Wednesday 11 February 2015

So why DO you self-publish, Andrew?

I openly hate pretty much everything about self-publishing. So why do I still do it?

Almost three years ago now, I self-published my short story collection Something Nice on various e-platforms. Since then, I've self-published my MPhil thesis in Film Studies, and a translated Casanova memoir. I've sold a stonking 320 copies of my books, received a couple of dozen reviews, had conversations with interesting people, and bored quite a few others. Really, that's about it.

When I entered the self-publishing market, I wasn't complimentary about it. My early marketing efforts centred around drawing attention to ways in which I wasn't a typical self-published author. I highlighted previous professional publishing credits for each of my stories. I avoided the de rigeur promotion method of giving away the book to build a bigger readership (a tactic I've admittedly seen work for others, but which still smacks to me of South Park's "underpants gnomes"). I took to various forums, and indeed the previous incarnation of this blog, to take issue with people drivelling on about "dead tree books" and their specious waffle about how self-publishing would sweep aside "trad" publishing.

I deleted a lot of this ranty stuff "just in case" when I applied for a job with Amazon in late 2013. I didn't get the job, but given what we now know about Amazon tax and working conditions, I'm not too bothered about that.

Clearly, I still hold every single one of those opinions, and a few more besides, so with Something Nicer in the hands of my very-talented designer, why do I still self-publish my books? Well, let me tell you a story.

I coulda been a contender

Anyone who identifies as a writer, self-published, traditionally published or even unpublished, has at least one anecdote of meeting someone who tells them that they could have been a writer themselves if they only had the time. Hang around writing procrastination forums for more than a minute, and you'll see the resulting shrieks of outrage from writers, who procrastinate with open derision at the idea that anyone might have unfulfilled ambitions in their life.

"Oh yes, because of course it's only a question of time and just anyone could write a three volume epic about werewolves bumming Nazi zombie dinosaurs," they'll sniff disdainfully, and you're probably not allowed to point out that it sounds as though just anyone just did.

"They should get their fat arses off the sofa and cut down on TV," others continue, which, well, no names and no pack drill, but I do feel this argument overlooks a certain point of empirically-verifiable data about the average buttock circumference for members of a profession that requires a lot of both sitting down and sugar. Also, Breaking Bad  is popular with enough writers that for some reason it doesn't count as wasting time in front of the TV.

I have a lot of sympathy for people who want to write but don't have time. Everyone gets the same twenty-four hours, and some people have more demands on their time than others. But as soon as you voice this moderate point of view, the blonde spectre of JK Rowling comes steaming down the tracks to derail the argument, straight from her Edinburgh bedsit where she scribbled on cafe tables with the blood of her first-born, while simultaneously scrubbing toilets with a brush made of her crushed dreams, or however the story goes.

JK Rowling is an intensely irritating example when she appears in any writing-based debate, because every single writer in the history of written language has, with only one exception, not been JK Rowling. Seriously, I checked.

People who think they have no time to write also often lack the confidence to write, and I think that's what the armchair procrastinators miss. But also, a lot of people don't have time to write. I'm often one of them. I have a full-time job, a wedding to organise, an acting hobby, and a string of social commitments. It's highly usual for me to leave the house before 8am and not return until midnight. Whole months go by where I write nothing at all. Care to criticise me, self-publishing forum ninjas?

So when someone tells me that they'd love to have the time to write, I sort of see it as the deeply unhappy cry of frustrated creative ambition that it so clearly is, and I say something kind like "It happens to us all. In a few years when the kids have grown up/moved out/you've retired/you've murdered your partner/you get probation, maybe you'll have more time."

Will they ever write anything? I dunno, probably not. See if I care. But I've not shortened my own life by several minutes by getting so weirdly angry about it all, that's the main thing.

That's not a story

Oh yeah. Anyway.

Frustrated and unproductive writers don't bother me, because a lot of the time I am one, and so is just about every other writer I know. But there's a related phenomenon that keeps me pushing to self-publish even though I hate it.

This first happened in 2002, when I was teacher training at Warwick University (a mistake that would make a far longer blog post, trust me). A fellow trainee asked me about performing, and I mentioned a couple of plays I'd done at university. She sat back and said, "I was nearly a pop star, actually."

This was more interesting than talking about QTS standards, so I encouraged her to go on.

"Yes," she said. "I always liked singing, but never really did much with it. Then last year they had the auditions for Pop Idol near me."

I was really curious by this point. "How did you get on?"

"Oh, I decided not to go in the end. But if I had, I reckon I'd have nailed it."

I should have ended the conversation there, but you just have to pick at that scab, don't you? "Oh. Sorry, why do you think that?"

She looked at me as though I'd crawled out from under her lettuce, this girl who for all I knew couldn't actually sing a note. "Well, I'm better than some of the ones that get on."

"So when you say you were nearly a pop star..."

"Yes, because if I'd turned up, I'd have won."

Now, not only is this a real anecdote involving a girl who I'd be happy to be name if challenged (if only because I just checked Facebook and she lives in New Zealand now and so can't easily come to my house and beat me up), but this was the first of several times I had this exact conversation over the next ten years or so, with a string of [usually] girls. The show changed from Pop Idol to X Factor, but the story stayed the same. Unlike the frustrated writers, these people just had to turn up.

There was something indescribably sad about their apparent bulletproof confidence in their untested singing ability, contrasted with their tendency to bottle it at the last minute when called upon to put their money where their mouth was. I decided I'd never be one of those people, and that's why I self-publish. So I'll never be the kind of person who tells someone "I could have been a brilliant writer but I didn't bother turning up."

Rambling conclusion to a rambling post

And why self-publish? Why not submit full novels to publishers and agents instead? Well, look. I do submit short stories to small presses, competitions and other bits and pieces, and frankly I do all right. You can read or will soon be able to read my contributions to Sanity Clause is Coming, Grimm & Grimmer 4, A Time Lord For Change, The Cat That Walked Through Time, Shelf Life, and forum collections like A Splendid Salmagundi. I walked away from a contract for Casanova, and I gather there's something in place for Chantecoq. And that's before the freelance jobs, the competition winners, and stuff. Damn it, I was once retweeted by Neil Gaiman. I'm legit.

And yet. I have a pretty nice job that pays pretty well, and the pension's decent and I can walk to work. I know that I earn more than just about any published author you can name except the statistically irrelevant Harry Potter lady. I'd be mad to give it up. I'm not a 'quit the day job' kind of guy. And as I mentioned, my writing time is frequently squeezed from existence for months at a stretch.

So, let's look at a scenario where I finish a novel length manuscript, and send it off to an agent, and it clicks with them, and we have a boozy session, and sell it to a major publisher.

The various drafts and changes to the manuscript between submission and publication are fine in principle, but when I'm self-publishing stuff I can put it away for years at a time until I feel like getting back to it. Publishers have these things called deadlines, and they sound awful.

And then there's the marketing. One of the arguments against "traditional" publishing is that authors are increasingly expected to do their own marketing. And there is some truth in that. Now, by self-publishing my work, I'm actually condemning myself to do all my own marketing forever, with the added handicap of everyone thinking I'm an illiterate squit with a weird thing for vampires and too many cats.

But here's the thing. When I self-published Casanova, I was going to do a big launch thing, with readings and fancy dress and wine (mostly wine, actually). But by the time it was ready, I'd just got engaged, and frankly I needed to put the cash into wedding plans.

So I sacked it off, and Casanova's Story Of My Escape didn't get a marketing push beyond me talking about it on my own blog and in forums. For such an important book, that's a bit of a crime. Certainly if I was in any way accountable to anybody with my little publishing adventures, they'd be furious with me. Rightly.

With self-publishing, I can change my plans overnight. I can suddenly turn into a marketing machine or I can just drop the whole thing as I see fit. And the only person who's put out is me.

This isn't the same for anyone with a proper publisher's logo on the spine of their latest. Essentially you're responsible for shifting enough product to keep the lights on and pay people's salaries. So, Casanova went unpromoted and the only net result is that my family will drink slightly nicer wine at my wedding. If I suddenly decided I had better things to spend my cash on when it came to promoting the first blockbuster in my three book deal, there would be hell to pay.

And of course, the marketing obstacles might not be of my own making. Whenever you go to an interview for a professional job, they like you to have interesting hobbies. After about three months of doing the job, though, it becomes clear your employer expects you to drop them all. Take it from someone who's worked in magazine advertising for more than ten years now... writing gets a lot more slack than acting, but I'm pretty sure I'd run into trouble with the chaps who pay my rent about halfway through the second signing tour.

People talk about self-publishing in fevered evangelical tones because of the creative freedom it provides, whatever that means, but the factor that pushes me to hold my nose and keep on putting books out is that it gives me professional freedom. Mostly the freedom to be spectacularly inept and lazy. And yet, and yet, I'm still in the game. I'm having a go at being a writer, in spite of the time I have such a small amount of time to realistically devote to it.

And I'm still saving for the wedding, so do please buy the books, even if I don't bother promoting them. Cheers!