The editorial in the autumn issue [of The Author] seemed to me as incoherent and
confused in its argument as the image that concluded it: ‘writers
must dig their heels in, stick to their knitting, and stick to their
What, all at once?
The gist of what was said is this: times are changing, but we
shouldn’t; we should stick to what we have always done, because
only the few can hope for success from self-publishing; without
middlemen to arbitrate, we would have to rely on the slenderest
chance that our work would reach its public; we do not yet know
who these arbiters will be, so we must insist (how? to whom?)
that our work is valued, and not give it away or price it low; we
should knit ourselves guns, nerve our heels, etc.
But the faults attributed to the changed situation are the very
ones that bedevil us now, namely that few have a chance of
success, and that for most of us, the prospect of reaching the
public is dependent on fortune more than merit. And sticking to
what we have always done just means resigning to others the
responsibility for investing in our work and profiting from it.
What is overlooked is the real potential for change that now
exists thanks to something mistakenly dismissed as fantasy.
Writers can now reach their readers directly, and many do, via
websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook, often in combination,
and not at their publisher’s behest but on their own account; in
this, they are no different from hundreds of other entrepreneurs
in other lines of business who have found that they can open a
shop online and sell anything from bicycle components to artisan
leatherwork around the world without the need for premises on
the high street. The only difference is that writers (one hopes)
might have an edge in skill and imagination when it comes to
presenting their wares.
This is not the same as self-publishing, but it is the
precondition for it. If I make my shopfront sufficiently attractive
and interesting, and take the trouble to find out how best to direct
my target audience to it, people will come just as surely as they
will to skilled online retailers of other goods. What I then sell
them is up to me: certainly I can give them enough of a flavour of
my wares to let them know what is on offer. With no great
expenditure, I can produce – without recourse to anyone –
ebooks that can be read on any available machine, and I can price
them as I see fit. If I prefer, I can enter into partnership with a
printer and produce my own physical books and sell them the
same way. That will cost me upfront, just as it would to buy in any
other goods that I hope to sell on at a profit.
The assertion that ‘without mediation, the aptly named
“information overload” will overwhelm us all’ is another instance
of presenting as a future threat what already exists as a present
reality. It is the mediators – publishers, agents, reviewers – who
are already overwhelmed and without any certain way of
identifying what is worth reading from the vast tide of
submissions that come their way. Tales of famously successful
works that were rejected numerous times are too well-known to
need repeating, while a visit to any bookshop will show that even
for those works that do reach the shelves, the quality is widely
variable. The system is not in danger of becoming dependent on
serendipity: it already is.
There is a confused notion that the middlemen and arbiters are
performing a service for the public (and writers) by sorting the
gold from the dross: what they are actually doing is trying to
make money by picking winners with inadequate equipment
from an impossibly wide field of runners. It is in their interest to
pick a book that they think the public will buy, and having picked
it, they will make every effort to sell it, with the more powerful
able to command far greater resources than the lesser firms.
But it is the public, as Johnson may have said, who are the
ultimate judges: if they are pleased, it is well; if they are not, there
is little profit in telling them why they should have been. So why
bother to second-guess them? Set out your stall and see what they
What now exists – that did not before – is the means not only
for writers to communicate direct with readers, but for any who
love books to tell the world what delights them. Forget the sideissue
of dismally repetitious and potentially faked Amazon
reviews; go and look at the independent blogs and websites of
literate people who love reading books and like talking about
them. They, not Amazon, agents or high street bookshops, will
be the new arbiters: people will very soon find those whose
judgement they trust.
So, put down your knitting, put away your gun, get on your
toes and take a look at what a lot of independent artists are
already doing online; find out about e-publishing formats and
what you need to produce them; research websites and crowdfunding
(remember publishing by subscription? Same thing)
then invite a group of your fellow writers to form a co-operative,
and go and speak to a local printer or artisan bookmaker; and
make a beeline for any local shops that might sell books – not all
of them will be bookshops, but if they showcase local artists on
the wall, they may be open to putting local writers on the counter.
One thought on “SET OUT YOUR STALL (first published in The Author, winter 2012)”
Thank you for this! I agree completely.
Granted, there are a lot of self published authors who sell exactly 50 copies of their book, and those mainly to friends and family. More than a few do succeed, and I believe that today’s landscape provides a level field that will allow any of us to reach our audience.
Tales from those who have succeeded indicate two common traits: they produced something people wanted to read and they worked hard to find their customers.