Why do we write?
Before we talk about publishing, in any form, we must pose the question: why do we write? As a former academic, my writing was intimately tied to academia. At first, I wrote to pass my exams; then I wrote to pass my courses by handing in essays and potential papers; then, when I was a full-time academic, I wrote for the “publish or perish” world of academia, churning out articles (90) and reviews (70) on topics that were tied to my research projects. My writing, in other words, had a purpose and a direction. I knew why I was writing and I was conscious of the areas and places in which my publications would be acceptable and accepted.
At the same time as I wrote for the academic world, I indulged in creative writing. I have always written poetry. I have always been aware of my vocation as a poet. However, I was also aware that it was very difficult to earn a living as a poet. We’ll talk more about that later. The academy, research, and teaching gave me enough free time to indulge my dream of being a creative writer. It also permitted me to put food on the table and to keep my family warm and comfortable during our cold, Canadian winters.
So, the first question you must ask yourself is: why am I writing? What do I hope to achieve as a writer? Who do I want to read my works? Why do I want to be published? How do I want to be published? Your answer to these questions, and others like them, will determine your relationship to the publishing process.
It isn’t easy to become published in the traditional fashion. In the first place, there are fewer major presses out there, and those that do exist are very large and powerful indeed. They want only the very best work. Not only that, they want the best work that will make them the most money. Good writing isn’t always guaranteed to sell well and thus to make the most money, remember that. In the second place, there are some excellent smaller presses, but they tend to be niche presses tied to a specialized corner of the market. Academia is a niche market. My own area of academia, Spanish Seventeenth Century Literature, is a very small niche market indeed. In order to get published in the traditional manner, a great deal of research into the niche area and the presses that publish therein is needed.
Most major presses will not look at up and coming writers unless they are represented by an agent. Few agents will take on an up and coming writer. This is a chicken and egg conundrum: how do we get the experience to be represented when we need the representation to help get the experience? All writers must solve this problem in their own fashion. There is no easy answer. Novels that have the potential to be turned into films: these will attract an agent and a big press, because that’s where the money is. How many of us are capable of writing them? Short story collections used to be a reasonably safe bet, but it appears that fewer presses and literary magazines are publishing them. Poetry generates little or no money, hence it also belongs to a highly specialized niche market with very small circulation figures. Once these realities are understood, then we can consider the alternatives.
Self-publishing is no longer associated with the so-called Vanity Press, a term used to denigrate it. Not so long ago writers who paid for their writing to be published were considered by many to be ‘poor’ writers, ‘vanity’ writers. This is no longer true and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) now accepts self-published works as genuine works of literary merit, always provided that they are well-written. The advent of the computer revolution made all forms of writing, printing, and publishing so much easier. The ensuing advances in desk-top publishing allowed anyone to be a published writer and a writer’s life was suddenly that much simpler.
I published two poetry books with traditional presses in 1978 (Last Year in Paradise) and 1986 (Broken Ghosts). In 1990, following the death of my parents, I felt a deep desire to write and to be published once more. I had poems published in small literary reviews and magazines and I had a track record of wins and honorable mentions in writing competitions, but nobody wanted to publish another book of my poetry. I papered my walls with rejections … and I got nowhere. Therefore, in 1990, I started to self-publish.
My first six books were simple: I typed out the poems, ordered them the way I wanted, and took them to the local print shop where, for a small sum of money, the books were printed and saddle-stitched. This was a cheap means of production, so cheap, that I didn’t need to sell the copies so I just gave them away to my friends. Between 1990 and 1996 I published six of these little paperback chapbooks: Idlewood, In the Art Gallery, Daffodils, Secret Gardens, Iberian Interludes, and On Being Welsh. The runs were small, ranging between 100 and 200 copies, and very cheap per copy, often less than a toonie / twony (two dollar coins, after ‘loonies’ one dollar pieces with a loon on the coin).
All the initial work for these books was done by me: writing, selection, typing, and editing. The printers did the rest: copying and binding. In the case of these first self-published books, the covers contained typed titles and the author’s name and nothing more. In 2000, I was very fortunate. I met a genuine editor who agreed to work with me to publish my poetry via a small university print-shop. I wrote the poems and typed the text. My editor, a wonderful lady, then edited the text and prepared it for printing. My beloved (aka my wife) designed the covers for these books. Between 2000 and 2012 we (self-) published six of them: Sun and Moon, Though Lovers Be Lost, Fundy Lines, At the Edge of Obsidian, Obsidian 22, and Monkey Temple. These were genuine paperback books, with an ISBN. They were all limited editions and again I gave them away to my friends.
2008 saw Nashwaak Editions, the book division of the Nashwaak Review, publish Land of Rocks and Saints, a book of poetry that I wrote while in Avila (Spain). Again I funded this printing myself and again I gave it away to my friends and colleagues. I was devastated on several occasions to find signed copies of these books in second hand bookstores, that which I had given away for free had been sold for money. The receivers of free gifts had gained more cash than the books’ writer.
I continued writing and now had several manuscripts that I thought well worth publishing. Armed with a genuine list of publications and prizes and with excellent letters of recommendation from established writers, I again tried the traditional approach. Alas, I got the traditional results. Two small trade presses who agreed to publish my work both went out of business before they could do so. Agents, if they bothered to reply (and most of them didn’t), turned me down. I got to final judging with a famous niche press, but their marketing department said the book wouldn’t sell and they refused to market it … I didn’t know where to turn.
I had for some time been getting e-mails from houses that, for a large sum of money, would publish my new works for me. However, I was by now retired, and didn’t have those ‘large sums of money’. Publishing costs varied from $1500 US to $3500 US to £3000 (sterling). Well, I wasn’t that desperate, especially when I was suddenly subjected to regular e-mails, constant phone calls, and targeted advertising. I got tired of sales reps ringing me up and asking “are you read to go to press now?” There had to be easier and cheaper ways to get published.
2016 saw a major change in my self-publishing. A new friend, now a very close friend, suggested I try CreateSpace on Amazon. He came over one afternoon to give me a demonstration and we had a manuscript up and running that same day. It cost me nothing. I still haven’t sold a copy of that particular book. But it is up and available on Amazon. I buy copies at a relatively cheap rate and, you guessed it, I still give them to my friends. I now have nine titles on Amazon, two new titles* and seven rewrites and expansions. These include Monkey Temple, Bistro*, Though Lovers Be Lost, Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, Empress of Ireland, All About Angels, Iberian Interludes, and Avila* (my first book of poetry in Spanish).
Marketing is still a problem partly because I just don’t have (nor do I want to have) what it takes to be a salesman. I still give copies of my books to my friends. I guess I’ll never make any money worth speaking about from my creative writing. But that has never worried me: I have never written for money, only for love. I write because I love writing. I publish so I can give copies of my books to those friends who ask for them. I am a poet, whether I want to be or not. I am also condemned to my fate: I am an academic, a writer of poetry and books, and a book self-publisher. I guess I’ll never be a businessman.
Is it all worth the effort? Yes, I think it is. Can (other) people make money from self-publishing? Yes, they can, especially if they are willing to advertise, market, and sell their books at every opportunity. This is something that I just cannot bring myself to do although I know several writers who have been very successful with this aspect of the trade.
Are self-published books capable of being genuine works of art? Indeed they can. Bistro, although being self-published, has just been confirmed as one of three finalists in the New Brunswick Book of the Year Competition (2016-2017). Several of the stories in Bistro were either published separately in literary magazines or were part of larger manuscripts that received recognition in one way or another for the quality of their writing. Parts of several of my other books on Amazon have been published or awarded prizes or honorable mentions in competitions and this gives my creative work a track record of respectability.
I am an academic, trained to assess written work and to maintain quality control on my own written work as well as that of other people. Not everyone is born to be an editor, let alone a self-editor. How do we get to the level of self-editing necessary to be confident in our own quality control? Enter your work in competitions. Submit your work to literary magazines. Take writing workshops online and in person. Consult with other writers and join a good writing group or form one yourself. Be careful of submitting your work to the opinions of your best friends and your family: they will only tell you how good you are. Remember that your granny may be your favorite person, but she is not necessarily your best critic. Seek always the objectivity that allows you to stand back and criticize your own writing from a distance. Seek the opinions of others who are objective and will do the same.
- Think about why you are writing and what you want to achieve with your writing.
- Consider the different ways in which you can publish or self-publish and decide which is better for you.
- Research your market / niche market as carefully as you can and target the area in which you wish to work.
- Writing is a long-term commitment: you must make that commitment and stick with it.
- Remember that there is no substitute for high quality writing.
- Remember the words of Dewi Sant, St. David, the Patron Saint of Wales: “Keep the faith.”
- Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. If you stop writing, you will never achieve your goals or finish that book.