A discussion of the problems facing writers trying to get published, ranging from unscrupulous “publishers” and “agents” to the pitfalls of self-publication and print-on-demand.
When on MySpace, I do occasionally check the targeted adverts that appear at the top of the page. Most of mine are for publishers and agents. Or, more specifically, people wanting writers to pay them to either read over their manuscript, or to publish their work. Some of these companies are more up-front about the fact they want a (sometimes substantial) up-front payment for converting a writer’s word file to a .PDF and sticking it in a cover than others. Some promise to “sell” your book through all of the major booksellers, and through Amazon. But what they really mean is that for your money, you’ll get an ISBN that will be registered on various databases.
The book will (probably) appear on Amazon, and will be available through most major book stores, but they won’t be stocking the title in physical form. Fine, but it’s possible to get the same services for free, pay just a small fee for an ISBN and, well, there you go. Because most of these companies are simply printers using print on demand technology. Now, I like PoD, but have no illusion about how my work that’s available through PoD channels is being marketed – i.e. it isn’t. Unless I market it myself. Which I do. Not being a professional or even particularly business-minded, I’m not very good at it it’s ok, because I’ve not paid a few hundred quid for no promotion.
At present, PoD and self-publishing are essentially synonymous, and self-publishing is largely considered inferior by “the establishment:” no quality control, just “writers” who can’t write putting stuff out that no publisher would touch in a million years. This seems to be rather a double standard: in music, bands who release their own records are hailed as exponents of the punk ethic. Or they’re Radiohead.
And there is, of course, a counter-argument that most publishers are only interested in the Next Big Thing, so unless you’re the next Stephen King, Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, you can fuck right off. And as the more discerning readers will know, Stephen King, Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling produce accessible, mainstream texts at a steady rate, and while they shift units, they don’t exactly challenge anything, particularly the social order or the perception of the masses. This is perhaps another point for another time: suffice it to say here that, thankfully, there are a lot of writers out there who don’t write for the masses. But how do these writers get their work to the market?
Obviously, this is easier if you’ve got an agent working on your behalf. (For the record, I haven’t.) But getting an agent to take you on is as hard – and, I’ve oft heard it said, harder – as being accepted by a publisher.
Ah, but thankfully, help is at hand, thanks to companies who advertise on MySpace. Of course, they want paying for their input, but they’ll read your manuscript and give advice on how to improve it, and even provide detailed directions for making a successful pitch for an agent. By sending them your manuscript and some wedge, they’ll provide a detailed report, which includes the following:
Writing skills – including how to use these to strengthen atmosphere, pace and tension throughout
Dialogue – convincing and sustained dialogue and suitability to characters
Characters – believability, natural actions, emotions and themes
Plot – are there enough twists and turns to capture the reader’s attention? Is there a strong opening and conclusion, with no holes throughout?
Marketability – a view on whether your novel will stand up in today’s market and whether it is aimed concisely enough at its target reader
Now, this is all well and good, but much of this kind of information can be found elsewhere, and again, for free. I’ve often wondered about the need for creative writing classes. Perhaps I’m being blinkered, myopic, even autistic and snobbish, but can there really be a substitute for life experience, practice and spending time reading? To write, one must first read, even if only to avoid the risk of thinking you’ve created a unique and truly genius plot-line, only to discover that Shakespeare or Nick Hornby got there first. How many well-known writers were taught how to write (and I’m not meaning how to hold a pen)? What’s more, the advice that will appear in this personalised report, that runs from 9 to 15 pages can only be so personalised anyway, surely?
But what really gets me is the fact that the idea of focusing on dialogue, plot, character is simply perpetuating the established norms that lead to the last point, marketability. Isn’t writing with a view to marketability simply writing by numbers? It’s a pity that writing has become increasingly about numbers – sales figures – than about “art.” I’m presenting an idealist perspective when I say that less mainstream works – works that fall into the category of “it doesn”t fit into our present publishing programme’ should be given a chance to find their market, rather than being rejected because they’re not in alignment with the current market trend. There are many readers out there who are frustrated because of the lack of choice, who can’t find one, let alone three titles they want in the Waterstone’s 3 for 2 offer selection because it’s all so safe and uninspiring.
Right now, there are a lot of writers – good writers – struggling to get published, and who are clearly desperate enough to fund the scumbags who promise the earth in terms of finding an agent, or providing agent services, or putting your book to a global market – for a fee. I have no idea what the future holds for the publishing industry. But I do think radical changes are afoot. I certainly hope so, and I say “bring it on!”