An Author in Progress

This is where you'll find me trying to mould myself into a respectable writer - it may take sometime...
You'll find anything from a piece of experimental creative writing, some thoughts on my novel developments, to even the occasional literature-based academic paper.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

A Critique of Self-Publishing: `Where do I stand?'

Since writing this critique there have no doubt been changes. I have not included the latest issues raised by Apple's legal battle for a share of digital books and would advise any person reading this critique to make sure of double-checking any information used before drawing defined conclusions or indeed making any decisions.

I would also wholeheartedly welcome any feedback or correction of any information I have conveyed, as the purpose of this critique was to assess for myself as a prospective author if it is a route suitable for me. I would really love to hear from those for whom the self-publishing process has been lucrative or for whom it has served their particular artistic purpose.

Critique of Self Publishing: 'Where do I stand?'

Self-publishing was at one time likened to vanity publishing and has been compared by ghostwriter, Andrew Croft to commissioning a one-off or bespoke piece of furniture: the author as 'simply commissioning a book as they might commission a family portrait or a piece of made to measure furniture'. (2004, Ghostwriting, The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook 2011, p149) However, POD (print on demand) and the internet, with the rise of the e-book and international, online marketplace providers, such as Amazons have changed this:

'Publishing is going through a sustained period of change and development. Audiences are demanding text, audio and video content all through one medium, and the spread of handheld devices is stimulating the development of new products and business models.'

Now authors who are unable to acquire representation by a publishing house are turning to using this route as a financially viable way around the traditional, and alternatively as a way in to, publishing houses whose books are closed to conventional submissions. This quote from the website entitled, Skillset goes on to propose the following about the relevance of careers in publishing (therefore suggesting it is a chosen route far aside from being an author):

'A range of skills are essential to working in publishing. There is a growing need for a better understanding of the impact on intellectual property rights and market developments. Skills like an ability to work flexibly and respond to change are highly sought after.'(Ibid)

I would propose that unless an immeasurable amount of time is available to constantly update and research all of the areas (from basic printing, formatting issues and visual aesthetics, to legal rights, distribution and dealing with finance and accounting) it would be a wasted energy to fool oneself into thinking this could be done successfully and alone. If you have a sound base in navigating around technology and are quick to update your knowledge of recent developments, then there may be some room for an element of achievement. But for the hours possibly spent and the software required to assist in this project you would have to consider why you have chosen to write the book and more than this, what the chief goal in its publication is. Unless you have an outreaching desire to examine the publishing process from A to Z it could be an energy drain and as such, counter productive for an author.

Having started to maintain a blog and Twitter site for myself, I have difficulty in seeing how it would be possible for an author to be able to do all of this and deal with a globally widening market that's boundaries go beyond the geographical, nor have I the finances to afford a solicitor to deal with any problems which may arise. Consider Dan Brown and JK Rowling's legal battles on intellectual ownership of the basis of their respective works.

If taking, for example, the Harry Potter series, now available in dozens of languages, not only would translation issues have to be dealt with, but also the legal ramifications of transatlantic business and trade rights, even the move into film and marketing. This is of course speculation on an author's work having Rowling's worldwide success, which even for her did not happen overnight. It still begs the question of how much one person, as an author, would desperately want to take on all the roles, given they have faith that their work is absolutely worth the effort, then surely there would be an agent or publisher keen to back this up. But with a market struggling in the internet boom and the recent years of financial hardship in the UK it is possible to see why some may look to another option, and more so, how the process can be enabled with varying gradients of assistance in the process.

The very presence of publishing platforms (who offer packages of services that range from the very basic to as much as guaranteeing space on marketplace shelves for a set period of time) is proof that the industry is tightening its belt. Authors are even using blogs as a way of platforming their own works without agent assistance, but I would be truly concerned about the validity of my moral rights as the owner of the literature. My knowledge of internet issues, malware and other digital copyright complications would be hampered by my lack of experience and I would be much more at ease to know someone would be responsible and therefore answerable for the loss of work, rights, and possible commercial gain.

Chapter 5 (pp79-81) of Getting Published: a guide for lecturers and researchers on 'Book Publishing' was relatively useful in answering the questions which need to be asked of the author, and whose answers seem to be concurrent in most of the sources researched for this critique: Should I go for the most prestigious? Opt for a better chance with a smaller, lesser known organization? Is there a hierarchy within the publishing world? What criteria should come first? If it's about maximizing the readership of my work I should I aim thus, for the publishing house with the best marketing, sales and promotion 'machine'? (Wellington, Jerry, 2003) As an author, would I want an agent who is more visible to me or to the publishing industry? I have a feeling the latter becomes more relevant once I have been accepted for representation, but confusingly, unless I know, how will I know? I would propose that unless a middle ground platform can be found in one of the sites now in circulation that can offset a share of the author's burdens, surely the real aim for the writer is to do exactly that; write.

Yet platform publishing is becoming more valued with the acknowledgement by houses such as Penguin Publishing Group, where traditional publishers have created their own platform companies to maintain a competitive edge. Industry players such as Penguin's AuthorHouse and HarperCollins platform site reveal how the market has evolved, suggesting that the process of self publishing can be lucrative towards a final destination as kind of CV for a published work.

'"Vanity publishers just acted as printers, they didn't even assign ISBN numbers. The old, dark side of vanity publishing has been superseded by reputable businesses." AuthorHouse also offers a "Borders Package", from 849 [pounds sterling], which ensures that three copies of the author's finished work have guaranteed shelf space in one of the chain's five participating stores for 10 weeks.'*1
(Wood, Felicity, April 10, 2009, Down from the ivory tower: has self-publishing come of age?self-publishing.)

These technological developments have possibly enabled new authors whose books have been lost in the hard slush pile to yet, find their way into having their work managed by large industry players by first putting the product out there for people to either approve or reject via platform peer review by other applicants. But there are limits by making this move. As noted during a search for publishers and agents for submission of synopsis' it is worth remembering that they do not always offer the same full benefits to those who come via the unconventional routes and who are not already on their books.*2

But it could also be argued that with professional new technology accessible at home, and with the know-how and right training (such as a course in editing/graphics/creative writing) a product could be brought almost entirely up to the point of printing at one keyboard with the right Word programmes:

'Publishing no longer has to happen in lengthy stages; the maker can 'come back' to their text instantaneously to cut, paste and generally fiddle (rather than waiting days or even weeks for proofs).'
(Fusco, Maria. Feb 2007, Publish and Be Damned. PublishBeDamned)

Alternatively there are authors, previously published, who have gone aside from the traditional in support of self publishing for the e-market, bypassing the print process entirely via e-publishing:

' small deal that had the publishing industry paying attention was J.A. Konrath's decision to do his next book, Shaken, with Amazon's publishing arm, AmazonEncore.... making [Konrath a] 70% return on the list price of his forthcoming e-book--$2.10 off a $2.99 Kindle edition... Konrath, a midlist crime novelist [who was] published by Hyperion in paperback for years, is an active self-promoter who's repeatedly spoken of the financial success he's had self-publishing his backlist [sic] as Kindle editions.
(Deahl, Rachel. May 24 2010, Agents weigh the growth of alternate publishing options)

As Deahl continues, the point of this for Konrath was the following:

'[In a 'big corporate publishing']environment in which overall print sales are falling week by week [Konrath] ... saw there was an opportunity to create low-priced content [to] bypass the system." While self-publishing has been around for years, this agent noted, "what's new here is the means."' (Deahl, Rachel)

The means, for Konrath, has meant self publishing has allowed him to offset falling sales, by switching to e publishing, reducing his overheads and maximizing his profit.

Indeed the rise in authors swapping to self publishing with the invention of ebooks and POD, has in some cases encouraged agents and publishers to sit up and get more involved. Again, the reiteration of publishing houses and agents moving into the middle sphere between full representation and the latter end of vanity publishing can give encouragement for new authors to have some hope in the possibility of being represented and offset the management workload after the initial event:

'AmazonEncore, [is] "somewhere in between the big houses and the lonely road of self-publishing." The company...offers e-book publication and distribution as well as POD, with a focus on the e-book frontlist. [It creates] "an enormous transition point" ... forcing agents to do more editing, going with outside PR, telling authors they need to take hold of their own marketing... will mean that more agencies, and others, will jump into the publishing fray.' (Deahl, Rachel, 2004)

It could be read from this that as represented authors are forced to do more of their own marketing they see a benefit in going solo. Another author who moved to self publishing, published in spite of his publishers advice, to receipt of unfortunately negative criticism:

'After becoming disillusioned with mainstream publishers, the three-times Booker shortlisted Timothy Mo created his own Paddleless Press imprint to bring out a novel called Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995). [It] was more widely seen as a maladroit effort, littered with solecisms... reviewers pointed out that mainstream publishers might have saved the author [from himself].'
(Anon, Doing it yourself becomes respectable, Feb 14, 2003)

While this is the case for some known authors of hard copy books, for others having an established handle on a market via web media might make it a progressive choice for those whose beginnings are in the web based arena. The younger market, well versed and literate in traversing the internet, used to making decisions at the touch of a button, could be seen to be easily canvassed from this direction, removing the need for traditional advertising and marketing:

'More commonly known as the blogger Klazart on the gaming website... Bhala used his 8,000 loyal subscribers to push his novel Lesser Sins to the top of Authonomy's charts. Bhala posted a tutorial video on YouTube instructing his fans on how to vote for his novel and his digital self-marketing efforts have helped him get into the website's top five.'
(Wood, Felicity, April 10, 2009 Self-publishing Successes)

This form of voting can be notable for it's rise in utilisation, if the many authors self-promoting via such things as Twitter is taken into account. With the rise of such things as the Publish and Be Damned self-publishing fair mentioned in Fusco's article below, it becomes evident that this route is becoming far more mainstream than it may have at one time:

'A good place to.. measure... such current trends was the Publish and Be Damned self-publishing fair held in London last year. In its third year, the fair was a showcase and marketplace for predominantly UK-based self-publishers of all shapes and sizes.'

I believe in some ways it would be easier and possibly more forgiveable to make mistakes as a first time author, learn from them and hopefully move onto better things and more viable opportunities by way of the notion of a first novel as a CV. But for someone already established the move can either make or spectacularly break them, depending on the strength of their following. For the person experienced and easily adaptable to manoeuvring in an electronic arena, there is still the issue of legal and foreign representation. For others, the willingness to market themselves with little experience of whatever the result might be, work once in print, is not easily retractable and leaves the author open to future criticism.

There is certainly no argument that whatever the standpoint, there is much more flexible scope for the mode of production now than ever before, and that by having a choice, opens up a dialogue to see the validity of the self-publishing process. An author has more freedom to be realistic about picking and choosing how much or how little of their own representation they are willing to do or pay someone else to do for them. For the very driven, self marketer there is no doubt that the self-publishing process offers a valid route into circulation.


*1 Since the writing of this critique, the unfortunate situation with Borders has had a ripple effect on such things. AuthorHouse is offering alternative modes of marketing via some of the major online providers of digital books, but as a lover of hard copies, my personal choice, if there was one, would be to go with a company that can offer shelf space.

*2 Indeed a thing to note about slush piles is the works, genres and markets a publisher is already meeting their quota for. Anyone who has enquired about a reputable publishing house's editorial guidelines may well find that while they handle a specific theme it does not necessarily mean (however amazing your manuscript is) that they will want to have multiples of one theme. If you were an author under contract, would you be happy for your publisher to take on other works that may challenge the desirability of your own novel?

Full text: 2749 words

Critique of Self Publishing 'Where do I stand?' Copyright © Sandra Murphy,
25/01/2011. All rights reserved.

This work was produced as part of undergraduate studies at Southampton Solent University, UK

Bibliography and further reading:

A&C Black (2010) The Writers and Artists Yearbook (2011) A&C Black: London

Al-Ubaydli, Mohammad. Publishing: the publishing process. (careers).
Student BMJ 11 (Nov 2003): 412(2). Academic OneFile.Gale.
[accessed 4/11/2010]

Anon, Doing it yourself becomes respectable. (Opinion)." The Bookseller (Feb 14, 2003): 20(1). Academic OneFile.Gale. Southampton Solent University.
[accessed 4 Nov. 2010]

Berinstein, Paula. Self-publishing and the book trade, Part 2: distribution, Searcher 15.4 (April 2007): 14(4). Academic OneFile.Gale.
[accessed 4/11/2010]

Bigsby, Christopher (2000) Writers In Conversation, Volume One,
EAS Publishing: Norwich.

Bigsby, Christopher (2001) Writers In Conversation, Volume Two,
EAS Publishing: Norwich.

Deahl, Rachel. Agents weigh the growth of alternate publishing options. Publishers Weekly 257.21 (May 24, 2010): 7(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. [accessed 4/11/2010 ]

Fusco, Maria. Publish and Be Damned. PublishBeDamned Art Monthly 303
(Feb 2007): 34(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Southampton Solent University.
[accessed 4/11/2010]

Murray, Victoria Christopher. Flying solo: after success with big publishing houses, some authors see advantages in self-publishing. Black Issues Book Review 7.5(Sept-Oct 2005):(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Southampton Solent University. [accessed 4/11/2010]

Skillset: The sector skills council for creative media, Online:[accessed 5/11/2010]

The Publishers Association (online)
[accessed 5/11/2010]

Wellington, Jerry (2003), Getting Published: a guide for lecturers and researchers. Routledge Study Guides, London: RoutledgeFalmer

Wood, Felicity. Self-publishing successes. The Bookseller 5377 (April 10, 2009): 24(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Southampton Solent University.
[accessed 4 Nov. 2010]

Wood, Felicity. "Down from the ivory tower: has self-publishing come of age? Self- publishing." The Bookseller 5377 (April 10, 2009): 23(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. [accessed 4/11/2010]

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Crazy Talk with protagonist, plus added thoughts of the wonderful Chris Cleave in a #bookclub chat

Just a small update concerning the development of my first novel.

I spent an hour with a pad, biro, a mug of coffee and with an imaginary interviewee on Monday afternoon.

Thinking on my protagonist's hopes, dreams, fears (and envies - I shall put this evening's #litchat discussion on Twitter re envy down to a wild coincidence)I figured the nuttiest and probably most direct way to figure out why she ends up doing the things she does was to ask her.

Okay, I know, it sounds bonkers and , yes, if I had been speaking aloud there may have been several undergraduates calling for student support. Try it. I dare you.

I asked author of 'Incendiary', Chris Cleave (again on Twitter - #bookclub) about his process of characterisation and he embraced the idea that getting to know the depths of your characters make the best way in, and sometimes beyond, the project in hand.

Quote: Sometimes I will be halfway through a draft and I will decide, as a character gets bigger, that a particular element of their back story is more relevant to the theme I'm exploring than the front story I was planning to tell. In some ways that's frustrating because I end up throwing a lot of good work away. But it is all part of the process of novel writing, which is about using story to explore a theme. The theme is a dark forest and my story is a dim torch. Sometimes my torch beam will reveal a part of the forest, and sometimes it will reveal a brighter torch just lying there and waiting to be used.
_Chris Cleave

Very cool for me to get a response to a question as I loved his earlier novel 'The Other Hand' which left me desolate and moved at the same time.

So back to my interview with my protagonist. What I did was open my pad, left justify my protagonist Anna's dialogue and right justify my own. I left closed bracketed centred script for body language, surroundings and interventions (a rowdy tour of prospective students took up several minutes) for the time I spent doing this. I found a quiet area with a comfy seat and just let go. Already I know exactly the parts which are more about me than her, and that's a good thing as I can now work on honing the intentional from accidental.

I wonder if anyone else has different ways in which they access their characters? I might be keen to apply different techniques to secondary ones.

Anyway, moving on. A really big thank you to Draven Ames for a cool 'Hard Write' award on his blog. Not sure it's deserved, but it's boosted my rubbish week. Rubbish week totally down to the financial bugbear that being a student is. Really think I should research finding some article work or something. Let me know if anyone hears of any. I love research (sad academic in the embryonic stage)so even if anyone wants some done for their own back stories and can't access specialised information... I have ways ;)

I shall be back very soon with my undergrad critique of self publishing, which I hope will be picked apart and critiqued in its turn by discerning reads. Bizarre that it references a Borders package which may or may not exist any longer. I just need to check that the quotes I have accessed are okay for me to blog, as I can't afford to be paying royalties!!