Why I am self-published

Why I am self-published

(content note for VERY strong language)

Recently the whole self-published versus traditionally published wrestling match has reignited, following a post by Ros Barber in the Guardian online. I’m not going to address the article because that would be juvenile, petty and a waste of time. More than that, it would only be my opinion and that is of little real worth. I am no one of note, or of influence. I’m an author who self-published, which makes me mud on the shoes of many.

In the 90’s I spent a couple of years going through the rigmarole of jumping through the hoops set by publishers and agents. Combined with an absurdly low income at the time that meant affording printer paper and postage was a big deal, the whole time was intensely stressful. I got asked for full manuscripts many times, and some went through several readers and editors at major publishing houses. The fore-runner to Square Peg got to committee stage at one of the Big Six. They asked me to rewrite certain parts; I was about to sit down to start that when the worst headache on the planet descended on me and put a stop to it. I was rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage. After I recovered enough from that to carry on writing, I did what they’d asked with the book, sent it in and waited. A few weeks later, the Dear John letter arrived. Blah blah blah. It boiled down to this: we like it but you’re an unknown and we can’t quite take the risk if we don’t love it enough to have its babies. So, knowing the whole process had almost killed me, I quit. I quit writing altogether.

In 2003 I began writing again after a gap of eight years, because a novel was forcing its way out of me; rather than burst open like one of Ripley’s shipmates, I gave in and wrote the damned thing (it was The Bet, for what that’s worth) and was faced with being back on the submissions treadmill all over again. The explosion of creative expression I experienced (I can’t quite say enjoyed because it was so compulsive) lasted for three years and in that time I had a lot of feedback from publishers and agents telling me I was almost there, send us the next one, over and over again. I even had an agent (turned out to be less use than a chocolate fireguard). But nothing ever went the whole distance, not even the novel that kept an editor at Random up all night to finish. It always ended in the same way: you’re good, very good, but you haven’t yet written a book we think will be a break-out success, keep on sending us stuff and we’ll keep reading.

There comes a moment where your entire being says: Oh just fuck right off, and when you’ve got there, fuck off even further and keep on fucking off until you’re a speck on the horizon, and then fuck off some more.

That’s what mine started saying. Letting someone else, some other entity or organisation, hold you so firmly in the palm of their sweaty little mitt, that you cannot move, do anything, because they hold you so tightly in their thrall, is beyond BAD for the soul. It’s toxic, corrosive and suffocating. Publishers have authors exactly where they want them: bent over, subjugated and submissive. There’s always the awareness that if you, the author, don’t do what they ask, there’s hundreds if not thousands of other authors panting and eager to take your place. You, the author, are not a real living human being: you are a content provider, nothing more.

So I stepped away. I took back my dreams and my hopes and my soul, and I walked away. At that stage, self-publishing was in its infancy and I had no idea really that it existed. I equated it with vanity publishing. Some still do, and indeed, there are numerous so-called small presses that are really vanity presses. I came to self-publishing at the behest of someone else who offered themselves as a helper who would do it for me. That’s one of the reasons why now I find it difficult to trust anyone, because that aspect didn’t end well. It could have ended much worse, but I dusted myself off and got on with it myself, learning as I went. I made mistakes for sure, but I’d begun.

Since then, I have put out quite a number of books: four novels, a novella, two collections of short stories, a collection of essays on depression, a poetry collection and a little paperback of guided meditations. I have had many thousands of readers, some of whom read everything and buy it in both e-version and in paperback. Had I kept on plugging away at submitting to publishers that would not have happened. I would either be dead (probably by my own hand) or locked away wearing a fetching jacket fastened at the back. Publishing is a business; it’s primarily about the money; it doesn’t care that the Dear John letters can destroy someone, for a day or for all eternity. It’s a business transaction to them, nothing more. If a book isn’t going to have a good chance of making money, they don’t take it on, no matter their personal liking for a story. That way leads to losing your job. An author whose first book doesn’t earn out the advance rarely gets a second book through. Once, they might have had three or four books published, to build an audience, but now, you have six months MAXIMUM to make that first book a success.

I self-published because it was the way forward for me, because the road to legacy publishing was policed by entities that make Procrustes look like the perfect gracious host, and because I do not regard myself as a content provider or my books as products. Every book or poem I write is a glimpse of a world inside my head; it exists somewhere beyond this existence and being able to share it with others is a privilege denied to me and you by traditional paths to publishing.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch ~ on the rightful exchange of energies.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch ~ on the rightful exchange of energies.

I’ve seen a good deal lately about free books. If you buy e-books, you’ll probably have gathered a few freebies. Amazon allows its Select programme authors to make their books free for five days out of the ninety day exclusive period. Many authors believe that the exposure having a book available for free brings in sales later, especially if the book charts in one of the best-seller categories that run side by side, paid alongside free. When the opportunity to “sell” your book at the free option first came around, a lot of authors found that their books soared to the top of categories as people in their thousands downloaded it. As time went on, the numbers downloading became lower and the paid sales that came on the back of it dropped even lower too.

Today I came across Erika M Szabo’s blog post explaining how she has people messaging her and asking her when her books would be free  http://lovetotalkalot.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/free-book.html I’m certain her experience is far from unusual. It would seem that the plethora of books offered for free has meant that a lot of readers now expect books for nothing.

Some time ago I stopped downloading free books, just because they were free. In fact, I stopped doing it within a few months of getting my Kindle. Most of the ones I nabbed remain unread, lost somewhere in the hinterlands of my device. I realised that the books that got put into the folder named Freebies seldom came out again. I have occasionally picked up a book that’s been offered free, but it’s generally ones I might well have bought. Currently I am reading a non fiction book about food in the books of Jane Austen. I’ll probably write a review when I finish it, as a thank you.

I’m sure if people thought about it properly they would understand that while authors do want their books to be read, they don’t really want to give them away. There’s something more complicated going on, something subtle and easy to miss. Giving away books can be part of a strategy to gain more readers: either on the off chance that those who grab it when it’s free will read it (and even better, write a review), or because the book has been given as an ARC (Advance Review Copy) in exchange for an honest review later. I know from other writers than ARCs often bring in poor returns; many readers never get round to writing the promised review. I don’t generally accept ARCs myself either because the time factor is such that if it’s a book I want to read in the first place, I prefer to buy it because that gives it greater weight in the sliding scale of what I an afford to spend time on. In my mind, a book I have bought (exchanged money for) is likely to be read far sooner than one that I have been given in the hope that I will review it. If I have paid money for a book, too, I feel that the basic exchange of energies is in balance. Once I have read that book, depending on how much I have enjoyed it, there is then a possibility that I feel the balance has been upset again. A book I have adored creates in me the desire to share it, to review it and to make up the deficit in energy. So a four quid book that I loved requires something more to settle the scales.

Of all the commodities today, for many of us, time is the most valuable. I’ve read scathing reviews of books that often refer to the time they have lost reading a book they didn’t enjoy, and often it’s only the fact that it was free or cheap that has redeemed it. But my time too is valuable. To write a book takes time and dedication and while you can argue that writers make that choice to use their time to write (and no one is holding a gun to their heads) I do believe that demanding unlimited free books is an obscenity. The motto of my faculty at university was Haec otia studia fovent which roughly translates as This leisure(wealth) fosters/favours study; one could use the same basic sentiment to declare that this leisure fosters creative works. Without the time taken out of other activities few books would get written. There are few authors I know who can write full time. Most of us have day jobs. We write for all sorts of reasons and while there’s some who write in the hope of making their fortune, I think most accept that very few succeed in that way.

My own books are the product of intense, focused periods of creative energy, with all the concomitant hours of extra work to polish and prepare them for public consumption. I have never made any of them free on Kindle and I probably won’t. However, I do happily give away copies to individuals and I have my own code for this. I don’t send out ARCs out before a book is published (but I may do something of the sort one day when I get all my ducks in a row) because I’d rather not create obligation in others. If a book has given enjoyment that is worthy of the very reasonable price, then I think that’s all square. The reviews that come in give me great pleasure and I’m deeply grateful for them.

Every free book has been the product of a lot of work and hope too. It’s greedy to gobble them all up and demand more of the same without offering something in return. An author cannot keep on churning out more and more of the same product endlessly without something going back to feed them, and for readers to see authors as mere providers of their favourite mental snacks will create even greater imbalance. Authors will get discouraged and they will give up. Many already have.

If you enjoy reading, whatever your preferred genres, remember that exchange of energy, especially if you “buy” free books. Make time to review the ones you enjoyed, or buy a book by the same author if you liked their style, let others know about books they may also enjoy. 

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

I’ve been fretting about writing this for some time. It’s churned and turned and roiled and boiled inside me for ages and I’m never going to get any peace if I don’t try and sort my thoughts into order.

The last two years have been a very interesting ride. In that time I have published three novels, two short story collections and a non fiction book of meditations. I’m not counting the eighteen months where Strangers and Pilgrims was available as a paperback, because I had little or nothing to do with that side of things. For me self publishing began when I put that novel onto Kindle. As self published authors go, I’m doing quite well, I guess. Still mid-list, which is what you can generally expect for the kind of vaguely literary fiction I write. I have books consistently in the top 100 for their category; I have some excellent reviews. And I’ve had some fun.

But the last six months or so something has begun niggling at me, and the niggles have become more than occasional discomfort and have begun to really cause me some distress.

It’s this: the constant pressure to do better.

I don’t mean write better. I like to think I work hard at that anyway. I mean, to sell better. I spend a lot of time on social media, and I follow links and I read articles and it’s making me ill.

The nub of it is that self-published writers still generally wish to be taken seriously, to be counted as the equals of those who have a contract with a legacy publisher, and to sell as well and to live the so-called writer lifestyle. To do so, there is endless discussions about what you must do to compete with the Big Guns. Professional covers, formatting, editing, proofreading, book trailers, book tours, signing tours, being on every available e-reader format, having a professional website (God forbid you use a bog standard WordPress blog!) There are sites that shame amateur looking book covers. I won’t go on. I’m sure you’ve seen the same kind of things if you’re a writer. This constant pressure to show you are as good as a ‘proper author’. And in doing so, there’s a trap that’s become more and more obvious.

Equal and identical are different things. In the rush to prove we’re as good as authors who have a publisher, we’ve missed the point of the revolutionary nature of self publishing. We’re trying to do what the Big Guns do, reproduce the same sort of books, the same sort of covers, and sell at the same level. And get paid a substantial amount more for the work we’d have had to have done anyway in terms now of the promotion every author is obliged to do. (unless they’re Stephen King etc).

So, this has been getting me down. It’s been interfering with my creative flow like a bloody great dam. I can’t write now without the ghost of a thought of, “Will this sell? Will this be the one that tips the balance into making me a massively successful best seller?”. It seeps into the whole process, and I’ve only just pinned it down.

It’s not wrong to want to sell lots of books, make a living from them. It’s not wrong to want to share your words with thousands of people, entertain and inform them.

But surely it should not be that energy that is unconsciously directing my writing? If there were a formula to what will sell, and how to do it, believe me it would be a closely guarded and very expensive secret. There isn’t and there can’t be because it’s something so nebulous that it’s even harder to predict than long range weather forecasts for Britain.

When self publishing first began to be a phenomenon, there was a great deal of excitement about it. You might do anything, publish anything. Niche books. Experimental books. ANYTHING at all. There were endless possibilities, all waiting for people to leap in and try them. What has changed it is the need to sell, to make money, to make back what you shelled out to produce a work, to be compensated for the time and tears it took to produce a book. We all have bills to pay, debts too, and day jobs that can be stultifying and depressing; the dream that someday you may earn enough from writing to quit the day job is very seductive, and the thing that can make that dream a reality is MONEY. So morphic resonance kicks in: the path of self publishing has been set now to be like publishing but without the publishers. The lists are chocka with excellent and not-so-excellent books that are in the main, pretty like the books you might find in a book-store packed with the latest blockbusters, must-reads and the latest from your favourite mystery authors.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this; please don’t get me wrong. But the whole drive for independence was originally about freedom. Freedom from the constraints of genre and of commercial viability, so there would be new worlds to explore.

I read with increasing dismay and depression the exhortations to be professional, to do things a certain way. To see writing as a business. To have five year plans and to keep to them. And all the many articles covering these subjects all end with the veiled threat that if you do not follow these paths, then your work will never sell, and you will never achieve your dream of leaving the day job behind. You’ll never be interviewed on breakfast TV with your latest runaway best seller; you’ll never mingle with the great and the good in the world of literature and books. You’ll never win prizes and accolades and be lionised as an example of how a self-published author can prove the nay-sayers wrong.

Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers. It’s not going to happen. I don’t want to chase a dream someone else (some tens of thousands of others in fact) seem to think I ought to be chasing. Even thinking about it is getting in the way of writing. And that’s all I am: a writer. I’m not an entrepreneur, nor a business woman nor a graphic designer or a marketing guru or any of the other things it seems one has to have some skills at. I write. I write stories that come to me, or which I chisel out of the bedrock of my being, and that’s it. To try and transform myself into this superwoman figure is wrong on some many levels. I was given gifts, which I have worked hard at honing and honouring, and they’re gifts that (without being immodest) many would sell their souls for. It’s entirely churlish to demand that somehow I turn my back on that, demand that I transform myself into another animal.

One of the most moving and powerful things in my life is the feedback I get from people about my writing (whether it is the books, the poetry or articles here). I know that my writing has made a difference, changed people’s lives in some ways, and the reason it can do that is because I’ve kept a hold of who I am and what I do. But the last six months I have felt my grip loosening, the compulsion to conform becoming almost unbearable. I imagine some might read this and think, “Oh poor dear, she thinks she’s a speshul snowflake!” . To those, I will say simply, yes, I do think I am a speshul snowflake and the reason I think it is because this is MY life and I get one chance to live it the way I choose to.

So I am choosing to live it (and to write) according to my own definitions of integrity and being true to myself and my gifts.

500th post ~ some introspection, some retrospection but mostly peering into the future

 

I don’t always do a good job of celebrating. It doesn’t come naturally to me, in many ways. You’re talking to someone who is always braced for impact, expecting the worst and not anticipating the best. I mark my birthday as much to please others as myself, but as the years go by I find some pleasure in having survived another year. I also mark my blog-i-versary, though unlike many, I don’t throw a party at reaching certain numbers of hits. How many visitors I get here is not really anything to crow about; however large or small that number, it is no credit or otherwise to me. It’s not something I have myself achieved.

But today, I do wish to mark something that I feel deserves a big pat on the back.

This is my 500th post here at Zen and the Art of Tightrope-walking. That’s 500 posts in just over 2 years, made up of multifarious topics. Short stories, poems, photos, anecdotes, travel writing, articles on dozens of subjects often related to mental health, creativity, philosophy and spirituality and many other issues.

Many blogs never make it past their first year, or fizzle out after a few posts. I have no idea why; this is variable in cause. It may even depend why a person started a blog in the first place. Writers are encouraged now to use social media to build a platform; I had no idea of this when I started. I still don’t; the only platform I’d like to build is one in a nice big tree and then build my tree-house so all my friends can come and play. I guess that’s what this blog has become. I have made a lot of friends along the way, met a few psychos (you know who you are) and have found a side to myself that I’d been concealing.

That’s the side that is just beginning to stand up and challenge the status quo around the creative arts. You see, I am watching the way the world is changing and am astonished that there is so little vision. The digital revolution means that anyone can now publish a book, and make it available online. So what happens but people focus on doing things exactly the same as they have always been done by traditional publishers? Why is no one asking “What is a book? Why does it have to be the same form?” I hear the same stuff about editing and rewriting and polishing. I don’t mean I don’t want writers to work at their stuff, but are we focusing so much on presenting work that conforms to an accepted FORM because no one has woken to the thought that actually, we may be able to discard many of the forms because they came about to fit paper.

We take it for granted that a book conforms to certain preconceived ideas of what a book is, when many of those ideas have come about because of the physical constraints of a paper book. Length, too is something that has reduced because of shorter attentions spans and a desire for a less leisurely pace. Reading some Dickens’ lately I became aware of quite how different the pace of his novels was. The conventions of fiction are just that: conventions. They persist because the readers demand them: happy endings, resolutions of difficulties by the final pages, main characters that the reader relates to.

What if we could sweep away all the conventions and experiment a bit? Write stories where it ends without resolution, like real life? Or where the reader can suggest endings or choose them? What about turning things on their head and having a villain who becomes a hero, or a heroine who turns into a villainess?

I can hear people shaking their heads and saying, yes, but that’s not what readers want. No, it’s what publishers tell you that people don’t want. Do you know people who’d read something that challenged them, or pushed them out of their comfort zone? I do. There’s not vast numbers of them; it’s hardly a mass market, but then I gave up on the idea of being a best seller a long while ago. That’s about as probable as winning the Lottery.

Why do we insist on aspiring to BIG numbers all the time? Why are Indie authors always being told they’ll never sell many books? Is selling books the WHOLE reason why writers write? Is perhaps the pressure to tailor your writing to a market or a genre or even to the ideas of an editor or agent a thing that might be curtailing your personal exploration of YOUR voice, YOUR stories, YOUR art? Where would they go without that pressure? (I am aware that there are plenty of people who write for a living and whose freedom is curtailed by the need to sell and pay the bills; I am not one of them. Once I would have liked to have been; not sure of that any more at all)

Art, whether it is visual or literary or musical or whatever, is a living thing that thrives on experimentation and exploration. The digital age is offering all of us the most mind-blowing scope for experiment and exploring. You could do anything. ANYTHING. The possibilities are beyond anything we have so far encountered.

All you need is imagination and a bit of daring to take that step forward and just try.

When I began this blog, I really had no idea really what a blog was, but as a part of a pact with myself I set out to say YES to more things I’d once have said no to, and 500 posts later, I find myself here, on the edge of a new world where anything might happen.

Would you like to come along for the ride and help make things happen, for you and for me and for everyone who has ever aspired to be a creator? Or would you prefer to stick with what you already know, what others tell you works and stay within your comfort zone?

The combination of internet, digital publishing and the explosion of social media is a combination as revolution every bit as dynamic and frightening as the advent of the printing press, the postal service and the arrival of cinema all rolled into one. The medium of The Book could change utterly, evolve into a new animal.

I simply don’t know where all this may lead. But don’t let the men in grey limit the possibilities by chaining it all down to profit and loss and catering to the masses and to the mediocre and the humdrum.

Let’s be daring and take flight. My wings are itching to explore new skies and new horizons.

Baker Street blues- the secret

I made a throw-away line about a bitter-sweet memory associated with Baker Street and choosing to keep in secret for the time being. A number of people have asked about it and rather than have anyone fretting about it, I thought I might share it now and put you out of your misery(of curiosity).

I liked the song from the moment it came out, when I was about 12 or so, and I always felt the words of the song told a story and like most young people with a creative bent, I made up several stories woven around the lyrics. Back then, a one-night stand was used still more in it’s original context of a single night of a musician playing a gig and then moving on; today it’s used as a term for casual sex, and I guess even then it was moving towards that usage. I have no idea which use Gerry Rafferty meant but being pretty innocent in those days, it was the musical context I took it in.

I don’t even remember the stories I made up back then but in the early 90s when I was in my mid 20s, I was writing quite different stuff. We had also just acquired our very first CD player and were slowly buying music for it; most of our music was still either on vinyl or on tape. I wrote my first adult novel that year, between  summer ’91 when we moved to Nottingham and summer of ’92. I’d never even really considered submitting to publishers before (think about the phrase: does it not sound like an aspectof an S+M game?) but having completed my novel I thought, why not and sent off the first chapter to a number of publishers.

The response over the next few months was enough to knock me off balance. A few rejections trickled in and then, to my shock, I started getting requests to send the entire MS. I say shock, because at this stage, the MS was literally that, handwritten. The first one, from Hodder, sent me into a frenzy of typing up on our computer: it took more than a fortnight. A flurry came in, two via phone calls and I became very excited. The praise in the initial letters was mindblowing. I’d always been sure (in my own modest way) that I had talent but here were people who ought to know, agreeing with me. Even rejections were usually accompanied by a few words scribbled down below the signature, encouraging me.

It was a long while before I realised quite how valuable even these rejections were. For those who are unfamilar with this area, if a publishers’ reader bothers to write something, it means you made an impression, usually a very positive one. Even then they got huge amounts of paper thrown at them. They simply don’t have time or inclination to be kind.

Anyway, the first time a publisher rang me up, I almost fainted. It was one of the big ones and my husband had taken the call. The second time, I had to sit down abruptly and try not to babble inanities. That time it was a smaller independent publisher. He said he’d been blown away by the first chapter and that this alone was an absolute masterpiece. When he and I ended our talk, I went through into the living room where my daughter(then aged about 3) was playing and put on the first tape I found.

It was a Gerry Rafferty album and the first song was Baker Street and dancing(yes, I danced with joy) to that song, with all the delight of someone who had finally made their dreams come true. I was lifted into another dimension of happiness, and since then, hearing the opening bars of that song, I recapture some of that champagne-fizziness and innocent hopefulness.

I said this was a bittersweet memory, didn’t I?

The MS came back a fortnight later. He simply didn’t think it was the right book for him and the middle section didn’t seem to match the start. It was like being told your baby had died in the womb. I wrote back, expressing my disappointment, more because I simply needed to say something to someone. I didn’t whinge. A day or so later, he rang again and talked to me for an hour and a half and the upshot of it was that he wanted me to continue to believe in myself, that I had enormous talent and that I must not give up. He also wanted me to send him whatever else I wrote and he would then introduce me to a friend of his who was an agent.

By the time I wrote my next one, he had ceased taking on new fiction and his friend had retired(or stopped taking on new clients) and I was adift again.

Pretty much the same happened with the other publishers. They liked it, but decided not to take it for whatever reasons. A few years down the line, I had my cerebral event( I blew a blood vessel in my brain) and I stopped writing.

When I began again and tried a second time to get through the traditional route, I did look up the kind publisher but his company was not taking on any new writers and I think he himself had retired or passed on. At this time I got taken for a bit of a ride by an agent who turned out to be no good and even the publishers and agents who liked my work were not willing to take a risk, because of the death of the midlist fiction where most books end up(not bestsellers and not flops but still not big earners)  and I reached the same point of despair again before finding another way.

But there is one more weird twist to this story.

Breese Books, the publisher I had such close dealings with back in the 90s and who forever linked in my mind the soaring saxophone and guitar of Baker Street with the feeling that I had achieved my goals and dreams, did stop publishing fiction for a while and then moved into a niche area. These days they publish books on magic tricks and they also publish a genre of fiction many of you might not even know exists.

In fact Breese Books publish Sherlock Holmes stories written by modern writers.

You really, really could NOT make this up if you wanted to. Baker Street to Baker Street in only 18 years of heartbreak and effort.