Publishing My Way
National Young Writers Festival 2002
I used to be an independent book publisher for ten years and also a print magazine publisher, and even though I do print and web design for a living these days, I am still publishing literature on the Internet – purely out of love for the written word. In my early twenties I was Austria’s youngest publisher and most of the emerging writers I first published are established authors today. Back then I was always running on sheer determination and Arts Council grants, however, I never cashed dole cheques as I never received unemployment benefits in my life, and only once I had to sell my Yamaha XT 500 bike to pay a printer’s bill.
From the 1970s on many new small publishers emerged to become professional players in the book market. I was one of them from 1984 to 1994, and had gained a reputation for hard hitting avant-garde. I even founded and managed a writers’ street festival in Graz, a city very much like Newcastle, from 1982 to 1986. Some say, indies is the only place where contemporary literature belongs. On the other hand, there is not just the small press out there today. The ‘old’ publishers like Penguin are often taking very young new names on board. Therefore, if you don’t produce crap, it’s only a matter of time to find the right match (just as in your love life), as long as you have enough passion, talent and patience.
When I asked Kylie Purr, the festival manager, what the audience would expect from our panel, she reckoned it could be some practical information of how to self publish. Where to get ISBNs and such hands-on stuff. My alarm bells rang: in all these years I would have never published my own book in print. If your heart goes to publishing rather than writing, learn the trade or ask people like myself for help (just don’t think computers do it all for you), start with your mates’ work, and leave your own material better in the drawer. It’s OK if you read it at events you organised or write in a (maga)zine you edit, but just don’t do your own books, ever. It’s damaging to your career.
With few exceptions, self published books lack editing, professionalism, get nowhere in the media, as no reviewer takes them seriously and never make it onto the shelves and from there to the readers anyway. Leave that to the experts without embarrassing yourself. You can’t be dancing on two parties at once. Take the long road and start with submissions to lit mags, and read your stuff at as many gigs as you can get. Make friends with a published writer, and ask if he or she could recommend your work. Also, when you read the books you like, talk to the people who made them, as these are the ones who would eventually take you on board as the right publisher for your own material. No point in ringing every publishing house listed in the Yellow Pages.
However, if you write non-fiction, know exactly who and where your target audience is (bypassing bookshops with your own distribution), can afford to invest at least the equivalent of a new car, are a quick learner how to market and promote your ‘product’, and are prepared to cooperate with (and pay for) graphic designers, typesetters, pre-press houses, printers and book binders, go for it as you would start any other business. If all works out, you should have earned your royalties and made a profit. But that’s not my way (and supposedly not yours).
So far I talked about paper books, what about new media? Well, a real book is still a book in print. No-one will download an e-book onto his or her PDA to take it to the loo to read. Not many would bother reading a longer text stored on a CD-ROM on a computer screen. Well, not the general public (unless it’s non-fiction, where the search functions can come in very handy). There are, of course, works conceived for multimedia only, but I assume we talk about traditional texts here, where e-books are a great marketing tool. Instead of hundreds of pages of expensive and environmental unfriendly paper you just send one URL to a potential publisher.
Editors, literary agents, film producers and the like also search the Net for new material. And, yes, you get the occasional nerd who prefers a (free) e-book to a paper book he or she has to borrow and copy or buy. In my opinion e-books are an important step towards the real thing, but have your material edited (or stress it’s not edited) and presented in a user-friendly format. Again, it might be better to have your e-books published with an established site, rather than on your own homepage, for they already have the traffic you will take years too create. Copyright issues with the electronic media have finally been sorted out, so in this regard there’s nothing to worry about any more but getting the written word out there.
This paper was presented at the National Young Writers Festival
Newcastle City Hall, 7 October 2002