The title of this post is undoubtedly designed to be provocative, to pique interest, and to raise questions in the mind of the reader. Surely, to throw oneself off the edge of the cliff is a foolhardy act at best, and at worst a depressing submission to simple suicide? But no, in this case it is not so. In this case it is quite the opposite.
Throwing myself off the edge of a cliff, with the meaning that phrase is given here, is an act of creative freedom. Its aim is not at all morbid. Its aim is sublime and enduring success. How can this be so?
Aha, here is the secret: I have wings.
I intend not only to throw myself from the edge of the cliff, I intend to fly; and not only fly, but soar to dizzying and spectacular heights. Allow me, if you will be so kind, to explain.
When I was seven years old, I received a Christmas gift. It was something which I had repeatedly requested. I requested it in defiant contravention of the family rule that one did not ask for things. But I had cajoled, badgered and begged for it. The rule about not asking for things related to luxuries, indulgences and rare delights; such as a trip to the cinema or ice-cream on a Monday. This thing was a plain necessity. As I saw it then, it was as vital to my welfare as food, exercise and poetry.
It was a typewriter.
It was more than a mere typewriter. It was an icon, a talisman, a thing of power which used rightly could make dreams come true.
I was seven years old at the time. I am 47 years old now. Whilst it is true that I have been writing on and off throughout all that time and I have published both journalism and short fiction in the press on and off-line, it is only now after 40 years that I am about to publish my first book.
When I received that typewriter I wanted to be a writer. But I wanted, as must be the case with many small children, to be many things. For me at that time to “be a writer” was no more substantial an ambition than was my desire to be Robin Hood, Spiderman, a train driver, a 19th century poet, a conservationist, or an astronaut. Eventually most of those other things would have to give way.
I can now make honest claim to two titles from the list of childhood ambitions. I am a writer. I am a conservationist. There are other roles I play on the stage of life, but we need not treat of them here.
As I said, I have always written. At school, which I hated, both my academic and creative writing were highly praised and met with great success. Then followed my adolescent crises. I flunked high school. I dabbled in drink and drugs. I discovered sex and rock and roll. I became a folk artist and an itinerant wanderer, bumming around Europe, broadening my horizons, opening my mind, seeing wonders, meeting strangers and learning, above all, that the journey never ends; there is always another horizon. But the trip took its toll just as it bestowed blessings.
I came back down to Earth.
There followed a regrouping of the disparate elements of myself into some socially functional shape. Consequent to that came a colorful and thoroughly enjoyable career in children’s theater and television. I was lucky enough to work with some wonderful people both on the stage and on the screen, and I also fulfilled a childhood dream with a residency at The Little Angel Marionette Theatre in London. Somewhere along the way I added a house, a family, a dog, a car, tax responsibilities, bills, shopping and all the rest. All of which have enriched my life immeasurably. Yes, even the tax returns! I make no complaint, and I am a better person for all of it.
During that time I did, of course, write. I wrote and edited scripts both for the stage and for the small screen. But that writing, in terms of content, style and final product, was not the kind of writing I had imagined myself creating when I was a seven-year-old child.
Storytelling has always been at the heart of everything I have ever done. I had told stories, lived stories, played stories, staged and televised stories. The time had come to figure out how to write stories. But not since my childhood – when the trees and the birds and the creatures of the snufflegruff were the only witnesses to my solitary woodland games – had I wanted to simply tell a tale. Stories have always been for sharing. A storyteller must have an audience. If a tale is to be told, someone must listen.
So to sensibly write stories, I would need people to read them. And that would mean publishing them, making them public. But how?
At that time I had no idea you could jump off a cliff and fly. Really. I thought the only route to publication was to climb the endless staircase, knock at the sealed doors of oak, and beg entry of the gatekeepers of the mystical castle wherein the occult secrets of authorship were jealously guarded.
So I mounted my steed, donned my poor armor and set forth on this quest for the Holy Grail.
But after many years of trying it seemed I was no Galahad, nor yet a Lancelot, Bors or Percival. The gates remained barred to me and the object of my quest veiled in perpetual mystery.
What I mean by that, of course, is that having finally written a book I thought was good ~ more than that, it’s a book I really believe in ~ I started to put together a submissions package and send it out to literary agents. I won’t go into that again here as I’ve covered that experience extensively elsewhere on this blog. Sufficient to say that I learned two important things from that experience. Firstly, I learned that many of them liked my book and thought it had real merit. Secondly, that they didn’t consider it commercial enough to be able to sell on to a mainstream publisher. I think there are a lot of good books which languish unpublished for this reason.
A quick word about the gatekeepers. They are people just like you and I. They are as varied in their talents and their dedication, indeed in their motives, for doing the job they do, as the next person. They are not magical and they are not always right. Further, and the best are more than willing to admit it, they cannot represent a book purely on its literary merit. They just can’t. They have to believe it will sell and sell big. That usually means at least 30,000 copies in the first month or so after publication. Furthermore, they are mostly wrong. It’s something like 80% of all the books traditionally published and stocked on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and the rest, never earn out their probably meager advances and the books are returned and pulped.
The best literary agents I had contact with ~ that is to say a real conversation and exchange ~ told me that the only other factor they use to judge a book is their own personal taste. How could it be otherwise? But you see, it began to dawn on me that the traditional publishing route didn’t seem to be offering me much given how hard it was to get beyond these arbitrary gatekeepers.
It might take years to snag an agent. Years again to get a publishing deal. You might be offered a very small advance (a typical advance in the UK for a first time author is as little as £1000). You will then have to do all the marketing and promotion yourself and the chances are your book will sink without trace. And even if they do sell, you’ll earn less than 20% of the cover price minus your agent’s ongoing fees. Doesn’t sound so appealing, does it? It sounds like an excellent way to die in poverty and disillusionment in fact!
And do you remember that I am now 47 years old? I have a lot of books in me and I know there are readers out there who will love them. Maybe not enough to sell 30,000 copies a month, not enough to earn the huge profit margins demanded by the big, greedy publishing corporations. But just a thousand readers who loved it would be enough to justify the publication from my perspective. And ten books like that, doing the same, would be enough to earn me the little money I need to live on. That is, if I publish independently, directly to the readers who will love my books. The modern independent publishing world means that I can offer my book to readers at a fraction of the cost they’d pay for one from a big five publishing house and I can take 70% of the sales. But more about the nitty-gritty of this side of things in another post perhaps.
Let’s talk about farmer’s markets, community groups and the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement. No, I haven’t lost the plot. Let me explain.
When I’m in England, I live in a semi-rural village on the outskirts of a market town. In that town there is a huge supermarket. In that supermarket there are vegetables which have been grown intensively, meat that has been factory-farmed, cookies and all kinds of other products willed with rain forest destroying palm oil and all of it massively over-packaged in life-damaging plastic. Most of the food is also priced ridiculously high for what it is – because of the wasteful and inefficient production processes involved in modern agribusiness, and because of the simple greed of the people who run it.
Right next to that supermarket, and constantly under threat of closure, are the community allotments. Little vegetable plots, mostly organic, all carefully tended.
You can stand on the bridge nearby and get a good view of both simultaneously. On the one side, you see folks in pollution pumping cars slapping their steering wheels in frustration and swearing as they vie for a place in the overcrowded parking lot. You can see them flustered, pale, and faces lined with stress as they enter the belly of the behemoth, as they are sucked into the neon-lit, air conditioned aisles to fill their carts with plastic packets of over-priced, under-nourishing consumables. Most pay with a credit card at the noisy checkout. Sometimes not a word passes between the shopper and the miserable checkout drone, her humanity entirely subsumed by corporate greed and the television-numbed mental despair of the over-worked and underpaid.
This is the only way they know how to get food.
Think about that.
On the other side you see the allotments. You see people out in the fresh air, working at their own pace, tilling the rich soil, tending seeds with love and care, harvesting a crop of homegrown, organic vegetables. The rents for the community gardens are about £30 a year. The investment of time (I know from my own experience) is about twenty minutes a day and there are no other costs. Other gardeners are more than happy to share seeds and advice, tools and even labor. And those gardens are big enough to furnish a family of four with all the fruit and vegetables they need. Really.
There was a big scandal here in the UK as the supermarkets were driving the farmers to bankruptcy and ruin by driving their prices down and driving farmers to cut corners, overuse pesticides and chemical fertilizers and generally reduce the quality of their food. Eventually, many of our farmers had had enough. They decided to basically say “screw you” to the big corporations and take their products straight to market. I mean, a real market, you know, in the Market Square – not some notional “market,” the monster created by the Victor Frankenstein of global commerce. Small farmers, selling high-quality local produce direct to the people who eat it. There’s hardly a town in the country that doesn’t have a farmers’ market now.
The 19th century is widely known as a period of Imperialism, industrial expansion and technological revolution. And it certainly was all of those things in the West. It was the first time the world had seen poorly created, low quality, homogeneous mass production, too; the rise of a heartless, profit-driven utilitarianism in the production of things. In reaction against that, the Arts and Crafts movement was born, with its values of personal creativity, collective ownership, skilled craftspeople combining art and beauty integrally with the everyday. William Morris remains perhaps the most widely remembered and venerated of the movement’s supporters.
So, why all this waffle about community gardens, farmers’ markets and William Morris? What’s this got to do with contemporary book publishing?
Well, what it means is that while the back-to-the-land revolutions of times gone by may have become little more than artifacts of history, there has been a real revolution in the world of publishing. The details you can explore for yourself if you’re interested. It’s taken place over the last ten years. There’s a new and thriving community of self-directed, independent publishers, both individuals and small presses, and they’re turning out high quality books which lots of readers are enjoying. These courageous revolutionaries have taken that leap of rational faith, invested, experimented, learned and worked hard. The result is a new era of the democratization of publishing.
And this brave new world accords with and echoes my own deeply held political, social and personal views about co-operation, the beauty of the small scale, the power of the collective imagination to overcome the oppression of the mega-industries, the inherent value of diy, the cottage crafter, and the free-spirited adventurer.
So, I’m taking my manuscripts and jumping off the cliff. The first book will be available to pre-order mid February and then available to buy in all good bookshops from mid April.
I don’t expect to soar straight away after my first leap. There may be a period of free fall. But I have wings. And I will fly. Whether I turn out to be Superman or Icarus remains to be seen.
UPDATE: the first book was published on February 14th 2016. The second book was published 1st August 2016.
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