I’ve been working for a number of years on my own projects, with very little remuneration and fame to speak of. I started dreaming about the Z-Verse when I was 14 and haven’t looked back since. I worked on it during high-school, wrote my first draft during senior year at Unitec, and have kept going in the time since. Anyone who knows me understands that when it comes to the stories and illustrations I create, money is not the first thing on my mind. I do it because I love it. I’ve always felt a connection to storytelling, even as a kid, and I’ve always been fascinated by all the adventures I imagine must be playing out somewhere amongst the distant stars.
I’ve been so breathless to express these ideas, that it was only natural that I started telling them myself, packaging up my writing into self-designed novels and ebooks and sending them out into the world where they continue to hobble their way along. One day, more people may grow to love them as I love writing them, or, if not, at least I know that I have done the best I can. That’s all anyone can really do, at the end of the day.
On the other hand, like all self-published authors, I do admit I venture into libraries and bookstores and think to myself, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool if ‘A Sense for Memory’ was sitting right here on the bestseller shelf?’ I can’t deny I pick up books, with cheesily photoshopped covers and tawdry blurbs, and wonder, ‘If this stuff can get published, how come my work can’t?’ The obvious answer is of course that the market demands a seemingly endless supply of paranormal romance novels, military sci-fis and messy Human dramas. Everyone loves a romance – no one loves an alien, unless its the depersonalised variety that makes great fodder for shooting at or comparing humanity with.
Despite knowing that on an intellectual level, I did, at one point, have a real desire to see my works in print on a bookshelf in a big store like Dymocks. I dreamed about seeing the Penguin Books imprint on the inner jacket of one of my novels, or, indeed, a publishing imprint from any of the large companies. I think a lot of people, including self-published authors, don’t see themselves as actual ‘writers’ until their work is in a store somewhere, regardless of how good it is or how much it reflects their original vision.
My mixed feelings towards traditional publishing came about when I was a quarter of the way through my fourth (fifth? Sixth?) book, ‘Not To Be Forgotten’ (capitals? Hmm.). This is an adventure-survival story in the vein of ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’, and I’m very excited about it in spite of the fact that writing it has been a bit of a battle with my creative stamina. I am convinced that it is my best, and in 2015, shortly before moving to Huai’an, I decided to send in a manuscript and covering letter to a well-known agency in Australia and New Zealand.
Now, most people are aware that publishing is an industry with many gatekeepers and barriers to entry. Certain genres are quite difficult to sell. Not very many publishers are open to manuscripts from the general public, and if they are, it can take several months for a response – sometimes up to half a year, just for a letter which says no! So, many authors put their work in the hands of publishing agents who pitch the book to the industry on the author’s behalf. An agent will also help negotiate book deals, royalties and so forth. Thinking I was clever, I sent my initial manuscript away with a very eager cover letter and some sample illustrations and then waited to see what would come of it.
Unsurprisingly, I was sent a letter of ‘thanks, but no thanks’. I received no feedback beyond the automated response, although one can be fairly certain that either the work was considered completely crap, or, even more likely, that it was not viewed as ‘sellable’. This is a crucial point when dealing with agents, or the publishing industry in general, because both the publishing house and the agent will only see a return on their investments if the book breaks even. The author themselves won’t begin to see royalties if the book doesn’t sell past the advance given to them. I don’t know everything about the industry, or of the myriad deals and arrangements different companies may have with their authors, but this episode cemented my current ambivalence towards the publishing industry.
You see, I did not receive a response from the agency to my manuscript until a few weeks prior to returning from Asia, months and months later. The response I got was polite and short – four sentences long. It’s hard to accept that something you really believe in and have worked hard on will be dismissed so handily, without any feedback at all or directions on where else to go. Of course publishing is a business, and so time is money, and all the rest of it. No one is obliged to mentor me, and, in fact, they shouldn’t. They should focus their energies on where they would be most constructive. The same goes for me – when I read the little letter, one part of me felt that I would just send out more manuscripts to other agents. Who knows, maybe I would get lucky. The other part of me, the bigger, stubborn part, said, ‘Fair play. I’ll just keep on doing it myself.’
Since then, I haven’t reached out to the industry at all, unfortunately. Not because I don’t care or I don’t want to someday be as great as all those other amazing authors on the shelf. It’s mostly because I’m not sure whether the publishing industry has any room in it for me.
I would imagine that many writers feel that there aren’t many works out there which match their own. I suppose I feel the same way, and have given up nurturing an idea which seems less immediate than my own results. After all, I can write whatever I want, design it however I like, and then have it show up in my Kindle or in my hands as a physical copy. The feedback and impact is immediate. The amount of self-esteem and joy it gives me to write and have it published under my own imprint can’t be overstated. And yet – I still feel a twinge of despondency when I see all those copies flying off the shelf.
My conflicted feelings on the matter are perhaps best summarized by that legendary author, Alan Moore, whom in a recent video I found said that,
“And as far as publishing goes, my third tip: Publishing today is a complete mess. I know brilliant authors who cannot get books published,” He adds “Most book publishers don’t want to take a risk on fiction.” His advice is to instead “publish yourself. It’s become easier and easier.”