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Why I am Going to Throw Myself Off the Edge of a Cliff

Posted in Editors, Getting published, Independent Publishing, Learning to Write, Literary agents, Publishing, Rejections, Steampunk, True Stories, and Writing a novel

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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.

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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.

What happened?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Einsamer Ritt. 1889.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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If you’d rather buy them or just prefer a paperback, the first in the series, Beyond the Starline, is here: Amazon UK   Amazon US   Waterstones  Barnes & Noble  Smashwords  Kobo or ask for it in your library or local independent bookstore and they’ll order it for you.

If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be more than happy to help if I can, or just connect and share experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas.

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6 Comments

  1. Food for thought! I sometimes wonder how much clinging to the traditional publishing trajectory is due to vanity and the clamoring for approval by the ‘right’ people. It’s a brave leap off that cliff.

    Looking forward to Beyond the Starline later this year!

    January 21, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin
      Austin

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I certainly think that there’s a lot of that in it for many people. To my mind, the only only approval needed is that of readers and my own conscience.

      I think if you are writing “literary” fiction, then there is a real role for mainstream agents and publishing houses. However, if you’re writing anything else and you are serious about building a long term writing career, being productive over many years, and you have high standards in terms of the quality of your product, independent publishing should be the first choice these days.

      Of course, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Don’t jump off the cliff before you’ve made some wings! The wise take time to research everything they intend to do: how the industry works, how to choose and engage the right professional partners (editors, proofreaders, artists and designers) and all the other business things: obtaining and registering ISBNs, getting your books in the catalogues of the main distributors, pricing and marketing, understanding the legalities of publishing across territories, and on and on.

      Independent publishing (if you mean to do it properly and succeed) is not for the faint hearted. You are essentially committed to doing all the things that a mainstream publisher would do and more, on top of writing your books, blogs, mailing lists and all the rest. It’s a big investment of time and money. But if you “only want to write” it could be very challenging.

      The benefits lie in keeping all your rights, having creative control over the way your work is published, priced and marketed, taking a good royalty on each sale (up to 85% of cover price, as opposed to a traditionally published author who, after everyone else has made their cut, might take back less than 15% per unit sold) and being able to serve to mutual benefit a smaller niche audience than a big publisher could afford to bother with.

      But, as I said, we shall see. Superman or Icarus? Only time will tell!

      January 21, 2016
      |Reply
      • Thanks for the reply! I had to spend some time thinking about it, in particular your comment on genre.

        I think most writers serious about their work would agree with your point about the challenges of independent publishing. Though it’s sometimes being toted (or derided) as the ‘easy’ way into publishing, your assessment of the vast number of parameters required for a successful business model is spot on. As with a lot of other things, self-publishing is relatively easy to do but incredibly hard to do WELL, and I suspect you’re right in that it comes down to whether the author is willing to make the investment or not.

        What I hadn’t considered, however, is your point about genre. Obviously, I can see how genre fiction writers currently benefit from independent publishing, while literary fiction writers are less visible. What is harder to discern is the mechanism behind this difference. Is it due to mainstream publishing favouring literary fiction, or independent publishing favouring genre fiction, or a combination of both? It will be interesting to see the consequences of this over time, if the divide continues (a big IF in its own right). I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on it sometime, when your schedule permits.

        Also, I’m rooting for Superman!

        February 12, 2016
        |Reply
        • Austin
          Austin

          Thank you very much for your thoughtful and interesting contribution.

          I haven’t looked into the data regarding the issue of the genre/literary divide between independent publishers and big publishing houses, so my response to your questions is by no means scientific. However, I have a few ideas which seem to make sense to me.

          Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that no-one is successfully publishing large volumes of literary fiction either side of the camp. Go into any high street book store stocked mostly (although these days no longer exclusively) by mainstream publishing houses, and the lion’s share of shelf-space is still occupied by Crime, Mystery, Thrillers, Romance, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Practically everyone’s bread and butter lies on those shelves.

          Bearing that in mind, it is still true that if you compare independently published literary fiction and that published by the so-called “Big Five” you will see more success from the latter than the former. And your question is, why?

          I think there are multiple factors feeding in to the situation. On the one hand, hardly anyone ever reads “litfic.” Its visibility doesn’t come, as we’ve seen, through selling millions, or even thousands, of copies. The meaning of success in “literary” terms is defined by critical acclaim and winning prestigious prizes. Large volume sales may then follow for the lucky few upon whom those accolades are conferred. Most literary authors do not make their living solely from their writing, nor do they have any expectation to do so. It is also worth noting that none of the main prizes will consider an independently published title. That is simple snobbery, but it’s a fact. So to independently publish is to deny yourself at the outset any chance at a prize.

          There are also practical considerations. In the same way that a very good TV series can be produced in a fraction of the time it takes to make a feature film; literary writers will toil for years to produce a single book (and it still might not be any good), whereas a talented genre writer will produce several books a year and they’ll all be cracking good reads. The prehistorically slow publishing cycle of the mainstream houses is therefore no handicap to the literary writer, but a potential death-trap to the genre writer who wishes to earn a living by the pen alone. The freedom to publish as frequently as you are ready makes independence very appealing to the determined genre writer.

          Readerships also play a part. Successful genre writers, over time, build very loyal followings of readers eager to devour every story they write and they know they’ll be fed plenty of stories to satisfy their hunger. Mainstream or independent, financially successful authors have published lots of books, not just one or two. From Charles Dickens to Stephen King, productivity is one of the foundations of success in this field. No surprise then that many genre writers come from a background in commercial writing and journalism – where they have learned to treat the work as a job, to be self-disciplined, to meet deadlines, to scorn such nonsense as “writer’s block” and deliver the goods. The literary writer is rarely so productive. But, interestingly, when she is, she usually finds financial success as a by-product of her productivity.

          There may also be some psychology involved. It may be that “the kind of person” who is attracted to the “literary” endeavour, and is more interested in prestige than money, is less likely to be willing or able to handle all the complexities of “running a business” which is required of the “Indie.”

          That said, I do think that this dichotomy between the mainstream and the independent will vanish soon enough as the business continues to evolve. I think the two lines will merge and hybridize and, in time, become something that will be an altogether different species of publishing adapted to a new and changing ecology. In that new ecology, literary writers will benefit as it is recognized that “literary” is also a genre and everyone is both mainstream and independent. One way or another, however, the dinosaurs of mainstream publishing as they exist today, too big and inefficient, are approaching their twilight years.

          February 16, 2016
          |Reply
  2. Your replies are the stuff of legend! Thanks for that thorough reply. You should consider writing it as a blog post in its own right.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The productivity issue, the loyalty of readership – indie publishing has a lot to offer for the genre writer who is willing to treat it as a business. I suppose some of the scorn comes from just this business aspect. How can something be considered art if it’s developed as commerce? Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, but may easily appear to be so based on our preconceptions of what art/literature is.

    It’s interesting that lauded litfic successes sometimes have quite low sales numbers. The Knausgaard books (My Struggle, etc) have been mentioned as an example. (link: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2014/07/19/raise-your-hand-if-youve-read-knausgaard/). Never mind all the litfic novels bought but not read (I have a few on the shelf myself). I think you said it quite well earlier on: the approval of the reader matters. In genre fiction, readership is a matter of survival. Litfic, perhaps less so. A juggernaut can be created in literary fiction with a predominantly ‘reporting’ audience rather than a reading audience. Still, I think as you say that the lines have been blurring for a while, and we have all been better off for it.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the new ecology you describe. It’s clearly something stirring, and not only in literary publishing. Science publishing is currently screaming for an overhaul, and everything from open access and fees to peer review is under debate. The same structure exists there – huge publishing houses, big barriers, long waits. I believe the word ‘stifling’ has been used to describe it, and that is not a good thing, neither for science nor literature.

    But you should really adapt the above comments into a blog post.

    February 18, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin
      Austin

      Thanks for your generous comment and your enthusiasm! I don’t know if I’ll adapt this into a post, as it’s already here for anyone to read who may be interested – but there are more than a few ideas in the pipeline that will probably pique your interest when they are posted.

      I agree with you about the current state of scientific publishing and it’s a popular topic for fairly heated debate at our ornithology field station, when we’re stuck in because of poor weather usually (passerines don’t like getting wet as soggy feathers render them vulnerable to cold and predation). But to start on that now would be to open a big, rusty can of worms …

      February 20, 2016
      |Reply

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