Sunday, 20 January 2013

Self-publishers need to forget self-interest to make their case

The ever-articulate Roz Morris, author of the excellent My Memories of A Future Life, makes an excellent point on today's Authors Electric blog. She makes a case against the hypocrisy of a mainstream industry that claims to be right there at the creative cutting edge and yet routinely opts for the safe. Her very important and oft-repeated, not least by me, point is that this leaves self-publishing as the home for the truly original.

"The literary establishment - reviewers, journals and awards organisers - is supposed to find the most notable writing, but publishers are turning those books away."

says Morris. And she's partly right. She cites Andrew Lownie's blog as a culprit in the double standard - and here she's right on the money. But we wouldn't expect agents to take on such works. The figures don't stack up. On the other hand  new, small presses *are* taking on some fabulous new writers doing startlingly original things - Bluemoose, Melville House, Dedalus, Blackheath, Civil Coping Mechanism, the late lamented Grievous Jones and others. And whereas in 2011, my list of wow books was loaded with self-publishing, the most fabulous, original book I've come across in 2012 was Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai, published by Melville House, closely followed by Frank Hinton's Action, Figure published by Tiny Hardcore Press. 

Does this mean there are fewer superb self-published books out there? Not necessarily. Kate Tempest's remarkable Everything Speaks in its Own Way is a truly original, beautifully made masterpiece. But it *is* true that small presses are doing incredible things with truly original authors, and we weaken our case when we fail to acknowledge this.

But I think as self-publishers we really need to wake up to our own tendencies in recommending books. What we really really need as we keep making the essential point about self-publishing and the creative cutting edge  is to keep overgrounding the genuinely startlingly original work we come across. Because that's what will ultimately make our point most powerfully of all.

 This is a major issue I have with many self-publishing review sites, and many self-published authors and the books they talk about - yes, they do a great job for genre fans, but too often they have a "literary fiction" section that points out works that are very similar to what the mainstream is doing, full of exquisite prose and some original ideas, beautifully edited, flowingly written and something no one would complain about their listing. And worse, they make a virtue of this. I'm sorry, but there is only one cake and you can't have it and eat it - you have to decide whether your cake flavour is "self-published books can be as well-made as mainstream published ones" or "self-publishing is the true home of the innovative."

I want to make the case that self-publishing is the place for those genuinely at the cutting edge but at the moment the self-publishing-centred media is often as much to blame as the mainstream media for putting across the message that isn't the case. Too many people are opting for the former flavour, and they have a reason for doing so. Rather, two reasons - they want to answer the most commonly put criticism in the media, and they want to have their own writing taken seriously. They don't want to be laughed at/not taken seriously/worst of all ignored for being on the loony unacceptable fringe. Which is understandable - but I have to say the moment we become afraid to be seen as the loony unacceptable fringe we sort of lose our indie credentials.

It is a real problem for us as self-publishing authors. We want our own work to be read widely and we want to push self-publishing as part of that. The problem is that the really exciting thing about self-publishing is what it can do for our culture, for readers. And if we really want to promote it in all its glory, we need to put aside some of our self-interest and make the strongest case we can. So many of us are also authors concerned to show that we take ourselves seriously as writers by making nice, safe choices for books to recommend that are beautifully written, well-edited, professionally produced so that our standing amongst the cognoscenti is safe, that we rarely stick our own necks out for the tatty, unread pieces of mindbending brilliance that are out there.

It is we, as much as the mainstream, who need to be seeking out the obscure and the breathtaking and then shouting it from the hilltops. A huge thanks to Roz - who is one of those who really does do this.


  1. Rubbish.

    This is a version of "the mission of self-publishing" should be...

    I'm sorry, but self-publishing doesn't, and shouldn't, have a "mission" at all, any more than traditional publishing does. It's a simple expansion of an existing industry made possible by digital tools and the rise of new business models.

    Some authors will be "cutting edge" in the way that you describe, and may find it easier to be published in the wider self-publishing/small press arena, certainly, and that's a problem for the traditional publishers, perhaps.

    But self-publishing didn't come into existence to further the course of human culture. It came into existence to solve an economic problem: how to allow the small scale publication of books/ebooks to reach an audience that would value and purchase them. That's it (and nothing wrong with it, either).

    Don't confuse an economic solution with work done "ad maiorem Dei gloriam." Eventually, there will be just one publishing industry, with players at every level of scale from traditional to small-presses to individual authors. It's already there; it's just taking a little while for the dust to settle.

  2. Are 'cutting edge' and 'well written, well edited' mutually exclusive?

  3. Robb - of course not, but it is the case that I've seen a lot of stolid books praised to the hilt because they're beautifully produced - and much talk about self-publishing focuses on those professional values, which means when there is a disjunction, the path of professionalism over edginess will be chosen. Which isn't a problem - my point here is to warn against the having one's cake and eating it tendency. I will, as you know, fully confess that I think there are too many "very good books" that people over-praise.

    Karen - self-publishing of course doesn't have an agenda - many self-publishers do, and my point here is to point out that we often make claims that just don't fit together. I think I disagree with your analysis of self-publishing as purely economically-driven. A lot of people I know - and for way longer than there's been digital technology - who self-publish as either a creative choice to do with their medium (because they want to produce in a certain medium - my favourite book of 2011, Andy Harrod's Living Room Stories, is a great example of this), or because they passionately believe in their words and want to e in control of how they reach the world, or just because there is no other outlet. So much of this, historically as now, has been produced for free that I don't think we can say self-publishing is purely an economic phenomenon.

    So yes, self-publishing absolutely doesn't have an ideology, but many self-publishers want to make claims for self-published books, and I think that's absolutely fair enough. Many of them claim that self-publishing is where you find real gems you won't find in the mainstream - my message is to them, that saying this means there are other things they can/cannot say consistently.

  4. Your best point here is about the self-conscious curatorial decisions people make within the self-publishing community (and I think it holds for those who also dig small press shit), that many have a tendency to move towards the center a degree or two when making recommendations. That's interesting, and I think quite true, that while espousing the radical potential of self-publication/small presses, you may still find yourself thinking more conservatively when your neck/rep/status is on the line, much as many small press editors have a tendency to do when deciding which books to run. In many ways, I think this taps into a grey area about the effect our own social web (perhaps as much as the bling, but really what bling anymore) has on our ability to stand behind great work that truly is pushing legitimate boundaries vs work that is "pushing boundaries" in a socially recognizable/already theorized/explainable way.

  5. I think that's right, and I think it's a sign of weakness as a curator (something I'm always saying we need great examples of). I'll often see the staunchest advocates of how amazing self-publishing is, when they come to those "what are your favourite books ever" lists they revert to the usual famous suspects.
    I'm aware I shoulder my fair share of guilt for this. It's one of many reasons I quit publishing back in 2011 (though I'm starting up again this year and really excited about it) - there were one or two books I really wish I'd published but didn't because I wasn't sure about the fallout. It's much easier, I find, to champion self-published work, though there are still huge pressures - from being called illiterate to worrying about offending your writer friends. I think it would do us all good to be at least aware of this pull to the centre so we can try to do something about it

  6. Dan: I'm sorry, but there is only one cake and you can't have it and eat it - you have to decide whether your cake flavour is "self-published books can be as well-made as mainstream published ones" or "self-publishing is the true home of the innovative."

    I disagree, Dan. There’s not only one cake – there’s an entire emporium of cakes. And that’s one of the reasons I find self-publishing the richest source of literary indulgence. I absolutely agree that self-publishing should take its freedoms seriously and test the boundaries of the writer/reader relationship. But I will argue the right of the self-published author to create their own recipes.

    ForFansOf Gateaux: almost indistinguishable to recognised mainstream works of fiction. Delivered beribboned.

    CrossGenre Cheesecakes: the richest and lushest mash-ups you’ve ever tasted. Genre benders introduce flavour combinations you never thought would work, but oh my sweet Lord ...

    Transmedia Tarts: DIY flavour sensation. Visit various confection-dispensaries to create a wholly unique literary experience. And if your teeth hurt, you only have yourself to blame.

    FanFic Millefeuille: creatively arranged layers of leftovers with icing sugars. For sweet-toothed sorts who like more of the same.

    Anarchic ApplePie: contains no apple whatsoever but takes massive risks with pears and poetry and pushes at the limitations of cake and literature.

    Raw Carrots: not cakes at all but offer the opportunity for a unique chance to change established perceptions of cakery for ever.

    Dan, many of us lost faith with traditional publishing when we realised the necessity of being ‘boxed’. Isn’t the point of going indie doing it your own way? I reject the one cake metaphor and argue there are as many recipes as individuals. I’m so pleased to have people like you and Roz widening the concept of what self-published work can be. We need voices likes yours. We also need the whole spectrum of indie publishers. Rough, tatty, mind-bending, or polished, professional and ‘safe’, we are still independent authors.

  7. Absolutely there are many flavours of cake - that wasn't quite what I was trying to say. It was more (as per Roz's excellent piece) that those people who talk about self-publishing's primary virtue as providing something different from the mainstream shouldn't be so conservative in their coverage of those books whose qualities are the closest to the mainstream. It was a double standard I was attacking - absolutely agree with what you say. A lot of review sites in particular, and many of the most popular self-publishing hubs, like the kudos that comes from being associated with something boundary-shifting and edgy but when it comes down to it they don't actually push any books with those qualities.

  8. As a reader rather than a writer I think you make an excellent point. Every so often I poke around the internet looking for exciting things to read. I'm very tolerant of rough writing if the ideas are good, but almost every time I pick up something which has been highly praised it turns out to be very tame.

    I've now added Bonsai to my reading list, though - thanks for the rec. :-)

    1. I hope you enjoy Bonsai - there is a new Zambra just out, Ways of Going Home, which my local bookstore is raving about and I'm very much looking forward to.

  9. Wow, great blog.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.