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Writing Heaven, Publishing Hell: Navigating the Labyrinth

Originally written in October 2014

As someone who would love one day to make something of a career out of my writing, the current state of play in the heady world of book publishing is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. On the one hand sits a twitchy old angel, anxious and unstable but still exalted and admired. She is traditional publishing and she lives in a decaying Heaven of deals, advances, struggling authors and a confusing and bewildering gamut of awards and prizes. On the other hand sits a giddy and aged daemon, spiky and devious, but reinvigorated, smartened up and having a damn fine stab at going straight. This is self-publishing, which has almost successfully shed its former ‘vanity’ skin and is making some serious strides in the redecoration and reformation of its particular Hell. In the latter, a sudden promise of untold riches and a thrilling allure of total autonomy. In the former, legitimacy in the hallowed halls of fame and a careful and established structure of rigour and control. It is the new deity Web-God who has thrown open the gates of both realms and encouraged this frightening mixture of the angels and demons - and new writers, caught in an angsty purgatory, are finding it increasingly hard to tell the two beings apart. But perhaps there is no real difference. Perhaps there never was.

In recent weeks I have attended a number of literary events and heard talks from many people already living these afterlives, both authors and industry folk, and their experiences and guidance varies wildly. For some, self-publishing via the interweb is the only god-damned way forward and we new writers need to embrace it now or risk dying in the dust of the left-behind. For others self-publishing is still a joke, dominated by geeks, freaks and the laughably bad. And here, without fail, swinging in like some screeching apocalyptic horseman, eyes bulging incredulously as it rides a steed of million dollar bills, comes the scoffed utterance of Fifty Shades of Grey, and for some reason that seems to win the argument.

At The Word Festival in Preston six weeks ago, two speakers gave their opposing views and both, in different ways, filled me with gloom and a certain amount of dread. The first was Conrad Jones, a sharp-suited business man and best-selling crime author, who gave a long and fascinating talk about how he went from being a tradesman who lost everything in a burglary, to a successful author making a decent living from proper graft, creating perfectly valid entertainments for a whole lot of people with e-readers. His talk was dominated by his hints and tricks for all the various and brilliant ways an author can self-promote – everything from getting professional book covers, to how to work Amazon’s algorithms to get your novel higher and higher up the charts. It was thrilling, it was fabulous, but then he said one thing that sucked it all away. He said; ‘the writing is the easy part.’ All the work, he said, is in the promotion. No. No, no, no. The writing should never be the easy part. It should always be the hardest part. The craft, the edit, the structure, the development, it takes flipping years to get that right. That old aphorism that says a book is never finished, just stopped, is achingly true. Conrad Jones publishes one book every three months. I've never read any of his novels, and they certainly do very well, so I am in no place to judge their quality. But is that the direction we want to churn literature? Or does that not matter - particularly to readers?

The other speaker that day was literary agent Robin Jones from Unthank Books. He agreed with a lot of Conrad’s talk, but fundamentally disagreed with his assertion that publishers and small presses have, thanks to the gate-less internet, become totally useless for authors. His talk, of course, focussed on the ‘literary’ side of the coin, on how agents support writers and vice versa, and the legitimacy that comes with ‘proper’ publishing. And yet. The landscape has changed. Once upon a time Robin Jones would pick up 20-30 novels a year and fling them out here, there and everywhere for a whole range of publishers to print and distribute, often at a loss. Now, post-crash and mid-net, he’ll take on three books, maybe four. Meaning he has to be a lot more discerning. Meaning it makes it harder than ever for a new writer to be plucked from the cesspit of the slushpile.

In the eyes of both men I detected a certain jadedness. One fresh from a factory churning out a strict formula, the other downsizing his studio and ditching great works of art without a second glance. Where does that leave new writers? Pitching a tent in purgatory and bedding down for a long cold night of the soul? Well not quite yet. A few weeks later I attended a talk by science-fiction author and digital activist Cory Doctorow whose insight into the real state of play is beguiling and invaluable. He spoke of changes to copyright laws in the wake of the web, and the deeply troubling actions of the big players Amazon, Google and Apple who are actively ensuring they find all the ways to rip all negotiating powers and intellectual rights from the hands and minds of creators and into their bulging pockets. Brilliantly, he argued for a return to a competitive market of independents, who can use the tools of the web to their own gain to create new, exciting works and tip the balance back in the favour of artists in the process – but this, he says, is only possible by having a free and fair internet. His brilliant talk is easily found on YouTube so do give it a listen. I gave a brief write up of the talk for the MLF blog.

Cory Doctorow

Bringing us up-to-date, yesterday I was at the Northern Lights Writers Conference in Sale which had the ballsy by-line ‘Making Writing Pay’ and featured talks from published writers as well as literary agents, all of whom gave a great and honest account of themselves. The agents did a particularly good job in countering the gloom of Robin Jones by showing that the corner of publishing which they occupy is as healthy as ever, and just as enthusiastic. Most of all they convinced me that having an agent is probably a damn good idea because, although they take a cut, most of them know the industry inside out in ways an author never could. But the big name on the bill yesterday was Will Self, who gave a typically acidic and biting keynote speech, which was utterly compelling and frequently hilarious. From the off he was completely transparent about his earnings and showed us a graph which went something like this:

Will Self: Earnings and Advances (click to see bigger)

Money on the left, time along the bottom, the red line is his earnings from his novels, and the blue line shows his advances from publishers. The swelling grey area is what he termed ‘the credibility gap.’ With gloomy prescience, he predicted a drop in the blue line and a collapse of the credibility gap under its own impossible weight. He shrugged it off as being a symptom of the changed world and him being an ageing writer, perhaps no longer so relevant, and yet he remains stoically dedicated to writing whatever the hell he wants to write, whenever the hell he wants to, critics and readers be damned. There was a lot to admire, but a lot to feel grim about. He had no real answers, no real guidance for young authors. He said he felt sorry for us. He said: beware of agents and don’t trust them. He stuck two crude fingers up at genre writing, and I detected a certain bitterness there perhaps. He nearly ripped a young journalist’s head off (seriously). And yet, he was kind of brilliant in a way I can’t quite nail. I look up to him, but distrust him. I admire, but disagree. I recognise his unstoppable compulsion to write, but I will not abandon all hope as I enter.

So its backward and forward, backward and forward. And yet, amongst this frantic and wayward mix of glittering jewels and tripwires, there emerged one shining heroic star. He appeared at the start, in the afternoon of the The Word Festival in Preston, after the Jones vs Jones melee of mediocrity. This was Joseph Delaney, author of the young adult horror novels that make up The Wardstone Chronicles – the most famous of which being The Spook’s Apprentice. The Spooks series runs to 13 books now and Delaney gets them out at a fair old rate of knots. In February, after the sort of mega-delay that only Hollywood can sustain, a film version of The Spook’s Apprentice is hitting the multiplexes (renamed Seventh Son and radically changed from the book, according to Delaney), and this was the nominal topic of his talk in Preston. And he did speak of the film, but in quite withering tones and only for a short time. Instead, he spoke about his characters. And the world of his books. And the different plots in his books, and how the protagonist changes and grows, and which Lancashire myth inspired the creation of which beast, and how you beat a witch, or a ripper boggart, or a dangerous ghast. He flicked through a slideshow of marvellous grisly wonders, and when he did come to talk of the movie, he spoke not of how it came to be, but instead relayed the tale of his exciting meeting with the stars, Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore.

Afterwards, I read one of his books; The Spook’s Curse. The love and passion comes through his prose in bucketfuls. It was an exciting read, not without flaws, but proper scary in parts and brilliantly written. In his talk he barely mentioned money, said next to nothing on how to write or how to get published. But I took from him the biggest and perhaps most obvious tool for the navigation of the murky netherworld of a professional writer’s life; a bright, bold, flaming torch that you should always ensure is fully lit and burning hard. Enthusiasm. As long as you keep that passion, that love, that energy for what you are writing, you’ll find a way through the labyrinth. This is now a maze with many new twists and many dizzying turns, but there are also a lot more exits to fresh, new pastures with endless possibility. And as long as you love what you do, and you fight, graft and persist and believe it in and never let that belief drop, you’ll find one of those gates. They still stand, they can still be unlocked and opened. And if you find one and it doesn't suit, you can always turn around and dive back in to the maze to try for another. The most important weapon a writer has in their arsenal is the ability to create, time and again, and while you have the burning torch of enthusiasm lighting the way, you'll always find another way through, and another, and another. And if you encounter any witches or boggarts or spirits along the way who say; nah, not this way mate, trust yourself enough to know exactly how to beat them, join them or ignore them to get to wherever it is you, yourself want to go.

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