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Publish and be damned?

All writers want to be in Waterstones shop window, now, today, this minute. One small obstacle stands between us and the realisation of a lifetime’s dream. Publishers. Today’s climate is not encouraging for the budding novelist, intent on seeing his work in print. Literary agents, those much maligned creatures who practise cunning evasion techniques to avoid dealing with the slush pile, are too busy with other things. Your work, polished as it may be, sits in a brown envelope on the top (or bottom) of a hundred others, waiting to be sifted through by a bored university graduate, considered briefly, then tossed contemptuously on the Return to Sender pile, marked ‘Sorry – not for us.’

This, we are given to believe, is the fate awaiting the average unsolicited manuscript. The web is filled with insider accounts of the ruthlessness of the industry and its treatment of unknown authors. Add to these, the bitter tales of disgruntled victims of such policies and you get an idea of the heartache involved. Trying to get published is traumatic, to say the least. But we all knew that anyway, didn’t we?

What’s the alternative? Well, according to the rallying cry on the street, the times they are a-changing. Mainstream publishing, once the sole option for aspiring writers, has been knocked from its perch by the age of technology. Now, instead of sending your proposal to a list of agents/publishers who may or may not respond within the stated weeks/months, you can go straight to the source. The printer.

Self-publishing is big business. Print on demand and e-books are the future. All we need to do, as writers, is upload the finished product and hit a series of buttons, each one sequentially geared to take us closer to publication. Then, we sit back and wait for the revenue to come rolling in. Wonderful.

But there is a catch. Rewarding as it may be to see your work in print, with your name on the cover, the downside is worth a mention. Firstly, the content. Most literary agents and mainstream publishers offer editorial advice. As long established businesses with reputations to uphold, they don’t want to publish work of inferior quality. (This policy includes standards of literacy as well as the layout and quality of the finished product itself). If we self-publish, who edits the content of our books? And can we guarantee that the finished product will be every bit as professional as a copy taken down from the shelves of high street bookstores?

The one word missing from the current obsession for being in print is integrity. As a writer, your reputation is made or undermined by your attention to detail. Open up a website at random and check the content for typos and grammatical errors. Many online writers, it would seem, don’t bother to edit their own work. This might be excusable on a blog or article, but in a novel would be tantamount to professional suicide.

Quality control is a necessary evil. Without it, we end up with an endless pool of first drafts, riddled with spelling mistakes and typos, with characters called Bob in chapter one, who somehow become Freddie thirteen chapters on. Even the best writers need guidance.

Today’s writer is in a unique position. Never before has there been such an array of options for those who thrive on the written word. This blogging site, for example. I have everything I need here to produce the finished article, including the all-important Publish button. The writers of yesterday would have killed for such a medium. Even if I end up posting to an audience of one, the results of my handiwork are there to be seen, in clear and functional Times New Roman. All I need exercise is a little restraint.

Whether you choose to self-publish or go the traditional route, one thing is certain. Attention to detail is everything. Send a sloppy, poorly written script to a publisher and you’ll get a standard rejection every time. Self publish work of a similar sub-standard and you’ll be contributing to the dross that’s already out there. Here today, forgotten tomorrow. This isn’t elitism or doomsaying, but the simple truth.

Self-publishing is an exciting prospect for those of us hammering away in garret rooms, walls lined with yellowing rejection letters. They say that if your book is good enough, it will find a home. What if we’re overlooked? What if the slush pile really is as defunct as last weeks newspaper headline? Perhaps we need a little more faith in the process. After all, the list of once-rejected novelists is a long one.

Publish and be damned is a questionable enterprise. Only a fool rushes to do that which cannot be undone.

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One Comment

  1. Well said.

    The obvious choice for the unpublished author is to hire one who has already hit that mark — to edit and polish your work, whether you want to submit it to an agent or self-publish. I do this for other writers, having published two books of my own with major publishers.

    As for being in the window? Good luck with that! Only best-sellers get that coveted real estate.

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