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Tome On The Range

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

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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