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A report of the Frankfurt Book Fair in The Hot Sheet caught my eye this week, and I have to admit it’s got me a trifle narked. See what you think.
‘The acceptance and progress of self-publishing (or, rather, the sluggish acceptance and progress) in most countries (the US, the UK, and Germany are the exceptions) was probably best represented by Guillaume Dervieux, vice president and CEO of France’s Albin Michel publishing house. He said that self-publishing is all but anathema to “what we are doing” in the trade. In self-publishing, he said, every manuscript “is accepted and each title is invested with the minimum amount of means. We do exactly the contrary. We reject a lot of manuscripts, and we concentrate all our means and effort only on the ones we choose with passion.” ‘
Oof. (Before we go any further, let me state that I find The Hot Sheet to be a useful, worthwhile round-up of news for authors. I’ve found several important opportunities because of it. They are reporting attitudes they have observed, not their own attitude to self-publishing. That’s why I included the paragraph in full.)
Back to Mr Dervieux. Here’s the point that worried me. In self-publishing, every manuscript “is accepted and each title is invested with the minimum amount of means”.
Here are some sows, with ears.
There are many authors (indie and otherwise) who’ve sought my editorial input on a book and been sent back to the drawing board – kindly, with constructive directions. That’s what they hire me for. Some of them come back with a greatly improved script.
Anyone who’s hung around this blog will know that I frequently post about the long process of getting a manuscript right. The time taken to edit for nuance. You’ve also heard me plead for writers not to rush because we can set our own deadlines, and that is our great artistic advantage, if we want it. A book will be out for ever, and although we can nip into the back channels and edit the snarlies, we can’t edit a reader’s memory of a bad experience.
But here’s something I’ve never talked about – the care that then goes into the editorial and production process – which I think is one of Mr Dervieux’s contentions.
So, by way of example, let me take you through the editorial process for my latest book, Not Quite Lost.
For reference, Not Quite Lost is about 38,000 words.
- Rewriting/developmental editing December 2016 to April 2017
- First beta reader April 2017
- More drafting, second beta reading, start of June 2017
- More drafting, third reading, end of June 2017
- Final drafting
- Copy editing, proofing and formatting to August 2017
In parallel with this, the cover was being developed. Work on that began in January 2017. Three full designs were considered and discussed with close advisers. The final design emerged in July 2017.
And no publishing job has been done properly unless there is marketing and publicity. Preliminary work on that began in May, with 3 weeks of campaigning in August, and work is still ongoing as leads arise.
To recap, the production calendar looked like this:
- Conceptual and developmental editing from first draft to final manuscript 7 months
- Proofing & formatting 2 months
- Cover development 7 months
- Marketing/publicity 4 weeks concentrated work, then as needed
Of course, these months weren’t exclusively spent on the one task. I was doing other work in between, just as a traditional publisher would. And the breaks allowed time for new ideas to present, minds to be refreshed and new possibilities to be considered.
This is not the schedule of a book that was ‘invested with the minimum amount’, either financially or in terms of time. Indeed, I’ll wager my book had more care than it would get in a traditional publishing house. How do I know this? Because I’ve worked for them as well. Here’s a post that discusses some of the quality compromises I’ve seen in traditional publishers.
I’m heartened that Mr Dervieux chooses his projects carefully and invests each one with utmost effort. I would hope for nothing less. I hope it’s clear that I, a self-publisher, take just as much care.
Here are those pigs again.
What of Mr Dervieux’s first point, that plenty of self-publishers put sows’ ears in the sewing machine? Bien. Before I decided Not Quite Lost was fit to publish, I tried to find people to talk me out of it. Like a publisher with their editorial board. The story of that is here. And were they right to let me go ahead? The reviews can do the talking.
I realise this post has become a little ratty.
Apols, people, but Mr Dervieux’s generalisation is wildly unfair. It’s as bad as dismissing all of traditional publishing as ghostwritten celeb books or Dan Brown trudge with copycat covers and slapdash editing. Yes, of course, everyone’s mileage varies, and anyone and everyone can self-publish. Yes, self-publishing is done by amateurs. It’s also done by responsible, professional authors who nurture a book properly and take care in its production to create a book that’s worth a reader’s time.
Some of us would say that’s what it’s all about.
Thanks for the ratty, Mrs Airwolfhound on Flickr
Oh my heavens, it’s publication day. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is no longer a tease in a tweet or a blogpost. It’s a real thing. A paperback book. A hunk of Kindle estate, or Kobo, or whatever other ebook format floats your boat. (Though there are no boats in the travels … plenty of buses, however.)
And my writer/designer friend Henry Hyde has invited me to his blog to chat about it. We cover technical stuff like developing a writing style, influences like Bill Bryson and Gavin Maxwell, and some of the main thematic stops such as the romance of old houses, impostor syndrome and 1970s Doctor Who. Do hop aboard. Oh, and you can find the book here.
Bill Bryson, Lewis Carroll logic and cryonics – interview about Not Quite Lost at Andrea Darby’s blog
I’m thrilled to be at Andrea Darby’s blog today, talking about Not Quite Lost. You might recognise her name because she was a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel The Husband Who Refused to Die. Andrea and I discovered we had a certain chilly, chilling interest in common – cryonics, the daring science of preserving the dead in the hope that they can be revived when science is more advanced. Andrea spent a day with a cryonics group and wove it into the plot of her novel. I interviewed the same group several years before and wrote it in my diary, and eventually it became one of the encounters in my travel doodlings.
We also discuss how the book came about (with a sideways nod to Mr Carroll), the literary figures who showed me the way (sideways nod to Mr Bryson and others). And why writing – of diaries, novels or anything else – becomes a way of life even when publishing can be troublesome. Do hop over.
It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.
The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought. There’s something in that story.
When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.
So what do you do?
I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.
This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.
And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.
My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.
Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.
Didn’t I say in January that I had a book I would write quickly? A book based on my travel diaries. A book that should have required a quick spit and polish, then out of the nest it would go.
But no, the months have passed, and if you followed my newsletter you’ll have seen the progress through rough edits, reconcepting, purge of darlings, second purge of darlings, beta reader 1, beta reader 2, reader 3, reader 4, final polish, snapshots of typesetting on Facebook and final sigh of relief.
January to July: seven months to take a book from personal notes to publicly presentable. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but still quite fast by my usual standards.
I haven’t been doing it full time, of course. My usual freelance editing gigs have snowballed, and sometimes I’ve been fighting to protect a few hours for my book. Equally, it’s benefited from being consigned to the basement, cogitating. If I’d had an uninterrupted run, it wouldn’t be the book it is.
‘Finding a destination’ is generally the biggest challenge of the bookwriting process for me. It’s what takes literary writers so long (which I posted about here).
It also doesn’t seem confined to writing, by any means. I recently stumbled across these lines in an obituary published in The Economist of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:
By her own account, she was “slow” …. she teased out solutions by doodling for hours on vast sheets of paper … the point, she said, was not to write down all the details, but to stay connected to the problem. She likened mathematical enquiry to being lost in a forest, gathering knowledge, to come up with some new tricks, until you suddenly reach a hilltop and see everything clearly.’
I’m a card-carrying slowcoach, and I see this same struggle in the Facebook feeds of writer friends. It’s the hell of book writing, and also, eventually the heaven. You did it. You persevered, you made a substantial something out of fat nothing; just a notion that took your fancy or kept you fretting. The fact that it took so long is, in the end, part of the triumph. You persevered with a possibility that no one else saw, shaped it in a way that no one else would. Finally, a stranger can take your trip and say ‘I never went there before’.
So far, so personally rewarding. But we stumble over the finish line and into an immovable fact. This cherished, nurtured, shiny new book is a speck in a sea of plankton. There are not enough eyes to read all the books that are published. It’s the best of times to be a writer and the worst of times to try to make a living at it, or run a publishing company. The Guardian recently published this piece with a bleak view, which we can boil down to this: barring a miracle, hardly anybody will buy it.
So does the world need my new book?
We have so many already. Good books; great books. The human condition doesn’t change.
Certainly it doesn’t, and Chaucer still resonates now. I’ll read a book from the 1950s as readily as the 2000teens. Dave keeps urging me to read New Grub Street by George Gissing, which was published in 1891 and nails the creative industries exactly as they are today. But sometimes we want the company of contemporary minds. People might not change, but the world will always do things that are, for better or worse, unpresidented.
Even if your work is not tackling current issues, it still comes through contemporary sensibilities. Although authors primarily write for their own reasons – personal fulfilment, making a living – the world does still need them.
The duty we have now is to publish only what deserves to be. To use a reader’s time wisely and responsibly.
Still, why write?
But selling books can be so soul-shrivelling, particularly today. So why do we still write more? We do it because the long process of conversation with an idea, like Maryam the mathematician, is intrinsic to those who are creative. Even though it’s often agony to face a blank page. The writer in the Guardian goes back into her cycle, the way we all do – not knowing if she has the goods to do it again.
The selfish gene?
Is that primarily a selfish process? It must seem so. But at the least, it must make us wiser people. To understand our own themes forces us to see them from more sides than just our own. We might delve a long way in research to write a situation truthfully. To create a character who isn’t a stereotype, we might have to admire their flaws or be critical of their virtues. Our invented people teach us tolerance and generosity.
Even my travel tales – which were not invented – had to be revisited with a more critical eye.
And so, for better or for worse, I have a new book. Because that is what I do.
Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction will be available on preorder soon -watch this space.
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