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How not to serial 11


This is the eleventh excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

11. Vanity and (Self) Publishing

'From the moment I picked it up, until the moment I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.'

Groucho Marx

A lot of people feel that they have a story to tell. Often, it's the case that, at a certain time of life, they feel a wish to leave a record of the things that they've done and seen. A lot of successful books, of course, spring from exactly this sort of impetus. The question is, does what you have to say, what you have seen and thought and felt, have wider application? Will it be of interest to readers beyond your immediate circle of friends, acquaintances and family?

If you're going to write a book that's going to tap into experience that can in some sense be described as universal, you are going to have readers. Or perhaps you have something unique to impart. If you are one of the few people to have travelled to the moon or spent years in a foreign prison or survived a plane crash, you will have something to say that's unique, exciting and engaging.

Of course, the internal journey, though, is the one that most people travel: it's their thoughts and feelings, the unique way in which they perceive the commonplace that makes their tale universal.

So, if you have a spare few thousand pounds, if you are desperate to see your book in print and want to give copies to friends and family and try to sell a few to your mates at the pub or squash club, then go ahead. Just do be fully aware, though, of what it is that you are signing up for.

You may believe that you have written a book that deserves to be seen by a wider public, and you might be right. But the fact that a bona fide publisher is not prepared to pay even a miserly advance of a thousand or two, should be seen as not only publishers' ignorance, short-sightedness and ill-breeding, but that they may just be right.

Not necessarily, of course. We know only too well how many mistakes are made. But, it is a possibility, and after all, they are still in business; and against all the odds in this multi-media, short attention-span world, they are still making a profit by selling books. It is, therefore, just worth considering that they, not you, might be right. I know how hard this is to accept.

My advice would be to think about what it is that you have written and, if you don't read much yourself, do you think that you have the requisite skills to have written a novel?

After all, would you offer to build a house, having once put up three wonky courses of a garden wall? Or play for England having had a kick-around in the park?

If after all this consideration, you still want to see yourself in print, then sure, go ahead. Get your dosh out of the Halifax and sign up. You might well be pleased and proud of your book when it emerges from the presses.

But unless you can persuade a few local outlets to stock a couple on sale or return, it won't be appearing in bona fide bookshops no matter how hard you try and sell it. Forget it appearing in Waterstone's or Smith's, because it won't; forget libraries buying it, because they won't, and save your postage on sending it the literary editors of anything but the most provincial of newspapers, because they definitely won't review it.

But at the very least, they'll make nice Christmas and birthday presents for the family, and you'll be able to read yourself in print.

Self-publishing, as opposed to vanity publishing, has a more noble, not to say eccentric tradition. Any number of writers, from William Blake, Lawrence Sterne to Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence have published themselves.

In 1988 Jill Paton Walsh could not find a publisher to take on her Knowledge of Angels and, believing in her book, she decided to publish it at her own expense. She was vindicated when the novel was selected for the Booker Prize shortlist of that year.

In 1996, prize-winning author Timothy Mo, dissatisfied with his publisher's offer for his new novel, published Brownout on Breadfruit himself. J L Carr (A Month in the Country 1980), was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Carr had seven novels published in the conventional way, but as well as writing fiction, the ex-headmaster self-published a series of handy 16 page booklets featuring the work of poets and miscellaneous figures from sport and history.

The success of this little series, (which anticipated the Penguin 60's booklets by several years) was crucial when it came to self-publishing his last novel, What Hetty Did, in 1988. Carr already had contact with a network of some two hundred bookshops and was therefore able, with the help of an enthusiastic sales rep, to distribute his novel with relative ease. Apparently, he even made a profit on it.

Tips and Summary:

l) As a last resort; if you can't get anyone to buy (or even read) your book, consider self- or vanity-publishing it.

2) Either way, you'll only sell three copies, and it'll cost you a fortune.

3) Better still, don't do it

(For another - but still tough - view, you might look at our Letters to a Self-publisher - Editor)

The next excerpt from How not to Write a Novel will be in the March Magazine.

About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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