I went to a literary event not so long ago at which the two authors talked about the risk aversion present among the major publishing houses. David Peace and Tom Benn are both published by majors, Faber & Faber and Bloomsbury respectively. It was refreshing to hear two established authors speak on a subject that has been rolling around in my brain for a while. It got me thinking, and now I’ve committed my random thoughts to the page.
Peace has spoken about this risk aversion in The Guardian, in relation to the difficulty Faber has had in pushing his books, given that they are both crime and literary works and yet also neither. At the event, he talked more about how lucky he was to have written his first book at the time he did. The first instalment in his Red Riding Quartet Nineteen Seventy-Four was published in 1999, when the online world was a different place and there was less competition for people’s attention, making it slightly easier for publishers to take on avant garde writers like Peace. Perhaps if he was starting out now, Faber would be less willing to take a chance on his work, and he’d need to find a different route to publication. Possibly through an independent publisher. Independents have a reputation for being more likely to take risks.
Interestingly, Tom Benn spoke about the impact Creative Writing Master’s courses are having on the literary landscape. It was interesting because Benn, who is a tutor on a Master’s course, is of the opinion that such courses can be seen as factories that produce writers who feel safe to agents and publishers, because they write in a familiar way. I also wonder whether these courses contribute to an already oversaturated market, inflating the hopes of the alumni and preventing other writers from being picked up. Across the board, Universities are cynical organisations who are more interested in the income from course fees than in whether their alumni will get to swim in the job market they’re being prepared for. I work in a sector where Master’s graduates end up in the lowest paid jobs because competition for the jobs they are qualified for is huge. But do the Creative Writing Master’s courses, as Benn seemed to suggest at the event, really make it easier for publishers to go to what could be seen as a writing shop and pick up a few new authors, rather than have agents work through the piles of manuscript submissions that arrive at their desk from everyone else who believes they have a novel in them? Benn’s criticism also seemed to suggest that writers emerging from these courses can be formulaic in the way they write, because they have been taught the tricks of writing that will increase their chances of being published. As with anything, it’s what you do with the skills you learn. I’d hazard a guess that the authors graduating from these courses who attain publication are the authors who have their own voice and have used the course to polish it.
In recent years, I’ve found most of the books I read through independent publishers. And Other Stories, Influx and Fly on the Wall are my current favourite imprints. I have found new authors who I might otherwise not have encountered this way, many of whom share writing characteristics with authors I’ve long admired but who picked up deals with majors when it was (marginally) easier to do so. I’ve read more works in translation this way, too, and many more women writers. Many of the British writers I’ve delighted in this way have a Creative Writing Master’s degree, too.
I particularly like independent publishers because of the risks they take, and the type of novels and short story anthologies they deal in. I’m more interested in something that has an edge to it and makes me think, rather than in a guaranteed best seller aimed at the mass market. I’m not denigrating these types of books, I read them, too, much as I also watch popular TV programmes alongside the more quirky content I prefer. Entertainment is entertainment, and sometimes I like it to be easy access. But the types of novel that I prefer seem more likely these days to be found around the edges of the publishing landscape than at the focal point. It’s a bit like the 1980s and 90s for music, when independent record labels had their heyday, often acting as launching points for bands who went on to sign with major labels. Bands who might not have got a look in at Warner Music, Sony and the like could cut their first disks with a supportive independent label and prove their worth. I see independent publishers as serving a similar purpose. If an agency won’t take you on and place you with a publisher, or a publisher isn’t going to enter into a bidding war over your first novel because it’s too edgy for them, then an independent might be open to bringing your work to their audience. It worked for Eimar McBride, whose first novel was published by Galley Beggar Press, and her second by Hogarth, now an imprint of Penguin Random House. Social media has made it easier to find such publishers and the authors on their lists, contributing to the success of the novels they publish and making them somewhere the big names watch, ready to swoop in and put their cash behind a proven talent.
Some writers, though, just want a publishing home where they can be the writer they need to be, and they aren’t interested in what a major publisher can offer them. Tom Cox, whose books I love, is a case in point. He is a writer who has done both the major publishing thing, with his first cat-based books, one of which was a Sunday Times Bestseller, and the independent thing, publishing through the crowd-sourced platform Unbound. Cox had had his fill of being published by the likes of Simon & Schuster and Little, Brown and felt that these publishers expected him to write a particular way in order to gain traction. He needed to write in his own voice, though, and is frequently open on Twitter and his own website about what a struggle this can be financially. For him it’s about being true to himself and finding a route to publication that supports him in that principle.
Cox has a strong following on social media, with many of his followers discovering him through the accounts he set up for the cats that featured in his early books. His recent books, when announced on Unbound, are among the fastest to gain their publication guarantee because of the strength of his profile. Each of his books has topped twice the number of subscribers needed to get the book to print, many have exceeded three times that number. His latest book, Villager, garnered 1,648 subscribers, more than any of his previous books on the platform.
On publication, Villager made the top 20 on the UK hardback fiction best seller list based on its pre-sales. The pre-sales thing is interesting. Best seller lists are a marketing tool that can help authors sell more books and consequently are not without their problems, as evidenced in a Guardian report two years ago which demonstrated how pre-sales and authors buying books to fulfil requests from fans on their mailing list can affect where a book places on the list. I’m not criticising the practice. Authors need to use all the tools in their kit to help their work reach its audience. What I find interesting is whether the momentum of pre-sales has a lasting effect. Do these books drop quickly from the best seller list? Does their presence on it encourage further sales? I can’t bring myself to pay The Times for access to its website, so I can’t tell you whether Villager is still in the chart a few weeks on from publication.
But what if neither a major nor an independent publisher will take on your book, and your attempt at crowd funding through a platform like Unbound gets nowhere, because your social media presence and the work involved in pushing your book leaves you insufficiently funded? This happened for two books I pledged for: The Secret Life of Pylons by the author of the Pylon of the Month website, which was withdrawn in 2019 after a two-year presence on the Unbound site, and the musician James Yorkston’s novel The High and Lonesome Blues of Tommy the Bruce.
I know three people, two of whom had been previously published through independents, who have gone down the self-publishing route, using Amazon as their vehicle. Amazon provides Kindle Direct Publishing for e-books and a publication on demand route for paperbacks. The first of my acquaintances was writing a series of children’s books about a teddy bear with the second instalment released through Amazon, the second chose Amazon for their Sci-Fi work, having previously written a beautiful novel about life on the American frontier, while the third had researched their family tree and discovered a story about strong farming women that they wanted to share with the world. I don’t know how well their books sold, but suffice to say none of them have gone on to publish anything further via the Amazon route.
I also know a fourth person who has written a YA book for his youngest child. He fits all sorts of demographics that might suggest publication would come easy: white male, educated at an Oxbridge college, friends with a successful writer who in turn is friends with a successful literary agent. His pitch to the agent was unsuccessful, though, and he is now considering different options, including self-publishing.
Self-publishing can work. A decade ago, an American writer of paranormal fiction had great success through Kindle Direct Publishing. Andy Weir’s The Martian started out as a self-published Kindle e-book. EL James began her Fifty Shades franchise as a self-published author, while David Leadbetter self-published via Amazon for five years before his The Relic Hunters gained him enough recognition to quit his day job and write full time. Things have moved on from the days when self-publishing was referred to as vanity publishing. The stigma of vanity publishing gave pause to the comedian Mitch Benn, who gained a book deal with Orion as the result of an idle Tweet and then was dropped by the publisher after two instalments of his intended trilogy. Thanks to his wife’s persuasion, he decided to take back control and self-publish.
On the subject of the stigma of self-publishing, I remember reading an interview on a fellow blogger’s site with the self-published author Yannick Thoraval. In that interview, Thoraval said the following:
… I hired all the specialists one needs to do it right: editors, an illustrator, graphic designers, a printer and global distributor, and I managed the project like a (unprofitable) business … you have to approach self-publishing professionally. Self-publishing has a stigma attached to it because too many people publish unpolished material.Interview with Yannick Thoraval on the site wordsandleaves.com
Basically, what Thoraval is saying is that, whatever route to publication you follow, you need take it seriously and if that route doesn’t involve a team that will support you in polishing your work, then you need to invest time or money to make sure you get the edits done before you send your work out into the world.
Before a different literary event this week, I was talking to another writer friend about the editing process and their experience of being published in anthologies from independent publishers. My friend commented that, when they recently practised reading one of their published stories out loud as preparation for an event, they cringed and questioned why the publisher hadn’t suggested a few edits to the opening. We mused on how small independent publishers often don’t have a big enough team to offer editing support to authors, but it was my friend’s reference to reading out loud that interested me, and brings me back to David Peace. At the literary event I opened this essay with, Peace and Benn talked about their writing process. For Peace, it’s vital that he writes long hand and reads out loud to himself to check that what he has written scans. If it doesn’t, he edits. Reading out loud is a technique I’ve learnt when writing exhibition text. The process of writing, whether by hand or via a keyboard, doesn’t always show up how a piece might be read by someone else. Hearing your words spoken helps with picking up on stumbling points or over-wordiness.
The modern publishing landscape is an interesting one, but across the articles I read while marshalling my thoughts, it also seems to be the same as it ever was. Perhaps getting published is one of those things that makes everyone think that it’s harder than it should be, and it used to be easier.