Archive for February, 2010

 When you read something like this, it makes it all seem ok again.



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Duncan Mclean

Duncan  Mclean is my writing hero. His book, Bucket of Tongues completely changed the way I thought about my own writing and gave me some sort of hope that I might be able to do something myself.

I did a really sad thing, not long after my 30th birthday, and sent all my stories to Duncan with a letter saying that he was my favourite writer. Which was true.

Duncan very generously replied to me, and said he thought my stuff was good enough to take a bit further.

Duncan published some of my stories on his own Clocktower Press and as a result of that, I eventually ended up with an agent and a deal for my first book and became the  international sex-god and superstar  writer which I am today.

So..it is a great pleasure and a real privilege that he has agreed to read out some of the stories for the  i-Phone app. of My Elvis Blackout, which would never have made it into print in the first place without Duncan’s help and encouragement.

Duncan Mclean is in da house reading Lady in Red:

Maximum respect isn’t it?

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Here’s the longer version…

I still remember the rising excitement as I ripped open the envelope. 

 The letter inside glowed with praise for my work.

‘At last’ I thought, ‘somebody has ‘got’ what I’m trying to do with my writing. A real London publisher has finally replied to me! ’

I turned the page. There was a list of various publicity packages, options as to how the new book would look, and then a breakdown of how much it was all going to cost me.

It was a vanity press. And suddenly I felt like such a fool.

Thinking back, I still flush with embarrassment about the whole thing. I’d had a few stories published in magazines and encouraged by that, I’d sent off my ‘book’ to a Publishing House who advertised in the back pages of the Guardian Weekend  saying that they were looking for new writers. The Publishing House had a name very similar to the one on the spine of some of my favourite books, but with hindsight, not quite the same.

It wasn’t really vanity which made me send off my stories, it was ignorance and ambition – two words closely related to vanity, but not quite the same.

I thought that the Publishing House were real publishers who would judge, edit, and hopefully appreciate my work, and at the time I was daft enough, and new enough to writing not to know any better. So I decided never to tell anyone that I’d accidentally sent my work to a vanity publisher and started all over again. It took me another two years to find a real publisher (Bloomsbury) for my first book and looking back, I wonder now why  even accidentally sending my work to a vanity press filled me such mortal embarrassment?

My friend Martin Bedford has recently paid good money to have his book

printed up. Martin’s  posters for the Leadmill nightclub were a bright feature of a grey 1980’s Sheffield and he self-published his book in response to lots of requests from people who wanted to see all those posters collected together and in print.

Martin saw an opportunity and he took it. Martin says he did have a horrible moment, a real self-doubting wobble, as he loaded the entire print run of 1500 copies into the back of a mate’s estate car and then wondered how on earth he was going to fit them all into his flat, and more to the point, if anybody would actually want to buy a single copy of his book.

So is paying to see your work in print always vanity? Was Martin just ego-tripping? I don’t think so.  That’s self-publishing, albeit still based upon a degree of vanity or at least self-belief. But surely that’s a business model, a standard template for ambition? The conviction that what you’ve got is good enough to release into the wild and then to have a reasonable expectation that other people might be prepared to part with their hard-earned cash to own it, is at the heart of launching any new product.

And it’s worked.  The first print run of Martin’s book sold out and it’s into its second printing and still selling well. Martin cracked it. He found his market all by himself. He did all the work, and now he gets to keep all the money.

Self- publishing is also the accepted norm in niche markets, pike fishing for example. Mark Barret’s Fenland Pike is also doing well, even without an ISBN number. Mark travels up and down the country giving slide talks featuring big fish, fenland history and funny stories. He’s selling his book, just like a band would do, punting out cds after a gig. He’s put thousands of pounds of his own money into the book, which is a risk, but Mark’s status as a Fox tackle consultant and his public profile as a broadcaster and journalist has provided him with an ideal opportunity to do it all for himself. It’s hard work though, and Mark says that writing the book was the easiest bit of the equation.

The phrase ‘Vanity Publishing’ was coined in 1959 – a derogatory term aimed at publishers whose main source of income was derived from the writers whose work they published rather than any projected sales of their books.

 The commodification of the written word goes way back and has always been a contentious subject.  The Venerable Bede published his own book longhand and he didn’t need an agent. Mark Twain was originally self-published and a certain self-published book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ has also shifted the odd copy over the years.

There’s still a whole culture of self-affirming, self-publishing, made easier and cheaper by Lulu and other print on demand outfits and there’s a raft of forums dedicated to the niceties of that process where self-published writers carefully explain and defensively reassure each other that their books are only self-published because their work does not fit into any ‘accepted’ genre or ‘convention’ of marketable fiction. These authors always stress that their self-published books are not underpinned by ‘vanity’ but there’s an underlying bitterness there too in most of those posts.

 And deep down, you know that they know, and they know that you know it ain’t the way to do it.

One question here must be one of motivation, Why make the decision to publish your own fiction? Are all those folks on those forums self-published because they’ve been knocked back by every single publisher under the sun or are they self-published because they have made a conscious/brave/mad decision to take the matter into their own hands and have the folding stuff to do that?

The other question is one of validation. That’s the killer for me. In fiction, somebody somewhere, somebody else who you don’t know, has to say that what you’ve written is ok and at least worth a read. A knowledgeable third party ie a publishing professional has to approve and then come up with the money to get the book out. So that’s what stops it all being ‘vanity’. That’s the difference

If only it was that simple.

Does that desire for validation stop you being vain?

There’s an argument that there’s a certain vanity in every writer who tries to take their work that step further, to get it out there into the world and wants somebody else to stump up the money for that to happen and then expects other people to get down the shops and buy it.

That notion of vanity definitely applies to me. It’s only when I see my books in the bookshops where they also sell coffee and there are stern-looking ladies with bobbed hair messing about with the real books, that I feel anything remotely like a ‘proper’ writer.

I wonder now, how the concept of ‘vanity publishing’ slots anywhere into our slipstream internet culture or even the pervasive idea of ‘democratisation’ of the media?

 We can all put anything ‘out there’ now if we want to, and nobody has to tell us it’s ok . We can blog our personal details, our sexual preferences, our ideas for pretty place-settings, write Wolverine slash, post ‘funny’ pictures of our pets, soundclick our home-made music, or if we fancy it, just be sick in the bath and stick it on youtube.

The bottom line is that there’s a whole lot of shit out there now, which is only out there because anybody can put it out there now.  There’s a lot of brilliant stuff as well, but that doesn’t mean that the shit ain’t shit.  It just means it’s out there because anybody can put it out there.

And that really is democracy. On the other hand, if you write a blog and it gets lots of hits and is original and well-written enough, you may just get picked up by a major publisher, the Nee-Naw blog being a case in point.

If you’re in a band it’s different again. I was talking to a musician friend of mine about all this stuff, about ‘vanity’ and self –publishing and  about how having the arrogance to put out your own work and a lack of third party filtration might be perceived to ‘devalue’ what you’ve done.

 ‘But that’s the same thing we do’ she said.  But it’s obviously not. And I had to reassure her about that.  Her band fits into a wider culture of independent music & music producers – Creative people who quickly recognised the potential of the internet as a way of promoting their music, publicising performances, developing connections and collaborations and above all, as means of distribution.
So ‘self-published’ music’s patently not the same, and it certainly isn’t fuelled purely by vanity. The independent music sector exists as a separate entity to the commercial mainstream sector. If you’re in a band it’s fine to put out your own stuff, nobody is going to think twice if you’re not on a major label, they’re just going to listen to your music and decide for themselves what they think and once again like the blogs, if you get enough attention you might just attract the attentions of a major label. If that is really what you want.

 And so I still don’t know . I’m pretty much in the same place now as I was when I tore open that envelope twelve years ago, felt mortally embarrassed, had to deal with my own feelings of arrogance and vanity and questioned what it was I wanted to do as a writer. All I know now is that I want to be with a publisher and I’m happy that I am. I don’t want to have to think about all the other stuff. I just want to sit in my shed, write what I want to write and have somebody else do all the other work. Which really is vain.

 Maybe the concept of Vanity publishing is a redundant one now? Can you really put your own fiction out on your own terms? And if you do that, have you really got any terms ?

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Mars is very close to us at present.

Which is good.

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