During my Creative Writing MA at the University of Nottingham this last year, advice and feedback from peers, tutors and established writers has, without a doubt, made me a better writer. However, the seminars led by literary agents and publishers (of all sizes) have paradoxically made me less confident I will ever get a novel traditionally published.
Despite how fascinating and incredibly helpful these talks were, they highlighted how small a percentage of submitted work ultimately gets accepted by publishing houses. Though some luck is involved in getting traditionally published (such as stumbling upon the zeitgeist, for example, or the personal preferences of the people reading your work) it would, of course, be a mistake to think of it as a lottery. The odds of getting published will differ for every writer depending on their specific abilities and ideas, however, the competition is tough and this is complicated further by the fact that a publisher can actually genuinely like your work and still decide not to publish it on the basis that they do not think it will sell. The process with traditional publishing is certainly not perfect, then: it seems to be as (if not more) driven by what will sell rather than what is good. You would hope these align but it is not always the case.
This has inevitably led me to ask myself: is self-publishing the answer? Avoiding the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry is an intriguing prospect, especially in light of the fact that self-publishing has risen so dramatically in the last 10-15 years and has now become more acceptable; stigmatised less as the ‘vanity publishing’ it was once called. The technology of eBooks has pushed this rapid increase, with some figures approximating that a third of all eBook sales in many English-speaking countries are now from independent authors. There are also many places offering print self-publishing alongside eBooks, such as the big hitter Amazon, along with less problematic companies like Blurb, MindStir, Lulu and Smashwords. On a general scale, it has helped to democratise the market and produce a wider array of literary voices. This could be particularly relevant for marginalised people who have traditionally found it difficult to be heard among the white cis-heterosexual voices dominating the landscape. However, at the risk of sounding snobbish, the biggest success story of this revolution, E. L. James’ Fifty Shades series, only highlights the loss of quality that can come with it.
The main argument for self-publishing, as I see it, is that it is simply easier. You don’t need anyone else’s opinion or help on your masterpiece; neither on the novel itself, nor the layout or cover design. From my own experience of the relentless submit-rejection cycle of short fiction and poetry to literary magazines, the prospect of avoiding that arduous and mentally exhausting process is tempting. But where will it get you? Despite you having most likely written something of better quality than Fifty Shades of Grey, that kind of success is incredibly rare. The average self-published book apparently sells 186 copies. This does not seem advantageous for anyone, marginalised or not. It therefore still seems like vanity to me, despite the rebranding.
Saying that, my writer friend self-published his first collection of three short stories while continuing to pursue conventional publication for his full-length novel. His logic was that his self-published work acts almost like a pilot for a TV series in that he will be able to showcase his work when seeking out representation for his work in progress. I am trying a different route, submitting short stories to literary magazines, presenting my TV pilot that way. Both seem valid enough, though, and time will tell which will pay off. Hopefully both.
Perhaps there is a compromise option, in which established publishers have a self-publishing branch in their companies, and the books self-published by that publishing arm would not be sent to bookshops or promoted with the same attention as the conventionally published works. They would only be available as print to order, but there would be some quality control in regards to grammar, typos, etc. The democratisation will remain in the fact that they will publish anything as long as basic standards are met and it is not Mein Kampf 2. However, in the current state of affairs, unless you are just writing for the pure joy of it, or have the money and resources to hire editors and people to market your self-published book, these gatekeepers at publishing houses are important— they are experienced filters to funnel your writing through and will help to make your book the best it can be and sell it as well as it can be sold. It therefore seems to be the only viable option for me personally.
Now all I have to do is write something that they will like and their paying customers will pay for. Yikes.
About the Contributor
Harry Wilding is a broadband communist who used to make short films. He has started writing prose and poetry again instead due to the smaller budgets involved. He is studying for a Creative Writing MA in Nottingham and is gradually beginning to get some work published. Find him at: