Go on Whisper it. Self-publishing is becoming almost respectable. And it’s hardly surprising. Mark Edwards and Louise Voss’s 6 figure deal with Harper Collins (who, after the pair occupied the number 1 & 2 spots in the Kindle charts, admitted they might be onto something) is only the tip of a growing iceberg (one which I’m lucky enough to be somewhere at the base of, with my thriller The Company of Fellows selling 5000 copies and getting me invited to take part in a Rising Literary Stars panel at Blackwell’s bookstore).
But it’s a very particular (and inevitable) kind of self-publishing. And whilst I welcome it, it also makes me sort of hang my head in despair (the bittersweet ironic smile kind of despair I feel at the honour of being supported by Blackwell’s for my thriller two years after self-publishing my debut, the literary coming of age novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, that got stonking reviews wherever it *was* read but didn’t even make half a column inch in the local paper).
The warning signs were there a while back. Self-publishers are a marmite-y kind of bunch. Half of us are belligerent “dead tree books are screwed and legacy publishing’s dead” types. The other half are desperate to show we’re just as good as regular-published books (and half of those say it because they want a regular contract, whilst the other half want to control the process but compete for the same market).
But what almost all seem to have in common is an insistence that their books are just as good as regular-published books. And just as good almost always means edited to the same standard (most aren’t, of course, but their authors are buying into the game that they should be). And they have a point. 99% of books are better if they’re edited professionally. Because 99% of self-published books would like to be like regular books.
Now when it comes to self-publishing statistics matter. Every media essay I’ve seen on the subject of self-publishing has been about a number – copies sold, Kindle chart position, size of advance when the author went mainstream. I’ve yet to see one that talks intelligently and critically about the quality of a self-published book (oh, wait, there was a particularly dumbass piece somewhere sniping at John Locke’s books). But in the world of dumb-ass number crunching (I may need a bigger thesaurus because when it comes to the media’s treatment of self-publishing I find myself wanting to say dumbass a LOT), ignoring that 1% takes the dumbass-ness biscuit.
Because that 1% of books is what self-publishing was made for, and what will, ultimately, once Amazon has squeezed the regular “indie” authors back into the New Model Mainstream, be the ultimate reputation-saver for self-publishing.
Editing is the making of a commercial product and the breaking of art
That’s the simple thesis, and I’m not getting into a “what is art” debate.
Now editing in art can be a whole spectrum of things. At one end you have the watercolour painter who goes into the field behind their home and paints them, then sells or hangs the pictures as is. At the other end you have Phil Spector producing records with the unmistakable wall of sound signature stamp. Editing falls somewhere in the middle. On the one hand there’s copy-editing that’s rather like hiring a studio complete with sound guy so your download sounds polished (I hope even that simple analogy will show the flaw in the assumption that editing is always good – the “in your front room” acoustic or “on a dodgy amp in a grotty pub” plugged-in sound is different from studio production and *some*times people prefer it – depends what they’re looking for). On the other hand a great editor working on your book with you can be like having Mark Ronson produce your record.
The thing about spectrums is that for any given genus, there are usually species at each point on it. And that’s what I want to say about writing. There are works that are right at the watercolour end. Writers who are so distinctive and original that editing their work is like giving it lithium – you knock off all the troughs, but you take away the peaks with them, and it’s impossible to do one without the other.
On the Guardian Books Blog this week, John Self started a fascinating debate that went so viral it spawned a popular twitter hashtag #famousforthewrongbook. The piece, which asked for examples where an author was famous for a piece of work that actually wasn’t their best, confirmed what I’ve been saying for a long while, and what’s very pertinent here: when you get a game-changer of a writer, their best work tends to come later in their career, but their “great” work comes at the start. The numbers of diaries and letters included in the 600+ comments on the post further gets the underlying message across. Editing polishes what’s there, makes it “sing”. But the actual step-change, what *is* there to start with that a person spends their whole life perfecting, that is most visible when the editorial hand is most distant.
And this is where self-publishing can do what regular publishing can’t. Regular publishing is a business and can’t be run other than as a business (don’t even get me started on Arts Council grants for small publishers). It’s not just inevitable that it will dole out large doses of cultural lithium to pull things towards accepted norms, that’s its job. Self-publishing doesn’t have to. It doesn’t have to make money, and can do pretty much what it wants on a zero budget.
So not only is it not obligatory for self-publishers to edit “to professional standards”, I would say we should positively embrace not-editing, and where we find great art in the self-published ranks that’s full of flaws and fragility, rather than seeing what could be done if it was given a good polish (I’ll tell you what will happen – you will discover that inside every great book there’s a very good one waiting to get out), we should celebrate it as it is.
And I can’t help but finishing with a note to the cultural media. I understand why you talk about the numbers with self-publishing. That’s not dumbass. Talking *only* about the numbers *is* dumbass.
And here’s what’s really dumbass. The cultural media portrays itself as wanting to make the distinction between commercial art and art that has no commercial reference. And yet it will only review books from regular publishers. Discussions of merit will range as far as obscure and forgotten *regular published* works and no further. That’s all fine and I’ve heard the arguments about how you *have* to talk about “event” books (I don’t buy the argument for a minute but I hear it and I’ll run with it) – just don’t pretend you’re talking about the fullness of art if you’re going to run that way.
An addendum. I’m going to do something that will shock and disturb. I’m going to say congratulations to the Guardian for opening up the First Book Awards to *all* books, however published. Fantastic. I really hope they follow through by offering reviews of the merits of the books readers suggested.
So please, stop judging self-published books on how well-edited they are, and start judging them on how good they are. The two are not always the same. And in rare instances they can be opposites.