The Stigma of Self-publishing now Comes with a Smiley Face - by Dan Holloway
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.
If someone wants me to spend two or three days preparing a talk, then travelling to the event, and then using the experience of public speaking that I've acquired over many years, then they have to pay me.
I'm astonished to learn that self-publishing writers are being asked to give talks for free!
Anybody wanting a nice, lively flea for their ear should come and ask me to give a talk for free because I self-publish. Come on, make my day.
My real frustration is that people see that I'm self-published and only ever want me to talk about self-publishing - as though it's utterly irrelevant *what* I self-publish.
The exception is the world of poetry (probably because pretty much everyone self-publishes, even the most high profile) where I don't think it's ever been mentioned, and where what people want are the poems. Which is probably why I've more and more ghettoised myself as a performance poet - it's a place that's made me feel at home
It is true what you say the emphasis tends to be on the method of delivery not the message, but that is your USP isn't it ? There are too many writers who can woffle about writing. I wouldn't knock it because at least you you have a USP and most of us don't.
I expect we'll get there in the end, though. Hope so!
For anyone interested, here are Matti's details:
I would hope that the most interesting and original thing any writer has to say concerns their writing (if not, without casting nasturtiums as it were, then perhaps they ought not to present themselves as writers, for whom it is essential they can make a case to readers to drop *every single book that has been written except theirs* at one moment). I write experimental fiction about the nature of identity in the modern world - both the virtual world, and the disintegrated world of post-communist Europe - drawing from the tradition of the "literature of the ruins" that details the fragmentation of cultural identity since the death of Yugoslavia and from the online world of forums, bulletin boards and chatrooms where peopel endlessly reconstruict themselves, and hopefully add a touch of sentiment that is both my own and draws on the "exile in their hometown" writings of Kundera, Hrabl and others who wrote under communism. I'm sure it's no more important or interesting than what any other self-published writer is doing, but these are such important questions, and ones that writers pour their souls (not to mention 5 years of postgrad study on feminist studies of subjectivity identity in modern Europe, and goodness knows how many years spent travelling through Eastern Europe in my case, and everyone else's equivalent) into. It is especially frustrating when these are areas that regularly published novels just aren't looking at.
Jan, full marks for chutzpah!
Being successfully self published makes you more interesting to more people than those of us who aren't successfully self published. You need some kind of platform to sell books these days and it seems to me you have one. If it translates into people buying your boks it doesn't seem to me to matter too much what it is and it is much more respectable than being a topless model.
But maybe there are already folk who speak of such things eloquently enough, and not enough who can clearly point out where "RightClick-FormatPicture" is and what to do when the little box pops up on the screen...
I haven't done any face-to-face public talks on self-publishing, although a few were discussed, maybe due to my loathage of selling and of those people who make money by running get-rich-quick conferences.
Because also, like you, I would much prefer to be invited to talk about my imaginary friends and their adventures, or even about how I was inspired to write as a teenager by the authors Tom Sharpe and the little-known Jan Needle... I still have my original copy of 'Behind the Bike Sheds' ;) x
" people may well look at your books if they have found you interesting in person"
I have no idea whether I am interesting in person, but yes, that's a very important point. My sense is simply that when I speak about self-publishing in the sense people want to hear about it (editing and formatting and cover design and platforms, as opposed to the exciting "look at this world of creative possibility" way)
I am a lot less interesting than I would be talking about Modernism and identity and the like - and by being offered, and accepting, invitations to talk about self-publishing but not about my writing I am actually putting off the readers who might be interested in my writing in return for mildly interesting people who will hate my writing. Contrast that with the fabulous interview I was lucky enough to do for a small Facebook group (transcript here - http://shahsight.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/spotlight-dan-holloway.html) where we had a detailed discussion about the meaning of pain in modern society.]
Very much hope to see you at the Tea Box :)
I think one of my favourite lines was '...thought he was as sexy as a septic tank...'
Jan and Lisa, wonderful how reintroductions are made!!
About payment: I've never been paid for a visit to a bookshop, even when I'm asked to talk rather than just sit to sell books and be ignored for two hours. The theory is that I'll make up the loss with sales, though that's always been a pretty forlorn hope. A school or library is a completely different matter. There's a rather ominous double standard there which I won't enquire into. But I would hope nobody reputable works to the mantra 'published author good, self-published bad.' Honest people pay for expertise they wouldn't get from anyone else. Or so I'd like, perhaps foolishly, to think.
The mention of pay was very much a tangent in my piece but that's very interesting and yes, a possible double standard? Some bookshops (Blackwell's being a gleaming exemplar again with massive stalls up for days and tills next to the speaker's desk) are excellent at ensuring good sales at events. Others (at least one branch of Waterstones in London in my experience, and almost certainly more) not so much
And Dennis, I had rather taken it as 'goes without saying' that a good self-published book is no different to a good conventionally published book. It's the standard of writing that matters. The good, the excellent and the bloody awful can be found among the self-published and the conventionally published alike.
My information isn't current enough and to make it worthwhile for all concerned, I would have to dig out CDs and scripts and I just can't bring myself to do it. My only reason for looking at radio scripts these days is to turn them into novels!
I love talking at a tangent though - about things that are related to what I write and why.
1. That's a very good point!
2. The only problem is they always want to know how you *should* do it, or how *they should* do it, and it all comes back to that bloomin' thriller I wrote and the books I want to talk about I've followed paths I most definitely wouldn't advocate.
3. Nonetheless, that's a very good point and I shall avail myself of an ideological shoehorn to make use of it
Mm, yes, Catherine, tangents - perfect!
And I agree, Sue, that speaking events, whatever form they take, are hugely fun