A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Inspired by the story that author, Sade Adeniran, was awarded Best First Book: Africa Category in the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her self-published novel, Imagine This, we invited writer, Anne Brooke, onto the Thursday Soapbox, to give her opinions of both the mainstream and self-publishing worlds and look at some of the issues and challenges involved in going it alone.
*Thanks to Flickr for this appropriate pic of a lone fox intrepidly setting out in a snowy wilderness.
THE UNSUNG NOVELIST: LETTING YOUR VOICE BE HEARD by Anne Brooke
Hello, my name is Anne and I’m a self-publisher. Yes, I thought I ought to get that out of the way at the beginning, partly because it’s true and partly because it’s sometimes akin to admitting you’re an alcoholic. Not done in polite circles. And once you’ve admitted it, people laugh nervously, fall silent or drift away. Often all three. Or perhaps that’s because I’m no good at small talk. It’s hard to say.
Half of my books are published by the small press and half are self-published. The latter is something I’m proud of, and am becoming more so as the years progress.
In 2004, I and three fellow writers in Guildford Writers set up Goldenford Publishers as a means of getting our work to market; this was because we were increasingly coming up against a lack of response from mainstream publishers and agents, in spite of the fact that all four of us have won or been placed in significant awards for our writing. For us, it had become the only option.
Let me also state the obvious: amongst the book trade there’s an enormous amount of prejudice about self-publishing. This prejudice is a constant companion to those of us who produce good quality books which don’t fit in with what the market believes it should offer the reader. It might have been true five or ten years ago that self-published books only took that route as they were too badly written to be noticed by the publishing world, but now that is no longer the case. Self-published books become so for very different reasons, most of which are nothing to do with the quality, or lack of it. Some of these reasons are enlarged upon below.
Are Marketing Concepts A False Idol?
It’s interesting that throughout my own writing career, and indeed those of my fellow Goldenford directors, we have been forced to self-publish as mainstream publishers and agents continue to tell us how good our work is, but state they can’t take it on as they don’t know how to market it.
This begs the question of whether, within publishing, marketing concepts are becoming such a false idol that potentially commercial but very unconventional books such as ours are being left to die in the gutter. If that’s the case – and I’ve seen nothing to make me think that it isn’t – then a lot of good, even outstanding, literature is being lost to the reading public.
The love affair of publishers with the marketing god means that only certain types of books are published, and if you don’t fit in then your career is already dead in the water. If you have a strong but very different writing voice – something I believe which is found in all Goldenford books – then don’t bother typing your submission letter; you need to find a different way to reach your reader.
The Challenges For the Self-Publisher
we’ve found that other shops, such as delicatessens, vineyards, and even museums, are more open to stocking self-published books
When moving towards a self-publishing decision, there are many challenges to face.
These challenges include the attitude of bookshops, Amazon and even award coordinators.At Goldenford we’ve had to fight to get into local Guildford bookshops in the past and now it’s virtually impossible. Those with the buying power seem to care little about the quality of the read, but more about whether it’s Print On Demand and whether they recognise the name of the publisher. If the answer to those questions is yes and no, then all hope is lost.
As bookshop administration becomes more centralised, so the leeway given to local authors is disappearing. To get our books to market, we’ve found that other shops, such as delicatessens, vineyards, and even museums, are more open to stocking self-published books and also arranging events. Not only that but online marketing, such as the power of blogs, is a very valuable tool for the self-publisher. Never discount it. Interestingly, when people actually take a chance and read a Goldenford book, they are always pleasantly surprised. Several times, we’ve had the comment that it’s lovely to read something so very different from the bland genre-obsessed fare in their local bookshops. Readers, it seems, are hungry for choice.
The Amazon Problem
That’s what Print On Demand means, in case Amazon hadn’t realised.
Amazon is another problem. Up until recently, our sales through Amazon UK have been steady, if not anything that would set the world on fire. However now, my latest novel, Thorn in the Flesh, has never been available on Amazon from its publication date in February 2008 and other Goldenford novels are also now marked as Not In Stock. This in spite of the fact that our printer, Antony Rowe, has a special relationship with Gardners and books can be produced easily within a matter of days. That’s what Print On Demand means, in case Amazon hadn’t realised.
Out of interest, I did actually order Thorn myself via Amazon in February and so far, after six weeks, there has been no delivery – only one email after a month asking me to let them know if I wanted to cancel the order. Well, I don’t – I simply want to see if they can provide an easily available book. So far, they can’t. Meanwhile the Amazon rating for Thorn in the Flesh remains at five-stars.
Are Awards Prejudiced Against Self-published Works?
The book didn’t get shortlisted…it wasn’t possible as Goldenford is not a known publisher.
At Goldenford, we’ve also come up against significant business prejudice in terms of awards. Last year, we entered Jay Margrave’s The Gawain Quest into a fairly well-known novel competition, primarily as a marketing project: it’s a great historical and literary read, and we’d like people to know about it. The book didn’t get shortlisted, but afterwards we were informally told that some of the panel were keen that it should have been but were advised that it wasn’t possible as Goldenford is not a known publisher. This sort of attitude is very hard to stomach. Perhaps then it’s time for the Arts Council to fund a self-published Book Award – particularly for those high-quality novels which are unlikely to sell more than, say, 500-1,000 copies (and often considerably fewer!) but which are still worthy of notice.
In the online world, there’s an encouraging openness in giving critique to non-traditional books
One encouraging aspect of self-publishing is the openness of online books reviews to small- and self-published books. I have had books reviewed by Vulpes Libris, Jill Weekes’ book review site , and the It’s a Crime site, amongst others, and very favourably too. This does help sales and, at the very least, gets our names out there. In the online world, there’s an encouraging openness in giving critique to non-traditional books which is regrettably absent from the traditional hard-copy reviewing press.
As in my previous point, perhaps it’s time for the Times Literary Review and other such publications to wake up and smell the roses: self-published books are eminently readable and people need to know about them too.
Self-Publishing and The Meaning of Success
I am after all only human and I’d like my taste of “official” success too –who wouldn’t? – but I don’t believe I fit in to the mainstream world
When I was thinking about this article, Rosy did mention “self-publishing success stories” – where a book has been self-published and then, due to its success or even due to pure luck, has been taken up by the mainstream press. G P Taylor’s Shadowmancer comes to mind, although of course there are many others.
I must admit to feeling uncomfortable with this concept of “success”. Many very good self-published novels are not taken up by big publishers and yet the strength of their voice, the quality of the writing and the excitement of the narrative still work their magic on the reader: this is my understanding of “success”.
I have been told by reviewers and readers that they cannot understand why Goldenford books are not published by the mainstream press and I have wondered myself what I would do if an offer was made for Pink Champagne and Apple Juice or Thorn in the Flesh. The answer is I simply don’t know. Yes, it would be lovely and thrilling – I am after all only human and I’d like my taste of “official” success too –who wouldn’t? – but I don’t believe I fit in to the mainstream world and I would in the end feel most uncomfortable there.
That doesn’t mean that my writing – and the writing of my fellow Goldenford directors – should not be freely available and read. I also believe that, as with increasing numbers of authors taken up by the mainstream press, my time there would not be long. Perhaps two, even three, books if you’re lucky and then the contract is not renewed and you’re on your own again. Back to the world you came from. But, thankfully, due to the honourable trade of self-publishing, that world is no longer one where the publication of your next book is impossible.
Me and JK – no airbrushing please!
There is hope.
So, there is hope. Which is perhaps a concept I’ve been working towards in the writing of this piece. I’d like to think that one day soon mainstream publishing and self-publishing will be seen for what they are: two sides of the same coin. Books published in one world will be as freely available, as freely distributable, as freely reviewable and as freely worthy of awards honour as books published in the other.
If I can end with a very much tongue-in-cheek image: when I can stand next to JK Rowling and the press take photos of us both, without airbrushing me out, then I will know that day has truly arrived.
Vulpes Libris would like to thank Anne Brooke. To read more about her, see the links below.
All About Anne!
Other Links of Interest
Other successful writer-publishers of note
Read our interview with publisher and writer Sharon Blackie of Two Ravens Press