You’ve just told someone that you’ve written a book. “That’s brilliant,” they said. “Who’s publishing it?” A beat. You say: “I am.” Their eyes glaze over. They change the subject. You know what they’re thinking: all self-published books aren’t very good.
In the beginning that may have been true, but the tide has long since turned. Self-publishing is no longer the medium for lovelorn poets and witless wannabes to foist their unsponsored works upon family and friends.
For decades, this was the norm. It used to be called ‘vanity publishing’, as if it was a sin to use your own money to print your book. ‘Vain’ authors would fork out a lot of money to get a professional printer to produce their work. Their family and friends would buy it. No one else did. As penance for their vanity, authors usually found themselves burdened with boxes of unsold books and large holes in their bank accounts.
Gradually, the ‘vain’ hobbyists were joined by more and more serious, but frustrated, authors.
The rise of the internet gave struggling writers the opportunity to publish and market their books without breaking the bank. It democratised the process, levelling the playing field for writers across the globe. Soon ‘vanity publishing’ gave way to ‘self-publishing’. It was nirvana for writers: no more rejection letters, no more manuscripts yellowing amid tottering slush piles in the offices of agents and executives who were too busy with their marquee-name authors to sift through them for an undiscovered gem. Today, digital behemoths such as Amazon offer a place to upload an ebook in just 15 minutes and global publication in less than 12 hours. Elsewhere, print on demand websites deliver from warehouses on other continents directly to readers’ doors.
In January 2011, Amazon released figures showing that the sale of ebooks had surpassed paperbacks in the US for the first time. Suddenly, the physical book was being called an endangered species. However, as with most new media, the truth was that the old way had to make room at the trough for the new.
Then came this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. Among the literary heavyweights, such as Colm Tóibín and Jim Crace, were two authors who highlighted how the old and the new methods of publishing have attained some kind of equilibrium.
Many writers dream of what happened to Tipperary-born Donal Ryan. His novel The Spinning Heart had been gathering dust on a publisher’s desk. He received over 30 rejection letters before an intern at Lilliput Press found the novel languishing in a slush pile, loved it and championed it. Before he knew it, Ryan scooped the Irish Book of the Year award and was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker.
The other, more interesting, plucked-from-obscurity tale involves an author who first published the novel as four ebooks, giving away the first one for free on Twitter and Facebook in exchange for a retweet and a share. American author Richard House’s The Kills is more a multimedia event than a novel. The 1,000-page narrative involves four interlocking tales. As the man himself explains: “The first, second and fourth books follow on one from the other, but the third is a crime novel that characters are reading in the first book. There’s also a film that’s being made of the third book in the second book! So they all link together tightly.” Not only that, there are also hours of supplementary films available online accompanying the stories.
The Kills didn’t make it to the Man Booker shortlist — nor did The Spinning Heart — but its very inclusion is proof that self-published works can be just as good as their traditionally published cousins.
Within the book industry, there is concern that publishing houses are too busy looking at the bottom line to nurture new talent and find fresh voices. Consider Robert Galbraith. The “former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who left to work in the civilian security industry” penned his first crime novel and had it rejected by a few of the big publishers before it was taken on. It received instant critical acclaim and was endorsed by eminent crime novelists. Still, it sold just 449 copies. Then, when Galbraith was exposed as a pseudonym of one JK Rowling, sales skyrocketed and its publisher had to print hundreds of thousands of copies within days to keep up with demand. There is no doubt that if The Cuckoo’s Calling had indeed been written by a retired detective its sales would have peaked somewhere in the low thousands. Instead, the same text has been sold millions of times.
It would be nice to think that the Galbraith incident forced literary agents and publishing houses to give their slush piles a second glance and in the scramble one or two talented writers will get their shot at success. But, for the thousands of authors who don’t want to play the literary lottery, there is self-publication — all the benefits, and now without the shame. But beware, it’s not as easy as type, save, upload, publish. Even Ms Rowling has a team of editors to work on her manuscripts. If there is one golden rule of self-publishing it is: get a professional to look at it before you release it.
Another rule is: be patient. The first draft of my novel, Mrs God, took seven months to write. I could have uploaded it to Amazon in December 2012. Instead, I gave it to ‘beta’ readers; people I knew would give constructive criticism. Then I handed it over to my ‘alpha’ reader; a literary agent and Trinity professor of English. Still I didn’t hit ‘upload’. My book went through about 20 drafts over the next six months, until I was happy with it. Or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I abandoned it. Rewriting can be tedious, but each subsequent draft makes the book better. Only midway through last month did I hit the upload button – 16 months after beginning.
Producing a self-published book is a lot of hard work. I’ve already been through the traditional publishing route and it’s tougher than that. It’s been far more rewarding too.
If you’ve written a book you can take your chances with the tottering slush piles, hoping to be discovered like Donal Ryan, or you can take control and publish it yourself, just like Richard House did.
Who knows, with a bit of editing and a lot of luck, your self-published book could make it onto a future Man Booker longlist.
* Mark Evans’s novel, ‘Mrs God’, is available now in ebook and paperback editions — www.mrsgodbook.com