On publishing your own work

It was a truly poignant moment of television. The author Timothy Mo, filmed by BBC Newsnight, was ringing WH Smith to book an appointment to discuss a novel to be published by the Paddleless Press. Who was the novel by? Timothy Mo, actually. Yes, he explained, he was both publisher and author. The name was spelt M.O – as in ‘Half a -’ Actually, he had been twice short-listed for the Booker Prize. Yes, the Booker.

And so it went on, a horrific authorial nightmare. At the time, two years ago, for an eminent novelist willingly to impersonate a publisher’s rep on behalf of his own work suggested some kind of nervous breakdown, particularly when it was revealed that what had driven Mo into self-publishing was a humiliating, insulting offer from his publisher of £125,000.

But no. It turned out that this exercise in self-abasement was not an aberration but the start of trend. Paddleless Press this year publishes its second book, Renegade or Halo2, also by Timothy Mo. David Caute, Susan Hill and Jill Paton Walsh are self-publishers. The next stage will see authors publishing entire lists – indeed this autumn the children’s author Ann Jungman will launch Barn Owl Books, an imprint dedicated to reprinting classic children’s books which, in the current brutal publishing atmosphere, have been allowed to go out of print.

Barn Owl, at least, has a sound publishing logic behind it. More often than not a writer’s decision to become a publisher is borne out of personal exasperation. Frustrated by editorial decisions that favour the modish and journalistic over any long-term investment in writing, baffled by lumbering corporate incompetence and apathy, authors are increasingly asking themselves what it is exactly that modern publishers do. They rarely edit. Sales are increasingly dominated by the large bookshops. Design is shipped out to freelances. Publicity is reserved for a tiny circle of passing celebrities or members of the writing aristocracy. Even a small launch party, with cheap Bulgarian wine and peanuts, is now perceived to be too much of an effort for them.

At this point, the terrible, tempting thought occurs to the author. Why not do it myself? I could hardly be a worst publisher than the alleged professionals.

I should declare an interest. I have been a publisher. I am now an author. My profound conviction, based on my eccentric history, is that, short of putting one’s work into the hands of those shysters running vanity presses, nothing is less likely to bring satisfaction, remuneration or happiness than trying to publish your own book. Of the many reasons why this is the case, here are just five:

1. A publishing house is a hybrid, in which, theoretically at least, the brains and sensitivity of editorial are supported and propelled forward by the muscular body that is marketing. Although in recent years, the brain has atrophied and the majority of publishing conglomerates are, figuratively speaking, no head and all rear end, you as a self-publisher will need to contain this division within you. One day you will be an author, scouring your soul, expressing in words your most intense and private feelings, the next you will be a hard-eyed marketeer with no soul at all. You will have to sell this fragile and delicate item, your book, as if it is a new line in crayons going into the fancy good department.

2. You will have to deal with printer’s reps. They will attempt to confuse you with technical claptrap, nudge you in the ribs and tell jokes in questionable taste, take you out to lunch at the Angus Steak House, talk about where they are going on holiday and show you snaps of their ghastly kiddies. The only one who shows any interest in you as a writer will eventually reveal that he does a bit of scribbling himself – in fact, as it happens, he has been writing about some of the hilarious things that happen in the printing lark. He’ll bring the manuscript in next week, all right?

3. You will discover the dark side of booksellers, many of whom, you will discover, are profoundly discontented people. The older ones have spent so long in the presence of books that, over the years, they have become convinced of their superiority both to publishers and to authors. The relatively young ones had heard that literature was the new rock and roll, started a novel, ran out of words and now spend their days angrily stacking this year’s Anita Brookner and wondering what went wrong.

4. You will become addicted to lunch. For years doctors have been trying to understand the connection between sitting in meetings, talking about marketing plans, production delays and promotional strategies involving dump-bins and shelf-wobblers, and the irresistible craving for spending the middle of the day over light but expensive meal accompanied by a spritzer, oh-all-right let’s have a bottle. It starts with a need to network with the influential and powerful. Soon you’ll be having lunch anybody that has anything to do with books. Your most important asset as an author, your solitude, will have been lost.

5. Your personal life will collapse about your ears. No one quite knows why this happens, but, after a few years, unhappiness clings to a publisher like the smell of stale smoke in an old tweed jacket. Some become erotomanes, have locks put on their office doors and a standing account at the local Novotel. Others lose all interest in relationships and can only be intimately aroused by the prospect of a Waterstone’s Book of the Month promotion. Either way, that simple goodness of soul which is so central a part of the author’s life will be lost for ever.

Personally, I have an agreement with a fellow author similar to the pact between the two central characters of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. Should either of us, in a moment of despair at some point in the future, consider going over to other side and becoming a self-publisher, then the other will do the decent, harsh but humane thing. At least, that way, we shall have died with our honour intact.

Autumn 1999