Thursday, 16 April 2009

The publishing game

This week I sent, to a select group of UK publishers, what I believe to be the last submissions of my Alice manuscript - ever. There's actually a part of me (and like most parts of me these days, it's growing) that hopes these submissions will be rejected.

The selected publishers were the last three stragglers in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook who are prepared to consider unagented submissions and who don't explicitly discourage either children's or fantasy or both. Why do I not continue to try via agents? Is it because I fear these modern day bouncers at the publishing club door will turn me away as unsuitably dressed or, for some equally trivial reason, not the sort of person they want to admit to their industry? Well it's partly that and partly down to a question of time. To have any chance of even modest success I believe my book launch should be timed to coincide with the release of Tim Burton's new Alice film.

I have severe doubts whether the lumbering dinosaur of a commercial publishing house is capable of moving sufficiently quickly to achieve that objective in the ten and a bit months remaining. Some of them, I understand, can take almost that long just to decide whether to take on a manuscript. Introduce the additional delay of going via an agent and the project is doomed.

I am also, like many writers today, becoming disillusioned with the whole publishing industry. The problem is right there, in that second word: "industry". It is a business so who can blame them, especially in these troubled times, for rating every incoming manuscript using the single selection criterion "how much money can I make out of this?". I would too if my livelihood depended on it. Unfortunately quality of manuscript and commercial viability don't necessarily go hand in hand - and I don't think that's just sour grapes.

It was brought home to me by my most encouraging and, simultaneously, most painful, rejection a few weeks back. A major UK publishing house wrote and told me they thought my book was an excellent pastiche, very well written, and of a genre very much in vogue at the moment. Despite all that, they felt unable to publish it because items of that nature, apparently, only sell well off the name of a celebrity author. Doesn't that just about say it all? It doesn't matter how good your product, if you've not got a name then you aren't going to get anywhere.

So how does anyone break into this closed shop? To be honest, I don't know. You've clearly got to be lucky, or know someone, and have a book which is more than merely good. It has to knock a reader off their seat but commercially. The reader, be they agent or publisher, needs to see pounds and dollars in front of their eyes either because your work hits whatever nerve is in vogue this (or, to be more accurate, next) year or because they see a constant stream of saleable merchandise from the same stable.

The losers in this game are those who's books are merely very good, those whose work isn't "commercial" for any reason and those who are likely to be one-book-wonders (no matter how brilliant that one book might be). The other losers are the reading public who might actually have liked the good-but-not-so-saleable, the books that don't happen to conform to whatever here-today-gone-tomorrow fad is flavour of the month.

So why am I almost hoping for rejection? Partly it's that time question again. If a commercial publisher were to take me on now, would the product get to market in time to catch the bow wave of publicity from the film? Quite likely not. I understand that, in the case of new or untried writers, the lion's share of the responsibility for publicising a book rests with the author rather than the publishing house. I'm none too sure how to achieve that without the film to lean on. Which is better, to be commercially published and shown to be a failure than never to have been published at all?

The other part is that I have convinced myself I actually want to have a go at publishing myself. It sounds like an adventure. If it all goes pear shaped then, at worst, I will have lost a few hundred quid. It's probably no more than, say, a golfer here in the South East would spend in a year on his hobby. The only drawback I can see is that moment when you admit to someone that you published it yourself. I have a feeling that, in some people's eyes, that's only one step up from child molesting, but that's their problem, not mine. If I sell a couple of dozen copies at least that's twenty-odd people (not too odd, I hope) who will read my work. If sales get into the hundreds I shall be ecstatic and into the thousands? Well let's not even go there. It would be like planning what to do after you win the lottery.

I even have this dream, if it all goes well, that I shall publish further titles and not necessarily all my own. I quite fancy the idea of becoming a publisher myself.

In the likely event that the latest submissions come to nothing, it is my intention to maintain a journal, in this blog, of my learning curve and the ups and downs on the path to self publishing my book. I plan to do it properly - getting my own ISBNs, illustrations, design etc. I certainly won't be investing in any of these £700+ DIY publishing packages. Anything that expensive would torpedo any chances of showing a modest profit.

If this an area of interest to you then please follow along for the ride. If you have already trodden this path before then your contributions and experiences would be welcome. Follow me on Twitter (WriterManUK) to keep posted on updates to this blog.

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