Playing for England

The Times has got a piece up about self publishing:

Mick Jagger says on the jacket: ‘Original, I loved it.’ Publishing has always known the value of celebrity endorsement, but what book could possibly have summoned Jagger down from the mountain to engage in mere puffery? Last December, he went into John Sandoe, the independent Chelsea bookshop famous for its famous clientele, and idly asked the bookseller to recommend a good read. The man behind the counter brandished a small, thin paperback with a muted, dun-cardboard cover, on which the title, author and publisher were picked out in green lettering: ’24 for 3. Jennie Walker. CB Editions.’

Jagger might have loved it. The agent to whom the author first submitted it, however, had not. Neither did a couple of publishers. To the rescue came CB Editions, a boutique outfit dedicated to publishing ‘surprising books’ and run by none other than Jennie Walker. Or, to give ‘her’ her real name, Charles Boyle. In other words, 24 for 3 — an intricately wrought self-portrait of a woman as she commutes quizzically between husband and lover while a Test match, with its unfathomable rules, rumbles on off stage — is that rarity, a polished jewel of a book that, in the face of industry indifference, the author has successfully self-published.

‘I wrote the novella last summer,’ Boyle explains. ‘I got back from holiday in late August. On the doormat, a polite rejection from an agent and another envelope with a cheque for £2,000 left to me by an uncle. The same day, I went round to a local printer, spun him random figures. He gave me quotes. For that money, I could print and bind 250 copies each of four books. Thus was CB Editions begun.’

I met a writer last year who told me that ‘I chose to self-publish, so that I could retain my copyright’. What amused me was the implication of an element of choice in the decision – that Random House might have offered a seven-figure, five-book deal and this author would have said: ‘Sorry mate, but I’d like to retain my copyright.’

My impression is that self publishing is essentially vanity publishing. There seems to be a difference in that the author has control over the marketing and promotion, but the financial and distribution aspects appear to be the same.

The Times article goes on to list a couple of self-published authors who have had some sales and award success. And it is sometimes necessary – David Craig’s expose of management consultancies was originally self published.

But I’m still loathe to buy into the recent trend of casting self-publishing as some kind of guerilla DIY movement taking on the big corporations. How many writers have the time and resources to set up their own publishing company? For that matter, if you’ve got enough cash, why not buy Canongate and publish through them?

Trendy as self publishing seems to be now, there is still a stigma to overcome – the lack of professional judgement that is positive enough to merit a financial risk. Martin Amis summed this up when he compared publication to sex: ‘[A] writer ought to be able to claim that he had never paid for it – never in his life.’

Self-publishing is fuelled by a clamour for recognition. (To quote Amis again: ‘These people aren’t writing, they’re just screaming.’) The motive is attention,  not pleasure. Everyone has to be on reality TV and everyone has to have their name in print. Aspiring writers have the same drives and egotism as aspiring models or presenters – and often the same urge, albeit better disguised, to get their faces in front of the flashbulbs.

Think about football. Lots of people are very good at football, but only a few will play for England. I don’t speak from experience here as I’ve never been into sports, but surely the knowledge that you may never play for England does not detract from your enjoyment of the Sunday kickaround in the park. Nor does it affect your skill, or your knowledge and appreciation of the game.

And yet, with hard work and talent, some people do make it to the England side.

As the article says, getting published is extremely difficult. But my question to self published writers would be – why can’t you be content with talent? I feel lucky to have something that I’m good at, and that I enjoy. Most people who have read my fiction, from friends to published novelists, have liked it. That’s enough.

Getting published would be fantastic, of course… but it should not be the primary goal: the aim is pleasure, and to tend your garden.

One Response to “Playing for England”

  1. Death by POD « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] fact is that POD and self publishing is nothing more than twenty-first century vanity publishing – a complete dead end. I suppose it has its uses – like if you want to produce an edition of Valentine’s poems for […]

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