Be not damned

Self-publish and be damned.

Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolfe, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, Mark Twain; all of them writers who published or financed the publication of at least a part of their own portfolios. Just like me in fact, although you are unlikely to have seen or read either of my self-published novels, More Deaths Than One and Going with Gabriel. And you’ve certainly not, as yet, come across my new anthology of short stories Twenty Bites, due out 11th November.

It has been a long journey since, at the age of twenty and with my final school-room five years behind me, I became quite sure I could write stories that lots of people would want to read. In fact I actually wrote some before coming to realise that this writer-in-a-garret stuff is good and well, but we don’t all have the youth, dedication and confidence of a Hemingway with wife and baby son in 1920s gay Paree. I had the youth and the garret all right, and I had the wife and baby to go with it, but I and my new family rather liked the idea of eating. So off I had to trudge into the good old, demanding old University of Life, leaving the typewriter and my literary dreams gathering dust on the shelf.

Fifty years later, as a retiree from actually quite an exciting business career, I and wife Delia became adopted by our beloved northwest Highlands of Scotland. At last, I thought, some of those story ideas would now be able to burst full flowered into literary sunlight. Working at it between a strict quarter to four in the morning and late breakfast time, seven days a week and fifty two weeks of the year, the resultant More Deaths Than One seemed good enough to sell a million. Everyone said so - except the mainstream publishers who wouldn’t read my work without the backing of a literary agent, and the literary agencies … well, you get the picture. Just too many debut novelists looking to get published? Author too old / unknown? Sensitivity to the story’s mainly Saudi Arabian location? Novel simply not good enough (unthinkable to me)? Some or all of the above?

Shaken but not stirred I occupied another couple of years writing a second novel, Going with Gabriel. This one with an even more powerful, original and controversial theme than the first. Less than muted reaction from the trade. Stuff like, ‘Clearly publishable but not for our list’ and, ‘Only one in two thousand novels by unpublished writers gets to see the printer’s ink.’

Time to give up? After all, like most of my age I could watch the box, read the papers, look out the window, get under Dee’s feet, do the garden (love gardens, do not love gardening). On the other hand I could self-publish my novels. Having written that which I passionately believed to be a publishable, saleable, intensely readable pair of novels I looked hard at the self-publisher’s workload. First of course there’s a lot more do-it-yourself editing - or have a wife and/or a friend do it - to arrive at something of a quality high enough to compete with the big names. Then there’s the design and page layout of the book, the covers origination, the print commissioning. Then comes the most difficult of all the publisher’s tasks, which is of course marketing the finished product.

Now, I have been into fairly high level industrial marketing all my life and many books have been written about the mechanics of selling books, but not even the largest publisher can tell you or themselves what it is that makes a new novel sell enough copies to transform itself into the fabled cash cow. There’s absolutely no sales formula other than the writer’s name, which doesn’t help the unpublished, and strong publicity that as a rule is simply unavailable to a self-published newcomer.

‘Word of mouth’, I told myself, ‘The marketing man’s valhalla in this digital age.’ But first I had to produce some books. Fortunately there are many instructional books on the market such as Peter Finch’s How To Publish Yourself and Aaron Shepard’s excellent Perfect Pages. Nowadays there are also quite a number of printers who will take your book and its covers over the net and print it instantaneously on demand, whether such demand is from you or from retailers world-wide, whether the order is for one copy or thousands of copies.

So, book now in hand, how to have readers of fiction worldwide understand the amazing value of your work so that they can tell anyone who’ll listen? Dedicated web-sites? Sure, no problem, but how to get folk to click on them? Media reviews. Yes, but The Bookseller magazine told me they wouldn’t review any book unless they considered it capable of 25,000 first year sales. As nobody has heard of me or mine that would be near impossible. I think it’s called a circular rebuttal. I tried the time honoured direct route; the stipulated four months ahead of publication I sent out review copies of Going with Gabriel to all the national Press here in the UK and in the USA. Again no result. I don’t mean no thank you, most often I mean no response. Because of the nature of Gabriel’s content I also sent copies to relevant figures high on the A lists, receiving polite encouragement from a member of the Royal family, from the UK’s leading environmentalist and from several well-known scientists. Unusable for promotion purposes however, and that’s understandable. Would you allow your diamond studded wagon to be hitched to as invisible, as controversial a star as mine?

The only success - The Ross-shire Journal printed an excellent review first of More Deaths Than One and then of Going with Gabriel. I watched the Amazon sales charts with breathless anticipation, saw my works rocket up, clearly as a result of sales in sparsely populated Ross-shire and from friends and relatives in my personal e-mail address book, then die back to languish amongst the deadwood.

Without some new marketing initiative that’s where they will stay. But now comes Twenty Bites, my anthology of short fiction. It says on the cover Yes, TWENTY stories: and BITES because they do. Yes, really they do.

I have just celebrated my seventy sixth birthday. My spiritual mentor Ernest Hemingway wrote, ‘Man can be destroyed but not defeated’. If I have to bang on the door of every newspaper and bookshop, on foot or more likely through cyber space, then that’s what I’ll do … because these books are worth it!

More Deaths Than One and Going with Gabriel
and now Twenty Bites  ISBN 97809555193-3-8 published 11 November 2010
Pictures and Poems, Aultbea, Ross-shire.   01445 731322

Bryan Islip
Kirkhill House
IV22 2HU
01445 731322

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you didn't give up as I so enjoyed both "more deaths than one" and "going with garbriel", and wait with baited breath for "twenty bites". Roll on the best seller list for you.


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