Friday, 13 June 2014

Start at the top, or race to the bottom

So, today I went to a creative support company who help you apply for grants/bursaries, find a market for your writing, and support you to go self-employed. Well, that's what I thought. They said they would work with me for 13 weeks with the ultimate goal of self-publishing, because according to them publishers are clue-free and useless, and agents even more so.

I have nothing against self-publishing at all. I know it's not for me because I wouldn't know how to start with publicity, and I don't want to end up as one of the desperados spamming the hell out of people on Twitter and weeping over Just Unfollow. And while I am fully aware there are publishers out there who could use several smacks round the head with Business For Dummies, I don't think it applies universally. I have enormous admiration for writers who go that route, as long as they don't delude themselves into thinking it's the quick way to writing success. Too many do, though.

Agents are much easier to work out than publishers - does s/he charge a fee? If so, run little writer. Not charging upfront fees doesn't guarantee a good agent, or an agent who can connect with your work enough to sell it, or an agent whose work style meshes with yours, but if they charge fees, you run. Given that agents can only eat because they sell things, it would be pretty weird if they took on something they didn't think an editor would buy. And if you're the sort that needs an update every ten minutes, self-publishing is probably the best route for you anyway.

"Everything in publishing takes so long!" said the nice man behind the desk. Let's call him Jimmy, since all Scottish men are called Jimmy. And Jimmy is a nice man - he's well-meaning and I don't doubt for a moment he does everything he can to support people who sign up with him. To be clear, no fees are charged for any of this. He's not asking for £500 to stick your work on a Kindle or anything like that. Jimmy would get no cut of any royalties or any creative input whatsoever. He genuinely believes he's giving the best advice possible, and I'm sure for some it is.

Jimmy told me he'd worked with a poet and poets are pretty much forced to self-publish, so that's totally legitimate. The guy banging out a 250,000 word fantasy epic every three months would probably be better off self-publishing too, but for very different reasons.

I listened to the spiel about how publishers only notice you if your self-published work sells 300,000 copies. Very few self-published titles sell that many. Very few sell 30, once the family and friends are tapped out. When it happens it's news, especially if some supposedly snooty elitist editor turned it down. Did the writer follow the submission instructions properly? Did they send out a mass-mailing addressed to Dear Thingy, with accompanying illustrations and a great big dollop of glitter glue? Was their manuscript printed on My Little Pony paper in purple Comic Sans? Things we will never know.

I'm not suggesting agents or editors never turn down good work, but publishing is a business. If it's the best thing they've ever read but they know 120 people will buy it, they can't say yes. There isn't the slack in the budget for that. Publishing is a marginal business, and the huge successes like JK Rowling and Stephen King might make it look like a megabucks industry, but they're pretty much funding the more humble authors. Authors who'll sell respectably and earn out their advances and get a cheque every six months - maybe a nice cheque - but most writers know they might never be able to quit the day job.

Jimmy's read too many success stories to see the big Amazon graveyard of failures, where hundreds of good books gasp for air under the piles of semi-literate tripe.

Most readers don't have time to wade through the stuff written ALL IN CAPS or an inability to use their, there and they're correctly. Or being told when they leave a bad review that proper grammar and spelling isn't necessary if the story's good. Readers generally care about those things.

I've had a job offer so it's moot anyway, but I wouldn't take up the placement. It might be useful for writers who've exhausted all other avenues, or are writing for niche markets, but it's not what I want for my work. But I wish Jimmy and all those working with him success, however they choose to define it. Because after all, everyone's definition is different. I'd still advise to start at the top, though. Always.

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