Saturday, 30 June 2012

(Don't) Do It Yourself

I could have a book on sale next week, if I wanted to.

But I don’t.

Of course, I want to have a book published. That’s the whole point. I don’t write just to hide my writing away and never let anybody see it. I write because I want other people to read it – of course I do.

So, perhaps you’re thinking, why not have a book published next week? Why not take the plunge, put it out there, make it available and see who buys it?

No. I won’t.

I will never, ever self-publish a novel. It just wouldn’t feel right. More than that – I would go so far as to say it’s cheating. Anybody who self publishes a novel and claims that makes them somehow a proper writer is telling a lie, and so would I be if I did it.

My colleague Steve, a fellow scribbler (who rather greedily has two of his own blogs, here and here), told me not long ago that this was a very old-fashioned and “20th century” way of thinking. I disagree. There’s always been the ability to publish your own novels, through vanity publishers. Just because it’s easier to do now, with e-publishing and print-on-demand services such as Lulu and so forth, doesn’t make it right.

I don’t entirely write off all forms of self-publishing. I think that for certain types of book, mainly non-fiction, it’s a justified and valuable way of proceeding. Particularly in the very specialist non-fiction areas where many valuable and interesting books would never otherwise see the light of day because the audience for them is so small, but it’s important they’re there nonetheless.

However, for fiction, I think it’s an admission of defeat. You’re basically saying you’re not good enough, and will never be good enough. You’ve given up on any agent or publisher ever thinking anything you’ve written will be half decent.

But there’s not some grand conspiracy keeping your novel out of publication. No agent or publisher is sitting there thinking “We need fewer good books and good writers in the world.” Chances are that if your novel is continually rejected by dozens of agents and publishers it’s because it’s not very good.

So you move on to the next one, and try and make it better. You don’t waste your time – and money – trying to market it to your friends and family.

I don’t think it’s a popular viewpoint, and I don’t claim it represents anybody else’s view. It’s just mine. It’s peculiar to writing, because vanity publishing has always been so mocked and frowned upon, whereas in the music industry for example there’s a long and proud tradition of bands getting noticed by putting out their own releases. I think almost all poets, except for the ones you’ve actually heard of, also have to do this these days. But for novels it’s never been the way.

It’s so easy to do now, and that makes it so tempting. I could probably actually have an e-book on sale on Amazon tomorrow, if I wanted. I could be selling decent-quality printed books from Lulu too. (While we’re on the subject, I’ll freely admit to using Lulu for printing out copies of manuscripts I want feedback on from friends and colleagues because it’s easier for people to read in the format of a proper book, rather than some great big rind-bound folder of A4 printed pages!)

If I succumbed, if I started selling my own books, it would not be right. I would not be being true to myself. I want to have books published because I deserve to have them published. Because I have written something that somebody thinks is good enough to pay me for having written.

When I was a teenager and people asked me what I wanted to be in life, I used to sometimes reply very confidently that I would be one of two things – a writer or a failure. I still hold to that view. But what I will never, ever be – old-fashioned thought though it is – is a cheat.

I’ll be a writer if I deserve it, and not at all otherwise.


  1. There have been plenty of novels pubished that didn't deserve to be. An agent's or a publisher's opinion doesn't make something a success - only readers do. (Those are two somewhat disconnected and rather contradictory statements, by the way!) If you self-publish you go straight to the readers, and they can decide. Some novels are published, and flop. Are those real writers, just because they were published? Or is being a real writer to do with what is actually written, how much and how often and how honest? I think you're wrong, though I understand your point of view.

  2. Yes, I think they are real writers, even if they're generally considered to be awful. Someone considered them worth publishing. They made it through the process of agents and editors and publishers, and nobody stopped them and said "No, hang on, we can't put this out, it's awful."

    I appreciate it probably is an odd mindset. And maybe not even a very helpful one for my career prospects. But it's how I feel and I can't change that.

  3. I think a distinction has to be drawn between genuine vanity publishing - where you PAY to have your book printed so you can hand it around or try and sell it and claim to be a writer, and stuff like Kindle publishing where you put your book out there and leave it to sink or swim at the discretion of readers/buyers.

    The former is proper vanity stuff and execrable; the latter is a genuine new form of 'proper' publishing. Don't you think?

    1. Rationally you're almost certainly right, but I'm still not sure I could bring myself to do it... However, maybe as the years go by and I still don't get published, my mind may change!