The Preciousness of Some Writers

Ros Barber has recently published an article in The Guardian on why she would never dream of self-publishing. I recommend it as a lively, interesting article that will do just what I suspect Barber intends: it will annoy the hell out of a lot indie authors. (Indeed, some might say that it is just an extended piece of trolling, i.e. it intentionally hopes to wind-up a large proportion of its readers.) After all, she compares the idea of her choosing the self-publishing route as akin to ‘Luke Skywalker [going] to the dark side’. In her view, ‘self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write)’. Elsewhere she obliquely compares indie authors to Donald Trump. You get the gist: Ros Barber really, really does not like self-publishing and indie authors.

Now, I’m an indie author, and one who loves writing and takes it seriously, which makes me a writer in my world if not in the world of Ros Barber. And I refuse to get (too) annoyed by Barber’s piece, mainly because I don’t want to feel as strangely irritated by other people as she evidently is. But I thought I’d consider some of her claims because they are actually quite revealing of a fairly typical elitist attitude towards indie authors (and which I doubt will disappear any time soon).

Claim number one immediately reveals the gimcrack nature of Barber’s argument. Self-published authors (notwithstanding the evidence of the books they have published) are not writing for a living, she says; they are marketing for a living. She suggests that they spend 90% of their time marketing, and a mere 10% writing. There are two obvious problems with this point. The first is the let’s-make-up-some-figures-to-support-my-argument approach. Barber has decided to assume these poor, pathetic indie authors must spend, at the most, four, five or six hours per week writing, with thirty to forty hours devoted to marketing; or just over one month per year writing, and nearly eleven months on marketing. I have no problem with inventing numbers (I’ve done it occasionally to support my arguments, although not ones I’d actually publish), but I’d suggest she might have tried fabricating something less wild and implausible.

Of course, what she really means is that self-published writers have to spend more time marketing than traditionally published authors. Which is obvious. But to suppose that this means they don’t make their living from writing is like saying that most self-employed and freelance work is really nothing other than marketing. If your work involves making something, the fact that you may have to market it doesn’t mean that the essence of what you do is no longer making things. The independent furniture-maker (to use one of Barber’s examples) who has to run a website and social media accounts, and manage advertising and promotion and sales, does not suddenly stop being a craftsman because of it, even if Barber may not buy any furniture from him on the grounds that to her eyes he is a marketer rather than a furniture-maker. (I imagine she likes furniture-makers who have a separate marketing department, such as Ikea.)

Anyway, it’s good for Barber that she doesn’t have to do any marketing or promotional work for her books. I imagine she has an assistant who updates her Twitter feed and her Facebook page and her blog (for that, after all, is self-publishing which ‘no way’ would Barber ever do) and whatever other social media she is on, and that she doesn’t have to bother with book signings, readings, talks, literary events, etc. By the sounds of it, she has found a wonderful publisher who demands so little from her in promoting her own writing.

Barber’s next point is that self-published authors behave like fools because they do nothing other than talk about their advertising blurb, the number of followers they have on social media and the reviews they have received. Of course, because the only bores and fools one will ever come across are indie authors, and it is a well-known fact that no indie authors can hold a conversation about anything other than themselves and their books… I will concede that some indie authors are likely to be self-obsessed bores; but then so too are some traditionally published authors—come to think of it, quite a lot of people are fools and bores irrespective of their profession.

Undeterred by the weakness of her argument, Barber ploughs on (though, sadly, it doesn’t get any better, only more determined to rile its targets). She makes the eminently sensible point that most first attempts at a book would be (or are) rejected by traditional publishers. She then presents an odd either/or choice. So, do you try to publish it yourself? Or do you try to write a better book? It’s beyond me why she thinks the two are mutually exclusive. (Nor why she thinks it is not an option to be both self-published and traditionally published. Nor indeed why she thinks that indie authors only ever write one book, which they presumably spend the rest of their lives marketing, it never occurring to them that they might try and write another, better book.) Perhaps the explanation is that in her world the only writing that matters is traditionally published writing; presumably she thinks one should just bin anything that publishers might reject.

I get where she’s coming from. She’s understandably proud of herself that she has found a publisher; she thinks it means she can now call herself a writer in a way that anyone who is not a published author cannot; she sees herself as a member of a special club; she is precious about the notion of a ‘writer’, and doesn’t like the fact that just anyone can publish anything and call themselves a writer. She may not be earning much money from it, but at least she has the compensation of being able to call herself a ‘serious writer’. So how dare others who do not enjoy her poverty-tinged success consider themselves to be writers? I used to be a bit like this when I was an academic: I considered my occupation and the years it had taken me to get to it qualified me to talk about history in a way that really should not be allowed to non-academics. For example, I tended, rather snobbily, to dismiss popular historians as not being proper historians. And then, eventually, I flicked the chip off my shoulder and got over myself.

‘You can forget Hay festival and the Booker’, Barber tells us. Fine, although I wonder for how long—Barber may not like it, but ebooks and self-publishing are increasingly going to be taken seriously. Anyway, Barber wants to be at Hay and wants to win the Booker, and good luck to her. Evidently literary acclaim really matters to her. Me, I just want to write because I love writing and I’d like people to read what I write.

She continues to be generous with her advice: ‘Traditional publishing is the only way to go for someone who writes literary fiction.’ (Notice the emphasis, Barber’s own: a bit like the 90% figure earlier in her argument, she always exaggerates and overstates her points.) It’s a point that is manifestly true unless one allows for the exceptions of William Blake, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Anaïs Nin, James Joyce, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Paine, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ezra Pound, a few of the many literary authors who tried self-publishing.

Barber also suggests that the only way to have any success in self-publishing is to fork out serious money on cover designers, editors and marketers, otherwise they will look like amateurs. Maybe, but not necessarily. Some indie authors are quite happy to pick up the skills; some enjoy taking control of every aspect of the publishing process; some are even good at it. Sure, there are some terrible self-published books. But there are plenty of terrible traditionally published books too.

Rather sniffily she suggests that many indie authors keep afloat financially by helping other indie authors: ‘Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business.’ I thought, how lucky Ros Barber is: she is a full-time writer, kept afloat financially by her writing alone, although her revelation that she has earned £5,000 from writing in two years suggests somewhat frugal living. Then I checked: she is a lecturer in creative writing, which sounds suspiciously like a writing-related profession to me.

Now, Barber likes to present her argument using various imaginative analogies. Here’s one of my own. I imagine an alternative Ros Barber, a musician signed to a record label. She meets another musician, unsigned but planning on doing some independent recording and releasing a few tracks on Soundcloud, YouTube, etc. Ros Barber the musician is appalled, affronted perhaps that just anybody who likes to make music can actually record and release that music, and so proceeds to list various reasons why this does not really count as making music at all. In Barber’s world, I suspect, there would be no such things as indie bands, punk and garage are a horror that would never have happened, urban DJs and hip hop artists are just fantastical fools, fanzines and underground journals would be no more than a nightmarish vision of people with a creative urge trying to do things for themselves.

Alternatively, writers, whether self-published or traditionally published or, indeed, both (for that is possible), could stop the ‘my dad is better than your dad’ style of argument and just get on with the business and craft of writing. There’s room for everyone; there’s scope for choices; there is no single way that is better than any other way. There are good writers and bad writers, and some of the former are self-published and some of the latter are traditionally published. Getting precious and elitist about one form of publishing over another is closed-minded, boringly snobbish and a waste of energy. We should be encouraging those who want to write, not discouraging them.

Ultimately, a writer wants to be read, whether she is writing literary fiction or genre fiction. If Barber would rather leave her unpublished work unread in a desk drawer, that’s her choice; if she’s so concerned with literary acclaim that she will not risk publishing anything that her publisher doesn’t like, that too is her choice. Personally, if I believe in my writing I’m happy to take the risk of publishing any way that I can. And, whether Barber and others like it or not, in doing so I’ll be calling myself a writer.


One Year of Freelancing, part 2: Reasons to be Cheerful

In my previous post I outlined various mistakes I have made as a freelancer over the past twelve months. The road I travelled over that year began in a place called Hopes and Dreams and ended in a place called Desperate Poverty. Except, of course, it hasn’t ended, because I can’t be hanging around in Desperate Poverty for too long. Much as I’m attracted to the romantic image of myself as the penniless, starving writer, my cigarette the only source of sustenance and warmth as I give to an uncaring and uninterested world the fruits of my mind and craft, I realize it’s important not to be an idiot.*

I could, of course, go to a place marked Regular Job. It’s a safe, ordered sort of town for most of its residents—and, sadly, one of the least interesting places in the universe. Moreover, there is nothing much there for me. I am frankly unqualified and unsuited for most of what it has to offer. The only profession I am qualified for is academia. (And yes, I’ve heard and reflected on all the motivational talk from careers’ advisors etc. about the supposedly transferable skills I have—and it is rubbish. Short of spending years and thousands of pounds retraining, or competing with hungry young graduates for internships and entry-level jobs, there simply is no career for which I have any realistic chances.) As for academia itself, although I do actually still have a miniscule, meagrely remunerated university post, it was clear to me long ago that academia is not interested in me. I’m just too damn unconventional and brilliant (oh, yes! I say with my tongue firmly in my cheek) for the increasingly mind-numbing corporate world of academia. I loved my academic career and didn’t want to leave it. But looking back I have no regrets that I did: if I’d wanted to be a corporate drone, working 60 hours per week, oppressed by admin, metrics, endless performance and productivity reviews, and exploitative employment practices, then I’d have joined the City years ago and earned considerably more than the dismal salary of the modern lecturer.

A few weeks ago I made the decision to abandon for good any ideas of a return to academia. I suspect that half my problem over the past year was my wavering between the freelance path I was on and a desire to get an academic job. By not fully committing to either, I ended up being unsuccessful in both. I had to reassess, and, for the reasons I mention above, I came to realize that academia no longer appeals to me whereas freelancing does. I retain my interest in ‘academic’ things (like history, philosophy and so on, and indeed the nature and purpose of education itself), but I’d rather pursue them independently and in my own way—and since the modern humanities academic is usually preoccupied with filling in forms and worrying about productivity, most have little opportunity to pursue their subject in interesting ways. (Not that I want to give the impression that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder…)

Saying goodbye to academia for good is my first reason to be cheerful. It means I can direct all my energies and focus to the freelancing. And with this energy and focus comes more clarity. I recognize the mistakes I made, the wrong turnings I took, how I never had much control over what I was doing, with the result that it tended to drift. For example, tutoring initially struck me as a sensible option, one that aligned with my experience, skills and knowledge, and which fitted with my vague hope that I would get back to lecturing one day. But I learnt that private tutoring is a terrible sector—and not one for which I am well suited. (I don’t believe, for example, that education equates to ‘teaching to the exam’ which is essentially the only thing most tutees want from their tutors.) While I am open to taking on the occasional tutoring job, I’m going to be highly selective about what I do. If I am especially interested in a job, and believe that I am suited to it, then I’ll do it; but otherwise private tutoring no longer features much in my plans.

Since I’m in danger of sounding like Ian Paisley in saying ‘no’ to everything, it’s time for a ‘yes’ (and one or two more reasons to be cheerful). And it’s a ‘yes’ to writing. I’m a writer. It’s what I’m good at (feel free to disagree, but if you do, you’re obviously wrong because I’ve held your attention to this point in the article which means the writing is working), it’s what I enjoy doing, and it’s what I’m convinced I can make a living from.

Now, this is a blog article not a business plan. But it’s worth (since it’s cheering) to consider the nature of writing as a business—as I have been doing over the past few months. Every day billions of words are written and published, in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, web content, blog articles, and much more. Some of this is published for free; much of it earns the writer money either through direct sales or by carrying advertisements. It is a huge market.

So if you’re someone who can write well, as I can (feel free to disagree, etc.), then there is massive potential to be successful in this market. Above all, the digital revolution has transformed the possibilities for the writer. Blogging and self-publishing form an ever-growing chunk of the market; they are a large part of the future of publishing. In the past writers were often at the mercy of the whims of traditional publishers. Now anyone with something to write about (and boy, do I have a lot to write about), the ability to write it well, the time to write it, and the nous to figure out how to market and sell this writing has a decent chance of success. The extreme example is E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy began as self-published fan fiction and ended up netting her £97m (and counting). While James is clearly an outlier, many other writers are making a decent living in this world—and a growing number are actively choosing self-publishing over traditional publishing. And, while not abandoning other routes to getting published, it is the world of self-publishing that I’m entering.

I have, in fact, been self-publishing for quite some time. Over the past year I’ve written a lot across various blogs, and, partly out of generosity, partly out of business incompetence, I’ve given it all away for free. Actually, there are good business reasons for giving things away for free, and I certainly don’t intend to stop blogging and providing free content. But the point is this: writing is a business. It’s a business like any other: writers create and market products with a view to selling them. One of the reasons why I’m cheerful is that I’ve finally got my head around this; previously I treated writing too much as if it were a hobby, one involving the devotion of hours of my time to giving people something to read while I slowly starved—it took me a while, but eventually I detected a small flaw in that approach.

Another reason to be cheerful is that, having been studying this market for some time now, I’ve figured out various approaches and strategies that I believe have good chances of success. Maybe I’ll blog about them one day… But finally, and most importantly, I have various products (some under pseudonyms, which doesn’t mean that I’m going down the E.L. James route—or maybe I am?) that will be going to market soon. But you’ll just have to rein in your excitement at this development for a little longer…

This time last year I had a lot of optimism, but a terrible plan. Because of the latter I’ve ended up on the brink of destitution. It’s been an interesting lesson: optimism is important, but ultimately useless without a good plan. I believe now that I have a good, credible plan. I may be able to afford to buy food again. Hope endures.

*Knut Hamsun’s fine novel, Hunger, the story of a starving (and increasingly mad) writer is well worth reading as a corrective to this romantic notion of the artist/writer.