I appeared at the Books on Tyne Festival in Newcastle last weekend – congratulations to Anna Flowers and the rest of the team for organizing this excellent event.
As well as my own spot I was part of a panel of authors and publishers asked to conduct an advisory session for aspiring writers looking for a publisher. I was struck by how much interest there was – the room was packed out. Is it the recession, or have there always been so many people desperate to see their book in print? We tried to be helpful but honest about the current situation, and I’m sure we must have disappointed some of those hoping we would show them how to unlock the entry to the world of publishing.
In truth, not only is there no magic key, the doors are fewer every year, and the entries to those that remain seem narrower. The posh places have closed their tradesman’s entrance, and the concierge at the front is trained to scan for well-known names. Only celebrities have an automatic right of entry, not just for their ghost-written autobiographies now, but for their ‘novels’ and their lifestyle… stuff. Meanwhile libraries close, bookshops go to the wall, and those that survive do so on, well, the celebrity flim-flam, mostly.
At this point, we should stand up and applaud the small independent publisher struggling against the odds to produce real books. I honestly believe (and said so at the festival) they are helping to preserve literature in our age, and without them regional writing would no longer be seen in bound format. Their job is getting even harder now as writers spurned by the big publishers add to the mountain of manuscripts dropping through their letter box, and the bookshops struggle to find space for their titles among the tables and shelves laid out with 3-for-2 promotions. How long can these overworked independents keep going on zero profits?
If there is one light of optimism to hold out in the gloom, it is coming from our computer screens. While I acknowledge that the on-line-retailing revolution has played a large part in the decline of the high street bookshop, and in driving down prices to the detriment of author and publisher, for the aspiring writer there is more to cheer than fear from what is now available to them at fingertip reach on the internet. They can get constructive feedback, good advice, and a chance to move away from the closed doors of the traditional publishers to a new window of opportunity.
Many new writers are buoyed by the reaction of family and friends to their efforts. ‘This is really good – you should try and get it published.’ But what is the objective value of an appraisal by someone bound to us by love and loyalty? And how far can we trust their critical judgement? By joining a writer’s forum on the internet (there are several, easily found) a writer gains access to a network of new ‘friends’ with a mutual interest in sharing feedback. They will not be held back by considerations of love and loyalty from expressing a genuine opinion, often better-informed than those close to us because they usually are or have been in a similar position to the writer. There is a lot of experience and wisdom out there. A word of warning to the thin-skinned: objective criticism can be painful, though forum etiquette will normally keep conversations civil. Feedback from these quarters is usually very constructive, there is also a good deal of general advice on these sites, and they can act as signposts to opportunity.
One site which is garnering favourable reviews (though I have no direct experience of it) is authonomy, which I believe is sponsored by Harper Collins. Here, writers are encouraged to post up drafts of their complete or incomplete manuscripts for others to review. The most popular are listed as top-rated. There are writing tips and other advice to be found on the site. authonomy is visited not only by would-be authors but (allegedly) by agents and publishers too. Certainly there have been instances of authors being published as a consequence of their work appearing first at this site.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the e-book revolution, and specifically publishing in the Kindle format courtesy of Amazon’s digital text platform. For some writers, self-publishing is their preferred route, or the only one left available to them after rejection by the publishers. Always risky, this has proved very costly in the past; but what if all the costs of setting and printing are taken away by the chance of self-publishing an e-book? This is exactly what the Amazon digital text platform does. That completed novel of yours could be available and on sale world-wide within days at no expense but a little time and attention spent converting the manuscript to Kindle format. Amazon does the final conversion, but the careful writer will read the technical guidelines diligently first, and get advice from yet another forum connected to the site.
So there are reasons to be cheerful even in these pressed times. Good luck with your efforts, whether you are going to take your chances down the traditional route, showcase yourself on authonomy, or try self-publishing to Kindle. Remember, though, especially if you are self-publishing, making your book available to buy is only half of it; just when you’re thinking you have unlocked the door at last, you find yourself in a long, dark tunnel. You know your readers are in there somewhere, but how can you find them? More importantly, how can they find you? We have already discovered there is no magic key. Is there a magic lamp labelled ‘sales and marketing’? Er, no. Or if there is, it takes an awful lot of rubbing to make it work.