Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Anatomy of a Great Self-Published Book

One of the things I want to do is highlight examples of superb self-published books. That’s the best way of showing what I mean by a lot of things. That’s not quite what I want to do here, though. Rather, think of this rather like those daft mash-up memes you get on Facebook that actually have some sort of a point buried away somewhere (though I’m afraid I don’t have the software or knowhow to produce a visual mash-up – maybe later!). You know the kind of thing – “the perfect philosopher has: Gandhi’s heart, Socrates’ beard, Elizabeth Anscombe’s collection of novels etc etc”.
So, what would the Platonic Form of a self-published book look like? Well, the simple answer is, it wouldn’t. Aristotle was, after all, right (following the first rule of fiction, there, you see – when I mentioned philosophers you just knew they were going to come back and be fired in the final scene. Or something). There is no such thing as “the ideal” anything. It is, rather, a case of what’s right for each book and its author. Which is where a lot of otherwise really great pieces of self-publishing advice come unstuck – they assume that “the rules” are universally applicable. They aren’t. It’s just that some things are right for a lot of books, and us being evolutionarily primed to be lazy (Hume said some fascinating things about this to go back to the philosophy whatnot), we come to think of these as universal rules. Like “good editing” or “thorough proof reading” or “use of professional cover design”. Most self-published books – like most other books – will best achieve what they set out to do by making full and efficient use of editors, proof readers, and cover designers. But the key point is that these things help the author to make their vision a reality. That vision comes first – and then we look at how best to make it real, without bringing any preconceptions to the table.
So what these self-published books have in common in the respective areas is they know what they set out to do and in that respect do it perfectly. 

Everything Speaks in its Own Way by Kate Tempest is one of the most beautiful objects I own as well as being an extraordinary book. One of the very best performance poets in the UK, Tempest also makes music (often using the same words) with her band Sound of Rum. All of which means this combination of book, CD, and DVD is the perfect vehicle for her material. One disc slots into a gorgeous pocket made of purple card inside each of the front and back covers.

Neil Schiller is a wonderful writer of things that fit all the categories publishers hate, which is why self-publishing is perfect for him. I actually first met him in his capacity as a Vine Reviewer when I saw he’d reviewed one of my books. I had no idea he wrote. Until I nosed around. I’ve since had the privilege of hearing him read his work twice. The idea he came up with for presenting his flash fictions is so simple – and obvious, except I didn’t think of it and nor did anyone I know until we saw him do it – 7" fiction, A sides and B sides of a single. The stories are printed up so the title looks like the centre label of a vinyl single, cut square, and inserted into real paper sleeves from old records. And Neil writes urban, Beat-inspired pieces which means anyone who loves his writing will love the presentation and vice versa – the perfect storm

James Everington is another writer who insists on writing in awkward formats. Be it novellas, novelettes, or collections, he just refuses to write anything publishers would consider. What’s more there’s a sneaking suspicion (at least the publishers suspect it) that the reading public likes to feel the heft of a tome in their hand (personally I like nothing better than the elegance of a small novella), which makes his books perfect for epublishing.

This is the cover of one of my books, which is no longer available to buy for various reasons some of which were covered in the opening post – so I don’t feel like I’m gratuitously plugging. Covers are things that self-publishers actually do rather well a lot of the time. I do think my fabulous cover designer, Sessha Batto, created something which does its job perfectly – I asked her for “Hannibal Lecter in Oxford University” and that’s exactly what she gave me, and quite brilliantly. The key is that anyone who sees it will know exactly what they’re getting, and it will draw people in – and those people it draws in will like the contents.

It’s a very tight line between enticing and pastiche. Sessha treads it perfectly. As does this exquisite cover for Anna Hobson’s Tales ofUnrequited Love. Anna writes gritty, lyrical poetry. The cover conveys that perfectly – it has the feel of something City Lights would have put out, but the typeface gives us the modern urban feel.

Living Room Stories by Andy Harrod could equally have gone in the first section. It’s another self-publishing perfect storm – a series of flash fictions presented as an album. Each of them is inspired by a track from Olafur Analds’ album Living Room Songs. There are separate square cards for each, each consisting of a picture and a flash. The cover, with its use of multiple layers and transparencies, is not just perfect because it’s so beautiful, but because it so perfectly captures the spirit both of Harrod’s writing and Arnalds’ music.


Neil Schiller’s Haiku Diary I include because the idea and the execution are just perfect. This is a diary. Written in haikus. That is all. Perfect.

You probably didn’t expect to find one of her titles here, but Amanda Hocking’s Hollowland illustrates my point about relativity perfectly. It’s littered with typos, as she will readily admit, but for her fans they don’t detract one iota from the really rather well-paced storytelling that lies between the covers. And that’s what matters – not what someone tells you should matter, or what someone thinks “all readers should care about” – what matters is what people who love the things you write about really care about. And what they care about in Amanda’s case is thumping good storytelling. And people have to get over that passive-aggressive phraseology that, for example, “readers like this DESPITE the typos” – the answer is most don’t give a fig about the typos. Now we can say what we want about that sociologically – well, others can and I will beg to differ – but as *writers* what matters is our readers’ priorities– and if that doesn’t include typos, live with it.

And then we have the glorious piece of literary fiction that is John A A Logan’s The Survival of Thomas Ford. This is much closer than most things here to what you would expect to find in print. Until recently, that is. John’s story is both heartbreaking and one that many authors will connect with. John has written an exquisite literary novel, achingly beautiful and flawlessly polished, that would have sat proudly on a publisher’s midlist as he built a career that saw long and shortlistings as he developed his craft. Only the midlist is vanishing, which means people who write that kind of book are increasingly turning to self-publishing, which suits them perfectly. When I started Year Zero Writers at the start of 2009 I was one such author amongst others like Marion Stein, Heikki Hietala, and Larry Harrison (whom we will meet in the months ahead). Readers of this fiction very much do value what they consider high production values – so editing and proof reading are essential. And John has done these very very well

MCM is something of an internet legend. The brains behind 1889 Laboratories, the spiritual home of serial webfiction (serial fiction of any kind could have come in section one on format), he uses the internet brilliantly to build a community around his writing, drawing people into the excitement of each of his creations. From 24-26 March 2011, he embarked on the project 3D1D, which saw him write a whole novel in 3 days. Which is prolific but nothing special, you might think. Only he performed the feat live – literally live – every keystroke live streamed, and interactively – 12,000 people contributed 87,000 questions and answers which directed the plot! 
You don’t have to create that kind of scale of community by any chalk! The real key is to spend time doing what you do with your readers, talking about interesting things, creating an interesting experience that relates to your book and enriches your readers’ lives. I can think of examples among my online friends who do this very well. Jo Carroll, for example, with her wonderfully mischievous travelling tales; Viv Tuffnell with her thought-provoking, soul-enriching posts. Both of their blogs tie in seamlessly to their books – people who enjoy spending time with them will enjoy their books.

Possibly the most perfectly honed example of authors who have built a whole world around their writing are the Zero Lubin collective behind Lubin Tales. Zero Lubin have created a marvellously darkly kitsch world that could be lifted straight from the twisted outtakes of David Lynch, which perfectly complements the set of suburbia-on-acid shorts in Lubin Tales, and their world extends beyond the web and some fabulous merchandising to live theatrical installations that bring sinister creations such as The Poodle Faker to life.

So there we have it - the perfect self-published book. It's actually remarkably similar, you might say, to the perfect book. And you'd be right. In short, any book can be the perfect self-published book - just have a bozo idea and execute it perfectly.


  1. Wow, thanks Dan; very chuffed to be alongside so many good writers (not least yourself)... & Aristotle. Neil Schiller was the first self published author I ever read so glad he's in there.

    Mind if I mention a few others?

    Elephant - Jim Breslin. Like an American Schiller, he takes Carver's influence & runs with it.

    Iain Rowan - great books with Infinity Press, but also equally great books self-published... & a fellow Abominable Gentlemen.

    Luca Veste - anthologist who put out Off The Record - short stories all with a title taken from a classic song.

    Plus Marion Stein, Tony Rabig, Billie Hinton...

  2. Fantastic post... now will you please rush over and setup a Feedburner account so I can subscribe to your site? Not everyone uses blogspot or Google Friend and I'm afraid you might get lost in my RSS feed reader.

  3. James - thanks - there will be plenty of time here for lots and lots of great books. Marion obviously I know, and Billie whose Claire Obscure is just wonderful. And Ian's great - the others I'll definitely look out. Elephant - great title, like the White Stripes album!

  4. Shauntelle - good plan - looking forward to having a look round your website tomorrow - LOVE the title "being is a verb" - SO true!

  5. This was nice to find after one of the most stressful 2 days I've endured for a long time,and where my whole life has been set to be turned upside down again.
    Thanks. I truly appreciate it.

  6. Hugs, Viv - you're an inspiration to so many. Very very best

  7. Thank-you Dan, it means a great deal to me that you think so much of the book, honoured to be mentioned here!

  8. John, you are most welcome. TSOTF is a shining example

  9. Thanks Dan for including Living Room Stories in this post, very happy!

  10. Hey Dan, thanks for the shout out. Only just spotted it by tracking back from some hits on my Blog. Appreciate it.

    How's things with you by the way? Not spoken to you in a little while...