Self-publish and be Damned

By Roger Morris
Artwork by Bradley Wind

Publishing is a business. Writing is an art. That’s what I’ve always told myself. And it’s how I explained to myself why all those decades went by without my managing to interest a single publisher in any of the several books I’d written. Yes, decades, you read that right. Apparently I came close a number of times. And I also came close to putting the damn things out myself – self-publishing as it’s now called. Vanity publishing used to be the term.

What stopped me, always, was the need for validation. I had partial validation because I had been taken on by a well-known and respected literary agent. He liked my writing. He was confident, with every new novel I sent him, that this was the one. But it never was – or not for a long time.

When things did come right for me, they came right all at once. I had one novel, Taking Comfort, accepted by Macmillan New Writing. Then, soon after, a novel that was in submission through my agent, was taken on by Faber. (A Gentle Axe.)

I remember the meeting with my soon-to-be editor. I hadn’t yet signed on the line and this was part of the strange courtship ritual by which I was to be enticed into their house. (Hey, they were Faber and Faber. Was I ever going to put up a fight?) He reassured me that Faber were committed to me long term as a writer. It wasn’t just this one book they were interested in (which actually they wanted me to develop into a series, but that’s another story). They wanted me, not my central character (Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment).

All this was sweet music to my ears. Even sweeter - though somewhat more surprising – was when he said they might even consider publishing my collection of short stories. It was surprising because I didn’t know he knew about it. Maybe he was psychic. Maybe he knew that every writer has a collection of short stories, which is kept in the most precious part of their secret hearts. Or my agent told him about it. Must have been that, I suppose.

I think he was sincere. But it’s a little like when someone tells you they love you. The best you can hope for is that they mean it at the moment they say it. You can’t hold them to it forever, in other words.

Things change. Worldwide recessions come along. Digital technology sets the traditional publishing industry in turmoil. Book sales drop. A series that everyone has high hopes for doesn’t quite take off with a trajectory to match those hopes. That’s not to say the series bombed. My sales have been perfectly respectable, or so I was told. Just that in the most precious part of their secret hearts, publishers long for something more than respectable sales – especially from their crime writers.

Despite a short-listing for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger (at the time the biggest prize in crime writing) and another for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, bedding in the series was a bumpier process than everyone envisaged. It was felt that I would be better off switching to contemporary crime. Besides, I’d written all the Porfiry Petrovich novels I wanted to write – for the time being at least – so it seemed like a good idea to me too.

I certainly didn’t have the courage to bring up that short story collection.

As it turned out, I found that I was actually less keen on writing a contemporary crime novel – or series – than I thought I was. I gave it a shot. I gave it my best shot. But apparently my style was better suited to historical crime than contemporary crime. I write the way I write, was my view. So I ditched the contemporary crime novel and started work on a new historical crime series for a different publisher.

And then I remembered that collection of short stories (had I ever really forgotten about it?). I knew that my new publisher wouldn’t be interested in it. I suspected that no publisher would be. So I thought, well, why not, what have I got to lose? I’ll publish it myself through amazon. Everyone’s doing it these days.

In some ways I took the step to self-publishing lightly. It’s relatively easy to do, thanks to amazon’s publishing wizard. In other ways, it was a hugely difficult step for me to take. That need for validation again. It never goes away.

The fact that my agent had been enthusiastic about some of my stories helped (he was less keen on others, which I have replaced). He’d been enthusiastic enough to bring them up in conversation with an editor at Faber and Faber. But it was clear that I wasn’t going to get any external validation with this one. It had to come from within. I had to be sure that I believed in the work I was putting out there. I had to trust my own judgement. About everything. The content. The cover. Even the price.

That makes it a lonely business, self-publishing.

There was also the consideration that these short stories at first sight appear to be very different from my crime novels. Any marketing person would tell me that I was in danger of damaging my “brand” as a crime writer. That gave me pause for a second or two. Then I thought, what the hell. I wrote them. I’m the same writer. Perhaps the stories and the crime novels have more in common than their superficial differences would lead you to believe.

I have always thought that crime fiction, as a genre, is a sub-branch of surrealism. (All those murders in one Somerset village?) I was just exploring a different sub-branch in these stories.

So to return to my opening thought. Publishing is a business. Writing is an art. What does that make self-publishing? Utter folly, of course.

The Bridge that Buñuel Built, short stories by Roger Morris, is available now as a kindle ebook, through amazon.


LLM said...

I don’t follow the logic here. Yes, publishing is a business and writing an art—and this is precisely why so many very good writers are turning to self-publishing. Businesspeople are primarily concerned with finding books that can sell. If a book is well written but may not have wide appeal or doesn’t fit an easily marketable niche, a lot of publishers will pass on it. This leaves a lot of writers pulling their hair out in frustration when they see yet another poorly crafted mega-best-seller while their own work languishes.

What’s more—and this is key—a lot of writers will tell you that just getting an agent and then a publisher does not mean that those people will simply take care of all the business stuff while you can get right to work on your “art.” Any so-called “mid-list” author will tell you of highly reputable agents and publishers who did very little to sell and market the book; the author ended up doing his/her own promo work, scheduling readings, sending copies to reviewers, etc.

It used to be that writers had very little recourse. That isn’t true any more. It is easier than ever for an author to promote a book, and you’d be a fool not to do so, whether you are published by a big-deal press or by yourself. And now many writers are taking the next step: If I’m already doing all the marketing myself, why not publish it myself rather than sitting around waiting for a contract that never comes?

I’m frankly flummoxed at the defensiveness of writers these days when it comes to self-publishing. A lot of them seem almost threatened by its rise, and I suspect it comes from a fear that one day no one will be able to tell the difference between a self-published book and one that came from a “legitimate” press—in which case, how will anyone know that we who have published books “traditionally” have that added merit? Obviously the knock against self-publishing has always been that there is no mediator to determine whether the work is any good. But here’s the thing: if publishers care first about sales, they aren’t mediating quality either. I’m not some bitter unpublished writer suggesting that all books published by big presses are lousy—far from it. Quality and sales often go hand in hand. But come on—does anyone really think the best, most exciting, innovative, and just plain interesting writing is being put out by the big presses? If you do, you don’t read nearly enough.

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

There's a lot to be said about looking for an independent publisher who will publish the sort of works larger publishers ignore.

Jaymie Shook said...

I very much agree with LLM. The music industry has an independent arm. The film industry does too. Why not books?

Kindle Self Publishing said...

For me, the art of getting published these days is a rare commodity indeed. Many times, authors that are in the market of trying to get published will write umpteen query letters, send off countless chapters for initial review to agents and then receive the "Thanks, but no thanks, Don't call us, we'll call you" letter. Dejected and frustrated, the author pulls themselves up by the bootstraps and hones their manuscript once more, writing an even more intriguing query letter to the next agent or publisher only to get continually rejected. That makes self publishing good.