Everyman's library of failure

It is easier than ever to self-publish. But, says Tim Luckhurst, it still carries a stigma of being a last resort for deluded dimwits

May 26, 2011

Credit: Getty

Among the flakier delusions spawned by digital technology is that everything it makes possible is exciting and virtuous. Thus, people who lack all aptitude for writing rejoice in their freedom to blog their obsessions, often illiterately, to tiny audiences. Some imagine that their habit confers upon them the title of "citizen journalist" and believe that they are partisans in a revolutionary movement.

Unsurprisingly, the notion that self-expression, no matter how inane, should be shared has spread beyond mad barks about current affairs. Writers who cannot fathom why no publisher will place their incoherence in the public domain are not a novelty, but self-publishing the novel or play you have failed to sell has never been simpler. Equipped with the most basic IT skills, you need only create a PDF, clip-art a cover and send both plus money to a self-publisher. Pay enough and your book will be delivered within days.

Net-savvy authors can accelerate the process still further by ignoring paper. Publishing a novel online may win plaudits from nobody more objective than your significant other - attracting attention in our fragmented multimedia world is no doddle - but if publication alone is the objective, cyberspace meets it. Never mind the quantitative gulf between the potential audience and the actual readership. A similar gap exists in print. If your book is excellent it will succeed.

Nevertheless, so straightforward and cheap has the process become that it is easy to forget that self-publishing is usually a response to failure. Practitioners promote it as a way to escape censorship and retain independence. They point to great writers who have self-published for these reasons.

John Milton self-published Areopagitica in 1644 because the Parliament to which it was addressed would have suppressed it, and, said its author, "As good almost kill a Man as kill a good book." Other great writers who self-published at least once include Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence.

George Orwell didn't, but after struggling to find a publisher for Animal Farm he argued that "The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary...Things are kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervenes but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact."

Brilliant radicals of all stripes may still encounter similar obduracy from conventional commercial publishers. They may, but Milton reminds us of another crucial factor: "For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are." Some souls are livelier than others, and commercial publishing is pretty good at spotting them.

Mainstream readers are well served by the impartial critical scrutiny that comes with professional publishing. Editors, designers and printers enhance the text and its presentation. They encourage self-criticism and compel novices to improve their manuscripts and their craft. Marketing and promotions teams draw titles to the attention of websites, bookshops and literary editors. Newspapers - in print and online - alert us to their existence.

And the slow, patient, hard path to publication brings rewards. The earnings that flow from it help the best writers to turn their hobby into a career. Professionalism increases sales and royalties, thereby ensuring that creative talent is richly rewarded for the joy it brings to readers. Good authors earn good incomes and reach big audiences. In literature as in life, competition privileges talent and nurtures potential.

So the market works, but it does not work perfectly. Some fine writers struggle for too long before their potential is spotted. Conservatism in publishing and retailing of books blights the careers of others. Some astonishing writers are overlooked. But excuses are more plentiful than examples. "Oh would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us," wrote Robert Burns. More than 200 years later, few rejected writers have acquired that precious wisdom.

Many fail to acknowledge that they are not published because they are not good enough. They bleat about hostility to new ideas, reluctance to invest in unproven talent and fear of controversy. Neither noble exceptions nor the allure of the new should blind us to reality. Most self-publishing is vanity publishing and technology has simply made it easier for unscrupulous printers to exploit delusions.

We know this because despite the exceptional ease with which self-publication can now be achieved, examples of self-published works that have achieved large sales remain almost as rare as rocking-horse dung. Success is unlikely even when self-published titles are printed by large, professional printers. It comes without promotion and marketing. It hardly ever attracts reviews.

The barrier to entry is so low that a deluded dimwit can self-publish. The process is tainted by the unmistakable stench of desperation. Consider the contrasting economic models: conventional publishers profit by producing thousands of copies of one book, whereas self-publishing companies earn their corn by printing a few copies of thousands of titles.

But enough scorn; digital technology has big advantages. Pre-eminent among them is the print-on-demand model (PoD) used by market leaders including Amazon's BookSurge and CreateSpace divisions and Xlibris, and by many innovative British publishers. This allows books to be published for a fixed price per copy and with minimal set-up costs. It reduces storage and handling expenses and eliminates loss on unsold copies. It is ideal for short runs of niche titles and it works extremely well as a means of publishing professionally edited niche collections.

Of course, PoD can be - and frequently is - exploited for vanity projects, but this is emphatically not what makes it virtuous. Rather it is a godsend in sectors that were served in the past by bargain-basement printers of pamphlets. These niches are dominated by non-fiction titles. New fiction struggles to win readers even when it is backed by a big publishing house. PoD cannot help writers of unwanted novels and plays to conjure readers from nothingness, but it can help diligent academic and specialist editors to commission and publish work for which the audience cannot justify large offset print runs.

At the core of much digital evangelism is a desire to smash large professional media organisations, whether they are newspapers, broadcasters or publishers of literary fiction. Adherents believe that self-publication - particularly online - promotes new opportunities for horizontal collaboration between citizens. They imagine that, free from the influence of Adam Smith's "invisible hand", readers will choose titles and topics that traditional publishers decline.

Vanity has always produced dreamers. Among my favourites is a woman I encountered while researching Second World War by-elections. Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966) was born the daughter of a washerwoman and became rich through marriage to the Belgian inventor of a brushless shaving cream. She achieved prominence as a campaigner against capital punishment, but her ambition was to become an MP.

In February 1940 Van der Elst fought the Central Southwark by-election as an independent. She enlivened the campaign with claims including "Every penny I have I made with my brain" and "It is thrown against me that I have a castle." She also self-published a newspaper, The Voice of the People, and paid her domestic staff to distribute it. In addition to election propaganda, it included her mystical story writing, of which she was unwisely proud. She came last in the election, behind a Stop the War candidate backed by supporters of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Modern Van der Elsts can produce libraries of self-published books. They are not a great deal more likely to reach a discerning audience. Technology has not killed the stigma of self-publishing.

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