Optimism, Qualified

Novelist Mark Edwards takes to the Guardian books pages this week to announce that ‘This is the best time ever to be an author’. The reason for his optimism? The growth of self publishing.

As someone who has done very well from self-publishing, it’s pretty much all positive for me. I think the biggest positive is that it gives authors who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to get a deal with a publisher the chance to find readers. The Kindle chart is almost a level playing field where your book can nestle alongside the latest from Peter James and Dan Brown… The great thing is that we have options now. Ten years ago, if a book didn’t find a publisher, that was it – the book was dead. Now things are very different. This is the best time ever to be an author.

I agree with Edwards’s main grand claim, but for different reasons – there is so much more interesting stuff to write about these days. The boom of self publishing and the rise of new indies leaves me ambivalent, because these forms just don’t have the capacity that commercial publishing does. I remember Ian Daley, the main guy at Route (a great publisher, by the way) telling a conference that ‘If you’re a writer, and you want recognition, sales, big distribution – well, we can’t give you that. I’m sorry.’ But aspiring writers are not always so aware of the limitations of the new school independents. You need to ask: can an indie publish my books well, with a decent cover and pages that don’t fall off the spine? Can my indie distribute my books, and get them reviewed? If the worst happens, can I trust my publisher not to load what’s left of his business into the back of a van and disappear with my royalties?

And there’s not a great deal of traffic between self publishing and the second wave of indies, and the Big Six and Independent Alliance. Technology does not guarantee readership. Just because you put something on the internet doesn’t mean people will read it. Try to name a self-publishing author you have heard of without mentioning Fifty Shades.

My fear is that we will end up with a two-tier system of publishing. The higher tier will be composed of the commercial and established literary publishers, which will churn out UEA-lite literary fiction from upper middle class people who have been to the right universities, completed the right postgrad courses and made the right connections. Their novels will sell exactly 116 copies per edition, but these authors will be widely reviewed and get the good teaching jobs (and influence the next generation of UEA-lite aspiring novelists).

In the lower tier will be everyone else, people outside the golden loop, who will have to hustle and struggle to get their work out via new-school independents, self publishing and the internet. Much of their stuff, as Profile’s Andrew Franklin says, will be ‘terrible – unutterable rubbish’ – but also, and inevitably, great material will be lost.

I am not blaming the ‘gatekeepers’. Everyone I have met in publishing loves books and is open to new talent. I am talking about the many talented unknowns I meet who see self publishing or something like it as the first, not the last, resort, because they automatically assume the first tier will reject them.

Life is about expectation. Don’t lower your expectations, I tell friends. Don’t let anyone else set your expectations for you. I quote Jane Smith’s line that ‘It’s better not to be published at all than be published badly.’ I am a real bore about it. ‘Don’t lower your expectations,’ I shout at passing cars. People back away with palms raised. I am a real pain on the subject. I’m right though.

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