Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why Self-publishing? And why I am here

This blog has been a long time coming. I've been writing about self-publishing across the web for several years now as well as on my regular blog. You can see some samples here for Loudpoet, here for Self-publishing Review, and here for Beyond Infinity. My regular blog is also filled with kinds of other stuff, and many of my detailed articles are scattered around the place, so I wanted a single site where I could support and advise, comment, report, and generally build a body of work just about self-publishing.

Every once in a while I will fill in some backstory just so you don't keep wondering who on earth this muppet is. Those of you who know me will know I am fairly outspoken, often contrary, but most of the time have my heart in teh right place. My take on self-publishing is different from that you'll find on most of the blogs and advice sites out there, whcih is why I thought it might be wotrh adding to the primal sludge of blogs on the subject. The title says cynical but that's not really it - if anything I'm a Pollyanna, always looking on the bright side of everything. The cynicism comes at the way many self-publishers go about things. Don't get me wrong, sales are really, really important. But self-publishing is just as much about the art as the cash register, as much about meeting people face to face as about ebook, and marketing is just as much about building relationships as it is about Amazon's algorithms.

It was recently my pleasure to be on the author panel at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors. In preparation, I was asked to write about "why I self-publish." That's probably the best possible place to open this blog.

Self-publishing was a very simple choice for me to take. Back in 2007 I decided I wanted to give writing for a wider audience a proper chance. Like most writers, I’ve always written and I have my share of drawers full of emo poetry and really angsty teenage novels, but at 35 it felt like the right time to give it a proper bash. I churned out a thriller set in Oxford, and set about fine tuning it with a view to getting an agent and then a publisher. To this end, I joined the writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy in 2008, where I soon discovered I preferred writing literary fiction to writing thrillers, and by mid 2008 I had churned out a second book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a literary work set in post-communist Hungary about a girl growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nothing is constant. I set about finding an agent for it, still rather wet behind the ears and not really knowing anything other than that “this was what you did.”

I had a lovely letter from the only agency I really wanted to work with (one that focused on international fiction) saying how excited they were by the book but they couldn’t sell it in the current climate. At about the same time I was learning more and more about the vibrant literary world that existed online, and I started to wonder why I’d ever looked for a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t interested in making “a big splash” as the agent had put it. I wrote because I had something I needed to say, in whatever form it needed saying – whereas publishers wanted to tell you how you should be saying it in order to get sales. I didn’t want sales. I didn’t even want readers overly much. I wanted to get what was in my head out of there in the form it wanted. And I wanted to play with what was and wasn’t literature.
I’ve always loved art since a school trip to the Tate introduced me to Rothko. I’d spent hours at the infamous Turner Prize exhibition of 1999 and fallen head over heels in love with Tracey Emin’s work (and, it’s probably true to say, with her). Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is set largely in the art world, and references Emin’s works throughout. Art was very very exciting. My childhood and young adult heroes were artists – Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat, Emin and Lucas, the Wilson Twins, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread. Art was heady, dangerous, talked about, argued about. It incited passion. And whilst I was aware of the storm over Satanic Verses, that was hardly the same as the reaction to Sensation, to Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley. Yes, YBA was full of marketing and slick and surface and phoneyism. But it was also dangerous, challenged the way people thought about art, about the world, about themselves and reality.

Literary culture just wasn’t like that. And aspiring writers just talked about how to get published. That wasn’t a conversation I was interested in. I wanted people to talk about literature like they did about art – I wanted to work with people who were doing wild things that would have people shaking their head and asking “but is it a book?” The whole world of getting published was, quite simply, a different conversation from the one I wanted to have.

Of course that was simplistic. But it remains the case that the most exciting discussions of words take place “in another place” and not in the world of publishing. I have also been saddened rather than heartened by much that has happened in self-publishing since the launch of the Kindle. Self-publishing is now (and fair play to everyone concerned) a place where people can set out their stall and hope, with a following wind, marketing acuity, and great writing, to make a decent crust. Which means its landscape is much like the landscape of mainstream publishing. And the conversations self-publishing writers have are, now, about how to market, how to format, what their sales figures are. It is a conversation that is increasingly squeezing me out the way regular publishing did. Or, rather, it is a conversation that regularly threatens to subsume me the way regular publishing did, and that would be my biggest single piece of advice to a self-publisher – remember why you’re doing it and don’t be a magpie. Don’t let sales or invitations or publicity distract you – unless they were the reason for self-publishing, in which case go for it.


  1. I no longer know why I'm publishing - but my head is pounding from all the 'advice' I supposedly need to follow. What I really want is just to write what I like and get it into the hands of people who like the same thing. Little did I know what a Herculean feat that would be! The pressure to market, to succeed by the set standards almost made me quit writing entirely. But now, I'm back - slowly writing what I like and hoping to find a way to build an audience of people who like it, too ;) Will I succeed? Hell if I know, but I doubt it will be worse than doing it the other way and, perhaps, I'll be able to keep waking up in the morning and looking forward to my writing time instead of dreading it ;)

  2. I have decided to write what I want, publish, but not to waste time fretting about trying to sell books. Maybe if people want it enough, they will find it. One could spend 25 hours a day trying to promote, and still make hardly any sales. There are too many out there, and many readers seem to have developed a real hostily to anyone who tries to promote their own books.

  3. Sessha - yes, that sounds all too familiar, swamped under goodness knows what from all sides
    "slowly writing what I like and hoping to find a way to build an audience of people who like it, too" - I think that's the only real way to do it and keep hold of the joy of writing - which is what it should be, a joy

    M.A - good for you. I hope this will be a suitably friendly and unpresurised place to hang out :)

  4. Writing what we like and finding an audience of people who like it to, is probably what we all aspire to. I don't want to compromise on what I write, but I do want some sort of recognition: the affirmation of an audience. And I want to affect that audience, not just entertain them. Whether self-publishing is the answer I'm not sure, but it's certainly something I'm taking a keen interest in as I continue to hone my work.

  5. "affect that audience" - that's a very good way of putting it - audiences are not just there as buying machines - I would love to write something that changes lives in some way. I think you're right that most people start out with this aspiration but then get sidetracked - the key is to keep ourselves headed in the right direction

  6. Joanna Stephen-Ward30 May 2012 at 03:41

    One only has to look at the posts on the Kindle forums to discover that there is a lot of vitrol directed at Indies. Just the titles are enough - How to Avoid Indies is one.

    Although many of the posts are rants and should not be taken seriously, when you sift through all the dross you'll find some valid arguments.

    Badly written books with limp plots that are full of spelling and punctuation errors do Indies a lot of harm.

    I've avoided these because I read the sample. It only takes seconds to decide I don't want to buy the book. Unfortunatly, when I point this out, many readers say they don't have time to read the samples. This makes no sense, seeing that the ones who say that spend a great deal of time posting anti-indie rants of the forums.

    I discovered a site called Awesome Indies, which I am trying to get my novels on. The rules for acceptance are strict, which is good. I've requested a revew from Alls Books and Palls. He gives thoughtful reviews, and I saw that one of Dan's novels had an excellent 5 star review, which is well deserved.

    Best of luck with this blog, Dan.

  7. Joanna - Al is one of the real good guys. I didn't know I had a 5 star review there - I'll go and have a look!!

    The other place I would really recommend is Indie ebook Review - http://indieebookreview.wordpress.com/

  8. I posted a long (overlong) comment but obviously I couldn't prove I wasn't a robot or some such. This happens to me a lot. I'll see if I can retrieve it (it was awesome as all lost literature is) otherwise, thanks for the mention of IEBR.

  9. Retrieved from my notifications, here is Cally's awesome comment (and I will disable that "prove you're not a robot" nonsense

    In accordance with all of the above. The 'democratisation' of the publishing process does present the anarchic with problems. But mainly they are 'temptations' to lose yourself in the NEW IMPROVED proto mainstream online publishing brave new world thingy where corporate gods rule. HOWEVER if one avoids the primrose path and stays true to one's convictions there are also opportunities for us my friends. We can 'find' each other more easily and I don't think that all the 'marketing' in the world will actually help US. Because marketing is for the mainstream. We want to find like minded readers who want to think about what they read and talk about it and for whom creativity is not an industry. Since 'virtually' meeting Dan I've gained confidence in this respect (though I've danced with the devil in the name of 'experiment' as well. What I DEFINITELY welcome is this new site which offers a reminder of a 'place' for those who don't fit the business 'models' but who want to write anyway. You can find me at http://callyphillips.wordpress.com or via the indieebook review site http://indieebookreview.wordpress.com and if you want my views (fictionalised) on this and other issues you could do worse than buying or downloading Brand Loyalty. www.hoampresst.co.uk (and other places) Sorry, this wasn't meant to be a promo BUT it's salinet to the whole spirit of cynical self publishing. Good Dan. I'm glad you've got this blog going. I'm sure I'll be a regular visitor for virtual coffee and subversive chat!
    My 'ambition' over 20 years as a non 'successful' non award winning writer has always been to disengage from the 'mainstream' not because I CAN'T play their game but because I DON'T WANT to play it. That, I have found really annoys them. They resort to sick phrases such as 'talent will out' to justify their attitudes. So - when they tell you your face doesn't fit, your response should be IT FITS ME THANK YOU.

  10. "not because I CAN'T play their game but because I DON'T WANT to play it."
    Three cheers, Cally!!

  11. Thanks for articulating some of what I've been feeling! I became increasingly disenchanted with the mainstream, but it took me a long time to realise why I felt like I did, because it seemed such a gradual change. (I've been around as a writer for a LONG time, woe's me.) When I started out, back in the seventies, people, even the gatekeepers, DID talk about writing the way I still hear artists talking about art. The tipping point came when so many of us started getting those 'I love this but we can't sell it' responses with agents, publishers and writers all focussing relentlessly on the 'big splash' or the 'breakthrough book'. Now, hardly anyone talks about the work itself in terms that excite and interest. I don't even mean that it has to be wildly experimental or deliberately obscure. But it HAS to be what Bernard MacLaverty calls 'made up truth.' Oddly enough, I had just written an email to an artist friend about Tracey Emin not long before reading this post - I'd been listening to her on the radio talking about her Margate exhibition, and thinking 'Yes! That's how I want to talk about writing, and that's what I want to hear other people saying about their writing too!' It's something to do, I suppose, with giving yourself permission to fail but giving it a go anyway. Walking that tightrope and risking the fall. I certainly wasn't getting that from the mainstream. I think the danger now is that the self publishing world becomes equally prescriptive, focusing too much on the mechanics and not half enough on the work itself .

  12. Best not get me started about Tracey or you might still be here Christmas - I just love the way she wears her passion on her sleeve and articulates what so few people have the courage to. I think you're right that the seventies were an incredibly exciting time - the full aftermath of the Beats was being felt properly and we had the birth of Virago. Today a lot of even the most in depth conversations about literary culture are covered over with what my dear friend Cody calls fake intellectualism - and sneering at passion for being the mark of someone who "doesn't really get what it's all about" is almost de rigueur - from the same people who blame TV and games consoles for turning young people off reading - perhaps some should take a tiny few steps in someone else's shoes and see how the lterary world looks from the outside before being so judgmental.

    Freedom to fail is essential - again and again and always if necessary, because that's the only way somethig truly special will emerge - the freedom to fail is one of the most incredible gifts self-publishing gives authors but we hear vey little about it

  13. Amen to ALL that! I wish I could hear at least some of that coming from our very own Bete Noir, Creative Scotland, but I don't. Instead, we get stuff like this: 'We will undertake a "better writing" programme, aimed at defining how we use writing to reflect the desired Creative Scotland brand and tone of voice. This programme will establish principles of "good" writing and put in place the tools and guidance for staff to adopt these principles.' And this from an organisation styling itself the 'leader' of the arts in Scotland.

  14. Blimey! Sounds almost like the James atterson sausage factory school of writing!

  15. It is causing a right stooshie up here at the moment!