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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Penguin and Self-Publishing

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve had tons of other work to do. Not that I’m moaning about it (she moans) but part of that work has been teaching creative writing, so I feel somewhat qualified to hold forth. Some people think creative writing can’t be taught at all, but I don’t agree. I think the craft of writing can be learned – viewpoint, voice, characterisation, the narrative arc all can be learned and improved upon. But learning technique won’t make an essentially mediocre writer into a good one. A good creative writing course will give you the tools to improve your writing but if you want to write professionally I think you need a basic zing about your writing – a feel for words, a sense for words. And the ability to work very hard. And accept constructive criticism.

But I’ve noticed that quite a few students seem to be far keener to get their work out there than they are to get their work to the highest standard. I followed a discussion once on the topic: why do you write? My favourite reply was a po-faced, ‘Because I have truths to tell’.

So when I read that Penguin have started a self-publishing service, I don’t think it will democratise publishing as so many yet unpublished writers argue, convinced that publishing is some sort of Masonic club. Instead it will persuade many writers to spend less time on making sure their work is of a high enough standard so that a traditional i.e. paying publisher will take a punt on it, and instead fork out to see their work in print. Not published – printed because the whole point of a book being published (traditional publisher) instead of printed (self-publishing) is the editorial input. Self-published writers often say that publishing their own work puts them in control as though having a copy editor fine comb your work to make it as good as it can be, and then marketed to sell as many copies as possible is some sort of artistic insult to the writer.

So in the spirit of putting off work research I browsed Authonomy, an online writers forum, where writers network and post their books, in the hope that enough people will read and review it, for the book to end up on the coveted Harper Collins editing list. Then the book is apparently read and given professional feedback although there’s been controversy over how useful this feedback is. The ultimate goal of course is for HC to offer the author a contract. The trouble with this is that it’s the self-publicists whose books rise to the top five that are then apparently sent to the HP editorial desk. And the only way of doing this is by being a consummate networker. Nothing wrong with that but not all writers are good at self-publicity – some are, but others are too busy staring out the window writing.

The other serious problem is that if the possibility of your book being read by a HC editor is down to support from your peers, very little feedback is actually honest and constructive so it’s worse than useless. I noticed page after page of glowing reviews for a book of poetry that the author wrote to ‘teach morals’. Unsurprisingly the poems were well intentioned but amateurish. So the writer then understandably thinks he has written a very good book and will be doubly confused and disappointed to meet as he inevitably will, with rejection.

If you go to the excellent Self-Publishing Review, you see book after book where Jane Smith stops reading after a few pages because the book is filled with the kind of errors that the writer should have frankly spent more time working on and ironing out before sending it out in public.

I have nothing against self-publishing but it means taking charge of the entire editorial and marketing process and being objective and clear eyed enough about your own work to ‘see’ it from their point of view. Not many writers can truly do this and see their writing as a product with the eagle eyed harshness it needs. I tell my students (and me too if I’m listening to myself) to go through the work, just like an editor looking for reasons to dump it. Not because editors are horrible people but they know what to look for. Also because that’s what happens in the real world.