Everyone has a book in them

Thanks to the digital publishing revolution, it has arguably never been easier to get into print. The result: a lot of surprise hits that might once have been overlooked — and a lot of trash. 

Cartoon of a tablet containing books

Jane Sydenham, Investment Director, Rathbones

Should e-publishing be celebrated or lamented? And how has it changed the habits of writers and readers alike?

Technology has revolutionised publishing. PCs and laptops make it far easier to write and edit large bodies of text. The internet makes it easier to distribute that work, while e-books and print-on-demand make it far cheaper. As a result, self-publishing has emerged as a phenomenon that transcends the negative vibe of “vanity publishing”.

Vanity publishers generate their income from writers rather than the readers who buy their books. The term implies that ego and money, rather than merit, are the only criteria for publication and it conjures up images of visiting friends or relatives and being given a book with a poorly-designed cover. An airy “Let me know what you think” obliges you not only to read it, but also give polite feedback.

Self-publishing doesn’t have this image problem. Like other technology-driven trends, it is all about freedom and self-expression — the democratising of publishing, no less. An army of writers has been unleashed. While some stick to blogging, others want to experience the challenge of writing a book and the satisfaction of seeing their work in print.

Many have tried sending their manuscript to countless publishing houses only to receive no response or, at best, a polite “Not for us, thank you”. By outflanking this supposed filter of quality and marketability, are self-published writers sliding towards the negative connotations of vanity publishing? Such thinking is anachronistic and misses the point of technology as a disruptive force.

The old model was effective in giving some good writers a chance, but there must have been plenty of others who fell by the wayside. Given the number of subsequently successful writers who were rejected multiple times, this seems highly probable. Technology has removed this hurdle.

The instincts, editing and marketing skills of a good editor are priceless. But for writers who believe in themselves and their book, it is now possible to buy in these skills. Companies such as Lulu offer all the services of a publisher — high-quality cover design, illustration, editing, marketing and promotional activity, events and even book-to-screen adaptation.

These services can even be purchased separately according to the needs and ambitions of the writer. But they don’t come cheap and, in the end, without a traditional publisher the only arbiter of “quality” is the market. Most self-publishing writers will struggle to sell anything like enough books to break even, particularly if they “invest” heavily in their book.

It is easy to imagine that self-publishing writers have been seduced by the possibility of fame and fortune by the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey. It was self-published in 2011 by EL James as an e-book and a print-on-demand. Vintage Books only acquired the publishing rights in 2012. It became the fastest-selling paperback of all time in the UK and by mid-2015 the series had sold over 125 million copies. Such sales answer the critics, many of whom sneered at the quality of the prose.

Yet mass readership isn’t the aim of most self-publishers. Many write factual books for a particular niche. At best, they may make a small profit, but that is almost incidental to the pleasure of sharing one’s knowledge and research with like-minded readers and perhaps becoming a respected authority on a subject.

Even with fiction, where this doesn’t apply, many self-publishers are motivated by the creative pleasure of writing and, while they may believe in their work and hope to be discovered, don’t really expect to sell more than a handful of copies. That’s hardly vanity.

Taking the traditional path

Traditional publishing could seem a thing of the past, with impoverished writers squeezed out of their lonely garrets by hordes of well-to-do self-publishers fresh from expensive creative writing courses.

It is heartening therefore to hear that the time-honoured route is still open to some writers. One is Claire-Louise Bennett, who grew up in Wiltshire but now lives in Galway. Having spent years developing her talent, she won the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013 and her first novel, Pond, has just been published.

Described as a collection of short stories, it is actually a series of passages describing the day-to-day life of a solitary young woman living in rural Ireland. Bennett writes how real people speak: sometimes rambling and repeating herself, often very particular or confiding. Initially disconcerting, Pond takes a little while to get used to but is a lovely, fascinating book. The occasionally spiky voice of the narrator sounds remarkably similar to the writer’s own, but she says that, while based on her experience, it isn’t autobiographical.

The critical response has been very positive. Reviewing Pond in the Financial Times, Catherine Taylor wrote: “To describe Bennett as a bold writer is an understatement. Her use of monologue has both the sinister swagger of Browning’s dramatic verse and the sense of depersonalisation that hovers throughout Beckett.”

Bennett started writing at school, often in the back of exercise books. It was both a pleasure and a compulsion — she wrote for herself and didn’t want or need others to read her work: “For a long time, then, I was writing to facilitate a deepening involvement with the universe — not to reach out to my terrestrial compatriots.” A teacher found some of her writing and, although he said how good it was, she felt mortified to be intruded upon.

In her twenties she made a conscious decision to let others read her work and, after having short stories and essays published in the Irish Times and various literary reviews, she won the White Review Short Story Prize. The Stinging Fly Press, one of the leading publishers in Ireland’s dynamic literary scene, then offered to publish Pond.

The journey was a long one, proving the witticism that “it takes 20 years to be an overnight success”. Now in her late thirties, Bennett survived for years on part-time jobs, grants and bursaries, displaying a dedication to her art that most would struggle to muster. Asked for advice for aspiring writers, she says: “Take your time. There’s no hurry to get published.”

Awaiting publication in the US, Bennett has mixed feelings about the change in her circumstances: “After many years of principled under-achievement, I have accomplished something — an occurrence which, according to my own ideas, is a bit disgusting yet also really rather nice.”

Though they may have paid for the experience, many self-published writers would surely identify with this sense of satisfaction.

This article first appeared in Rathbones Review Winter 2015

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