You can’t beat the publisher system

There are two ways to understand this.  If you saw the title of this blog as a challenge then it’s very likely that you have just self-published (or, are considering self-publishing) your novel.  If you saw the title of this blog-post as the encapsulation of a self-evident truth then you’re probably one – or more – of the following: (a) a publisher, (b) a literary agent, (c) an author who has jumped through the hoops, or (d) a bookseller who has had to again explain why this is so (and no, it wasn’t me on the occasion that inspired this post).

In the UK, a typical paperback costs around £8 or, in current terms, an hour of your employed labour before taxes.  If you worked in a typical job and spent all your money on books, you could buy – on average – 7-and-a-bit paperbacks per day but you don’t do that because there’s things called ‘mortgage’, ‘utility bills’, ‘credit card repayments’, ‘bank overdraft’, ‘insurance’, ‘pension’, children and so on.  The £8 cover price is a sum of money that each bookseller has to work hard to extract from the already tight household budgets of book-lovers.  Every time a book is bought, there is the inherent promise that the reader will be entertained for a few hours from a restricted budget that might otherwise have been spent in the cinema, buying DVDs, paying for swimming lessons, saving for a holiday… well, you get the idea.  Those bestsellers you hear about were not created by a certain online website because as everyone knows, the very best marketing is word-of-mouth and bookshops are where, despite the loud volume of social media, that conversation about new books begins.

So, if you are a self-published author and wondering why the bookshop won’t stock your book, ask yourself these very important questions:

1. Did you pay to have your book professionally edited?

2. Was your manuscript typeset by a professional who understands how the font and spacing of words can influence the enjoyment of your book?

3. Was the book jacket designed by a professional with an understanding of your target market?

4. Have you provided free copies to booksellers, journalists, fellow writers and bloggers in the hope that someone, somewhere might write a short review that will be widely read?

5. Have you ensured that you have a large print-run stocked in a warehouse from which replenishment stock can be re-ordered digitally on the off-chance – the most slender chance – that a sale will be made?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the questions above then you must know that the process of taking a book from manuscript to publication is a very expensive process, in other words… you didn’t do any of this.  You simply lost patience with agents and tiring of these elitist gatekeepers, you took matters into your own hands and now you’re left with a whole pile of books in a non-standard font, very likely printed in Times New Roman on very bright-white paper, with a very shiny jacket designed by you to your very exacting standards and this, this shop boy, is telling you ‘no, thanks’.

Booksellers are also gatekeepers of a sort.  Usually paid minimum wage or thereabouts and expected to work overtime for book launches and signings in lieu of time off next month (maybe), we also don’t get paid a commission for recommending the books we put in our customer’s hands.  In a straw poll of current and former colleagues, we reckon that with the exception of free proof copies from publishers, we see maybe one book a week each that we like enough to buy for ourselves.  There are around 190,000 new books published each year in the UK or, less than one in a thousand.  Booksellers don’t work in bookshops for the wages: we know that we’d get better pay employed by Starbucks (at least £1.10 per hour actually).  We’re in the bookshops because we love books and that’s the same reason that literary agents who receive upwards of 50 unsolicited submissions a week do what they do: the hope of finding that one perfect novel.

If literary agents said ‘no’, take it on the chin.  If you’ve been rejected a dozen times, it’s probably time to reconsider your novel and start working on something else (though if you’re serious about writing, you’ll be doing that anyway).  If you’ve been rejected a couple of dozen times, maybe throw that book away and start on something else because it’s possible you’re writing in the wrong genre or the wrong historical period.  Maybe, you should try writing non-fiction (but definitely not autobiography because if you really were that interesting, the publishers would have approached you) or tackle a screenplay.  Why not?  We learn by doing and trying something unrelated can open your eyes to different ways of seeing the world.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on scams and don’t – as happened last week to a former colleague in their own bookshop – shout at the guy behind the till because chances are, they are also an unpublished writer, albeit one who knows Rule Number One of Being a Writer: Don’t be a dick to the people who you need to sell your book.

Rule Number Two of Being a Writer: Always remember that everyone knows everyone else or at least someone who does.  Publishers and booksellers might take the mickey out of each other but the book business is like a family business and we don’t like folk who kick our siblings.

More helpfully, here’s a couple of very useful and informative links that very concisely give advice to new and emerging writing talent:

Chuck Wendig describes ’25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents’.  Read it.

Though some of the advice has an Australian slant (and therefore contains information particular to non-UK and non-US authors), Ian Irvine gives new authors some helpful tips about things to look out for and things that must be done in ‘The Truth About Publishing’.  He also writes very good fantasy fiction.