The big question

The Irish Times has caught on to the Authonomy buzz and produced a long piece about the book deals the site has generated so far. There are three. But I was particularly interested in Stephen Dunne’s story.

I don’t think I ever critiqued or was critiqued by Dunne when I was on Authonomy. Apparently he’s been rushed off his feet.

Having decided to self-publish Reaper after failing to get the required response from literary agents, he had already done surprisingly well in shifting all but 100 copies of his 2,000 print run, especially in bookshops (including Waterstone’s) around Derby, where he lives and where sections of his atmospheric psychological thriller are set. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of his readers, he went looking for further feedback online, without expecting that it would lead to the two-book deal and contract with an agent he has now secured ahead of publication in July.

‘I put Reaper on Authonomy to get it noticed by publishers,’ he says. ‘I never expected it to appeal to everybody or to get into the top five, and it didn’t, but happily HarperCollins editors were impressed by my synopsis and asked to see the completed manuscript.’

Dunne feels that a key problem for first-time novelists is the role of literary agents, who can obstruct rather than facilitate access to publishers. By providing an alternative route, websites such as Authonomy can be helpful in this respect.

It always raises a smile when I hear the complaint that the mainstream publishers would be signing up loads of literary novels by unknown writers if it weren’t for those durned agents acting as gatekeepers and blocking new talent.

In my experience this is just not true. When I studied creative writing, senior people from big name agencies would travel up to Manchester, answer our questions, drink with us after the talk and practically beg us to send writing.

Dunne’s a reasonable man though:

‘To be fair to agents, they’re swamped with material,’ he says. ‘And as they are already making a living from the writers they represent, the incentive for them to push new talent is limited. However, I think that some publishers have become aware that the standard system of representation can work as a block to new writing, and that other mechanisms are needed.

But don’t corporate publishers have similar time and priority constraints that agents do? You can still send fiction to a couple of the main houses, and also many of the good independents. Yet this is the bottom line: if big publishers really wanted and needed lots of new writing, they would open submissions. Those that don’t, haven’t.

Dunne closes with some advice:

I now have a good agent, but it was only after I stopped pursuing their interest that I found the right strategy. I self-published, sold 2,000 copies, set up a website for the book, received five-star ratings on Amazon and Play.com, and finally got the publishing deal after the Authonomy posting. It’s a lot of work, but better than sitting around waiting for rejections from overstretched agents who sometimes manage encouraging words but almost never make a commitment.

I think it’s fantastic that Dunne has his HarperCollins deal, I wish him the best of luck and, if someone sends me his book, I will review it.

What worries me though is that people will read this article and think that self-publishing is a springboard to better times. In reality it is just vanity publishing in a hired suit.

There’s a creeping assumption that writers have to become more like publishers – to take on increasing amounts of the administration, distribution and marketing aspects of the process. You shouldn’t: that’s the publisher’s job, that’s what they’re paid for. Your career as a publisher should end when you print out your sample and send it off.

Let’s go back to Stephen Dunne. He sold two thousand copies of his self-published novel. Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss suggests that his relatively high sales figures make him the exception, not the rule:

Despite some highly publicized successes, the average book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies–mostly to the authors and to ‘pocket’ markets surrounding them–friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order. According to the chief executive of POD service iUniverse, quoted in the New York Times in 2004, 40% of iUniverse’s books are sold directly to authors.

Okay, she is talking about the US market. But come on, are things going to be significantly different here? I doubt it.

So. Dunne says that self-publishing is ‘a lot of work, but better than sitting around waiting for rejections from overstretched agents’. I would submit that self-publishing is a waste of money you almost certainly don’t have, and time that could have been spent reading and writing. The fact that Dunne has won the self-publishing equivalent of the Irish Sweepstakes does not detract from this point.

Jane Smith’s excellent and necessary How Publishing Really Works blog asks the big question about self-publishing success:

If self-publishing is such a brilliant thing for a writer to do, why is it that most of the writers who are said to have achieved true success through self-publishing have only done so after their books have been republished by a mainstream publisher?

And that’s it. Not a new paradigm, just a roundabout way of succeeding in the old.

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2 Responses to “The big question”

  1. Jane Smith Says:

    (Trying again following computer-burp: apologies if this now appears twice.)

    Max, this is a great post and I wish I’d written it. I particularly like the “excellent and necessary” comment which precedes your link to my blog!

    However, I must disagree with you on just one thing (which isn’t actually an error of yours, but of the Irish Times, it appears):

    “The Irish Times has caught on to the Authonomy buzz and produced a long piece about the book deals the site has generated so far. There are three.”

    While the Authonomy hype implies that those three books were all signed up as a result of their appearing on Authonomy, that’s not actually the case. Only one of those three was discovered in the depths of Authonomy (Coffee at Kowalski’s, if I’ve spelled it right). Of the other two, one was submitted by a literary agent and acquired by HarperCollins in the usual way–that deal was signed in December; and I believe that the other, for Mr Dunne’s book, came about because someone at HarperCollins spotted the self-published book elsewhere, and noted how well it had sold.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Yeah – I think you’ve pointed that out to me before. I didn’t go into the veracity of these deals for reasons of space.

    Thanks Jane.

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