A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ON SELF-PUBLISHING
I’m sure we all warmly applauded Chris Sledge’s recent stout defence of Brimstone Press and self-publishing in general against Guy Pringle’s dismissive comments in his magazine New Books. Reading their exchange prompted some further thoughts on the subject which may be of interest to others.
‘There is a reason for the existence of publishers – quality control,’ claims Pringle in his article. Really? Next time you venture inside Waterstone’s, Smith’s, or whatever passes for a bookshop these days, take a closer look at some of the books force-fed to the public by mainstream publishers. In among the mass of trashy pulp novels, books about or supposedly by so-called ‘celebrities’, TV ‘spin-offs’ and the like you will, it is true, come across occasional examples of quality, but these are honourable exceptions. The lavishly designed covers may look enticing, yet as the saying goes, you can’t judge what’s inside by them. Open them up and you will find typos, grammatical howlers, omissions, repetitions and sloppy indexing. Where have all the editors and proof-readers gone? Sacrificed on the altar of cost-effectiveness, it would seem.
As for rejections of works which went on to become classics or bestsellers… Well, where shall we start? William Golding almost gave up trying to publish Lord of the Flies, it was turned down so many times. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, sent back by every London publisher she submitted it to, eventually sold in its millions. Gone with the Wind was rejected 18 times, Kerouac’s On the Road 100 times. Nor have established authors been spared. J.L. Carr, author of A Month in the Country and shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize, suffered so many rejections in later life that he turned to publishing his own books.
A particularly interesting case is Orwell’s Animal Farm, written during the Second World War. Publishers were unwilling to print a biting satire on Stalin at a time when the Soviet Union was Britain’s ally, and Orwell, already a renowned author, received many letters of rejection. These included, bizarrely enough, one from T.S. Eliot, then a director of Faber and Faber. Orwell discussed all this in a Preface written for the work when it eventually found its way into print, but the publisher insisted on cutting it. And although Animal Farm has been reprinted countless times since then, Orwell’s Preface has, shamefully, never been restored (it can be found online). In it Orwell points the finger of blame not at the government of the day (official censorship in wartime Britain had, as he points out, taken a fairly liberal stance, restricting itself to matters of national security), but at the world of publishing itself. ‘The sinister fact about literary censorship in England,’ he asserts, ‘is that it is largely voluntary,’ going on to explain that the cosy intellectual clique in charge of publishing consider it just ‘not done’ to publicise certain ideas and opinions at odds with their own collective orthodoxy. ‘Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy,’ says Orwell, ‘finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.’
A case history closer to home for most of us is that of Carl Tighe’s first novel Burning Worm. Based on Tighe’s experiences as a teacher of English in Poland during the Solidarity era of the 1980s, the novel was submitted to more than 30 publishers, none of whom was interested, returning it in most cases unread. One editor did tell the author it was the best thing she’d read in 10 years, then had to write again to inform him she’d been overruled by her managing editor. Salvation eventually arrived in the unlikely form of Tighe’s former landlady, who decided to publish the book herself in a modest print run of 300, 50 copies of which she sent out to reviewers, with no response. Finally in her capacity as publisher she entered it for both the 2002 Whitbread Prize and the Authors’ Club best first novel award. The respective panels were obliged to read the book, and both shortlisted it. ‘A highly evocative, tragi-comic account of Poland in the Solidarity era, with Tighe expertly taking the reader into lives made up of endless queuing, incomprehensible bureaucracy, and human encounters that are both touching and surreal.’ Such was the assessment of the Whitbread judges. Writing in the Sunday Times, Godfrey Smith chose Burning Worm as his personal favourite from the Authors’ Club finalists. It didn’t in the event win either award, but being shortlisted generated sufficient publicity for sales to take off and a second printing of 2,000 to be put in hand.
It’s not surprising, then, that so many take the self-publishing route, and I’m sure much of the above will have struck a chord with fellow Brimstone authors. In my own case, I initially approached 20 or so carefully selected mainstream and academic publishers with a detailed proposal and sample chapter for my biography of the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev. Only one, an American university press, requested the manuscript, which was sent out to two readers for assessment. One produced a fair report which recommended publication on balance. The other fell short of actually quoting Dorothy Parker (‘This is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It is to be hurled with great force’), but that was certainly the underlying tenor. His or her report was in effect a vicious demolition job drawing on factually incorrect and easily refutable arguments. I did refute them point by point in a letter to the commissioning editor, but the damage had already been done and the manuscript was returned. I’ve often wondered what motivated that academic to tear ten years of my life to shreds with such vindictive glee, and can only conclude that he or she (the reports were, quite properly, presented anonymously) was outraged that an interloper should dare to trespass on the sacred groves of academe. He/she denigrated my ‘life and works’ approach to a literary subject, deriding it as outdated. Clearly, like George Orwell in Animal Farm, I had transgressed against the ‘prevailing orthodoxy’, in my case by attempting to make Tyutchev’s poetry accessible to the general public rather than shrouding it in the impenetrable jargon of fashionable postmodernist and deconstructionist literary theory.
Anyway, that’s when Brimstone Press came to the rescue. I learned of this admirable organisation quite by chance from my son, who’d happened to hear someone mention it in his local pub. It was a lucky tip-off, and I shall always be grateful for the help and encouragement generously given by Brimstone’s then directors Chris Sledge, Keith Walton and Sebastian Hayes. My next lucky break came after publication, when among the copies I sent out in hope of a review was one to Professor Donald Rayfield, whom I’d heard speak warmly of Tyutchev in a series about Russian poetry presented by Martin Sixsmith on Radio 4 a couple of years previously. Rayfield, Emeritus Professor at Queen Mary College, University of London, has had numerous books on Russian and Georgian literature published, including an authoritative biography of Chekhov. As he was later to tell me, he eventually grew so disillusioned with academic publishers that some years ago he too turned to self-publishing, founding his own imprint, Garnett Press, to that end. He liked my book, promised to review it in the Times Literary Supplement, said he’d recommend it to the Literary Review and suggested I send a copy to the Slavonic and East European Review, the leading British academic journal in the field. The result was three favourable reviews which boosted sales (and, I can only hope, dealt one in the eye to that spiteful anonymous publisher’s reader). The biography has since sold to individual academics and university libraries all over the world, although I have to say that for me the most satisfying responses have always been from ordinary non-specialist readers who tell me they enjoyed reading it. More recently I’ve brought out a selection of Tyutchev’s poems in English translation in the hope of spreading the word about this great poet to a wider readership.
So what practical lessons can we self-published authors take from all this? It seems to me our chief dilemma is how to bring our books, whether in print or electronic form, to the reading public’s notice without having to shell out inordinate sums on advertising. Good reviews will do this and generate sales to some extent. More importantly, perhaps, they can be quoted in subsequent publicity material. Through online research I was able to draw up a list of academics and university departments worldwide which might be interested in my book. I then circulated a standard email publicity shot with quotes from the reviews. Emailing of course costs nothing, and assuming you can identify a potential target audience for your book I’d certainly recommend it. Another route to wider publicity is, as Carl Tighe discovered, being shortlisted (or even longlisted) for a literary award. It’s well worth searching online for any awards available for books in your field. Unfortunately, many of them exclude self-published works, but one that any of us can try for is the Rubery Award, which is specifically for self-published books and those published by small independent presses (www.ruberybookaward.com). One advantage is that there is no time limit, so you can enter books published several years ago as long as they are still in print. I had a go myself and reached the long list, which I suppose is better than nothing. Of course, as Carl Tighe admitted in an interview, luck plays a big role here too (‘For us there is just something like the Whitbread, which is like the lottery’), but then if you don’t try you’ll never find out.
And what, finally, are we to make of the world of commercial publishing? Is it, as suggested by Guy Pringle, run by a benevolent priesthood of gatekeepers dedicated to the noble task of promoting excellence and weeding out dross? Or, as Carl Tighe maintains in the interview just quoted, is it monopolised by a self-perpetuating London-based coterie of publishers, reviewers and authors who ‘know each other [and] review each other’? No doubt the truth lies somewhere in between, although most of us will be inclined to place it closer to Tighe’s position – and I don’t think that’s just sour grapes. Whatever the answer, it’s a question guaranteed to stir the emotions and raise the hackles of aspiring writers for years to come.