they offer “quality”. I wonder what is the genuine market value of a good editor? How much would people be willing to pay to have their book edited by a top editor like Alexa? This is what Amazon offer, only I suspect they don’t have as good a staff as at a top publishing house? Why not put the great people out for hire to help people self-publish??! The publishers need to develop a new model to survive I think, and wild thinking like this shouldn’t ruled out.

For me, courses like the MA in Creative Writing and PhD in Creative Writing at places like Goldsmiths are real sources of hope: writers can come together under the aegis of a Higher Education institution and explore all the different aspects of their art/craft, and be encouraged by experienced writers to experiment, to hone not only their work but also their processes. Plus, these courses are great for “quality control”: the gatekeeper is the person who lets you on the course, and then you’re free to produce your art during the time you’re in the institution. This freedom not to be forever pitching pieces to publishers or competitions is important: I’ve never been one who’s wanted to do this. I’ve just wanted to get on with my writing without “playing the game” of prizes, grants and competitions; one thing the panel crystallised for me was that entering a competition is a game to the extent that it really helps to write pieces that will please the often well-known judges.

There was a lot of talk at the panel about quality and how agents and publishers are focused upon this, and how this is really their “USP” (Unique Selling Point). I would certainly agree that this is important. I’ve noticed though that the market is OK on this, to a degree, people do, in the end, head for the better quality stuff: I’ve noticed that the self-published titles of mine are the ones I’ve put the most work into and are, to be honest, the best quality products, which, in my view, are my study guide to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and my Dr Jekyll Study Guide Edition. It’s just a tiny, tiny example but seeing the sales figures on Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing makes me realise that quality stuff does attract people who are interested in a particular topic. This, in turn, has made me think about my next projects and how I can do even better with them. While, for me, self-publishing is never going to bring in the millions, it’s already making more money for me than some of the advances I’ve been offered by publishers to do books, plus I’ve got control over the book I want to make, and I can change any mistakes I notice very quickly (within hours) instead of hassling people for weeks and months to change a simple typo.

Some devoted authors, who give up their whole lives to writing, do seem to be able to make a living from self-publishing though. Amazon has finally found a way for people to make money from the web, in a way no other company has done. This is a fascinating video from CreateSpace about a family who fed all their children by self-publishing:

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