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Vanity Or Sanity? Self-Publishing In The Modern Age
Howard Male , February 24th, 2013 06:24

Howard Male, author of the self-published novel Etc Etc Amen, weighs out the pros and cons of going it alone and its peculiar stigma

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The owner of my local bookshop recently tweeted, “If our cat said he had written a book, I wouldn't be that surprised. Every other fucker I know has.” I couldn’t have put it more acerbically myself. Although that doesn’t make me any happier to have to announce that I am one of those fuckers. When other writers ask me why I went the self-publishing route there’s usually a tentative hopefulness in the query; can that work now? Are you making any money? Did you jump or were you pushed? Unfortunately I have to say I was pushed; there’s no money yet - but it’s still early days.

It took two years of methodically going through the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book, not once but twice, before I gave up on the idea of getting an agent. Received wisdom instructs that getting an agent is the only route to getting a publisher, because publishers’ slush piles (their teetering skyscrapers of unread manuscripts) have become agents’ slush piles - presumably because publishers no longer have the time or energy to pan the odd nugget of gold from the tons of slushy gravel. So, no agent; no publisher.

But why couldn’t I get an agent? Was there anything ostensibly wrong with my novel Etc Etc Amen? Obviously it’s impossible to be objective; I am a professional writer (The Independent, and so technically it should have passed muster. And by the time I was taking my second trawl through the W&AY I’d picked up a fair number of extremely enthusiastic comments from other writers which I’d hoped would at least arouse some curiosity from these people. Alas, the general response was a template-rejection on the strength of the synopsis or opening chapter alone. I can categorically state that not a single agent I approached read the novel that they unanimously rejected.

As bad luck would have it, I completed EEA just as the country went into recession meltdown, so maybe that was a factor: almost immediately I got wind of the fact that no, that’s NO, first-time novelists were being offered contracts at the moment. Also one of the novel’s main themes might have counted against me: EEA has no truck with organised religion, frequently pointing at its absurdities and anachronisms in a blackly comic manner. Was the industry still running scared – post Satanic Verses - of publishing any fiction that could be perceived as anti-Islamic? Nick Cohen in his excellent You Can’t Read This Book certainly thinks so:

“Before Rushdie, publishers praised themselves for their business acumen in buying books that offended the authorities. After Rushdie, the smart business move was for a publishing house to turn down books that might offend religious zealots.”

EEA isn’t anti-Islamic – it’s simply anti-all deity-specific religions. But one thing I learnt early on in this process is that publishers want to quickly land on reasons not to publish your book rather than reasons to publish it. In other words, the job of that work experience kid just down from Oxford is to move on to the next manuscript as quickly as possible, because that next manuscript might be the next Hunger Games - or whatever other current success one publisher has that the other wants to replicate.

What else might have put them off? Well, there was my synopsis. In retrospect, the sorry 300-word effort I eventually squeezed out made EEA sound like a cliché-ridden rock novel that even I wouldn’t have touched with a mic stand. I agonised over writing this synopsis for weeks but could never find a way of conveying the full spirit of the book without going on for thousands of words. Unfortunately the briefest plot summary is all agents want, even if such a summary is doomed to make any novel sound like a great deal less than the sum of its parts.

Finally, EEA’s worst crime in their eyes is probably that it’s not easily categorisable: is it an airport novel with ideas above its station or a literary novel that’s too much fun for its own good? EEA is part murder mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part love story, part hate story and part religious satire. Not a problem in my eyes, but try convincing someone who’s unwilling to even read it that this is the case. I’d had arts critics from various broadsheet newspapers as well as a Whitbread Prize-winning novelist all say that EEA is something special. And only the other day an Italian woman informed me that she was translating it into Italian for her sister; she was so enamored by it. So why didn’t agents take the bait? Why didn’t they care that Jim Bob and Patrick Neate had registered their approval? One day I put this question to an agent whose rejection email had just landed in my inbox. His response was immediate:

“If you could get a quote from David Beckham saying he loved your book I could get you a publishing deal tomorrow.”

I doubt that these proudly cynical words tell you anything you didn’t know already about our stultifying celebrity culture, but placed on the table like that with such brutal finality made them seem quite shocking to me. After all, this is a novel not a pair of trainers. It was at this juncture that I started to think about Plan B. In recent years we have been told repeatedly that Plan B no longer has the credibility problem it used to. Plan B used to have to cower under the moniker ‘Vanity Publishing’, but now it’s stepped out into to the light as ‘Self Publishing’: what a difference a word makes. And what a difference a financial crisis makes.

Now that so few first-time novelists are being picked up by publishing houses - yet conversely it’s become relatively easy to get a book formatted for the increasingly popular Kindle and iPad - everyone and their …er…. cat can put their masterpiece out there for the world to either ignore or embrace. Not only that; a few of these authors are actually making money from their books. Admittedly it’s likely to be the writers who are industriously churning out teen vampire novels, chick litter (sic), or S&M lite, but one can still live in hope.

However, let’s go back a step and consider that word ‘vanity’ for a moment, because it still seems to be lingering like a bad smell. Artists working in other mediums have never had to put up with the word ‘vanity’ being spot-welded to their endeavours. In the late 1970s, when punk bands put out their own music on their own labels, it wasn’t called vanity record releasing. In fact it was seen as heroic to put two-fingers up to the major labels with two-minutes of two-chord rudimentary rock in a Xeroxed picture sleeve. Likewise, no one whispers behind the backs of independent film directors about their vanity films. Often such films generated more kudos than major studio releases. Only the poor writer, hunched over his or her laptop, has to tolerate snobbery, condescension and snootiness for the unforgivable crime of trying to get their voice heard. While I’m on this particular high horse, the label ‘Self Publishing’ isn’t actually much better. There’s still that faint whiff of self-aggrandisement about the term when in reality it simply represents self-sufficiency. A more dignified and realistic label might be ‘Necessity Publishing’ or just good old ‘Independent Publishing’.

But enough whinging. In the end my venture into self-publishing came about simply because I was tired of treading water. The odds might be against me but at least I’m now drawing a little more attention to my novel. These days apparently traditional publishing’s cunning plan is to let first-time authors go the self-publishing route and then, if they do well, pick up the reigns further down the line (if you’ll forgive the mixed horse/train metaphor). However it’s worth noting that this is no longer a foolproof cunning plan. I recently heard about a self-published author being feverishly courted again by her one-time mainstream publisher. Her response was, thanks but no thanks, due to the fact she’s doing perfectly well under her own steam.

After all, given that most publishers typically offer around 7 - 10 percent of the recommended retail price to the author, compared to the 50 percent contractually offered by the self-publishing company I am with (with a get-out clause that can free up either party in just three months), self-publishing is beginning to look like a viable alternative. It has now become realistic to envisage a world in which traditional publishers once again start coughing up generous advances and a less risible royalty rate, in order to attract the successful lone pen who has realised that the route they have taken gives them both more control and more money.

It’s also worth noting that the line between these two means-to-the-same-end is becoming increasingly blurred. Only today I was talking to the tweeting bookseller mentioned at the beginning of this piece about this particular fifty-shades-of-grey area. He pointed out that small “niche, boutique and kitchen-table publishers” (as Boyd Tonkin of the Independent recently neatly defined them) such as And Other Stories and Salt tend not to offer an advance but instead operate on a print-on-demand basis and/or subscription basis (the latter is where readers sponsor a book they want to see in print and thereby help pay for its publication). Such business models aren’t that dissimilar from the company I am with. Yes, I paid upfront for them to proof read, edit, design (to my specifications) and then create digital and hard copy formats. But I entail no further costs as they continue to work for me, fielding interview enquires, adding further quotes to the cover as they come in (one advantage of printing in small quantities), and ordering more copies when they are needed. For this ongoing commitment to the book they continue to take a small percentage of the income from online sales (though not copies sold at signings or through my website), for as long as this arrangement suits us both.

Two months into its life as a consumer item, EEA isn’t exactly flying off the shelves, perhaps partly because many of those shelves aren’t available to me. You won’t see any do-it-yourself no-budget books on the paid-for shelf space of Waterstone’s, WH Smiths or (God help us) Tescos. However, with HMV and Fopp hovering on the edge of extinction and Borders long gone, how long will it be before Oxford Street takes on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic landscape of flier-plastered shop fronts, thereby levelling the playing field to a degree? We can complain about Amazon’s dysfunctional relationship with the taxman, but it’s one of the few market places where any book with an ISBN on the back ostensibly has equal status to the latest McEwan or Amis. I say “ostensibly” because of course Amazon merely offers the illusion of an egalitarian virtual world just as the rest of the internet does. In reality your book, YouTube clip or Soundcloud-uploaded potential hit record can sit up there in cyberspace until the sun implodes – attracting only a few dozen curious friends and acquaintances – unless there’s some big budget promotional heft or the luck of the lottery winner behind it.

So how have I faired so far in this hinterland of the self-published? Well, as I said at the beginning of this piece - it’s early days (EEA was published last December). On the downside, one well-respected, published writer private messaged me on Facebook with the blunt words, “Vanity publishing is a mug’s game.” (You see – that word “vanity” hasn’t gone anywhere.) Then there’s the fact that I sent around twenty review copies out to willing recipients and secured just one review. Although, I have to confess that - sensing my possible pariah status - I only volunteered the information that the book was self-published if I was asked. But all an editor had to do was google the name at the top of the press release to find this out, and I’m sure most did. However, I did perhaps naively believe that my track record as a professional writer along with all the great feedback I’d already acquired might tip things in my favour. But no such luck.

Even though I know that EEA was enthusiastically but unsuccessfully pitched by one reviewer, it needs to be said there were undoubtedly other factors involved. Increasingly the struggling print editions of newspapers and magazines are propped up by advertising, and book publishers simply don’t advertise very much. Therefore the other arts pages that do generate advertising revenue are increasingly encroaching on the space once available for book coverage. This means that what space is left understandably goes to covering books by established writers that readers will definitely be interested in.

But on the plus side, a couple of weeks ago I was thrilled beyond words (in fact I barely slept for a couple of nights) to hear from legendary record producer Tony Visconti that he loved my book. Yet here again there was disconcerting evidence that the power of social networking as the key to success might be somewhat exaggerated. After Visconti had broadcast his opinion to some 5000 Facebook friends (“I highly recommend this excellent novel. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. I have just started reading it for the second time.”), sales shot up by a dismal six copies (perhaps more on Kindle but I don’t have the figures). This begs the question – what the fuck does it take?

A friend of mine recently said, in regard to EEA, “I have faith in word of mouth.” It was a sweetly consoling thing to say, to which I responded, “I wish I could join you in your faith, but for the moment the best I can do is be an optimistic agnostic.” For the fact is that any individual trying to sell anything in the world today can do little more than dream of the somewhere-over-the-rainbow of Gladwell’s elusive “tipping point”. There’s clearly no formula for self-promoting in The Land of the Corporate Giants, just wishful thinking and keep on pushing.

Even writing a piece like this is potentially a double-edged sword as I am effectively coming out as a self-published writer and thus inviting you too, dear reader, to judge me for it. But no publicity is no publicity, so one has to snatch at any opportunities that present themselves and hope for the best. But at least I am beginning to overcome the paralysing embarrassment that every Englishman feels when blowing his own trumpet. And this is what we all need to do for the future to be won back by the own trumpet blowers.

Howard Male’s first novel Etc Etc Amen is available from Amazon, or you can get signed, dedicated copies from his website:

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Feb 24, 2013 12:43pm

Interesting read - thanks for this. I tried to read as much of the samples/secondary material on your website as possible, and it seemed plenty interesting enough. Although I have to admit the "has no truck with religion" part did make me wince a little; perhaps the reading world are a little fatigued, post-Dawkins-lite everything. I'm as irreligious as they come, and, frankly, following some of the more 'militant' trends in literature lately, I'm pining for some Aquinas.

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Feb 24, 2013 1:17pm

I think the difference between signing with a large publishing house and going it alone lays in the funding for PR. After being messed around for months by a large publishing house in London I decided to sign with a smaller publisher. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. They dont have the distribution channels nor the funds to PR. However self published books in my opinion dont get taken seriously by main stream media who can PR and put the word out.There are virtually millions of books out there written by hopefull authors (and proabaly a few cats) but since the book shops aren't making money on unknown authors, they dont stock them. I am appalled by the printing cost for self published books as compared to the price larger printers offer when dealing with publishers.My own book A Vicious Love Story is out there and selling and I would never let another larger publishing house come and try to pick it up. Good luck with your book. :)

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Howard Male
Feb 24, 2013 6:26pm

In reply to aaron.:

There’s a little more to it than Dawkins-lite, Aaron. My fictional religion proposes that its practitioners ‘entertain the possibility’ rather than just having faith in whatever spiritual idea appeals to them. So I don’t think Prof D would approve at all!

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Howard Male
Feb 24, 2013 6:30pm

In reply to Teddie:

Hi Ted. Nothing you’ve written surprises me. And yes, individual unit costs are steep, but become less so if sales improve and one can order in larger quantities. Thanks for the good luck wishes!

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Writer A
Feb 25, 2013 2:52am

There's a lot of focus on sales in this article. I understand the point of the article, but also sense that books can take off (if they ever do) at any time in say the next 30 years. The best you can do is get it out there. Unless it's full of very contemporary references, it's not going to be less relevant in 2019. The best publicity for EEA will surely be the ten or so novels I hope Howard Male writes in its wake.

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Leigh Russell
Feb 25, 2013 9:58am

For what it's worth, I have no agent but was successfully signed up by a traditional publisher. My publisher has commissioned a total of twelve titles so far, of which five are published with a further two already in production. It seems there are no hard and fast rules in this game beyond talent, hard work - and luck. You clearly have the first two. Here's hoping the third one strikes soon!

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howard male
Feb 25, 2013 10:11am

In reply to Writer A:

I hear what you’re saying, Writer A, but success in thirty years won’t be a lot of use to me as I imagine I wont even remember I’d written a book by then. Whereas now, sales are the difference between me buying some time to write the next one and being out of pocket due to the expense of getting this one out there. Freelance journalism pays next to nothing these days. For example, two jobs I have even lowered their rates in recent years and another two jobs have disappeared due to the folding of the publications. So while I understand you’re point, such long-term thinking is not much consolation to me.

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howard male
Feb 25, 2013 10:13am

In reply to Leigh Russell:

Encouraging words. Thanks, Leigh.

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Stefan Tobler, Publisher, And Other Stories
Feb 25, 2013 10:45am

Hi Howard,
An interesting article - one small point of fact. We at And Other Stories do offer advances and they are on a par with the advances other literary fiction receives. We also pay our translators at the Translators Association rates, which is quite a bit more than some publishers pay.
We know a lot of our books (eg surprising literary fiction, translations of authors not known yet here) need the boost of subscribers. Our subscribers are simply people who pay up front for the books to help them get out there (allowing us to pay the author, designer, editor, translator etc properly). For those reasons, I don't think our publishing model blurs any boundaries with self-publishing. Not that I'm against that model - labours of love often bear fruit!

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howard male
Feb 25, 2013 2:31pm

In reply to Stefan Tobler, Publisher, And Other Stories:

Hi Stefan. I was misinformed then. Apologies for that. But I do still think there's a bit of blurring going on!

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Feb 25, 2013 5:23pm

In reply to Howard Male:

I think my point in general was that the 'lol religion' thing is a bit tiresome. Though perhaps this tQ audience are particularly over-exposed: the Internet in the last 5 years has become a hotbed of hip-atheism and pro-rationalist-everything dogma.

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howard male
Feb 25, 2013 10:29pm

In reply to aaron.:

You still seem to be missing my point though, Aaron. My fictional religion is neither hip-atheism or pro-rationalist-everything. It is in fact based on the idea that remarkable coincidences are cosmic nudges from the Knowing, Unknowable Universe – so it’s just as crazy and irrational as the best of ‘em!

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Barry Hoffman
Mar 11, 2013 6:57pm

The days when self-publishing was frowned upon have come to an end. More and more writers are self-publishing because whether it be print on demand or via an e-book it's both simple and inexpensive to do. Add to this the fact that mass market publishers are no longer taking chances in their quest to make as much money as they can and you have the perfect storm for good writers to self-publish. And, as far as agents are concerned, well, at a writer's conference a panel of agents all agreed their acceptance of a manuscript dealt as much, if not more, with their ability to sell it to publishers they dealt with than with the quality of the novel. Not all self-published books are well-written, but the same can be said for those published by mass market publishers. Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published (no one has said it's well-written) and later purchased by a mass market publisher. Why? Because, as it was already successful as a self-published novel a publisher felt it could make big bucks by purchasing the book. That's the mindset of mass market publishers. So, as the writer of this article states if individuals can make and promote their own independent films (via YouTube, for instance) what's wrong with authors self-publishing their own work and trying to find an audience, as well.

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Mar 14, 2013 10:17am

i think you're onto something, right here. Cross-disciplines are where it's at, multimedia multi-format business sense, which is something the old guard will never understand. Until you show them figures. For now, writing an article about self-publishing a book is a fine start, and I know how you feel about tooting your own horn. As readers, patrons of the arts, friends, colleagues, our job it to give art the time of day, offer feedback support etc. It boils down to supporting art, in whatever way you can. I personally have no money whatsoever, so i have taken to reviewing artwork, as my cultural contribution. It's up to people to be personally accountable, for this 'new model' to thrive. And an endorsement by Tony Visconti is a helluva endorsement! I, for one, can't wait to read your book, and I applaud your boldness.

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howard male
Mar 14, 2013 8:10pm

In reply to forestpunk:

Thanks for the encouraging words, Forestpunk, and I hope the book lives up to expectations. If it does please do put a comment on Amazon and/or Goodreads as every little helps. Mr Visconti was so keen on the book he bought me dinner when he was in London a couple of weeks ago, just so he could ask me a bunch of questions about it. So there was I wanting to know lots of stuff about Bowie and Bolan but having to talk about Etc Etc Amen instead. But as I’m broke, like you, I couldn’t turn down a free meal. ;-)

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Jason Winstanley.
Mar 20, 2013 12:04pm

Agree and can relate to every word in this piece. I went the same route for many of the reasons in this article. The problem is getting massive promotion. So you tend to get slow burners, unless you go for slash fiction aimed at fads. But many great novels were slow burners and are still remembered today. Good luck.

My toe-dipping first piece is available via:

My next work is out in April.

My play The Travesty is appearing at the Words Festival in Wigan in April.

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WD Clarke
Mar 23, 2013 12:39am

Thanks for this – a great read. Would be interested in knowing the name of the firm who handled your interior design, etc -after spending about 80 hours dealing with layout errors introduced (by the large firm I hired) to the text that had no relation to errors in the original manuscript, I see the value in having good people you can trust! Anyhow, thanks to the MM blog you will have yet another reader — looking forward to your book.

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WD Clarke
Mar 23, 2013 2:16am

In reply to WD Clarke:

... sorry, a bit too much el vinho tinto this evening -- I was also commenting on a millions millions blog by mistake :|

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howard male
Mar 26, 2013 10:12pm

In reply to WD Clarke:

To be honest, WD, I’ve had a lot of problems with the company I’m working with so I wouldn't wish them on any other writer. The proof reading was next to useless. Fortunately a keen reader of an advance copy of the manuscript was kind enough to contact me via Facebook to point out all the typos that had been missed just before the book went for its first print run. Plus - like your book – it had acquired new errors in the process of converting it into a print file. These were all cleared up in the end (I think) but no thanks to this company. Also I ended up pretty much designing the cover myself as what they came up with just didn’t work. But as most of their incompetence comes down to youth rather than laziness or plain stupidity, I’m not going to add further ill feeling to an already fragile relationship by naming and shaming them here.

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gretchen tyree
Mar 29, 2013 9:55pm

In reply to howard male:

I loved this article. Thought provoking. Real. I am wondering why we can't just self publish because we want someone (s) to read what we have to say. It would be nice to make a lot of money (i.e. Robert Parker crank outs), but I would be settled to just get my work out there. Self publishing is a great way and I hope those doors will be open to ALL.

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Mark Pharoah
Mar 29, 2013 10:36pm

Howard... I hope you next novel is a comedy - perhaps about a struggling writer. Just keep on going in the same vein for about 60,000 words.

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howard male
Apr 2, 2013 3:21pm

In reply to Mark Pharoah:

This one’s a comedy, Mark, although a very black, not always funny, comedy. And for one month only (as of today) the kindle is only 99p on Amazon. I'm learning to work it!

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Frans Stummer
Apr 12, 2013 7:36am

I had two books published by one of the bigger houses in Germany with 5-figure sales... and I still couldn't live off that - but I didn't even have to support a wife and two kids back then. One ingredient in the stew was the publishers complete unwillingness to advertise or promote it's product. Eventually I put it on my homepage for free, where the server statistics say it gets downloaded more than hundred times a month (without any publicity) and showing those figures I still (having all rights back) don't get another publisher. So what. Write, because your heart tells you to. Contribute as much or little as your sanity and happiness allows to selling the stuff. Then go on. Self publishing? Do it.

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Apr 14, 2013 8:50am

Interesting piece. I'm wondering whether sales have picked up since the price came down this month?

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howard male
Apr 14, 2013 6:40pm

In reply to :

Good advice, Fran. And, yes, the 99p offer this month has made quite a difference to sales. The company I’m published through emailed me the other day to say that 850 kindle versions had sold in the first 11 days of April. Given that I was optimistically anticipating the figure to be around 50, I was quite pleased. It’s not much by bestseller standards, but to me it’s 850 people who may like the book and spread the word further.

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ruth williams
May 3, 2013 12:15am

haha - read halfway cos have to do stuff will come back to it but ha ha i wonder if David Beckham will get rung up now with ppl asking him to read his novel or at least say they have .... haha ... great read btw .... hav u sent the s-p material object as it is now to those big publishing companies ? Will be intresting to see who picks it up ... someone said books make you see things and i sure could see parts of this one

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May 15, 2013 9:05pm

In reply to ruth williams:

Thanks, Ruth. No I've not sent out the finished book to publishing companies - I simply can't afford to! I hope you bought a copy though - it's much funny than this article and has the added bonus of including several violent deaths.

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