Somewhere Out There

I’ve just made my return to the world of (paid, grown-up) work by teaching some courses on creative writing at Quad cinema in Derby. As part of these courses, I always talk a little bit about the eternal question of How to Get Published (short answer: with difficulty). Many aspiring writers want to know more about self-publishing, although it’s not a path I find I can recommend whole-heartedly.

Why not? Aren’t there authors who’ve done well out of self-publishing? There are indeed – the most prominent in the SFF genre probably being Hugh Howey, Becky Chambers, and Andy Weir. But self-published writers are the opposite of aeroplanes – you only hear about the successful ones. There are many more authors whose books get lost in the depths of the Amazonian jungle, never to be seen again.

I often hear it said that self-publishing is a way to get your book ‘out there’. This is true – if you leave your manuscript tucked away on your hard drive or in your desk drawer, it’s never going to get any attention, whereas if you make it available, it just might. However, from what I can gather from talking to people who’ve tried self-publishing, books seldom gather much attention on their own – you have to put a lot of effort into marketing if you want to see results. And there don’t seem to be any easy shortcuts. On my most recent course, I had a student who had entrusted her book to a ‘hybrid’ publishing company. She was not happy with the level of publicity the firm had provided, and I suspect this is a common experience with people using such companies. Another student on the same course had self-published and done everything himself – he said he appreciated the level of control this gave him over the whole process, but that he’d found it very time-consuming.

Meanwhile, at my local writing group we had a visit from debut author Jo Jakeman (who was lovely). She has written a domestic noir thriller called Sticks & Stones which will be (traditionally) published later this year, although she told us that she had previously self-published a couple of historical novels. She said she’d sold around 4,000 copies of her first book, but commented she’d had to work almost full-time on promotion in order to achieve those sales. While she didn’t speak negatively about the experience, I think it’s telling that she eagerly took the chance to sign a traditional publishing deal.

Self-publishing: it’s a lot of effort. And I can’t help wondering if, especially if you’re only just setting out, that effort would be better spent on honing your craft, and then trying for a traditional deal with a more polished book. Because, let’s be honest, while I’ve met many people who are enthusiastic about self-publishing from the writer’s point of view, from the readers’ perspective… not so much. Indeed, I’ve heard several people say they avoid reading self-pubbed books because most of them are simply not very professionally edited and put together.

So my general advice for other aspiring writers is: if you really want to self-publish, by all means go for it, and be prepared to put in the work. But try not to be too impatient: putting your book ‘out there’ before it’s really ready won’t achieve much. For myself, I’m continuing to try to make myself the best writer I can be.

The best things in life are free?

I’ve been on holiday with my husband this week, staying at a cottage with no wi-fi in a remote corner of the Lake District. This experience has certainly taught me a lesson about what I truly find most valuable in life – ie, a decent wi-fi connection.

It’s annoying enough not being able to check Facebook or the weather forecast – or the tide-tables if you want to go bouldering at St Bee’s – but what especially got on my nerves was BlinkBox. Before departure, I’d downloaded a few things – the movie Interstellar and some episodes of Supernatural – thinking we’d be able to watch them offline. But when I settled in to see what oogly-boogly Sam and Dean have to deal with this time, the file refused to play unless it could access the appropriate media licence. Which it could only get via the BlinkBox website. Which I couldn’t get on, because no sodding wi-fi. Whaaat?! Dick move, BlinkBox. These were files I had paid for, files I had downloaded under the mistaken impression that I somehow owned them and would be allowed to watch them on my own laptop without any further trouble. Wrong! Stupid Digital Rights Management. I’ll bet you don’t have problems like this if you just PIRATE stuff.

Which brings me on to writing. While DRM is imho definitely evil – punishing as it does only those who have actually paid for things – many creators are understandably concerned about piracy, and that doing away with controls is just an invitation for everyone to help themselves to your intellectual property. On the flip side, an awful lot of writers have embraced the possibilities of the internet age to connect with readers directly, via digital self-publishing and websites such as Wattpad, which allows readers to comment on books and even help edit them as they are written. The problem with most of this stuff is that you don’t get paid for it, which I guess makes it a form of voluntary self-piracy. I’ve heard older writers – and the Society of Authors – complain that too many people giving their writing away for free has lowered prices for everyone and made it harder for writers to make a living. While I’m sure this is true, it also reminds me irresistibly of the case study in Superfreakonomics about prostitution in Chicago, which found that prices for sexual services had dropped dramatically over time as more and more women were prepared to sleep with their boyfriends without getting rings on their fingers first. Like the Chicago ladies of negotiable affection, professional writers can moan all they want about being undercut by the amateurs, but you can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle: everyone’s having too much fun.

And there are cases which show that it’s possible, if enough people like your writing, to monetise the giving-it-away-for-free model; bloggers and fan fic writers who’ve scored publishing deals, authors who’ve launched books via Kickstarter. My current obsession, the surreal comedy-horror podcast Welcome to Night Vale, is a good example: it’s available to download entirely for free, but they make cash via PayPal donations, live shows, and merchandise sales. Plus they’re bringing a book out later this year – the kind you have to pay for. Unless you pirate it, I guess, but don’t do that.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I suppose I sit in an interesting position; on the one hand, I’m trying to get a traditional publishing deal complete with actual, you know, money, and I’m certainly not about to post the full text of my novels online for anyone to download for free. On the other hand, I am writing these words on a blog, and I sure ain’t getting paid for them. I’m a firm believer in the right of writers to be remunerated for their work: and if you’re not prepared to pay for something, you have to be prepared to be given whatever people are prepared to provide for nothing. But there’s also something quite comforting in the thought that, if no publisher ever picks up my work, that’s not necessarily the end of the story.

Postscript: fear not, dear readers, I did eventually manage to jerry-rig an internet connection via my phone’s spotty 3G signal, and I got my fix of the Winchester brothers. But I’m never staying at a cottage without wi-fi again, that’s for sure.

Questions and Authors

Writing is a bit of a lonely vocation, consisting as it does mainly of sitting at my computer, on my own, typing out whatever comes into my head. But I still occasionally get invited to events where I have to interact with other humans, practising my rusty social skills. When I mention I’m now a full-time writer, I get a variety of responses, some of them leading to better conversational results than others. Here’s a brief selection:

‘Have you thought about self-publishing?’

There’s been a lot of publicity around self-publishing recently, so it’s natural that many people ask me about this. The short answer is no. Sadly, I’m not very good at giving the short answer, so I find myself going into long and involved conversations about the publishing business and the rights and wrongs of Amazon while my companion’s eyes glaze over and they start wishing they’d asked about holiday plans instead.

‘Oh aye, 50 shades of Ruth is it?’

Certain people, when told I’m a writer, leap to the conclusion that I must be writing smut, presumably typing one-handed. Telling them that I actually write fantasy doesn’t seem to help, nor does telling them that I can touch-type with two hands. Sorry to disappoint, but no, I am not currently planning to make a living from writing erotica. But hey, if you’ve got a paid commission in mind…

‘I always wanted to write a book, but I’ve never got round to it.’

I appreciate this is an attempt to find common ground, but I’ll be honest, I find it difficult to answer. Am I supposed to say ‘Well get on with it then’? Or perhaps, ‘Funny, I always wanted to be a [insert other human’s job here], but I’ve never found the time’? I don’t know. Any advice welcome.

‘Gosh, you’re brave.’

I don’t really feel that brave to be following my dreams – mostly I just feel very lucky to have this opportunity. But hey, it’s always nice to be complimented. And I’ll just ignore any possible glint in the eye which suggests that by ‘brave’ is actually meant ‘foolish’ or ‘downright insane’.

‘Oh, you write fantasy, that’s great! I love fantasy.’

I love you too. I mean, er, not like that. I mean I love people who love fantasy, because they love me. No wait, that’s not what I meant either. I mean, er, so who’s your favourite writer? Phew, think I saved that one.

‘Have you got a publishing deal yet?’

A fair and reasonable question, and yet it always makes me smile. Trust me on this one, if the answer to that question is ever ‘yes’, you won’t need to ask me.

Rough diamonds and random penguins

Last year, I ‘came out’ as a writer to the wider world. Ever since then, a lot of people have asked me questions like ‘so when can buy your book in Waterstone’s?’ On the one hand, it’s great being able to talk about my passion. On the other hand, I sometimes get a bit concerned that I have accidentally created an expectation of imminent best-sellerdom which I am vanishingly unlikely to meet. Most people – including, until very recently, me – have very little idea of how the publishing industry works, and what a long time it takes to get your book out. Even if, as my colleague in project management put it, you pass every gate review first time. So, for the benefit of everyone who has asked me when my book is going to be released in Kindle and trade paperback, here’s my brief overview of the process.

The first stage, stage 0 if you will, is to write the damn book. See previous blog post for details.

The next stage, where I am now, is to find an agent. This involves several rounds of submissions, discussions, rewrites… it could be as quick as 3 months, but it’ll likely take a fair bit longer.

At stage 2, you can relax (hah!) while the agent takes it round some publishers and tries to get you a deal. This stage can actually be quite quick, if the publishers like what they see. If not, well, back to the previous stage to re-re-edit the manuscript. Or start over at stage 0 with a new book.

Once someone’s agreed to publish the book, it’s another 12-18 months before it will actually appear in the shops. What takes so long? Well, a final edit, proof-reading, type-setting, cover design, marketing, and probably quite a lot of waiting around while the publisher spends time on other, more important books.

What does this mean for my humble manuscript, The Heartland of the Winter? Well, IF all goes to plan, then the earliest I could expect a deal would be late this year or early next, which would lead to publication in late 2014 at the very earliest, more likely 2015. And of course, I may fail at any point after stage 0. So I’m not planning the launch party just yet (well, okay, I am, in the way some single women plan their own weddings).

Now, if you’re thinking ‘gosh, that sounds like an awful lot of time and effort, isn’t there a quicker way?’ well, yes there is. What I’ve described is the ‘traditional’ route, what you need to do if you want to be published by Random Penguin or one of the other big boys and get paid an advance. But there are alternatives: smaller publishing houses who will accept unagented authors and get the book out quicker, but don’t offer such a good financial deal; ‘vanity’ publishers who’ll charge you to see your name in print; and the increasingly-popular DIY option.

My book could be available right now if I’d chosen to self-publish. Why didn’t I? Well, the great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. And the bad thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. It’s very difficult to get your work to stand out from the dung-heap, especially as you have no professional support for things like editing, marketing, and design.

A book is a bit like a diamond: it comes out of the ground rough and dirty, and then needs careful cutting and endless rounds of polishing. All that long process described above not only selects the best stones in the first place, it polishes them until they sparkle, and it puts them in a setting which shows them off to best effect and makes them likelier to catch the eye. So I’m prepared to wait, and keep trying, and wait some more, and keep trying, to give my work the best chance of success.