Thursday, 17 October 2013

Creative Writing Students who Self-publish - Elizabeth Kay

         It’s twenty years now since I first put together an anthology of work by my adult education students – I teach both art and creative writing. I think I was one of the first; before long, everyone was doing it. I was fortunate enough to have a graphic designer as one of my students, and he put it together.
        No e-books in those days, and very few people had computers.  No print on demand; the adult education service put up the money for a 2000 print run, and we paid back every penny. We had a great DIY launch at Kingston Waterstones. The contributors came from several different classes – general fiction, poetry, and art. Those who had additional cooking skills provided food; someone else who was an interior designer did flower arrangements, and the artists did posters. We included work from tutors, which gave potential students an idea of the strengths of particular classes – and meant we had a couple well-known names in there, as well! The mayor came, the local papers came, and Jonathan Gash of Lovejoy fame wrote us a foreword. It was a terrific occasion, particularly for some of the more elderly students for whom it meant a great deal.
            Recently it’s become the norm for students to want to publish their own work, as well as academic organisations who compile anthologies of creative writing, and find it a good way of publicising their courses. The students themselves fall into two groups; those who are actually very good, but are writing for a limited market. This often applies to poets, and short story specialists. And those who will never make it, for a variety of reasons, most of which I’m too polite to mention.
            The deluge started slowly, with vanity publishing. Most of the results were depressing.  There was one elderly student whose work was too dated to find a publisher, but he’d read English at Oxford and wrote extremely well. When he became terminally ill he decided on the vanity route, which cost him a lot of money but included an editing service. They took out all his perfectly correct punctuation, and replaced it with rubbish. Someone else who paid for editing ended up with a book full of mistakes.
           Things have improved. The last student of mine who paid for an editor got very good value for money – the internet does have its uses, and people don’t have to take pot luck the way they did in the past.
          Lulu has provided a good service for several students – notably Trevor Donnelly, who turned down a conventional publisher for his zombie books after they did rather well without. Trevor’s a vicar, and the third book in his trilogy is out now - Wild Strawberry: A Zombie Apocalypse, Part 3: Ascent. Sue Pickard was a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Lovers Cookbook. It’s not on the Kindle yet, but hopefully will be soon.
And then there are those who do it all themselves. Bob Newman, who did a guest post here, has published three poetry books on the Kindle, the most recent of which is Old Possum's Book of Practical PigsDispatches from the Land of Squalor http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dispatches-From-Land-Squalor-ebook/dp/B00DIBQJ1C/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1377765591&sr=1-1&keywords=dispatches+from+the+land+of+squalor, full of the blackest humour you’ve ever encountered. It’s very good stuff, but publishers don’t want collections of short stories from unknown authors.
which I illustrated. Nick Gilbert has recently published a book of short stories,  
It can be difficult to impress on students the necessity for accurate proofing. A mistake on the first page can stop someone from buying a book, as the immediate feeling is that maybe the rest of the book is full of inaccuracies as well.
Most of them don’t realise that books don’t publicise themselves, as there’s a lot of misleading information out there. Overnight successes rarely are overnight successes, but press reports of vast sales by unknown authors don’t help. There’s also a difference in attitude that is age-dependent. Elderly students still want to be able to hold a book, and give signed copies to friends and family. Younger students may well live in more cramped accommodation, and be well aware of the need to save space. They’re used to iPods and iPads and Kindles, and don’t have the same sentimental attachment to hard copies.
I've self-published a poetry collection that was originally done the conventional way, more as an example to students thinking to do likewise than to any great expectations of financial reward! It's called The Spirit Collection, and it was a good opportunity to add a couple of poems to the anthology that hadn't been there before.
Writers are not always visual people, either, and may have a very poor idea of what a cover should be. Too-small typography, too complex an illustration, and the cover can easily be illegible when it’s a thumbnail.
They tend not to like the technical aspects, either, and frequently think that a contents page is too difficult, and that it doesn’t matter. It does. Navigating yourself round an electronic book should be easy, and is in the author’s own interests. I often want to quote a bit of something I’ve found enjoyable, which may lead to someone else buying the book, and if I can’t find it, that’s that. As a tutor you can advise, but you can’t insist. There will always be students who don’t listen, but the ones who do can find a niche in electronic publishing which has a reach beyond family and friends, and give them objective reviews of their own work.



4 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

So much wisdom in here!

Reb MacRath said...

Fine summing up, Elizabeth. Thank you.

Barbara Lorna Hudson said...

Thank you. Useful and wise.I'm a student who did the uploading and copy-editing for our class, though our tutor was the proper editor of our short story collection (Oxtale Soup - one of many collections set in Oxford). Then I produced a collection (Click to Click:tales of Internet Dating.) Wouldn't want to repeat the experience.

Bob Newman said...

The text got a little out of order in the middle there. To be clear, "Dispatches from the Land of Squalor" is Nick Gilbert's book, not mine. And it really is quite deplorably funny.