Self Publishing: the Pitfalls and the Promise by Storm Constantine

As it becomes ever more difficult to get a foothold in the writing world, never mind sustain a comfortable living from it, many more young or novice writers are turning to self-publishing, so that their work can reach an audience. In some ways, this echoes the rebellious stance of the Punk era in the late Seventies, when a deluge of new bands – all attitude and safety pins – burst onto the scene, and small record labels sprouted up all over the place, eager to disseminate this snarling, spitting music around the country. That happened because the big labels had a stranglehold on music, and popular music itself had suffered for it, becoming largely stale and predictable.

Much the same could be said of standard publishing nowadays. Editors, seemingly held at gunpoint by paranoid accountants, are even less willing to take risks on new talent than in the past. Generally, the new writer finds themselves, armed only with their manuscripts, facing what appears to be a cyclopean, impregnable citadel, whose drawbridge is truly up. The other side of the coin is that new writers also come cheap. Suppose the drawbridge is lowered, and the author is taken into the citadel? All too often, they are grateful beyond words just to see their novels and stories in print, and any money earned from it seems like an unexpected bonus. It’s great to be paid a little bit for indulging a hobby. Most of us would continue to write regardless of whether we’re published or not. However, the low advances offered for novels – and not just first novels nowadays – does nothing to help the situation for authors who see their writing as their vocation in life, and not just something they do in their spare time after work. In addition, the advance of computer technology has made it far easier for people to produce manuscripts, regardless of talent and skill. Consequently, there is a never-ending supply of hopeful authors, few of whom can expect to find a publisher who is willing, if not able, to support and evolve their career in writing. It all comes down to commitment, and unfortunately even when an editor is committed to your work, those who control the purse strings might not be quite so accommodating. To become a big name, you have to be promoted and, as far as the accountants who now run publishing are concerned, to be promoted, you have to be a big name. Is it any wonder, then, that writers are sick of the situation, and think, ‘stuff it, I’m going to do it myself’?

The relative cheapness of self-publishing via the internet has enabled many people to start their careers independent of a professional publisher. All you need is a decent understanding of basic book formatting and access to a cheap printing company (usually print on demand nowadays). You can try to get your book reviewed on any suitable web site or blog, persuade amenable local or specialist book shop proprietors to stock it, or advertise it on your personal web site, complete with text extracts and a glam author photo. In fact, you might not even bother with the hard copy printing stage, preferring to see your work as an electronic book, existing only in cyber-space. It’s not the same as a printed artefact in your hand (that’s irreplaceable!), but you might earn a little money from it, and at least people will have easy access to your work. So as you can see, it’s not that difficult to become a published writer. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

It has to be seen as beneficial for literature as a whole that new writers can find an outlet for their work, and that readers can have access to new talent and ideas they might otherwise we denied. Books that might never otherwise see the light of day, being indefinable in terms of genre, or too experimental in form, can reach an audience. I support self-publishing whole-heartedly in this respect, but just one thing niggles me, and it’s quite a big ‘one thing’.

The major benefit of being published by a professional publisher is that your work will be edited, polished to its (hopefully) full potential. An experienced editor can guide and teach new writers, pointing out the weaknesses in their work, playing up the strengths. All too often, the books I see that have been produced by enterprising free spirits fall down because the quality of the writing simply isn’t good enough.

You make a decision to write a novel and turn on your computer. Your monitor blooms with a blank page on your word processor, the cursor is blinking expectantly, waiting for you to begin. Your head is full of ideas, characters are straining at the leash to be released onto the page, plots twirl and plait in your mind, landscapes are ready to pour out of your fingers. So, you crack your knuckles and you’re off.

In the fullness of time, you will have completed your opus, and will be ready to have it printed, one way or another. Of course, for most of us, the process isn’t quite that painless, but sooner or later, the book or stories will be finished. You might have rewritten it/them several times, or given copies to your friends to read and criticise. Some people might have come back with helpful comments, which you may or may not have taken on board. But ultimately, only you decide when that work is ready to be printed, and from what I’ve seen from self-published authors, this is sometimes too soon. And this is a shame, because in all too many instances, the problem isn’t lack of talent, but lack of skill and experience.

As writers, we have to develop an ‘ear’: for words, for meaning, for the music and colour of our prose. We have to learn when to rein in our muse and when to let it go at a full gallop. We have to understand about narrative structure – what might seem the most basic of principles; a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We have to control our readers’ eyes with the rhythm of our sentences, which involves knowing about good syntax, and pacing. This makes the difference between an easy read, when we’re carried along by the fluidity of the prose, and a stultifying wade through a chaotic swamp of words. Too much exposition in the wrong place and readers get bored; too little and they feel short-changed in background and setting. Our characters have to be convincing, so that readers empathise with them. Our plot-lines must be trimmed of cliché. Dialogue should perform the dual task of expanding upon characterisation as well as move the story along. We also have to concern ourselves with viewpoint, and keep it consistent. The story itself should be credible and intriguing, so that our readers want to keep turning the page. Plot holes should be filled, chronology accurate. All loose ends have to be tied by the last page, and narrative clues inserted expertly and unobtrusively along the way. Writing and editing are often seen as two separate skills, but a self-published author has to be proficient at both.

A book was sent to me a while ago by a young writer, who had done an impressive job on the appearance of his first, self-published novel. The book was beautifully put together and, as an artefact, would shame no book shelf, but once I began to read it, discomfort slowly spread through me. Meaningless dialogue went on for pages at a time, and great clumps of extremely detailed description detracted from the thrust of the story. The grammar and punctuation wasn’t that brilliant, which impeded easy reading, and the characterisation was hackneyed. The text was peppered with repetitious words and phrases. The novel just wasn’t a page-turner; my interest quickly flagged. I could see that if an editor had worked with this writer, together they would have crafted a good first novel.

Copy editors are employed by publishers to polish up grammar and syntax in manuscripts, so some writers don’t concern themselves greatly with this aspect. (Not an attitude I’d advocate, by the way!) But when you’re self-publishing, it becomes of prime importance. The subject matter of the book I’ve just mentioned – vampires – was popular, and so was the style in which it had been written or, more accurately, the style its author had striven for. But the execution of the idea let it down. That this novel was clearly a labour of love, into which its author had invested copious amounts of time, energy and money, made it difficult for me to criticise him. But this was not the worst example of a self-published novel I’ve ever seen.

There are many ways in which new writers can avoid some of the pitfalls of the self-published first novel or collection of stories. First, I would recommend joining a writers’ workshop or creative writing course. The stereotype of this kind of group conjures images of elderly people who write twee poetry. I know that because it was an opinion I once held myself. Then I ended up teaching a creative writing course at the local college. The students came from a wide range of backgrounds and ages. Some were into genre fiction, some not, but on the whole, they all worked well together, pooling their strengths and learning from each other’s mistakes and successes. However, if you really can’t find a suitable group, start your own. I ran my class for several years, with new faces turning up every term, so I can promise you that you won’t run out of candidates.

The most helpful groups are those where work is swapped between members for critical appraisal. You learn as much from editing someone else’s work as you do from their editorials of yours. Somehow, it’s always easier to spot mistakes and weaknesses in someone else’s story. It’s actually quite a big responsibility to heap onto a friend or family member when you ask them to read your manuscript for you. Are they really qualified to criticise constructively? The last thing you want is someone just handing it back to you with a nervous smile, saying, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ If they say that, you should want to know why it’s great. Then ask about the weaknesses. Again, your volunteer might not have the terminology to explain what worked best for them and what didn’t. They might also be worried about upsetting you. It’s always preferable to get other writers to look at your work. You can guarantee you won’t get a lukewarm response, even if they don’t come out with what you want to hear.

Secondly, don’t underestimate the worth of self-help books about writing. Some of them are extremely well-written, by successful authors, who pass on tips of the trade. Take time to learn about the technicalities of your craft – get a good book on grammar and punctuation. When you read other people’s fiction, read it as a writer, not as a reader. Think about what made the book work for you, or why you didn’t like it. Read lots. I used to be astounded when students turned up at my class and told me they didn’t read much.

Of course, if you want to make a decent living from writing, it’s unlikely self-publishing will answer your prayers. However, a well-crafted, self-published first novel can only help you to sell future work to a big publisher, especially if you can collect a few favourable reviews from magazines and review sites. Review copies are very important – send out as many as you can, especially to the bigger magazines like SFX or Interzone. Send copies to the British Science Fiction Association and The British Fantasy Society for their review magazines. (These examples, of course, are all UK-based genre publications concerned with fantasy, horror and sf. I’m sure every country has their equivalent.) In all cases, make it clear how much your publication costs (including post and packing) and how people can order it. Design a page of biographical material, with an author photo. This is your self-promotion. Send it out with every book. One friend of mine self-published to start with, and through sheer back-breaking effort shifted 20,000 copies of his first full-length book. (He’d already published quite a few pamphlets and chap-books.) It’s a phenomenal amount, as most first authors could expect to feel inordinately successful if their book sold between 5,000 – 10,000. My friend sold so many copies because he drove around the country with his car full of books, persuading shops to stock it. This was way back before there was the internet to publicise your work. But it paid off for him and he eventually got contracts from big publishers and made a solid career from writing.

Persistence and determination are all-important, but so is talent and skill. Take the time to hone your work and learn about your craft. There are few easy routes to success, but if you give it your best, you’ll get there in the end.