My Independent Publishing Manifesto

I sort of fell into independent publishing sideways. I decided I’d give it a try a few years ago and then ended up getting more and more into the idea. There is something about it that really appeals to me, going it alone, doing everything my way (for better or worse), answering to no one about the decisions I make. But the more involved in it I get the more I see it as a truly viable option for writers. Especially writers who don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else. Indie publishing has a stigma attached to it that it is populated by books that weren’t good enough to succeed along the traditional routes. I have no doubt there is a lot of that out there, but I want to think that there are also weird, quirky, offbeat writers using it as a platform for their work. This is how I am trying to use it, not as a last resort, but as a home for my books. A home in which they can be unashamedly what they are.

If you don’t mind such grandiose terms, this is my manifesto for indie publishing. The things that I have discovered are important to me over the last few years of dipping my toe into these strange waters.

1, Write your book

The emphasis here is on the word your. For years now people have said to me things like, ‘Dan Brown/JK Rowling/EL James is popular. Have you considered writing books like those?’ And the truth is I have considered it and, thankfully, so far have always come to my senses and continued to write the stuff that is important to me. The desire to write comes from a love of reading, and writing a good book means writing the book that you have inside you. Not the book that someone else has inside them. Shifting to one genre or subject in order to ride a wave of someone else’s success in order to drive sales seems like a very bad idea to me. If the goal is to make a lot of money then, first of all, don’t write books. The odds of making a lot of money are low and you could probably do better putting your time and energy into something else. But second of all, artistic success comes from passion. It comes from taking the thing you feel so deeply and articulating it in a way that excites other people. I’m not saying don’t write techno thrillers or vampire fiction for young adults, but do it for the right reasons. Do it because that is the only book you truly give a damn about.

2, Be as indistinguishable from traditional publishing as possible

Someone who knows what they are looking for can tell the difference between an indie book and a trad book, but if you take care to present your work well it shouldn’t be a problem. Independent publishing is, and likely always will be, a poor second class citizen to traditional, but the gap is closing. Between ebooks and the now-excellent quality of print-on-demand we have the means to make our product to a very high standard. But this means independents need to hold themselves to that standard. I’m not just talking about typo’s, I’m talking about the full presentation of a book which, if you have not spent some time discovering its nuances, might well contain elements that you never even considered. Typefaces, line spacing, margin setting, point size, blank pages. Get these things wrong and the book will feel amateur, even if no one is able to explain why. Get them right and no one will even notice, which is fine, because they will be too busy reading the book.

3, Have fun making mistakes

They are going to happen, and if my experience is anything to go, by they are going to happen a lot. Making mistakes always feels terrible. It can feel cataclysmic. It can lead to spiraling self-doubt and a kind of artistic woe that almost no one feels any empathy toward. But the obvious and hard-to-accept truth is that those mistakes are the most valuable things that can happen, if you notice them and learn from them. I was so down when the first proof copy of my novel arrived in the post and the cover was about 50% too dark because I hadn’t corrected screen colours for print colours and the margins were set wrong so the text ran into the binding and made it unreadable. I felt pretty low about it (and this was only a proof, see above point about pointless artistic woe,) but these are two things that will never catch me out again.

4, Make reaching readers a priority over profit

When I was a kid we had day where we all brought food to school to make a big buffet for everyone to share. The teacher told us to bring something that we enjoy, and not what we thought everyone else would enjoy, because that way there will definitely be something we like and, chances are, some of the other kids would like it too. If you have written the book that you really wanted to write, and made it as good as you possibly can, there will probably be some one else out there that will enjoy it as well. How you find those people is a problem I have yet to solve, but attempting to make as many sales as possible by pushing your book to all the wrong readers doesn’t seem right to me. I would rather give away books to people that actually want to read them than sell them to people who don’t.

5, Get to the end with your integrity intact

I have never and will never write fake reviews for my books or solicit positive reviews from friends and family. My integrity is important to me. More important than selling a handful of books to people who have been lured in with dishonest reviews. Honesty is important to point 1 in this list too, recognising precisely what it is you need to write by looking inside yourself and truly accepting what you find. Write a book because you love books, and treat them with that same love.

6, Take yourself seriously

To misquote Howard Jacobson (because I can’t find the passage I want to quote) ‘serious is more fun than not serious’. Now, when my wife asks me what I am doing, I say ‘working’. I used to say ‘oh you know, just banging out another crappy book that no one will read’. That self-effacing negativity that comes so naturally to writers doesn’t do much good. I’m not saying to go the other way. ‘I’m working on my magnum opus, iron me a shirt! The award ceremony Looms!’ Just working.

There you go, the points that I jotted down in my notebook when I was trying to think about what it is that is important to me in my attempts to make indie-publishing work for me.

Beautiful objects

It happened again. I was at work holding my kindle, settling yet another semantics argument with the dictionary, and someone came along and said ‘oh is that one of those e-book thingies?’ I said it was and, knowing that she is a reader herself, asked if she was thinking of getting one. She said no, because she likes books.

I wanted to say that I like books too. In fact, that’s why I like to be able to carry lots and lots of them around with me and buy new ones whenever and wherever I want to. That’s why I like the ability to get out of copyright works for free like the copyright laws intend, rather than having to pay a publisher almost the same amount as a new paperback. That’s why I like a forum that allows writers to share whatever they want to, whether it is good enough by traditional standards or not. I didn’t say these things though. I said something like ‘oh, right’, because I was tired.

I’m tired of always taking e-books side in the digital vs traditional argument because, in truth, I’m not a total convert. I still buy a lot of my books in print. Whether I choose to buy a print or e-book very much depends on which book it is. I never even considered buying a digital copy of IQ84 and when the book arrived I was really impressed with the way it looks and feels. Equally when I decided to buy Trick or Treatment I never even considered getting a print copy. I knew it was a book I was going to read on the train and then I’d be done with it. Browsing in the book shop the other day I saw a big hardback copy of The Night Circus and cooed over it in a way an e-book version would never have elicited.

The plain fact is, books make really lovely objects. Not all of them, obviously, but the ones where publishers decide to make a really attractive object usually end up really bloody attractive. Books have a lot of history bound up in them and its hard not to feel nostalgic about them. In his Booker prize acceptance speech Julian Barnes made the following statement;

“And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

And, you know, while I can’t help but agree, as someone who has put out an e-book I got to wondering why digital objects can’t have the same allure.

Digital books are bound by a different set of limitations. For all the freedom and ease they bring they also take a lot away. You can’t really do fancy typography. You don’t get to choose your typeface (on kindle anyway) and you can’t lay the pages out exactly the way you want to. The fact that the type size can be changed by the reader takes that away. The book will always be framed by the e-book reader. Ipads looks pretty cool but my kindle is one of those old, bigger white ones so no matter what there will always be a thick white frame surrounding it and a little keyboard at the bottom just out of view.

So does that mean e-books can’t be attractive, alluring objects? Well, actually I think they can be. When I put my e-book together I spent quite a bit of time doing some nice illustrations for the different sections of the book and putting in page breaks so it flowed nicely and proofreading it so that I knew it was as good as it could be. Nothing spectacular, but I have seen some shockingly produced e-books that are so badly put together that it left them looking at best tawdry and at worst unreadable.

When doing the illustrations for my book I kept in mind the kind of screen that was going to be displaying them. E-ink displays, only being able to show greyscale, have a pretty severe limitation built directly into them, but I deliberately did stark black and white designs for my e-book and they look pretty decent on a kindle and on the i-phone app. Limitations inspire creativity, rather than stifling it.

Ultimately of course, its all about the words. The thoughts, the ideas, the stories; the container they come in is only of secondary importance, but it does have some importance. Books have been gorgeous things for a very long time. Digital books are so new they haven’t really had much of a chance to mature. But just because it is possible to slam a slab of html code into a kindle file doesn’t mean that that’s what we should be doing. Getting design, formatting and presentation right means a book will at least look like it deserves not to be dismissed as lazy and amateurish. Seems a shame to have the means to allow all writers an audience and then spoil it by producing work that looks sloppy before the first word gets read.

The dangers and short-comings of e-books

On Friday afternoon I finished work a bit earlier than usual and so arrived back home while the local Waterstones was still open. I popped in to have a little browse and bumped into a friend who works there. We, and another guy who works there, got into a bit of a discussion about the pro’s and con’s of e-books. It was an interesting three way debate as we each held a distinctly different view. One thoroughly opposed to e-books, one on the fence and one, me, enthusiastic and keen about them.

In the interest of balance, given how I am, on the whole, very excited about e-books, I got thinking about the ways in which they perhaps are not very good.  So here we go again; another blog post about the merits of e-books.

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Feel free to dog-ear your pages

About ten years ago I was having lunch at work with a friend. This particular friend was, like many people, of the opinion that books are precious, valuable objects that need to be preserved, protected and revered. He was extremely frustrated with the way I folded the corners of my pages over to mark my place and the way I occasionally wrote notes in the margins or underlined passages. I lost count of the number of angry lectures I had to endure about the sacred nature of books and the responsibility we as a people have to look after our books so that future generations can reap the same benefit from them as we did. He was stubbornly insistent and, in a rare display of me losing my temper, instead of folding over the corner I tore a page out of the book and used it as a book mark. He was furious.

Even though we have had the mass printing press since about 1440, surely the invention of e-books will finally put this argument to rest?

Continue reading “Feel free to dog-ear your pages”