SET OUT YOUR STALL (first published in The Author, winter 2012)

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)

  1. 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.



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