Monthly Archives: October 2013

Five of my favourite supernatural stories

As it’s Hallowe’en and, as I’ve recently been reading loads of supernatural fiction from the late 19th and earliest 20th Centuries – you might find out why when I come to write my next book… –  I thought I’d share some of my favourite supernatural stories.  All the works are out of copyright so I’ve included links to them online.


I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but they will be there so nonetheless you might want to read the stories before reading my comments.


  1. “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” by Algernon Blackwood

Click here to read. 

My publishing editor Kerri recently introduced me to Algernon Blackwood and I’m a huge fan.  He wrote about the supernatural but is not a horror writer in the conventional sense.  “The Willows” is a brilliant piece of horror writing but generally he seemed far more interested in creating a sense of wonder and awe at the possibilities of the supernatural than outright frightening people.


Several of his stories are based around the idea of plants and nature having a secret life and mind of their own and “the Man Whom the Trees Loved” is one of the best of them.  What I find incredible about it is that it’s a story with virtually no action whatsoever – if you made it into a film then it would basically be an elderly man wandering around some woods a lot whilst his wife sits at home fretting about him – but it nonetheless builds up this compelling sense of psychological horror a whilst, at the same time, it’s also a brilliant portrayal of quiet sadness in the gradual unspoken and unfixable disintegration of a marriage.


2.  “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Click here to read.

Arthur Conan Doyle is another writer who was a master of the supernatural and the collection “Tales of Unease” brilliant.  Perhaps “Lot No. 249” – one of the earliest and the best stories examples of Mummy fiction –  is perhaps the scariest story of the collection but I love  “the Horror of the Heights” for two reasons.  Firstly the macabre glee that Conan Doyle takes in the gruesome violence – “And where, pray, is Myrtle’s Head?” – but also because the story functions as a time capsule of a story with its central horror – a Cryptozoological explanation of the deaths of early aeroplane pioneers – long since obsolete.  Nonetheless the ideas are incredible and it’s not only a masterful piece of fiction from perhaps my favourite short story writer of all time but also an incredible piece of imagination and insight into the ideas of the 19th Century.


3. “The Eyes” by Edith Wharton

Click here to read.

There tends to be a certain snobbery about supernatural stories and, perhaps like any kind of ‘genre’ fiction, a sense that it’s not as impressive as ‘proper’, serious literature.  This is, of course, absolute nonsense.  However Edith Wharton makes a brilliant case as someone who was best known as a ‘proper’ author but absolutely excelled at writing in the supernatural genre.  “The Lady Maid’s Bell” and “Afterward” are perhaps her best-known ghost stories but “The Eyes” is my favourite.  The story of an elderly socialite and ‘confirmed bachelor’ who is haunted by the vision of two mysterious and horrendously evil eyes haunting him at various junctures of his life, the ultimate reveal of the owner of the eyes is phenomenal and it’s a brilliant character study of how somebody can trick themselves into believing that doing the right thing and wanting to be seen as doing the right thing are one and the same thing.



4.  “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by M. R. James

Click here to read

M.R. James is perhaps the most consistent writer of ghost stories I’ve ever encountered so I’ve essentially picked one at random to serve as a favourite.  What I love abut him is that he writes in this brilliantly anecdotal style.  Most of his stories happen to a friend of a friend of a work colleague, he’ll divert from the telling to talk about his own thoughts and he’ll occasionally forget or not be aware of certain details of the story, which adds to this brilliant sense that it all might be real.  It also functions as a ruse to avoid superfluous narrative and flowery language as he’ll frequently break from his stories to apologise for the fact that, as he’s never been to the town in question, he can’t possibly begin to explain what it looks like.


What’s more he creates stories where, although a ghost is implicit in most of his stories, he deliberately shies away from providing definitive evidence and he’s got an incredible knack of ending his stories by basically saying ‘of course, I can’t say for sure what really happened so you’ll have to draw your own conclusion’, whilst of course being well aware he’s already made sure the reader knows exactly what to think about what’s happened.


Thrown in with this is a tendency to find the horror in simple everyday events – in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” the basic idea is lying alone in one of two twin beds in a bedroom and then realising something is happening in the bed next to you.  James created ghost stories terrifying in their very simplicity.


  1.  “The White People” by Arthur Machen

Click here to read.

Like Algernon Blackwood, Machen was recommended me to me by my Kerri and, whilst I find his work a bit more patchy than Algernon Blackwood, when it’s good it’s utterly brilliant.  “The White People” is possibly his most famous story and certainly, of what I’ve read of him so far, one of his best.  In complete contrast to MR James, it’s an absolute masterclass in descriptive writing and, after an opening five pages of thought-provoking philosophising over the nature of evil and introducing the central diary entry that tells the central story, it bursts into a dizzying, spellbinding narrative that is breathlessly intense in the form of a series of diary of entries as a teenage girl writes in an innocent, child-like fashion about her induction into the world of the occult.


It’s written as  a collection of fragments, thoughts and feelings rather than a fully-formed narrative (and indeed it tantalising breaks off at the crucial moment) but it’s an utterly spellbinding piece of writing.

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Diary of a First-Time Author #9 – The Anatomy of a Publishing Contract

Of course, the aim of all I’ve discussed so far, is to end up with a publishing contract.  And if and when you get one it’s a nice experience, albeit a very confusing one.  So what do contracts contain?


Before I start discussing the contract, I want to make something clear.  I am not an expert in understand publishing contracts.  If you aren’t either, then make sure you get someone who does able to advise and negotiate for you.  Hopefully this’ll be an agent but, if not, then it may be time to find a lawyer.  But, in any case, make sure you get good advice on what you’re signing up to.


Bear in mind too that, if you do have an agent, you might find that a lot of the contract negotiation process passes you by as the agent discusses terms with the publishers and you’re left out of the loop somewhat.  You’ll know early on what sort of advance you’re being offered but you might not hear much else until the contract’s agreed – potentially several weeks later.  You will need to take your own view and how much you want to chase things and find out what’s going on.  Personally I decided to trust that my agent knew what he was doing and let him get on with it and tell me when things were agreed but I’m sure several other people might want to be more hands-on – as might I in the future if I understand the process better!  But patience is useful here.


Every contract is going to be a little different but I’ll try to answer some of the basic questions from a writer’s perspective in Q and A form.


a)   What’s an advance?


An advance is an amount of money the publisher offers you to secure the book.  It’s called an advance as publishers treat it as part of your future royalties (i.e. the money you get paid for book sales).  So, if you get an advance of, say, £10, 000, the publisher won’t pay you any more money for sales until you’re owed more than £10l 000.


With a non-fiction book, the advance usually comes in three stages.  You get part of it on signing, a part of it when you submit the manuscript and part of it when the book gets published.


Bear in mind that, particularly in big publishing companies, the advance needs to be processed and signed off by a few different departments at each stage – so it can take a couple of weeks after each of these milestones for the money to land in your account – it’s best not to plan your finances on the basis that you’ll get the money the second the contract gets signed!


Also remember that your advance is treated as a form of income – i.e. you will need to register as self-employed and pay tax on it.  Forgetting that could land you with a big bill later!


b)   So will there be an advance?


I certainly hope so!  If there’s a bidding war then there’ll definitely be an advance and it could get rather high.  If not, there’ll be a slightly more modest amount of money.  For Bad Santas I received roughly the equivalent of a few months’ salary for the job I had at the time – and, as that job was not very secure, I did in fact quit and very much treat the advance like a salary that enabled me to go to work as a writer every day.


If you’re not being offered an advance, then it raises questions about the resources the publisher has available and how confident they feel about your book.  Whether you should proceed probably depends on whether you think you can get interest elsewhere and how desperate you are to be published.  If you’re going to write the book anyway then it won’t do any harm.  If you’re trying to write it to make a living you should maybe consider pitching other ideas.  Never ever pay money to be published.  If someone’s asking you to do that, they’re either running a scam or a pretty crummy business but, either way, it’s unlikely they’ll have the money or the will to promote your work.



  c)   How much do I get paid per book?


A % of the recommended retail price  This might be graded in stages – so 10% for the first x copies, 12.5% for the next x copies and so forth.


d)   What happens if I don’t finish the book, or the book doesn’t get published?


If you don’t complete the book then you’ll probably have to pay back the initial advance that the publisher paid you.  The second payment is subject to submitting the book along the lines of the proposal you made to the publisher.  As long as you submit something that follows the theme, argument and chapter structure then, once you’ve submitted that, your first part of the advance is safe and you get the second par of the advance too.  If the book doesn’t get published then you keep the first two parts of the advance but won’t get the third part.  Which is a good reason to ensure you make what you submit as good as possible!


e)   How long will the book need to be?


The publisher should discuss this with you and, if not, then the contract will state a number.  A non-fiction book’ll probably be 50, 000 to 100, 000 words depending on the subject.



I realise that this is very brief and there are many more questions but most of them will depend on the individual contract.  If you do have a general question, feel free to ask me and I’ll answer it as best I can but bear in mind I am no expert here!

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Diary of a First-Time Writer #8 – Meeting a Publisher

For me, the prospect of meeting with a publisher was the scariest moment of the entire process so far.  This was the point where, all of a sudden, it all became real and I wasn’t just writing things in my bedroom and kidding myself that one day somebody would actually read them but instead I was actually a proper author.  Or at least getting better at convincing other people that I was a proper author, which is maybe the same thing.   It was exciting but also quite frightening.


I think one of the reasons why it was frightening is because it’s easy to get yourself into a mindset where the belief that you’re going to fail almost becomes a source of comfort.  Yes, it’s frustrating being an unpublished author and you spend half your time telling yourself you deserve better but, at the same time, the fact that nobody ever actually sees your work means you can convince yourself that you’re secretly brilliant, yet tragically undiscovered.  Once people see your work – even if they say it’s quite good – you don’t have the safety net of imagining someone suddenly glancing at your work and hailing you an undiscovered genius.


The other reason I found it frightening was because I completely misunderstood what meeting a publisher actually involved.  In my head I was expecting something akin to the world’s most terrifying job interview where I’d be asked difficult questions to catch me out on my research, confronted over any possible holes in the book and ultimately laughed me out of the office.  Which would obviously be utterly terrifying.


Luckily meeting a publisher is not like that at all.  If you’ve got the point where a publisher wants to meet you, it’s safe to assume they actually like the idea and, in reality, they don’t want to catch you out at all.  They probably want to know how committed and enthusiastic you are about the project and they doubtless hope you can convince them you’re someone who can actually finish the project but their main aim is to convince you to work with them, rather than the other way round.  They’ll outline their vision for the look, feel and target audience of the book and try to establish whether there’s enough common ground in your respective visions for you to work together.  Incidentally this is another good reason to get your pitching document right – if you can successfully transmit the ‘feel’ of the book at that stage, it hopefully saves any awkwardness where you suddenly find you’re thinking along completely different lines!


Walking into a publishing house – or an agency for that matter –  is really, really exciting.  There’s a real thrill about wandering up to the reception desk and calmly stating you have a meeting with an editor.  The odds are you’ll have your agent with you and it’s absolutely brilliant to sit down with people who spend their lives working around books and spending an hour talking about your ideas without feeling like your being self-indulgent.   Moment like this are exactly what I dreamed of as a writer and, if happens to you – even if nothing ever goes further than that point – I think it’s worth just enjoying being there.


So how should you prepare for the meeting?


Other than looking over your proposal and ensuring it’s all fresh in your mind, it’s worth having a rough idea of how you want the book to look and feel and how you want publishers to pitch it.  Don’t be too precise but do make sure that – when the publisher starts talking about your thoughts – you know whether things sound right or wrong.   One of the things that absolutely sold Simon & Schuster to me was that, when I walked into the office for the meeting, Kerri (the non-fiction editor) had an Angela Carter book of fairytales on her desk as a reference point.  There and then, I decided I wanted to work with Simon & Schuster and the meeting had not even started!


I think, even without that, the meeting would have been really good.  TV, film and books tend to sell an image of publishing companies as business people in suits who put profit before art and try to blunt the edges from a writer’s work to make everything as bland as possible.  That certainly wasn’t my experience with Simon & Schuster.  Kerri, on the other hand, really enjoyed the darker and bloodier aspects of the book and her main goal was to ensure things didn’t become too saccharine or pleasant at any point!


But what do you do if the publisher’s vision is different to yours?  This is a difficult question – especially if they’re the only company showing serious interest.  My advice is to think about their suggestions very seriously.  Voice your opinions and see what they say but try to think seriously about whether their suggestions make sense.  Do voice your own opinions too and see what response you get but try and then weigh all the options up as objectively as possible.  It never serves anyone well to be too proud incorporate other people’s ideas or be so precious about your work that you disregard suggestions that would actually improve things.


At the same time, your name is going to be on the book and ultimately people are going to see the book that is eventually published as a representation of you as a writer.  And I’m sure there’s nothing more depressing than seeing your first book get utterly panned and your writing ability questioned when you’ve not even written the book you wanted to write in the first place.   So there are times when you might need to stick to your guns, even if you miss a chance to be published as a result. But be sure that there are genuinely good reasons, rather than simply your ego being a bit bruised by the fact that other people have ideas and suggestions about your work!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #7 – “And now we play the waiting game…”

“Aaah, the waiting game sucks.  Let’s play Hungry, Hungry Hippos” – Homer J Simpson

So let’s say you’ve submitted your proposal – or manuscript but I’m sticking with the idea we’re dealing with non-fiction for now – to an agent and the agent likes it.  They’ll probably ask to meet you and, if it all goes well, they’ll hopefully offer you a contract.


I won’t go into that contract too much – though I will talk a bit more about the publishing contract later – but the important thing is your agent will get paid via a commission on your earnings.  This generally around 15% + VAT  (i.e. 18.5%) of your earnings in the UK and 20% of your earnings abroad.  There are two good things about this


a) You don’t need to pay an agent anything unless you earn money, which means that, aside from the possibility of the agent not managing to sell your work which means there’s no risk of actual financial loss.  (If you do come across an agent or publisher who wants money up-front or to ‘split production costs’, alarm bells should be ringing very, very loudly.


b) Your agent needs to sell your work in order to make any money.  If nothing else, this should be a big boost to your confidence – an agent would not be spending time working with you unless they expect to make you both money as a result!  It also means that you can be confident your agent is motivated to get you a very good deal because it’s in their interest to do so!


Your agent will so ask you to indemnify them against any potential lawsuits for copyright infringement (which is to say that, if you plagiarise someone’s work, it’s you rather than the agent who will carry the cost for that).  This is a standard clause though it can be very scary to read!


I would also expect the agent to suggest some re-writes.  Of course, I appreciate that you are an artist and your book is your baby and that it’s a violation of your principles to start butchering your masterpiece in order to sate commercial needs.  However I would advise you to be open and consider every suggestion very carefully, whether its from an agent, publisher, proofreader or whoever.


If you do, I suspect you’ll find that – in the vast majority of cases – they have identified a genuine problem or weakness, even if the solution they suggest is not the one you would have gone with.  In these circumstances, I’d always suggest changing it to your option and then emailing back explaining your reasoning.  If you genuinely believe that their suggestion is outright wrong and nothing needs to be changed, I’d again draft an email explaining that but – before sending – I’d then read that email again (perhaps a few hours later or the following day) and make sure your reason is genuinely a really good one.  But the important thing is never ever kid yourself that you’re a genius whose work can’t possibly improved.  Personally I suspect that a lot of times, when a writer or film director gains critical acclaim through brilliant early work but then peters out into mediocrity or worse, then it’s often because they’ve stopped listening to the voices telling them how to make things better…


But anyway, let’s suppose you do your re-writes and the agent is happy and starts to send the proposal to publishers.  At this point, what should you expect?


Probably, in reality, a period of extended silence punctuated by the odd emailed update from the agent.  Perhaps you’ll get an email saying a publisher has shown an initial interest and wants to see the proposal.  Perhaps you’ll then get another email a few weeks later saying the publisher has decided not to take it any further.  Don’t get too downhearted by this – bear in mind that, at this point, there’s money involved and reasons for people not taking a book can be as much to do with what the publishers think they can successfully sell as much as questions of quality.


Nonetheless it can be disheartening and the wait can seem endless.  But hopefully, before too long, you’ll get the message that a publisher is interested and wants to meet you.  This is where things start to get interesting…

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New Awkward Silences songs (and an introduction to the band)

Hi all

The Diary of a First-Time Writer series will resume in the next couple of days.

In the meantime, there are some new songs up on the Awkward Silences’ Soundcloud.  The songs “Precautionary Principle”, “How We Lost the War” and “It Takes a Nation of Idiots To Hold Me Back” are all taken from our 3rd album “Outsider Pop”, which’ll be released at some point in 2014 on an as-yet unidentified record label.

I’ve also uploaded nine ‘classic’ Awkward Silences songs as a way of introduction to the band for anyone who hasn’t heard us before.   All those songs are available to buy from Jezus Factory Records.

Lastly we have a new website.  Interesting stuff will hopefully start appearing on there soon.

Our next gigs are:

10th November – The Lexington

22nd November – “Bad Santas” book launch at the Elixir Bar, Euston.

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Diary of a First-Time Author #6– Approaching an Agent or Publisher

OK.  So you’ve decided you do want to go the industry route.  Now what?  What do you need to approach an agent or publisher?  And how do you approach them?


Before I start, bear in mind this will be one of the longest posts in this blog so far – basically because I hope it’ll be useful and I want to go into a non-fiction proposal it in some detail.  So go and make a cup of tea (leave this screen open so you remember to read this) and then sit back down at your computer and read on…


The approach differs depending on whether your submitting fiction or non-fiction.   Some advice applies to both though.


When making an approach:


  1. Ensure you research who you’re approaching beforehand. Knowing who you are approaching will save you a lot of wasted time and potentially stop you looking very, very silly   Agents’ websites give lists of the agency’s list of clients and publishers’ websites showcase the books they have published in the past.  Sometimes there will even be profiles of individual staff members and their favourite authors and genres.  There is absolutely no excuse failing to check these out.  There is also no more certain route to failure than, say, pitching a deliriously bloody horror story to a publisher of children’s books.


  1. If you can get hold of the publisher or agent’s email address – and the harder it is to get hold of one, the more polite you should be when you approach them –I’d recommend sending short polite email directly to the agent or publisher briefly outlining your project and asking for permission to send them a proposal. Ultimately sending your work into people can be a lot of investment of time, money and effort for a great deal of rejection and failure.  Pitching your project beforehand helps you to establish a relationship with agents or publishers and helps ensure you only send your work in to people who might actually want to read it!


  1. If you do send something in without pitching, I’d write a short covering letter.  It gives you a chance to talk about how you see the project and explain your motives for writing it.  This makes it much easier for someone to give you feedback as they get a picture of what you’re aiming for and, if an agent is impressed by the pitch but not the proposal, could even mean they’re prepared to take you on and help you improve.


It also allows you to talk about how you see your book being pitched and marketed.  Both my publishing editor and my agent clearly utterly love books and are knowledgeable, passionate people but the reality is they are working in a business and it helps them to know that you’re a writer who acknowledges this.  And it’s really good for you to be able to have your say early on what you how you think the book should be perceived and who it’s aimed at.





With fiction, you want to include a quick pitch in your original email – this should be no more than a short paragraph (usually the shorter the better) to sell the idea.  Try to make it snappy and capture the essence of what’s unique and interesting about your pitch – basically why is this is a good idea and why are you the best person to write it?


If the person likes that, they’ll probably ask you to send a first chapter – although bear in mind that, in reality, they might only read the first ten pages or so before deciding to pass if they’re not already hooked so a strong start is essential – and possibly a synopsis of the whole plot.  The synopsis would be a few pages and would tell the story of your book, including all the key plot points that are crucial to understanding the story.


Bear in mind that, even though you’re not being asked to send a novel at this point, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will make a decision on whether to go ahead with your work until they’ve read the whole thing – ultimately there’s no other way of telling if you’ve managed to plot and pace it successfully.  For this reason there’s not really a great deal of sense in pitching it until you’ve completed the whole thing.




The big advantage of non-fiction is that you can pitch it and sell a proposal before you’ve written the book.  As with fiction, make the pitch in an email and, if they’re interested, send the following:


1)    A short pitch of the book


Basically this should be a bit like the blurb on the back of the book.  Explain what the book is, include a few juicy facts to capture the reader’s attention and try to use the tone you intend to capture in the book.


Above all, remember that you are selling the book – make it appealing.  To give you an idea, here’s what I submitted for Bad Santas:


How did St Nicholas save children from prostitution and cannibalism?  Who were the Yule Lads and why would they lick your saucepans and steal your sausages?  Why was the Alpine Father Christmas accompanied by a demonic figure called the Krampus who bundled children into sacks and dragged them off to Hell?  And why do Spanish nativity scenes often feature a defecating peasant?


Over the course of the 20th Century, a universal image developed around the world of Santa Claus as a seasonal Christmas visitor but, prior to that, each country, each town and each community would have Christmas visitors of their own – sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes something else entirely – with their own curious set of mythology and customs.


Some of these were strange; many of them were utterly, utterly terrifying.  Dutch children were as likely to take a beating from the sinister Zwarte Piet as to receive a present whilst the Finnish were visited by a Pagan goat named Joulupukki that was said to eat anyone who misbehaved.  In Iceland, even doing as you were told wasn’t always enough to avoid being eaten –  it was said that any child who did not received an item of new clothing for Christmas would be caught and consumed by a monstrous Christmas Cat.  Even in countries with a figure that resembled the modern Father Christmas, he was not so much a benign charitable figure as a summary judge, jury and executioner testing out children’s knowledge and fidelity to the Bible and dealing out rewards or punishments as he saw fit.  “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why” Haven Gillespie wrote in his famous song about Santa Claus and, for much of history, this advice was something which children would cling to preserve their lives.


This book celebrates some of the most imaginative, most terrifying and most outright curious Christmas figures from around the world.  Some of the characters were vicious, such as the Perchta who’d slit your belly open and replace your innards with straw and pebbles if you hadn’t prepared the Christmas decorations.  Others were more mischievous, such as the Karakancolos who’d jump on your back at night and force you to carry him wherever he wanted to go until the break of dawn.  Others still, such as the Spanish Christmas log that children beat with a stick whilst chanting for it to ‘shit them a gift’, are simply outright bizarre.


Bad Santas and other Creepy Christmas Characters is intended to be engaging and blackly comic with a touch of the macabre and aimed at both those interested in folk mythology, the general reader who wants to learn more about the origins of Christmas and people who are looking for an unusual and engaging Christmas gift.


2 A summary of comparative literature


This should be about a page long.  Explain which other books that exist around your subject and a justify why you should write another one – has not enough been written about the subject?  Do you have a unique take on it?  Do you have access to information other writers did not?  Is there a flaw in the existing books you think you can rectify?  Do you think there’s an audience interested in the subject that wouldn’t be reached by other books?


My argument with Bad Santas was that most books about Santa Claus were either aimed for children or academic audiences and there was no book which covered the history of Santa Claus that was aimed at the general reader.


3 About the Author


This is a few paragraphs long and it’s basically who you are, what you’ve done before and why you should write this book.  Again, remember to sell yourself!


4 A provisional list of chapters


Exactly what it says.  This should just be a list of chapter names – try to use names that sound intriguing but give an idea of what will be in the book.


5 Chapter Overview


Go through the chapters one-by-one and write about 300 – 500 words about what will be in each chapter.  It’s okay if you still need to do a bit more research on the book at this point but make sure you’ve done enough to sound like you know your stuff.


6 One or two sample chapters


Choose the most interesting and show off your writing style.  Aim for a total of between 6000 and 10000 words.



Be engaging, be interesting and include enough details to show that you really know what you’re talking about.  Make sure you get someone to check through it for spelling mistakes, boring bits and any flaws or holes in your writing.


Keep in mind throughout you’re trying to demonstrate that you’ve got a strong idea that you can sustain throughout a 50, 000 – 100, 000 word book and that you’ve got the knowledge and enthusiasm to see it through.  It’s worth putting your research in but the good news is that the research and information you put into your chapter overview is going to be a really useful blueprint when you come to write the book!


Once you’re sure it’s all ready and as good as it can possibly be then fire it off to the agent or publisher and then hope and dream about an offer coming in!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #5 – But what about self-publishing?

I’m aware that my last piece rests on the assumption that you are looking for a publisher to publish your work. Some would argue that, in the age of self-publishing, this is no longer necessary.  Can you not just publish yourself and skip this entire hassle of jumping through hoops to get an agent or publisher to like your work?

Possibly.  It’s not an avenue I explored personally (for reasons that’ll become clear as you read this), and I won’t pretend to be a self-publishing guru, but I do think there are certain things to bear in mind before considering the self-publishing route.

Self-publishing is, in theory, a great thing.  It opens up chances for writers who choose to work outside the publishing industry, allows  writers more control over their work and, especially if you’re a hobbyist writer who just wants to make something available for people to read without the stress and the hassle of finding a publisher, there’s certainly some merit in that.  And anything that makes it easier for a new writer to get their work to an audience has to be welcomed.

If you’re self-publishing in the hope of ultimately making a living as a writer, I feel there are a few things to bear in mind.

Firstly, self-publishing tends to work best for people who work within specific genres – wonderful though the internet is for getting your work out there, it still needs people to search for it and find it and they’ll mostly do that by searching by genre or by “people who liked this also like this” recommendations.  So, if you write a strong crime novel or romance and enough people like it, then there’s a good chance other people searching for crime novels or romances will find it too.  However if you’re writing something that doesn’t fit in with what anyone else is writing, you’ll find it much harder to garner attention.  (The flip side of this, of course, is that you can also succeed by writing a book that is so niche that people looking for a book on a subject will only find yours!)  One of the things that large publishing houses can do – and often will do – is take a book that might have otherwise struggled to find an audience due to its subject matter and turn it into a hit once people realise how good it is.  I find it hard to imagine The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Life of Pi or The Kite Runner, for example, would have garnered a huge amount of attention had they been self-published.

What’s more, it’s important to realise that self-publishing doesn’t remove the business and publicity aspect from you’re doing but rather makes you responsible for selling and marketing your work.  To self-publish and succeed, you need to not only be a strong writer but also be your own agent, publisher, salesperson and marketing team and I would confidently guess that the people who’ve done well out of self-publishing have done so based on business acumen and self-publicity just as much as their writing skills.  (That’s not a dig by the way – business acumen is a fantastic thing for a writer to have and I really wish I had some myself!)

More importantly, you need to be your own editor too – or find someone else who can do it for you.  You might be able to put out a book without needing clearance and approval from editors, proofreaders and fact-checkers but that does not mean facts don’t need to be checked, errors don’t need to be corrected or large sections of your book won’t need rewriting and rewriting and rewriting to make them as good as they can possibly be.  (Just ignore the fact that, when it comes to my own work, I’m the world’s worst proof-reader and am doubtless showing up my own hypocrisy in this blog!)

Related to this, if self-publishing is to gain as strong a reputation as ‘industry’ publishing then it has to do so because it’s populated by people writing high-quality work that doesn’t quite fit in with the expectations of the conventional book world.  This could be by aiming for niches that the mainstream book industry is too large to creep into or by being populated by writers who are confident, self-sufficient and feel they want to be free to work without commercial considerations, rather than people who really want to be published conventionally but are self-publishing because their work has been continually rejected by the mainstream publishing industry.

Tough though it is too take manuscripts are generally rejected for a reason and, much as people cite famous misjudgements like Decca Records turning down the Beatles or the Life of Pi being rejected by 5 major publishers, these tend to be famous precisely because they are exceptions rather than the norm.   And even then the Beatles ultimately did get a record label Yann Martel found a publisher so the lesson there is more that it can take a lot of work and a lot of knockbacks to find the agent or publisher who sees the value in your work rather than that someone who’s been rejected by the entire industry is likely to prove everyone wrong.   If you do find your work is being rejected then it’s far better to look at the reasons why – whether it’s that you haven’t approached the right people yet or whether it’s because you’re work needs to be improved – rather than simply assuming everyone is wrong and carrying on anyway.

There are potentially good motives for choosing to self-publish – and these motives will only get stronger as self-publishing develops over time – but I think this has to be a choice you make, rather than one you’re forced into due to a lack of options and I honestly believe that anyone who writes well enough and gets their approach right can ultimately get that choice for themselves.  Self-publishing can be a way to market yourself to publishers but only if you make sure your work is strong enough to act as a selling point.

Ultimately putting out something that is not good enough will only serve to damage your reputation as a writer.  Like independent music, self-publishing can only be at its best when it’s populated by people who really believe in the value of independent working outside of industry conventions, rather than simply becoming a home for rejected manuscripts by authors who crave mainstream success but are either too cocksure or too unwilling to objectively assess their work and make improvements.   Whatever form you choose for publishing your work, there is never an excuse for not doing everything you can to make something as brilliant as it can possibly be!

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