I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the rise of self-publishing. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 67 July/August 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).
Here’s the piece:
As will be familiar to readers of the Idler, Virginia and Leonard Woolf launched The Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish her fiction and those of their friends. They spent £19 on a printing machine, set it up in the front room and taught themselves typesetting. She justified their self-publishing adventure by telling everyone her own publisher “couldn’t tell a book from a beehive.” Now, initially printing no more than 300 copies a title, she had taken back control.
Wandering around the London Book Fair at Olympia this Spring, I discover a renewal of enthusiasm for the DIY approach which reminds me very much of the wake of the upheavals created in the music world by the punk explosion of the late 1970s. Rather than drive yourself mad trying to please The Man, just ignore him completely.
“If you’re a mid-list, non-genre fiction writer (ie not crime, romance, sci-fi, horror etc) and you’re published traditionally, the likelihood is a) you’re not earning any money at all and b) all you’re doing is acting as a content-provider for an antiquated system.” No fear of controversy from self-published poet and author Orna Ross, who is also head of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Orna took back her publishing rights from her then publisher, Penguin, and has enjoyed both creative and financial success ever since striking out on her own. She is a passionate advocate of the self-publishing road to creative fulfilment and self-empowerment.
A more cautious approach comes from Kate Pool, the thoughtful Society of Authors spokesperson who told me: “If you are not writing within a genre, then the odds will remain stacked against you if you shun traditional publishing. As well as priding themselves on quality, traditional publishers also still remain the gatekeepers: of the media, the festivals, the bookshops, the prizes. It’s very difficult to break into those areas without a gatekeeper, and if you can’t, then how can a reader find your book?”
But in an era when, as one of our leading literary publishers told me, “The Big Five are losing market share because they are cutting back on speculative fiction”, it seems to make sense to consider taking control of your own literary destiny.
The ever-positive Sam Missingham of Lounge Marketing, one of the UK’s key supporters of independent and traditional authors, points to a future where authors, not publishers, are likely to stimulate changes within the system. “The curation of books is where it’s all leading: if I trust you to recommend a title, then you are an influencer, whether you are a blogger or a celebrity or an algorithm. And influencers like authors, not necessarily their publishers.”
What would most please Leonard and Virginia is that the technology is now leaning heavily towards the self-publishers. Even ten years ago, it was very difficult to persuade one of the country’s leading printers to go much below a 2,000-copy print run on a paperback. Now, as Andrew Howarth, head of self-publishing at CPI Print confirms, it’s possible to print as few as 100 copies of a paperback to the highest quality standards without breaking the bank. “We expect you to work with us in a professional way but if you understand what you’re doing, then you can have a book that the average reader will not be able to tell from one published by the Big Five.”
The same goes for distribution: Amazon will treat you in exactly the same way as they do Harper Collins as long as you approach them in a professional and consistent way. Even Waterstones will allow you to pitch them, again if you use the right channels. You may struggle with Tesco, but that may not be a bad thing.
Which is why I think idlers should seriously consider adding self-publishing to their to-do list of dignified and soul-enriching occupations, alongside beekeeping and ukele-playing. Why?
Well, firstly, there is nothing more satisfying, let me assure you, then debating the merits of the American typographical ’em’ rule for a dash, and the traditional English use of the slightly shorter ‘en’ rule. Typography is one of the great human achievements and a few sessions watching YouTube videos on how to get started on InDesign will have you hooked for life.
Secondly, the manufacture of your own book brings you into direct contact with a range of skilled and fascinating craftspeople: illustrators, calligraphers, book binders, indexers, paper manufacturers…you will be amazed that you survived for so long without the pleasure of their acquaintance.
Thirdly, all of this is accessible to you without great lumps of cash. If you are patient and diligent in your studies, you need never pay a penny to any of these middlepeople who will tell you they can arrange for the publication of your book at such a reasonable cost. Avoid them all and devote your evenings to the pleasure of packing up a small parcel of your books to send to those nice people at the bookshop in Wales who have agreed to host an evening for you.
It is important, as Kate Pool of the Society of Authors warns, that you remain realistic about what is possible: your dystopian vision of a savaged world written in rhyming couplets is not going to be as easy to get on the front tables of Waterstones as the new Peter James.
But as Sam Missingham says, the first rule to yourself must be: define what you mean by success. If success to you is contributing to and benefiting from the great ocean which is our culture while increasing both your skills and your creative talents, then self-publishing could be for you.