Saturday, 29 August 2009

Year Zero is here: So What?

Next Tuesday, the first three books from the Year Zero Writers collective will hit the world with a vengeance. The three of us writers are obviously excited - we finally get to see if anyone's interested in our books. The other 19 members of Year Zero Writers are pretty excited. If we do well, then they're next. And there are a few writers sitting on the periphery thinking about whether to join us or not (and a couple I'm desperately hoping to persuade to join in). They'll be watching with more than passing interest.

But does what we're doing actually matter to anyone else, and why? Well, we're not the first people to self-publish, and we're not the first people to have formed a collective, so I suppose you could say we join the miasma of projects deemed interesting if they poke their noses above the parapets but not until then.

So let me try and explain, in the course of a couple of hundred words, why you should care about whether we succeed or fail.


The simple reason why our success or failure matters to writers is this: you can learn from what we do right - and what we do wrong. We have set out a clear manifesto, and a clear set of conditions explaining what we are and are not. We are committed to trying a wide range of strategies to promote our work (we are a marketing collective, not a publishing collective). We set out with a clear expectation of what we would like to achieve.

And we intend to report back openly on what works, and what doesn't work. On September 1st, I will issue a projection for my own book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, and on the first of every month thereafter I will issue an interim report explaining what's happened over the preceding month, giving figures for sales and downloads, and providing a commentary and analysis.

Perhaps most important of all, if our works gain the commercial and critical success we believe they deserve, we may do something to break down the barriers that exist amongst the gatekeepers of the book world - the reviewers. And tehnext tmie they are approached with a self-published book, they might look before saying no. That matters to all writers, self-published or not (because if we can do it, we will raise the question in many writers' minds: why do we need a publisher?).


What we're doing matter to readers deeply for a number of reasons - and these are the real reasons we set up the collective.

1. We're new authors, writing quality literary fiction. These are books you will not find through mainstream publishers, because they are simply not a viable commercial proposition. I prposed one way the industry could make them viable last week. E-BOOK ONLY CONTRACTS FOR NEW WRITERS. Whether the industry adopts this model remains to be seen. As it stands, there is no room for books like ours, and no room for talent to be nurtured without pressure for sales. Books like ours would be lost without collectives like this.

2. We are NOT self-publishing because our books aren't good enough for the mainstream. We want our books to look and feel like something you would be proud to pick up in a bookstore. Well-designed, and free of the vast quantities of typos that dog many self-published books. We are self-publishing because that's the only way to get our books into print and into your hands. An agent told me, after reading Songs... that she loved the book, and would love to represent me, but it just wasn't enough of a "big splash" book for a new writer. We don't want to write "big splash" books. we want to write quality, gentle, beautiful, challenging, original books, and we believe readers want to have the option of reading them. If we succeed, then we will have proved to readers they don't have to go to Waterstone's or teh Booker longlist the next time they want a quality read.

3. We fundamentally believe in giving our work away in electronic format for free. We believe it makes business sense, because we will gain fans who will pay for our books. And we believe it gives readers the opportunity to read and decide without having to commit their money to somthing they have no idea about. We took the decision to produce an anthology of writing by 13 of our members, Brief Objects of Beauty and despair, which is, and always will be, free. I am releasing the whole of my novel for free. We've met a lot of resistance to the idea from people who say it devalues culture, and that free means rubbish, but we believe the chance to sample new writers' work for free is fundamental to giving readers choice.

The wider public

There's a bigger reason why our success or failure matters. I've blogged about culture and social exclusion before. Of course we're not going to change the world, and of course our success or failure won't see the perpetuation or the end of vast sectors of our population having their voices silenced by the culture industry. But every time something outside of the mainstream succeeds - in showing that it has a voice worthy of being heard; a product for whihc people are prepared to pay; means of getting the message out there that are not in themselves exclusive - the general assumption that culture is to be found only through recognised channels is undermined a little more. And it becomes a little easier for the next voices who come along to be heard.
So now it's up to you. We launch on Tuesday. I'll put my money where my mouth is with some predictions - and give you a little intro to each book. If you can't wait, you can buy them now:
Benny Platonov (£15.27)
Or if you want to read them over the bank holiday, you can download them in all e-book formats:


  1. I too have written a novel that I'd call literary fiction or autobiographical realism. I'm sure it's a book that has relevance and will resonate with a large audience. While I've been editing it for submission it's been online at my blog and has had almost 2,000 readers since I installed a statcounter a year ago (and for much of that time it was off line when I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest last year).

    I'll follow your progress with interest.

  2. Hi. I've been following your Utah Svage blog with interest. How did you find ABNA? I've never dared to enter as I've heard all sorts of rumours about it being a time drain - would love to know how you found it.

    Very best with the book.

  3. The Amazon contest was a good experience in that it made me try to do things I'd felt I couldn't--I had to write a very short bio, a pitch (oh the horror of having to be a pitch-person) and a synopsis. I found all of this daunting and difficult, but in the end a very good exercise. It was a bit like taking a crash course in advertising. I was told that if they didn't like any of the three components of my submission they wouldn't even read my first three chapter. I made it through the first part and two people read my first three chapters and left comments for me. One said, "too much happens in the first two chapters." The other said, "I'm interested in reading more." They seemed to cancel each other out and so I went no further than that. It is a contest for mostly genre fiction, and so I claimed that my novel was a "psychological thriller."

    Now I'm doing a lot of twittering searching out agents and reading advise on writing a query letter. I can write, but to put bio, pitch, and synopsis all in one single spaced page is beyond my ability (so far.) But I will keep trying.

    I hope to stay in touch with you. This is a lovely site and an interesting experiment. What is the cost like for self publishing? And how do you feel about the experience of self marketing?

  4. Have you been to Pitch Parlour ( - it's a site specifically for the 3-part query (as such it's even more useful than a site like Queryshark).

    The cost really is next to nothing (and only anything at all because I wanted an ISBN for Amazon/B&N). And I haven't spent a cent on marketing (except a couple of review copies). I posted (Into print) with the technical information about how much and what to do for both print and e-books.

    I find it fascinating the different querying system in the US from over here in the UK where we always send out the opening chapters - there is no such thing as a "request for a partial".

    I loved you opening chapter, by the way. And thank you for the link on your site to my main web page (

  5. Dan, I would not know where to start. No, I do not want to know either. I am sticking with my self-imposed "if it is good enough it will make it mainstream" because mine is definitely for the younger generation.
    But, as we say in Aussie parlance, "good on ya' mate"!

  6. Cat, I think with young adult fiction you may be very wise in doing so - where would you begin to market your work if you went it alone?

    The thing about what we write is that the mainstream won't publish it (or not from new writers, anyway - it's always different with people who already have a name because the marketing budget:return ratio is so different) no matter how good it is, because the market segment is too small. What we are hoping readers will do is read the stuff that's free, and decide whether our claim is true: that the quality of our work is every bit as good as the quality of "mainstream" literary fiction.

  7. Hey Dan, one word: better. And maybe I actually mean different. I agree with everything you have to say about validity and credibility, and how important it is to spread the word that self-publishing is legitimate, etc. But I've also read some absolutely horrible mainstream writing recently, and I've read some absolutely wonderful indie literature. Not saying that is the case across the board, but honestly, if Oprah were to take five minutes out of one show a week to recommend a quality self-pub, I'm pretty sure the industry would repolarize within a year; there's that much amazing quality work out there if you take the time to look. The problem is one of spreading the word, sharing successes and failures, building tools and teaching people how to use the tools which are available, licensing... Independent film gets it's Sundance; Independent music gets, well, any one of a dozen festivals. Independent writing needs to come into it's own, and it shall. Congratulations, Year Zero is already a success.

  8. Thanks, Piers. Funny you should mention Oprah - I absolutely love the idea that she could pick one self-pubebd book to go alongside her other choices (and for Richard and Judy to do the same here in the UK). For my day job I'm an administrator for a university department, which involves running a lot of conferences. Most of the time grad students never get to preent their work at conferences because people "don't want to take a risk" in front of a prestige audience. So one of the things I try to encourage is even if that's the case, for people to run a grad student panel as part of the conference. The selling point is that no one's reputation gets ruined if the papers are no good, and the organisers get the kudos for being progressive. But the real point is that I know 90% of those graduate papers will be just as good as anything the professors churn out - so why shouldn't they get heard?

    It's the same with self-published books. Of course there are some shockers out there - but using that as a reason for blanket refusal to consider is at best laziness; at worse blatantly desigend to perpetuate the established industry. Sure we shouldn't have to have a separate category ("best self-pubebd book"or "self-pubbed recommendation"), but if that gets our work read, that'll do for now - because once someone opens the books, I'm sure the stories will do the rest. If not, then we deserve our place on the same no pile as bad mainstream-published books.