Friday, 23 July 2010

Not for (self/vanity/e/un)published writers

I've just started a small press. All very exciting and more anon but this post isn't about publicising that. Rather I wanted to focus on the primary reason for setting up eight cuts gallery press. I want a pplatform for creating some hoopla about the amazing writingout there that will never be a sure fire enough mass seller to land a mainstream deal without being substantially rewritten. And part of that platform creation is entering amazing books for top literary prizes.

That's a bit extreme, isn't it? Setting up a whole press so books can be entered for prizes? Afetr all, the Booker Prize, for example, is open to the best novel published in the UK, so people can just send their own in?

Well, no. It's awarded to "It will be awarded to the author of the best, eligible full-length novel." And in taht sentence is a whole world of things the literary world frankly needs to get its act together about.

Most writers will have entered a competition at some point, and will know that, in general, they are for previously unpublished work. The Bridport Prize, the acme fo the short story and poetry comp world, defines entries "must never have been published, self-published, published on any website or public online forum, broadcast nor winning or placed in any other competition." OK, no one wants recycled stuff wandering off with top prizes (er, I guess, though as an author who regularly posts my work online and on critiquing sites I find the rule perplexing).

Fine, so if we've put our stuff out there at all, we're published. We no longer have first rights, blah blah, end of. So, whatever we put out there we can enter for a competition for the best book that's been published, right? Wrong. The Booker rules state "Self published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher or where a company has been specifically set up to publish that book."

So published means something different in each case. You can see the Booker Prize's point, though, can't you? They don't want every Jane, John and whoever entering their precious pile of crap. After all, other competitions designed to find the best of the best have similar restrictins. You can't just enter your local football team for the FA Cup. Or pitch up as a golfer and hope to qualify for he Open. Oh no, wait that's wrong. You can.

So what's going on? Well, I'm not going to claim there's some kind of cabalistic conspiracy to keep us alternatives out. There isn't. Aside from anything else that would be to attribute to "the mainstream" a level of organisation it's just not capable of. Rather, it's systematic of an inbuilt prejudice that runs so deep it's barely even noticed.

The fact is it's just assumed in the mainstream that we know what publishing is (and assumptions are illustrative of the worst kind of prejudice). Only then us slippery awkward independent types come along and point out that means we're published, and we can play in the playground too. And each time that happens, a new lock is put on the gate to keep us out.

So we have two choices. We can either simply play in our own playground. Or we can keep breaking the locks and point out that something is amiss. I am greatly greatly in favour of the former. It's what I do at Year Zero, and what I'm doing at eight cuts gallery. But it's not entirely fair on the reading public at large for them not to be aware what's happening, unseen, to keep books away from them (admittedly most of them are awful, but that's not the point, the point is they are not being told they are there at al).

Which is where eight cuts gallery press comes in, a press set up for the express purpose of not hiding exciting alternative books under the carpet, and making our literary elite, our gatekeeping judges, not just ignore but actively reject them. Or, of course, say that after all they might actually have some value. But surely that would never happen...

Charcoal by Oli Johns and The Dead Beat by Daisy Anne Gree will be appearing at major competitions near you in 2011.


  1. Hi Dan,

    It's an interesting debate that is sure to rage on and on. When is publishing not 'publishing'?

    In my opinion it is all down to financial risk and cash flow! To be a 'legitimate' publisher in the eyes of other publishers one needs to fulfil some basic criteria. It is not enough to have a press and only publish one author, it is highly likely at the outset of any small press that there is close relationship between the author and publisher - this is tantamount to self publishing. it is Inevitable that many small presses are likely to go through this stage, we certainly did. To legitimately be classed as a 'publisher', I think you need to find, edit, package and market somebody else's work whilst taking ALL the financial risks yourself - no money should ever pass from the author to the publisher. The publisher should also hold exclusive territorial rights for the work under a formal contract.

    This becomes your acid test, you are now a gatekeeper, you become 'of the other side' however fiercely independent you are.

    It is in this way that quality control becomes an attribute of any legitimate publisher - this (again only my opinion) is of benefit to the reading public. If the mass trash self-pubber's were allowed completely free reign in the marketplace, the book industry would die. Good books would be impossible to find.

    There is a distinct difference to the large trad pub model though, being 'indie' and a 'publisher' you can select and market to a niche readership - I know this is something you are very passionate about.

    So, I think that competition entry controls are only looking for quality pre-checks. Being 'published' is one of them - the work was good enough for somebody ELSE to spend a lot of money on it. If they don't do this they risk a slush pile and the good stuff will get buried in it.

    Just my thoughts.


  2. I love the philosophy behind your new press. I really hope that it works for you.

    Good luck with the Booker prize - I'd love to see one of your books win!!

  3. @AndyB - if you're who I think you are (and looking at the blogsyou follow I'm sure you are!) then I'm alle ars for everything you have to say on the subject.

    I agree with almost all of what you say - except for the bit about competitions. In that case, it's a bit like the Olympics - there are some events (100 metres, for example) that are open to anyone - any country can send an athlete along). There are other events where you have to pre-qualify (like hockey). I really think in literary prizes we need openness about what kind of competitions each of them are, and I think we DO need competitions that are genuinely open - like the RA summer exhibition is for art. Otherwise we are just as in danger of good books getting swallowed.
    I must admit I very much enjoy being on the curatorial side and getting to champion genuinely great writing (I'd also point out that whilst I'll be bringing one of my books out under the eight cuts imprint, I won't be doing so with Songs from the Other Side of the Wall because I know it's not good enough) by amazing writers. We need more curators who are less gatekeepers and more impresarios and champions of literature - more characters like you get in the art world. I hope I can play my part.

    @Jackie - thank you so much - I will send you copies of both Charcoal and The Dead Beat in October as soon as they're out. Oli and Daisy are two of the most extraordinary voices I've read.

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  5. Hi Dan,

    Yes, I probably am who you think I am! lol.

    Curator - I love that idea, so much nicer than gate keeper. It better reflects the needs of the niche writers that you are supporting too.

    I have pondered upon 'openness'. I have to agree with you. I had a quick gander at The Independent Publisher Guild site at the comp section. Their definition of independent is quite far ranging.

    IF we have to play in our own playground, how do we do this? Do we as a sector of the industry make up our own rules or do we forgo rules? I'm uncertain how one avoids the 'free for all' deluge on unrestricted submissions to any competition (or us as publishers - we don't accept any submissions from anyone - not even agents - as you may know).

    Should we form a 'UK Small Press Association' and take it from there? Then we have to find a definition for 'Small Press'! Mind you, it would be nice to see some 'maximum' criteria instead of minimums all the time.

    I shall go away and think about this more. Seriously, yes, I think we should have our own playground!


  6. Or maybe, instead of creating a new publisher's, you should create a new prize? :)

  7. @Tony

    We already are publishers and yes, creating a new prize or prize structure / organisation was what I was getting at. :-)

  8. Andy, the "maximum criteria" idea is very interesting - rather like kitemarks/trade standard marks? I think what I have in mind by playing in our own playground at year Zero/eight cuts gallery is just getting on promoting the stories I want to in the formats I think they are best delivered, and not worrying about genre/length/even whether they are widely considered "books". I will be setting up a prize at eight cuts gallery for the best work each year with absolutely no bars on entry except the year the work appeared and who owns copyright.

    Andy, I think an informal small (maybe "alternative") press association with very high standards that exists as a practice/information/marketing sharing group is a very good idea.

    Tony, I promise I'll devote at least some energy to finishing aggie - you have no idea how I'm struggling with the ending :)

  9. It might sound a bit shallow, but I'd like a Booker Prize. Mostly, I'd just like to go drinking with some of the authors who have been short-listed. Rushdie and Smith especially seem like they'd be great craic.

  10. Yeah, I'd like a Booker Prize one day, or a Nobel. I could do without the kudos, but as a self-publisher the money would certainly be handy!

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