What Self-Publishing Isn’t

Here are four things I keep hearing about self-publishing. Unfortunately I don’t believe any of them are true.

1. Self-publishing is a way of opening the doors to the weird and the wonderful that otherwise wouldn’t be published.

Everyone knows that the easiest thing about self-publishing today is the publishing bit. The hard part is the selling. But here’s the rub: Self-publishing favours the familiar. It favours non-fiction over fiction, genre fiction over the literary.

Genre is giving people what they expect, literary novels are about giving people what they don’t expect. (I’m not making value judgements here, I enjoy many genres, and if I put myself in the literary camp it is not that I think I’m better, just too oddball to be genre).

The blogs and the forums where people scrabble to promote their self-published books favour those who can sum up their books in couple of lines (Birmingham Vampire Thriller, Lesbian Zombie Romance) or in terms of familiar books (“If Steig Larson had written the DaVinci code and set it in Texas…”). The high-concept sound-byte, so beloved of Hollywood, seems perfectly at home here.

Nothing particularly surprising or heinous in all of that. I just don’t believe that the ‘self-publishing revolution’ has done any more than opened the doors to more of the same.

2. Self-publishing is a great way of getting past publishers who are too stupid or corrupt to value my work

And if it wasn’t the publishers, it was the agents. Agents are in thrall to the publishers who have a blinkered view of what the world wants (or, if you are a conspiracy theorist, are part of evil multi-national corporations run by the dark forces who control everything). If I could bypass that whole process, my books could sell in the thousands.

That’s a comforting notion for all of us who haven’t found a publisher. I just don’t believe it.

Publishers, even the smallest, most committed, most intelligent, the most forward thinking are businesses. They don’t want to take on books they don’t think they can sell. Some indeed have a limited view of what is marketable, some may indeed be not that bright, but if not one agent or publisher thinks your book will sell, maybe, just maybe, they are right.

What ever you think about capitalism (and I happen not to like it very much), it’s good at finding buyers for products. That’s what it does. When you see those often depressing lists from publishers of ‘what I’m looking for now’ they are simply a notion of what it is that people might buy, and they are often right. There is a naive idea about marketing that it involves taking an arbitrary product, then spending huge sums of money to brainwash people into to buying it. It doesn’t work like that. It starts with finding out what people think they want, then spending huge sums of money telling them you’re the one that’s got it. And there’s a big difference there.

There are some small, brave innovative publishers out there but they have a hard time. They don’t make much money, they can’t take on too many books and without doubt we could do with a lot more of them. But publishers don’t, on their own, create culture. Like indie record labels (in the days when there were records), they should be able to find and exploit the various currents in culture that are going against the mainstream. But they can’t create those currents.

3. That ebook self-publishing will change everything.

The ebook just continues what print-on-demand started. It’s easier than ever to get ‘published’, harder than ever to get noticed. In the rapid rise of the ebook over the last year self-published authors have been admirably quick off the mark to exploit the new technologies.

It is particularly beneficial to the self-publisher that, with very little effort or cost, your book will look just the same as one published by a big publishing house (you’re not going to be betrayed by the larger-than-proper-paperback size, the shiny cover and the graphic your mate knocked up in PhotoShop which didn’t quite come out as you hoped but, since he did it for nothing, you couldn’t complain). Since you long gave up hope of making any money from your book, with no printing costs to cover you can almost give it away for a couple of quid or less.

If you are a writer accustomed to peer review sites, go to any Kindle forum and you will soon come across some familiar names using the same strategies learned and honed on those sites to get your attention. And the very best of luck to them. But the Kindle here in the UK is in its early days, and already you can see the backlash (much more prominent in the USA) to authors self-promoting. With thousands of new ebooks coming on to the market every week, the clamour for attention from authors will becoming a deafening din. Any ebook buyer looking to browse through a few titles for a quiet read will soon retreat to a site where authors are locked out.

4. We are slowly building a new community of readers

How many self-published books have you got on your bookshelf? I’ve no idea whether I am typical or not, but I’ve got a dozen or so. How many are written by people I don’t know? One, but that was a (rather poor) book about how to self-publish through Lulu. The rest, without exception, are by friends, people I’ve known through writing groups, peer review sites and, in one case, an exchange of comments in the online Guardian which resulted in an exchange of novels. All the novels are not only by writers I know, but writers who know me.  All exist within this cosy self-publishing bubble. And I suspect the people who have bought my book online are similarly connected. I could well be wrong, but I suspect if we are building a community, it is a community of writers not readers. Why would anybody buy a self-published novel by someone they’ve never heard of? The chances are it won’t be very good.

Of course there are exceptions. Some very good indie authors have had remarkable success with Kindle publishing, but these are early days and I think the honeymoon period may soon be over.

Both self-publishers and traditional publishers face the same problem: how to get attention for your book in a world where books outnumber readers. Similarly all authors, whatever route they choose to get the work to the reader, face the same problem: how to write something that captures the reader’s interest and imagination.

Some good authors are lucky enough to have a natural talent for self-promotion. Some great writers are crap at self-promotion and don’t see it as anything to do with the job of being an author. And some authors are much better at self-promotion than they are at writing. For writers, it’s going to get increasingly hard to self-promote, for readers is going to get harder to track down the books that surprise but don’t disappoint.

So what’s the way out? My contention is that we need a new breed of publisher – small, brave, tough, market-savvy, multi-platform – who can identify hungry niche audiences and great writers to feed them. These are not going to be publishing collectives formed by like-minded, mutually supportive, self-publishers. The world is far too competitive for that, and your books aren’t good enough. Sorry. We need independent brands, adept at marketing and PR, who we can trust, where readers will buy a new book from an author they’ve never heard of just because the last three books from that imprint were so good. New technologies should enable publishers to find and supply those niche markets which were once too difficult to tap.

What are the chances of that happening? I’ve absolutely no idea, just as I’ve no idea what part the novel plays in the cultural landscape of the 21st century. I have a feeling that when digital reading devices are commonplace, it’s not novels as we know them that will be read on them. But, as always, I reserve the right to be totally wrong.

Roland Denning is a writer and film maker based in London. His first novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, is available in a revised 2011 ‘austerity edition’ exclusively on Kindle. The original is still available in quaint paperback form.

In Episode 7 of his animation series On Meeting An Agent, Roland’s alter-ego robot self-publishes his novel.

  • Unfortunately, I agree with this. This morning I read this piece about A-list self-publishers (http://paidcontent.org/article/419-meet-the-a-list-authors-of-self-publishing/). In self-publishing A-list is more about how much you’ve sold then what you’ve written. That may change but that’s where it is now. The successful self-publishers are those writing commercial fiction. This whole idea of “money talks” is why I abandoned trying to make it in traditional publishing. I also knew, like you, that a less classifiable novel would have a harder time finding willing agents or editors – but ironically, it’s likely easier to find readers of a less-classifiable book with a traditional publisher than as a self-publisher. But I’m in this for the long haul.

    I disagree with you about the myopia of big publishing. They have passed on many books for entirely stupid reasons – even self-defeating, un-capitalist reasons. And they do bear some responsibility for fostering a culture that doesn’t want quirkier books. Just as Hollywood takes some responsibility for pouring 200 million into another superhero movie, rather than spending the same amount for 10 more-interesting movies that could even turn a profit. When publishing is giving Sarah Palin 7 million dollars and not nurturing writers who may have longevity, that’s bad capitalism, not just reacting to the market.

    • Oh I agree about big publishing’s ocular problems. Big companies want big profits; the culture where established publishers were not worried about a few books making a loss because the big name authors were making money went when the corporations started buying up the industry. It would be naive to expect the News Corporation to be concerned with anything other than maximsing its profits.

      Which should leave a gap in the market for small, flexible, more adventurous publishers to move in and still make some money. That’s what the end of my piece was asking for.

  • Henry, you know a lot more about the independent book publishing business than I do, but I agree with both of your points. I hope I have the stamina, like you, to be “in this for the long haul.”

  • I meant to include in my previous comment my thanks to Roland for this post. We can easily give in to the excitement of independent publishing circa 2011, but we still need to confront reality, which isn’t always as pretty as we’d like it to be.

  • I have a large self-publishing audience and I’d love to do this article as a straight read on my podcast, if you’d give permission. Too many folks seem to think that self publishing is a golden ticket, and while it’s a useful tool there is definitely so much more to it.

    I think my personal pet peeve is that self-publishing is going to make a poorly written book ‘golden’. Major mistake so many newbie authors make.

    Great post.
    BlogsAloud Podcast

    • Sure, go ahead Alison. It’s yours to do with as you please.

      And it get the chance to give my book a subtle plug…


  • Clearly, at least in this current landscape, the most successful self-pubbers are going to be those who most accurately mimic successful trad-pubbers, from the cover to the genre to the total package within. And why shouldn’t they? In exploiting the same principles used by big publishers to establish demand for products, these people should at least be congratulated for proving that even no-names can compete if their stuff is up to par. To be frank, I personally doubt that what readers really need is yet another YA paranormal romance (I know, boo hiss on me), but as long as that’s what they apparently WANT, then I suppose there’s really no shame in going after our own rightful share of the action.

    As long as big publishers can continue to divine popular demand, they will continue to groom authors whose writing fits the bill, and like-minded indies who are interested in retiring some day will certainly follow suit. Business is business I suppose, and while I wouldn’t mind seeing publishers take a few more chances here and there myself, that’s quite easy for me to say when I’m not one of their stockholders!

    I think the real question here is how self-pubbers can establish a system similar to that enjoyed by trad-pubbers – one that establishes audiences and delivers the goods – while somehow avoiding the pitfalls that come with catering too much to common tastes (i.e., cranking out pap for the sake of profits alone). I for one still believe that self-pubbing IS often the last refuge of good, original writing, but then patriotism is often the last refuge of scoundrels. When will we stop acting like we’re too good for the game when we’d clearly love to play?

    We are either annoying or being ignored by potential audiences when the best we can all do is scream in unison “pick me, pick me!” Roland is correct that “We need independent brands, adept at marketing and PR, who we can trust, where readers will buy a new book from an author they’ve never heard of just because the last three books from that imprint were so good.” Am I going to be the one to set this up? Probably not, but I’d be willing to bet that I won’t have to – As new technologies make it easier and easier to publish, advertise, and distribute books, SOME enterprising individual is bound to pick up on the neglected supply of/demand for books that aren’t necessarily trying to emulate and perpetuate the current paradigm.

    Bravo Roland on another most pertinent post!

  • I’m glad I came across this brilliant analysis and myth de-bunking on self-publishing. It would be interesting to see, per your 4th point, whether there’s any breakdown of self-pubbed vs. traditional pubbed readers. Do many self-pubbed readers mainly read self-pubbed books (or does anyone?)? Do people who let various bestseller lists guide their reading habits read lots of self-pubbed books? Can a “who’s reading what and how much of it?” sort of study/survey be done?

    I think you’re dead-on about genre/niche titles faring better in self-publishing than “literary” fiction might. I imagine a genre book is to its respective audience kind of what pizza is to me: When it’s good, it’s amazing; when it’s bad, it’s still good enough to hit the spot and fill the void. So, if I can pay $1 for a slice at the hole-in-the-wall around the corner, instead of $4 at a “famous” pizzeria with a page on Yelp, why not take my chances on the cheaper option? So it is with books that give readers what they know and love. (This isn’t to knock genre books, by the way. Pizza happens to be one of my favorite foods.)

    • I like the pizza analogy. 🙂

      • I’ve got a feeling there’s a breakthrough about to happen here – genre novels delivered by episode on the lids of pizza boxes… extra clues in the toppings… make mine a Margerita with extra sleeze…

        • As an experiment, order a Domino’s pizza online, and in the “special requests” box, enter “please write the first chapter of a YA novel about a teenager who discovers a time machine and fights zombies on the inside of the box lid” and see what you get.

  • Great post! I do think that all the “digital publishing changes everything” talk is true for the industry itself (dinosaurs of the publishing world are going to have to evolve into birds or go extinct). But it certainly doesn’t change the landscape of the reading public.

    Want to make a whole bunch of money self publishing? Write a book a whole bunch of people want to buy.

    • Matt, you are so right. And if you want to be the author of a book that readers will remember for the rest of their lives, write a book for them.

  • klcrumley

    Why not talk about what self publishing actually IS? And, for once, putting a positive spin on it?

    Seriously now, everybody is entitled to their own opinions but the constant bashing (especially in the light of so many recent success stories) is a bit passe.

    Self-publishing is…
    A) Freedom of expression. Writers can tell their story their way without the interference of a bunch of “marketing gurus” in suits telling them what “the next big thing” will be, and what they should write….
    (Yeah, I know a lot of nay-sayers claim that when we say that we mean “no editing.” But I’m talking about subjective issues here.)

    B) For me, a great source of supplemental income. No, I’m not makng the money Amanda Hocking and some other people are…and that’s fine by me (for now.) I have a great career in criminal justice/security that I have no interest in giving up right now. For me, writing is my “second job.” A lot of people have deemed me as a “hobbyist” (and they mean that as an insult 50% of the time, sadly enough). But I consider myself “semi-pro” for now. ANd, I’m fine with that.

    C) The punk rock revolution of literature, with all the attitude and “f@#$ the establishment” that comes with it. And I think that’s pretty cool. I’d rather be the Joey Ramone of literature than the Justin Timberlake of “bubblegum pop” books. Wouldn’t you?

    D) The “new slush pile.” When I heard that expression before, I thought it was really derogatory. Look at how many indie authors have gained enough attention to attract editors, agents, etc…
    HP Mallory, Amanda Hocking, and Jeremy Robinson just to name 3 off the top of my head.
    To tell you the truth, for anyone who seeks to go “the traditional route” I recommend self publishing at least a short story or two first…
    sell the hell out of it…
    market it with all of your enthusiasm (and yes, you’ll be spending at minimum 100 a month but that will be worth it in the end.)
    When you get sales, you get noticed. Publishers and editors will notice you. So, if that’s the route you want to go…you have nothing to lose by self-publishing. If you don’t do well, you will at least have something out there to sell…plus a valuable learning experience. ANd, maybe a clue that you should step up your game as far as writing. (somehow I feel this whole segment could be a seperate blog post on it’s own. LOL)

    D) Fun! Period! If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be doing it.

    E) Not for wimps. Seriously! Nothing about self-publishing is easy (no matter what anyone says). If you have what it takes–and not just writing skill, but guts, determination, business sense, and stamina–then by all means go for it. If you have a weak ego, need to be constantly coddled and told you are good enough, and have no time to dedicate to all that you will need to do to get your book out there…
    then, maybe it’s not for you.
    If you have confidence, some marketing skill, and of course writing skill, then by all means go for it!

    F) FREE for Ebook publishing, and dirt cheap for paperbacks as of late. The days of paying so-called vanity presses 200-1500 dollars for a “publishing package” are long gone. Thank Heaven.
    So PFFFT!!! to all those telling us we “pay to publish” or are “throwing money away.” I’m making a profit self-publishing.
    In fact, I”m making more than I ever had via the “traditional way” 😛

    G) Self-publishing is “the new way to go.” It’s totally different than it was years ago. Self-publishing is not about “vanity,” or a “hobbyists” playing at being an author. Self-publishing is a way to earn money and gain recognition. It’s a way to get your name out there as an author, and establish a readership. It’s completely different now than the shoddy label it was given years ago.

    Just my 2 cents. Keep the change 😉

    • klcrumley

      oops, regarding D) I thought calling it “the new slush pile” was really derogatory at first. Now, I do not see it as an insult at all.


      • Virginia Richter

        I just submitted a middle grade mystery and it is now on Amazon. It’s the first in a series and I find it most exciting! I’m reading and studying ways to make it visible. The whole process is stimulating. Thank you for your comments, Karen. Every positive thought helps. Ginny

    • Karen – In no way was I trying to put down the principle of self-publishing, just challenge a few assumptions I continually hear made about it. If self-publishing is working for you, all power to you and I hope your success continues.

      As to it being the ‘punk rock revolution of literature’ -well, I just wish it was. Is there a underground movement of rough and ready but young, angry, subversive work hitting the streets? I haven’t seen it, and, to use your analogy, rather than getting fresh Joey Ramones or Johnny Rottens we are getting more poorly recorded ersatz Justin Timberlakes.

      I don’t want to push an analogy with a 35-year old music sub-culture too far but one thing about punk was the role of the small labels (like Sire in the US and Stiff in the UK) was crucial, even if the most important acts eventually ended up with the majors.

      • This discussion seems to have reached its inevitable impasse…. Clearly there are no shortage of voices on either side — those who promote self-publishing with varying degrees of wisdom and naivete, and those who maintain their skepticism for reasons ranging from honest to cynical. We’ve heard it all before, and my view is that neither extreme is dominating the discourse. There will always be cheerleaders and naysayers when it comes to self-publishing, as with any endeavor, and it’s only natural that most self-published authors embrace the former tendency.

        But when a self-published author breaks rank somewhat to gently chide the most enthusiastic among us for what may be overly idealistic assumptions, it isn’t necessarily just to rain all over the parade. Rather, they may be presenting us with an opportunity take the discussion down a more productive path.

        Roland’s point, which I find myself coming back to again and again, is that it hardly matters WHAT one’s opinion of self-publishing is. This thing is HAPPENING, and all signs indicate that it’s going to continue happening at an increasingly rapid rate. So it shouldn’t be surprising when, as more and more authors jump on the self-publishing bandwagon, we start to notice more and more of both genius and utter hack writers emerging from that morass, some of them success stories and others total failures (not necessarily correlating, mind you).

        In any case, it seems clear that the most successful self-pubbers owe their success to their ability and desire to emulate what the big boys and girls in traditional publishing are doing — in terms of both what they write and how they go about promoting it. This would seem to invalidate the argument that self-publishing is essentially a punk rock, DIY affair. Therefore, the question becomes whether self-pubbers can achieve a similar level of success without completely “selling out” as it were, to use one very problematic term…. What Roland is suggesting is that truly independent imprints, specifically created to foster and promote more truly independent work to wider audiences, will be a necessary prerequisite if we ever expect to prevent that disconnect from occurring.

    • Fun! Exactly! I’m having a blast & meeting some amazing people. I feel more creative than ever interacting with so many other artists & nobody knows what unique ventures will come out of that interaction. Don’t be naive about it, but don’t be so cynical either! Get creative & start collaborating. It’s not wasted effort regardless of what happens. 🙂

  • Great article Roland. And the comments you’re getting are just as clear-sighted – including Karen’s insistence on the positive spin. I recently posted an angsty little rant about this on my site and have been planning a follow up. Could I use a few quotes from this? With attribution of course.

  • Karen, I very much enjoyed your paragraphs A, C, second D, E, F, and G, and think you’re probably right in paragraphs B and first D. And I also agree with you that “the new slush pile” isn’t a derogatory expression. Every market humans have ever invented is a slush pile. Buyers sort through it all as they please, even as sellers do whatever they can to gain the attention of the buyers they need. The best word you used in your comment was “freedom.”

  • I agree. I think writers trying to do the lone wolf approach are going to have a hard go of it. My small house, Who Dares Wins Publishing, builds a team of writers who help each other. We also have the advantage of an extensive backlist of traditionally published books that we are re-releasing. This gives us a solid financial foundation. We’ve got 10 titles in the top 100 in their genres on Kindle and a top 100 overall selling title on PubIt and sales keep growing.

  • It’s a 50/50 toss up on your article for me; you made clear points on being cautious of bloated expectation, especially regarding an unproven market springing off ‘new’ technology. However, the market has exploded as far as eBooks being purchased in the USA, even outselling paper counterparts this last quarter according to the Association of American Publishers. For many indie writers (including my husband and myself) self-publishing eBooks has meant a steady stream of extra income, which is important in a flagging economy… and we’ve managed to do so on strictly word of mouth referrals, verses clogging up the net with self-generated praise. If you skim through writer group discussions in LinkedIN, you’ll find that many of the writers posting on eBooks have similar stories to share, striving to keep a “bit o’ class” embroiled in this rather fluid and uncertain eBook market.

  • I think self-publishers have differing motives. Unfortunately, many of them have exactly the same small range of differing motives as traditionally published writers, namely some vain dream of success, where success is defined in terms of money, fame, the usual bullshit. These self-publishers will be the clamouring ones, the ones so in your face that it’s a turn-off. On the other hand, there are others who define their motives is quite different ways. For instance, I myself regard publication, whether by myself or others, as a motivation to finish off the manuscripts I have written, to move on to fresh work, just to clear desk space. Now, if after that the work does well, which for me would be selling a couple of hundred copies, then great. But if it sells thirty then that’s thirty people who wouldn’t have read it and anyway my motivation wasn’t fame or money, it was finishing stuff off. And I can’t know, maybe it will sell far more. It doesn’t matter.

    So I won’t be joining in the clamour, and anyway, people find you anyhow. I don’t know how, but they do. I have just watched all eight of Roland’s ‘On meeting an agent’. Loved em. Very funny. How the hell did I come across them? Some strange meandering path that led me more or less here. I even see self-publishers who don’t even provide any sample chapters. Who the hell’s going to buy any of their stuff? Crazy. What would be I buying? A cover thumbnail and a promise. As some wise person said about a synopsis — the same synopsis could be summarising a great book or a mediocre book.

    Without a doubt most self-published books are mediocre. But then so are most traditionally published books. So I see self-publishing as simply making work available. If people don’t want to buy it, it doesn’t matter. Who cares? If they do, great, maybe they’ll buy the next one too. If many self-publishers want to go the in-your-face route, let them, I doubt I’ll want to read them if they have to shout that much. But if they display a couldn’t-care-less attitude, I’ll think to myself this is real indie publishing, I’ll listen. They’ve won already because they’ve got my attention.

    The trouble with most self-publishers is that they’re trying to pretend to be the same as traditional publishers, which is ridiculous. Better to be altogether more original. Self-publishing is about making work available in a form it might be read (no point dumping a novel on blogspot, may as well chuck your manuscript in the bin and hope a literary tramp finds it).

    There is not actually any problem in getting noticed because every book is noticed by one person at a time. All those books in the high street bookshop should worry more about getting noticed, because I rarely go in there any more. And even when I did go in there more often I mostly walked out without being interested in anything. Just crap. Crap in bookshops and crap on the web. That’s just the way it is. But still, I happen on writers I can read, and more and more lately in the indie sphere. Our foot’s in the door, whereas for traditional publishers the nails are being banged in the coffin. Why imitate them? Self-publishers should be far less concerned about number of copies sold and instead concentrate on getting work out. If it’s any good, it’ll find readers. And if it doesn’t, drown your sorrows in the pub and write something else. I wish self-publishers would get over the Big-Dealism of it all.

    • Hear, hear! Joel, I couldn’t have said it better myself!

      Writers who write solely for fame and fortune will invariably crank out rubbish unfit to wipe one’s arse with.

      Writers who achieve a degree of fame and fortune while managing to contribute something more, on the other hand… Well, I suppose they’ll at least have earned the money and attention.

      Meanwhile, those of us who genuinely enjoy what we do will remain right here in the middle, chips fall where they may.

      • I must say, Arthur, I do see the monetization of the small-press scene one of the most appallingly boring things that has happened to it. And most of it from people who are only going to sell two copies anyway because they give more time to planning their fabulous fame and fortune (in their heads) than they do to their writing. The fact that a few self-publishers have ‘hit it big’ has inspired a gold rush of mediocrity, such that this is now the face self-publishing is showing to the world: just another bunch of writing wannabes, who have seen a thin sliver of a chance after their first choice (HarperCollins or some other shithole) turned them down. The small press used to be about people who actually believed in something, having the means of production yourself and all that, who felt they had something to say to like minds, now it’s just about people who want to prance about like fake celebs. It’s nauseating.

        • Agreed once again. Incidentally, I had a lot of fun frustrating the hell out of my classmates and students in grad school with ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ and just about everything else Beckett ever wrote. It doesn’t have much to do with self-publishing, but my favorite line from ‘Waiting for Godot’ has got to be right after Vladimir questions why, since only one of the four gospels on the subject mentions it, the version where Jesus saves one of the thieves on the cross is somehow the best known. Estragon’s response? “People are bloody ignorant apes.”

          And while we’re off subject — This may be a bit homoerotic for some, but if you’re a true Beckett fan you really do owe it to yourself to see the parody, ‘Wading for Godot’



          • Yes, well…

            I recently found the Patrick Magee original version of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ on YouTube, which I’d never seen. Beckett wrote it for him. What brilliance.


            In 1979 I lived quite close to Patrick Magee. I watched him digging his garden once. He looked around furtively with every step on the spade, as if he were burying a corpse.

            • Thanks for sharing, Joel. I made the mistake of watching this right before going to bed last night, and the performance was certainly good enough to keep me up a while!

              I wonder what Beckett and/or Krapp would’ve made of this echo chamber that is the Internet, here half a century later….

    • Thank you, Joel, for the mention of my animated series On Meeting An Agent, where a robot with a similar name to me tries to get his book published.
      You can watch them here (episodes 1 to 5): http://vimeo.com/typeofthing/agent1to5
      and here (6 to 8): http://vimeo.com/typeofthing/agent6to8
      and individually here: http://www.beachbeneathpavement.co.uk/On_Meeting_An_Agent.html

  • Joel, I enjoyed reading your comment, no doubt because your point of view is very close to mine. We can always hope for commercial success, but it doesn’t have to make or break us. That’s the big difference between twenty-first century independent publishing and the twentieth century “traditional” kind.

    • Cheers Ron. What I think a lot of people forget is that there’s plenty of great writers who don’t sell a lot. When I first got in interested in Samuel Beckett in the early eighties the bookshops were still selling dusty copies printed in the sixties in print runs of no more than a thousand. Great bit in ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ where the Krapp reflects: ‘Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.’

  • Joel – I think you make a very good point about the importance of the small press and writers’ obsessions with numbers.

    I do have a worry about the fragmentation of culture is increasingly going the way of a few big rich corporate stars at the top and then thousands of unknown poor writers at the bottom who just sell a few copies to their mates. As I’ve said before, the old filtering system of agent/publisher/critic is in terminal decline but nothing has quite replaced it. Yet.

    I want to see a culture where there is a critical mass of exciting new work selling in the thousands, not the dozens. Because, unless you are treading a particular obscure and arcane path, if you’ve good something that’s really good, there should be thousands who are going to appreciate it too.

    Beckett, since you mentioned him, is hardly a marginal figure. He is appreciated by millions worldwide. A few years ago Channel 4 in the UK filmed and transmitted every one of his plays. It’s that sort of culture that I’m worried about being marginalised or lost in an increasingly fragmented, corporate-dominated culture.

    • Ah, the point about Beckett though is that it was a very slow build-up. Even after he got the Novel Prize in 1969 he was still an outsider interest.

      I think one has to have a certain trust that one’s writing will find the audience it deserves and not be in a rush about it. It is a strange process how one comes to hear of a writer one can read. They just suddenly pop up on your radar. Doubtless the vast majority of self-published authors will never sell more than a few copies, but that’s because they’re not worth reading. I certainly agree that it would be a pity if some great writers didn’t find anywhere like their proper audience. But this too is nothing new. Look at Fernando Pessoa and his writings in a trunk. But this is fate. His writings since his death have reached more people than he could have ever hoped. Who knows how it will go? But certainly there is nothing to mourn in rubbish writers not receiving an audience. All writers are definitely not born equal.

      Maybe new structures will emerge, as you suggest, maybe you’ll even have something to do with it. But in the meantime I think that one should just do what one can and trust to luck. Fragmentation of culture is ultimately an illusion. I think we should be wary of allowing a culture we despise to become our culture or even letting it influence any of our decisions. Certainly the corporate world of glitter and fame and big book deals is nothing to do with me. Who says that the terminal decline of the agent/publisher system needs any replacement? Maybe rather than prop it up with versions of our own we should just rejoice in its decline, like the collapse of the banks, and hope no-one comes along to prop it up, least of all us.

      • Joel – basically I agree with you.

        And I’d like to rejoice with you in the collapse of the banks but last time I looked they were still there.

  • I appreciated the “don’t blame others for your book not being found” theme of this paper. If we as individuals wish to be heard then we must step out and figure out a way to rise above the white noise. Of course this brings to mind the idea of selling snow to Eskimos. Can the average person fine-tune and understand what it takes to get the produce, whatever that may be, out to the masses?

    Great Article.