We never think of ourselves as experts, do we? That is to say, I certainly never do, though I’m no expert on what other people think of themselves. So it is always rather surprising to be asked to do something in a technical capacity. Flattering, intimidating, but above all surprising.
In the space of a week I will be “expert”ing myself in two very different spheres. So I want to ponder the whole question of expertise.
The two events in question illustrate perfectly the flip sides of my writing life, the good and bad angels as it were, sitting on my shoulders whispering like something from the comics I read as a child. Last Friday, I hosted an evening of poetry at The Tea Box in Richmond. This Wednesday I am speaking to a writers’ group in Oxford about the ins and outs of self-publishing.
The two events are as far apart as you could imagine events being. My job in Richmond was to perform poems, to make an audience feel at home, to make people who had never performed before feel at ease, and, following the monthly event’s tradition, to piece together a new poem called The Thing using lines from everyone else’s poems. It was an incredible night, helped in no small part by the amazing venue, a tea connoisseur’s heaven combining every element of tea ritual and sensual delight (not to mention rather scrummy food ). But also helped by the fact that this is what I do. And more to the point, it’s what I became a writer to do – to create, to perform, to nurture creativity and celebrate the arts in any way I can.
On Wednesday, I will be giving a half hour talk to a writers’ group associated with Blackwell’s book shop (a place very dear to my heart). I will be talking about editing and ebooks, blogging, formatting and finding your audience. There will be a handout, and a series of methodically followed bullet points. In a way the job is the same – engaging with an audience and nurturing. And having spent six years teaching, and countless more giving academic presentations, it’s not something I’m unfamiliar with. And I positively love the idea that other people might get something genuinely helpful from what I have to say.
But, it’s not why I became a writer. It’s not something I expected to emerge from my writing. And, as someone who has specifically set out not to make a career of writing, it is something I made a conscious decision I wouldn’t resort to in order to pay for the creative aspect of writing. And yet, as a self-publisher, it’s something i find myself being drawn to constantly.
And that for me is the interesting thing about self-publishing as opposed to being a writer with a regular contract. Yes, of course the latter can and often of necessity do choose to use their creative skills to do something more lucrative than actually writing. But it’s something they choose to do and have to work hard to market as a sideline.
When we self-publish we automatically, in the eyes of the literary world, take on a dual identity. And whilst there are many claims that the stigma of self-publishing is diminishing, this is one area in which it resolutely remains. Because the simple truth of the matter is that the outside (and even the literary inside) world sees our expertise primarily in terms of our self-publishing skills. We are experts on working with cover designers, whizzes at platform-building, the go-to people for advice on avoiding US withholding tax. Have even a moderately raised profile, barely a gentle wold of a profile in fact, and all kinds of people will want our opinion on these matters. And this is sold (often by the people who are victim to it) as a massive leap forward. A diminishing of stigma, almost its eradication.
It isn’t. Entrepreneurial types seeking to make a buck have always flocked around people who have made a buck. Early adopters in any new business model have always had a ready following from the eager second wave. I am not sure that anyone has put forward an argument that convinces me that increased coverage of self-publishing is something new or, given that the coverage focuses solely on this second identity of the self-publisher, something that reduces stigma. The simple fact of the matter is that we are asked to talk about self-publishing not because our writing is great but because we have sold books. As though the mechanisms of self-publishing are more a part of our identity than the writing. I should say that Blackwell’s are a gleaming exception. They have been good enough not only to ask me onto a literary panel alongside amazing authors like Lee Rourke and Rachel Genn, but have thrown their doors open and let me put on a performance evening. But they are the glittering jewel in the junk shop.
Where does that leave us as self-publishers? Yes, of course most self-publishers must have a series of skills (even if they are only sourcing skills) that for writers with publishing deals are optional or ersatz. But we remain writers, just as they are writers, and singling us out for conferences, festivals, and panel work, whilst very flattering, perpetuates and even enhances the stigma attached to self-published writing. If our value is perceived by literary establishments and media as lying in our non-creative expertise, that subtly lowers the value of our creative endeavours.
I welcome and love the opportunity to talk to people about self-publishing. But I am loathe to think of myself as an expert. I certainly think I am by no means as well-equipped to talk about formatting a .mobi file as I am to talk about how to unearth your voice, how to handle complex ideas within a narrative framework, or how to deliver a performance poem.
So what I propose is this.
Dear festival, conference, writing group and bookstore owners,
Please continue to ask self-publishers to talk. But when it comes to the “arrangements” (and if you pay published authors to do events, please don’t tell me you don’t also pay the self-published. I take on non-paying events for many places in good faith, but if I were to find out ever that they paid published authors for equivalent events my good will would run instantly out of the door and down the street screaming), consider offering a session for the writer to talk about their work, or about an aspect of literature in which they excel, as part payment in kind. And if you don’t consider their work to merit such a session, well, yes they may sell lots of books, but I would ask you to consider not inviting them to speak about the other stuff either, because the implicit message you’re sending is “How to hoodwink the public into buying junk” and that’s not really what you want, is it? It’s certainly not what any self-respecting author would want (and yes, that IS deliberately provocative because I know several authors happy to operate on that basis [none of the authors here I should add], and whilst they may respect themselves the lack of respect I have for them I hope cancels that out!).
I would also like to make a plea to writers to help tackle the issue of the smiley stigma as I shall call it by having just this conversation with anyone who invites them to talk about. Ask them if they would consider also having them speak – maybe at a different time, but a commitment nonetheless to a time being made available – about the creative aspect of their work.
We are constantly being told to take ourselves seriously, yet all too often what this means is taking ourselves seriously as business professionals. We need to start taking ourselves seriously as artists as well.
And in the meanwhile, I am hugely looking forward to both talking on Wednesday and returning to the Tea Box in Richmond.