A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ON SELF-PUBLISHING from JOHN DEWEY
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. (See below) 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.
SELF-PUBLISHING: AN EXCHANGE OF VIEWS
I can spot a self-published book at 40 paces. The Jiffy bag is probably recycled and Sellotaped within an inch of its life. The writing on the label – stuck over the previous addressee – is copperplate. Inside are clippings of local coverage the author has managed to garner in local bookshops and schools. One can’t help the feeling that they said nice things to make him – and it’s usually a him – go away.
And now that it’s easier than ever to self-publish, anyone with a reasonable budget and the dedication to type their memoirs/poetry/entertaining story for children (delete as appropriate) can do so. But oh my heart churns as I wonder how much time, money and effort has been lavished on this?
Covers are cartoons, pictures by friends – often slightly out of focus – or line drawings amateurishly trying to illustrate the authors’s vision. How many of these were put on a shelf in an actual bookshop and viewed from the other side of the space to genuinely judge how visible it is against the competition? Is the title at the top of the cover, or lost at the foot? Is the spine legible if not shelved out?
There is a reason for the existence of publishers – quality control. And all that’s before you start to read. So top marks to Douglas Westcott – Go Swift and Far looks, feels, and smells like a ‘proper book. Undoubtedly he has thrown money at this project – taking professional advice along the way – and it has paid off. Having made a success of Go Swift and Far within the boundaries of Bath, the next step of his master plan is to reach a national readership. And having read and thoroughly enjoyed this book, I am happy to help him on his way. This is a fun book to read and we all need those between our reading of Dostoevsky and Proust. So, enjoy and look out for volumes 2 and 3 in a bookshop near you in the not too distant future.
Chris Sledge replies:
Well, I guess it was entertaining to find myself featured in the pages of your latest issue, but I was a lot less entertained by your snotty comments about self-published books. What you say may be true of some of the amateurish, homespun efforts one sees knocking around but it is certainly not true of Brimstone Press, of which I am a Director. Consider, for instance, the following three books published by Brimstone in recent years:
– Flute, the autobiography of Richard Adeney. This was favourably reviewed by all the main classical music magazines, and praised by many high profile musicians and commentators
– Mirror of the Soul, a full length study by John Dewey of the life and works of the highly acclaimed Russian lyric poet Fyodor Tyutchev ( 1803 – 73 ). This is a major work of literary scholarship, and has been very well reviewed by the relevant academic and language journals. It is now recognised as the standard work about a poet of the first rank whose writing is little known outside Russian speaking-countries. John is in regular demand as a speaker following the publication of his book, and has also recently published a translation and commentary on Tyutchev’s 100 best known poems
– Selected Poems, revised and new by Jenny Johnson. This was very favourably reviewed in the January 2014 edition of Acumen, confirming her status as one of this country’s leading poets.
In each case it is evident that it was of no consequence to the reviewers that these were self-published books, and I would question whether the reviewers were even aware of this. Their purpose was to bring the qualities of the books – both the content and the physical production – to the attention of their readers. It would seem that it is only people like you who come from the world of mainstream publishing who still find it necessary to keep on trotting out the same tired old mantra : “If it’s self published it must be shit”.
You imply that there is no quality control in self publishing. In the case of Brimstone this is both wrong and offensive. As you can see from the Advice section on our website we attach much importance to the physical quality of our books, and we adhere to this – so what applies to Douglas Westcott applies to us as well.
In summary, I object strongly to the silly, sneering tone of your piece. You really should know better than to attack all self publishing in this way, and your piece does you and your magazine no credit whatever.
I think you misconstrue my comments – not least because it sounds like Brimstone Press is doing exactly what genuine self-published authors need, ie applying quality control.
We send out 99% of what I receive – regardless of my qualms – and our reviewers do a sterling job of reading and reviewing books.
Occasionally, one stands out from the crowd – which is great – but many fall by the wayside.
Good luck with your future publishing but i stand by my comments because I know what comes in here for review.
I really don’t think the charge of misconstruing can be made to stick – I’ve just re-read your piece, having been abroad for a while, and it’s difficult to see it as anything other than an undifferentiated and rather ugly swipe at all self-publishing. So I, also, stick by my comments.
Having said which, it’s good to have your acknowledgment that we are going about things the right way – and we have other distinguished authors heading our way later this year. In a way, what we are doing is providing a home for authors who might well have been taken on by some of the smaller publishers before they got swallowed up by the publishing conglomerates.
And despite your comments we’ll send you books to review when we think they might be of appeal to your readers.
New member Gavin, a widely-published poet (see his Author page on brimstonepress.co.uk), has added his thoughts on writing poetry, Enticing Lines, on the Gavin Bantock and Opinion pages.
See Sebastian’s excellent and thought-provoking essay What makes a Good Poem? on the Sebastian Hayes and Opinion pages.
SAD NEWS ABOUT STEPHEN OWEN
It is with deep regret that we announced the passing of one of our authors, Stephen Owen, author of The Bloods of Space and Cosmographs. He passed away at the end of June and we extend our sympathies to his widow and family.
I only met Stephen three or four times in person because he lived so far away but we had a strong rapport and kept in contact regularly by telephone. He was obviously a most unusual person with great talents and wide interests — he was, for example, a keen amateur astronomer and told me he taught himself Hebrew in order to read the Bible in the original ! A genuine visionary, his Cosmographs continue the strong Anglo-Saxon tradition of prophetic works : indeed some of Cosmographs might have come from the pen of William Blake.
He was also extremely witty : one of his most memorable sayings was “The other side of the past is the future” as also his wistful query “Where have all the Commies gone?” (harking back to the Sixties song Where have all the flowers gone? which most of you are too young to remember). Having met Stephen once, you tended not to forget him and I have had tributes from people on whom he left a lasting mark. We can only hope that he has joined the ‘Cosmographs’ of whom he writes and is out there striving for the betterment of poor humanity that he believed had lost its way. Sebastian Hayes 11 October 2012v
HAVE WE HEARD THIS STORY BEFORE?
Publication of J K Rowling’s first novel for adults THE CASUAL VACANCY prompts the thought that we’ve been here, or somewhere pretty close, before. In 2009 Brimstone Press published J C Sledge’s novel ANOTHER MOUTH HAS PASSED. Guess what, it was set in a fictional West Country village – Horton Fence – and it was about what went on when there was a proposal to build a social housing development in the middle of the village. All the same themes are there – the snobbery, the plotting, the protest meetings, the ostracism, the ignorance and nastiness of some (though not all) of the Middle Englanders, particularly those who only live there at weekends. One character refers to these as Weekend Bananas, from their rallying cry of – “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody”! And the village is not short of inhabitants who want the development built in the nearby industrial town of Clapwell instead. A forerunner of Yarvil?
Sledge’s book is much shorter and, from the sound of it, gentler than Rowling’s. The author says that he designed it as a social comedy, though the serious themes are all there. Wessex Muse’s reviewer described it as ” a quiet but dryly humorous scrutiny of a community unravelling.”
Well, Brimstone likes to be ahead of the game …
To read an extract from ANOTHER MOUTH HAS PASSED, go to http://www.brimstonepress.co.uk, click on ‘Books’, then ‘ANOTHER MOUTH HAS PASSED’, then ‘view a sample’. Enjoy.
Mirror of the Soul, John Dewey’s biography of the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, has been well reviewed in the press and elsewhere. The author was also interviewed for programmes about the book broadcast recently by the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe (Prague) and the English-language service of the Voice of Russia (Moscow). The second of these can be heard online at:
Some extracts from the reviews:
‘John Dewey’s magnificent book Mirror of the Soul embraces with equal depth and clarity Tyutchev’s extraordinary poetry, philosophy, love life and (un)diplomatic career. […] Mirror of the Soul is beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Fyodor Tyutchev anywhere in the world.’ Donald Rayfield, Times Literary Supplement
‘This book is not only the first life of Tyutchev in English, it is by far the best and the most complete anywhere, including Russia. Dewey’s scholarship is meticulous and there isn’t a previous biography or study he doesn’t mention, draw on or debate. The volume is handsomely illustrated and reads easily. John Dewey himself is a thoughtful critic.’ Stanley Mitchell, Literary Review
‘The exhaustiveness of the research is matched by the quality of the writing, and it is difficult to imagine that it will be surpassed in any language for many years to come. Not least impressive are the translations of Tyutchev’s lyrics which, unusually for a book of this kind, give the non-Russian speaker a real sense of the originals.’ Malcolm Jones, Emeritus Professor of Slavonic Studies, University of Nottingham
‘Mr Dewey’s book is not only a detailed biography of Tyutchev; brilliant analysis of the lyric verse stands side by side with penetrating commentaries on his political writings. […] On the basis of an extensive range of documentary material, John Dewey has succeeded in demonstrating the duality, contradictions and complexity of a man whom Afanasy Fet called: “one of the greatest lyric poets to have existed on this earth”.’ Natalya Golitsyna, Radio Free Europe
‘Dewey has made use of an enormous number of documents, his use of German documents, many of them previously unpublished, being particularly impressive. […] The author has convincingly resolved many of the unresolved questions of Tyutchev’s biography. […] With more than four hundred pages of impeccably produced text, plus photographs, copious notes, a comprehensive bibliography and three indexes, at twenty pounds this book constitutes excellent value for money. The present writer has reviewed books half the length and half the worth of this book, costing twice the price. It is likely to be the standard reference work for many years to come, and Brimstone Press are to be congratulated on making it available.’ Michael Pursglove, East-West Review
It is with great sadness that we announce the death of one of our Brimstone authors, Ron Hansford, author of the poetry collection Flying into the Blizzard. The only consolation is that he was fully active mentally and physically right up to the end, and, like many of us, would probably have preferred to go this way rather than remain incapacitated and bedridden. Sebastian Hayes, one of the Brimstone Directors and a personal friend of the deceased, attended the moving funeral service. It was largely a ‘secular’ service, doubtless because of the expressed wish of the deceased and the vicar read out several of Ron’s poems and gave an account of his very active and, it would seem, generally happy life. As the vicar mentioned it is very unusual these days to come across someone who lived practically the whole of his life in the house where he was born and brought up, a house which was itself built by his builder grandfather. Ron was a well-read person who had many intellectual interests but he retianed a taste for manual work, looking after the house and extensive garden himself and keeping prize bantam hens right up to the end. He will be greatly regretted and he was such a well-liked person that the funeral was attended by such a large crowd of people that over half of us had to stand as there were no vacant pews available !
We extend our sympathies to his widow, Sylvia Oldroyd, also a Brimstone poet, and to his only son, Roger, currently doing research at Southampton University. An appreciation of Ron’s poetry, entitled Ron Hansford : Countryman Poet can be viewed on the Brimstone website, Shorter Works section, and if you wish for a printed copy you can get in touch with me via Brimstone Press and send sae. I distributed many of these booklets at the Reception after the funeral.