Recently I’ve been reading on the web that a new publishing paradigm is emerging which will dispense with gatekeepers such as editors and agents. Instead, people will publish their own work and through recommendation on social networking sites readers will be able to find what they want to read.
I don’t believe a word of it. As someone who gets sent a lot of manuscripts by aspiring authors I have to tell you that the truth is an awful lot of them are very bad indeed. Of course, there are some genuinely talented people with compelling stories to tell but there are also scores who haven’t got an original idea in their heads yet are convinced the world should recognize their brilliance. If I had a pound for every manuscript I’ve seen about a boy wizard who goes off to a school to learn magic, I’d be a rich man.
But it’s not just lack of originality. I get sent manuscripts by people who can’t spell, can’t write in sentences, get words mixed up, don’t know how to punctuate, don’t use paragraphs and don’t number the pages. Others forget the names of their own characters or have dozens and dozens who are all simply names with not one word of description. I've been sent manuscripts for children which are full of very nasty sex scenes; stories in which animals get torn apart or slaughtered; stories that are blatantly racist or just insidiously so; books that are outright misogynist or merely very, very sexist.
It’s always these authors who get utterly infuriated when I point out where they might be going wrong (even though they’ve sent their manuscripts to me for my opinion in the first place). And whenever I am tempted to reply that I’m only pointing out those factors that are likely to limit their chances of landing a publishing contract, they invariably reply, ‘Well I’ll publish it myself then.’
When I was at university I firmly (and wrongly) believed that I could play the guitar. This was in the days of punk rock when there was a belief around that you could bypass the tired old hacks in the music business, set up your own record label and put out your own records. So I did just that. And when I’d paid the bill to the pressing plant I was left with hundreds of singles that I didn’t know what to do with.
Of course there were people who successfully set up their own labels but they were the minority of talented individuals and most of them soon graduated to larger labels as soon as they got the chance because they quickly found out that producing a record, like publishing a book, is only half the battle. Then you have to find ways to promote, sell and distribute it. If you’re successful, you soon discover how much time and effort that takes. If you’re not, you’re left with an awful lot of unsold stock.
I know an author who set up her own publishing company a few years ago. Her shoestring enterprise has carried on precariously ever since. One thing I can’t help noticing though is that she hasn’t written anything herself for years. Why? Because she’s turned into a publisher, of course. And, much as we authors like to moan about them, publishers do a great deal of work on their authors’ behalf.
So when people say to me, as they often do, ‘Why don’t you cut out the middleman and publish yourself?’ I simply tell them, ‘It’s because I don’t want to be a publisher; I want to be a writer.’
Incidentally, in case you’re wondering what happened to all those records I made, I left them in the attic when I moved house.