Let’s be clear about this: eBook publishing may not necessarily be a perfect solution to all the problems which writers now face in finding a publisher, since anyone who has judged any kind of literary competition will know how much badly written, unprofessional and entirely unedited stuff there is, out there. Truth to tell, most of us started off by writing this kind of thing ourselves, and are then embarrassed to find and read those 'bottom drawer' manuscripts, so many years later. But if writers risk the early release of an unready novel, is that such a bad thing? Wouldn’t it prove to be a steep learning curve for the writer-in-training? I think we have to get used to this brave new world in which nothing is set in stone, experiments can be made and editions revised.
But for the many experienced, professional writers who are now struggling to find publication for widely praised and properly edited work, eBook publishing can be a blessing. My diligent agent is currently sending out a new historical novel called The Amber Heart for me, in the usual way, and back in April, he had high hopes for it, probably higher than I had myself. It’s an epic tale of love and loss, a sort of Polish ‘Gone With the Wind’ based on my own family history, and his initial response was that it was ‘wonderful’ which surprised me, since he isn’t given to rash statements of approval. I’ll admit that I’d be delighted to find a good publisher with whom I could work in the long term. But he hasn’t exactly been knocked down in the rush to buy it. There is more, much more, where that came from. I’ve spent many years as a professional playwright, but I wrote prose throughout that time, and I have numerous short stories and several full length novels which don't quite fit the mould of what my agent is currently sending out. And there seems little point in hanging onto all this work in the hope of some hypothetical jam tomorrow.
|Ardminish Bay, Gigha|
About a month ago, I put a toe in the eBook water with a trio of short stories: A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture. This was quickly followed by a Scottish historical novel called The Curiosity Cabinet. The novel is set mostly on a small Scottish island, and was inspired by the landscape of the Isle of Gigha (above) which we've visited and loved for many years. It had been shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, published in the conventional way, sold out within the year, was well reviewed, widely praised, but never reprinted. Scottish novelist John Burnside had called it 'a powerful story about love and obligation... a persuasive novel very well written.’ I reclaimed the rights and decided, with my agent’s blessing, to publish it as an eBook myself.
There are no easy answers to any of this, but I sense that a great many writers are exhilarated by these new opportunities. It certainly – and refreshingly - means that we need to become more businesslike in our dealings with the industry that surrounds us, relinquishing our habitual role of supplicant, becoming proactive partners. It’s all precarious - but what writing career, isn't? We walk a tightrope between success and failure and we are much too afraid of putting a foot wrong, of falling into the abyss that awaits the midlist writer who doesn't 'break through' to the big time quickly enough.
Maybe online publishing will help to take that fear away, to persuade us that, as committed professionals, we can assume control of our working lives. If it all goes wrong, we can chalk it up to experience and move on. But we won't be left with the frustration of being told over and over again that we've written something wonderful which isn't commercial enough 'in the current market.' Of being advised to revamp the plot, dumb it down a bit or (conversely) make the language more experimental and less accessible. Unbelievably, I was once told this. All of these things are distractions from our true business as writers, which is ... what?
I think for me, it's to tell interesting and well crafted stories about believable characters, facing life choices that - in one way or another - we all recognise, even when those characters lived at a different time and in a different place. I want to tell those stories in the best way I can, but in a way that excites me, without somebody trying to get me to replicate last year’s big success and ignoring the truth that in the world of fiction, next year’s big success is invariably unexpected and – at first - unsung. In the words of William Goldman, a fine screenwriter, writing brilliantly about film, 'nobody knows anything.' And isn't that exciting?