Happy festivities. In this season of round-ups and forward-looks, when Janus stalks the blogosphere, writers everywhere are musing and reflecting. And whilst I am happy to grinch along with the best of them, it seems churlish not to join in the speculation.
But first the important bit. Here is a present. Click the image below to download an exclusive pdf of SKIN BOOK, beautifully illustrated with 8 pictures from Veronika von Volkova’s stunning Grime Angels series.
It’s been a fascinating year for self-publishers. At the start of the year I had just begun work on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Open Up to Indies guidebook. At time of writing, that guidebook’s release is imminent. But the backdrop against which it will see the light of day has changed – if not beyond all recognition then at least significantly. This autumn, Crimefest announced that it will be welcoming self-published authors next year. The Author Lounge at this year’s London Book Fair included self-publishig luminaries like Mel Sherratt. The Folio Prize, launched as the serious literary alternative to Booker, opened its doors to self-publishers, self-publishing conferences started talking about writing as well as marketing. And the Guardian has been running a self-publishing showcase giving blog time to indies for several months now. We’ve even seen a major serious writing award for the originally self-published A Naked Singularity.
The door feels ajar.
Whether or not it is, now that’s another matter. For me personally, it’s been a year of as much frustration as liberation. I still feel like the amusing pet as often as I feel like the welcome family member. It is getting easier to write about self-publishing. But as a literary writer and poet it remains as hard as ever to get the things I self-publish actually written about. I get to talk about self-publishing more than ever. But about my self-published writing as little as ever. There is still much work to be done to get people talking about self-published books rather than about self-publishing: the phenomenon.
These are the things I’d like to see for self-publishing in 2014.
1. Slow writing and the death of the algorithm
The best marketing for your book is other books. Write more. Be prolific. The tipping point to success comes when you’ve written x number of books. More books breed more discoverability. These have become more than mantras of self-publishing, givens that every writer has to take on board.
And these truisms are poison. Roz Morris wrote a brilliant post earlier this year about the slow novel, about the fact that some genres such as literary fiction spill their words more slowly than others. And yes, I absolutely accept that some genres are more sales friendly than others. But sales are not the be all and end all, and should not be the guide for whether or not a book receives coverage or acclaim.
One of the delights of this year in literature has been the domination of the literary press by slow novels – some, such as Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, so slow their publishers have sent out search parties. And the year ended with acclaim for slow writer extraordinnaire Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – her third book in 21 years.
But this level of acclaim – and in the case of Seth and Tartt attendant sales success – is a closed book to self-publishers where worthiness of column inches is driven by the incessant demand to proliferate.
I would love 2014 to be the year of slow self-publishing, the year when writers who spend years crafting boxes of literary delights are plucked from the multipublishing masses and championed as self-publishing’s vanguard, by other self-publishers as well as by the media.
2. The media reviewing and talking about our books outside of the context of special ghettos set up on our behalf.
We have seen positive steps this year, with the Guardian’s self-publishing showcase leading the way. But there remains the suspicion that we are a curio, something strange and esoteric to be looked at in the confines of a specially controlled environment.
It would be wonderful to see self-publishing crawl out of its corner and into the features and culture pages. But this needs journalists to lead the way, to stop reacting, being embarrassed at the thought they might be championing something not quite respectable, to start having the courage of their critical convictions.
3. Self-published books are more than just digital
The overwhelming majority of truly great self-published books I’ve come across are not only available as physical as well as electronic books, but primarily physical books. From Sarah Hymas’ exquisite Lune trough Andy Harrod’s devastating Living Room Stories to Anna Fennel Hughes’ layered and profound illustrated masterpiece Crockett’s Fall.
And yet it remains the case that the overwhelming coverage of self-publishing, both amongst the media and fellow self-publishers, talks about ebooks, and there are many how to books and blogs that talk as if self-publishing and Kindle were synonymous – I have even seen posts suggesting as if it’s breaking news that self-publishers could consider having a paperback version of their book.
I would love to see the artisan craft of bookmaking celebrated, to see the beautiful zines and self-published illustrated and experimental manuscripts that are being produced receive the attention they deserve.
4. Celebrating our Differences
This is happening already to some extent. As we get less and less defensive about being self-publishers, more confident that we deserve our places at the table, our agendas get less homogenous. We are no longer banding together out of sheer necessity, and as a result we are realising that often some of us have less in common with some self-publishers than with some who follow a more traditional route.
The real sign that self-publishing is secure will come when we’re ready to admit that we are all different, and all have different aims, some of which might actually conflict, and when we’re happy to disagree passionately with one another, knowing that such disagreements won’t “harm self-publishing”.
5. Stop measuring ourselves against professional publishing
There is an increasing number of sites springing up that are designed to help readers wade their way through the self-publishing mire by highlighting the best of indie. All too often “best” is equated with professional production standards, an ability to attain a certain level of craft in areas from editing and cover design to narrative arcs and managing info dumps.
These sites are very well-meaning and I’m sure there are readers to whom these things matter, but they reflect an insecurity that’s endemic in self-publishing. Too many of us want to hold onto the similarities we have with a world we have left behind and too few of us are ready to embrace the difference and shout them from the rooftops.
What’s great about these sites is that none of the books I’ve read there has been bad. Job done? Well, is that really what readers want? A selection of books that ranges, in my experience, from good to almost publishable in quality? Am I really that unusual as a reader in wanting books that blow my socks off?
What’s so sad is that there are self-published books out there that really will blow your socks off. Kate Tempest’s Everything Speaks in its Own Voice, for example, or Rohan Quine’s The Imagination Thief. I would love to see a landscape in which self-published books are no longer celebrated because they’re solid or serviceable, where adequate or professionally produced is no longer good enough to rack up the 5 star reviews and full support of their peers, where we celebrate the truly outstanding as measured by the subjective standards of our tastes – where we actually have the courage of our convictions not to worry what the world thinks about self-publishing but to say “I adore this book, you must read it” or “this is utter crap.”