My (self) publishing story: Part One
Having just received my first royalty cheque for The Dropout from Troubador/Matador ( more about them in Part Two), I thought I would share with you, dear gentle readers, my adventures in publishing so far. There will be a few tips for other authors who, like me, have inexplicably slipped through the fishing nets (shrinking all the time) trawled by conventional publishers and literary agencies. The self-publishing ocean (growing at quite a rate) is full of sharks; there are horror stories to rival Jaws.
My ‘adventure’ begins with a book called Goodbye to Belaj, conceived while I was in the Persian Gulf working for a British telephone company. If you follow the link (right) to How and Why, you can read about the merciless event in Bahrain – the “disappearance” by State Security of a lad who worked in my call centre – which gave me the theme of the novel that was to become Shaikh-Down. It took several drafts to get the book into a state good enough to hawk around. (After three drafts I switched the narration from first-person to third.)
FLORENCE OF ARABIA
By 1989 I had changed the title to Florence of Arabia (In case you don’t know the ‘provenance’, Noel Coward reportedly came out of a movie premiere saying that Peter O’Toole was “so pretty they could have called the picture Florence of Arabia“). And I had the pen-name David Godolphin, which I’d used to ‘moonlight’ as a journalist, contributing reviews and features to newspapers in the Gulf states.
Allah moves in mysterious ways. Valentine’s Day 1989, the day I first sent Florence to a literary agent, turned out to be the day a fundamentalist Ayatollah went into a hissy fit over a novel by a British Asian author. Unaccountably, publishers now found a lot to dislike in my comedy about gold-digging air-hostesses bonking randy Arab sheikhs (there’s also a sexpot Arab princess to make the mixture ‘even-handed’). Over the next ten years I received 99 rejections from editors and agents despite ‘toning down’ some of the more outrageous elements in the book. (Is 99 rejections a record? Probably not.) Not all of them mentioned my “unhappy timing” as a reason to turn it down; I had plenty of the standard “not what we’re looking for” and “not taking on new authors” replies. And an increasing number of agents and publishers do not respond at all – even more so now in the age of e-mail submissions. No reply means No Thanks (actually it means F—- off). As many of you will know, this also happens when you send your CV in with a job application. The time (and stationery and employee hours) required to put a rejection slip in the envelope you provided (or to re-address a pre-formatted e-mail) is beyond most firms today; we may sigh, but we must live with the harsh facts of 21st-century discourtesy. Never forget, author-readers, rejection slips were received by J.K.Rowling and Agatha Christie among many others who have entered the literary pantheon. Nil desperandum.
During this decade I wrote three more novels, the first of which is The Dropout, available now from a bookstore near you! – and from the Kindle shop.
Citron Press (RIP)
In 1998, with considerable publicity, Citron Press was launched in Islington, New Labour’s heartland. Describing themselves as an “Authors’ Cooperative” to create a distance from the tarnished image of Vanity Publishing, Citron were trendy, dynamic and cheap. Submission number 100 – and no rejection.
Where vanity presses were charging wannabe authors sums up to £15,000 (and beyond) for what often amounted to a large amount of hardbacked loft insulation, Citron charged their authors £399.oo. For this you got a limited cover choice (at least a dozen books had the same cover as Florence), some formatting and light editing, plus – this is still the clincher – quite a lot of publicity and marketing. The fact that Martin Amis and Fay Weldon allowed their names to be linked to Citron’s banner gave them a high profile.
Florence of Arabia was published in February 1999 close to the 10th anniversary of the Rushdie fatwa. Citron’s distribution was good. I signed three copies in Waterstones’ flagship store in Piccadilly and saw it in other branches and independent shops; a friend found a copy in Ullapool in the far north of Scotland.
Newspapers in Arabia were strangely reluctant to review the book, although the editor of the Doha Gulf Times sent me a censorious email which I’ve used in my publicity (see The author – and the critics on this site). Trading on the book’s gay sub-plot I got a decent review out of Gay Times and did a reading at a Gay Arts festival in Brighton: seven people came, six of whom were friends. The writer of TV’s hit comedy Gimme, Gimme, Gimme also had seven people at his event earlier the same evening. Brighton is famous for its gay scene and for its literary scene but not, it seems, for its literary gay scene.
(with Mary at Machu Picchu)
In August 2000, after barely two years on the scene, Citron Press collapsed under a mountain of debt. £399 per author was not enough to keep them afloat, and their reputation faltered as they began to print books which only a vanity publisher would touch. It’s this lack of Quality Control which means that self-publishing firms, still today, are often seen as no better than the old vanity presses; competition has made them cheaper, but most bookshops and many readers (I am one) are wary of self-published books on principle.
Florence of Arabia sold almost 500 copies in the 18 months it was in print. A few of Citron’s authors topped 1,000 but most sold only a handful. Statistics are hard to come by, but I suspect these figures still hold good today for print editions by self-published authors. It’s only e-books which – if we can believe the amazing claims – produce sales in the tens and hundreds of thousands for novitiate writers. Many self-published authors appear to give away more downloads than they sell.
Since authors were going to be low on the Citron liquidators’ priorities I didn’t press a claim for royalties. £399 got me in print for 18 months. Any unpublished author reading this will know that seeing your book on a bookshelf in a bookshop is easily worth £400 of anybody’s money.
Matador have charged me quite a bit more than £399 to publish The Dropout this summer. Details in my next posting. Has it paid off?
(To be continued)
Feedback/comments from self-published authors will be keenly welcomed below
Extracts from Shaikh-Down and The Dropout (and two unpublished novels) on this site