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Crime Beat

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Bonfire of the vanities

richard kunzmannCrime Beat’s man in London, Richard Kunzmann, has been flying under the radar of late but recently decided to poke his head out and have a say about a subject that gets his goat: the vanity publishers. So while this is not strictly about matters krimi it is about matters writing and publishing and so because we’re a blog with a heart we’ll step up and endorse Richard’s warning. All writers are desperate to get into print, but it is always worth waiting until a legit publisher coughs up the bucks to do it for you. Over to you, Richard:

After a long respite from blogging this summer, I return with a topic that I frequently come across when I give talks on the writing process. Many would-be writers either ask me my opinion about self-publishing or wave their newly self-published novel in my face, often with the same desperate need for recognition flickering in their eyes which drove them to do such a foolish thing in the first place. It’s as if they secretly fear that they’ve done some dirty thing – that they’re only pretending to be writers because they’ve self-published.

In my view, anyone that manages to finish a novel deserves to be called a writer, but that doesn’t mean their book is a finished product. And self-publishing is all about half-finished products.

Two examples
To illustrate: I know of at least two authors who got severely burnt. The first author, who has talent even if it is as yet undeveloped, handed me his self-published novel for review. He spent a substantial amount of money getting it printed and yet my copy fell apart before I was even halfway through. The editing was shoddy at best, cringe-inducing at worst.

The second author I met was absolutely convinced he’d hit the big-time with his story idea. His self-belief was such that he quit his job, sold his car and most of his assets, and spent the money on finishing the novel and paying for self-publication. He was a talented self-marketer, very good looking, and it wasn’t difficult to get a slot on a TV breakfast show to talk about his novel. So far so good, except when I caught up with him some months later, he was in financial dire straits and artistic despair. Why? The books were of such bad quality that the ink on the front pages rubbed off in the hands of his admiring readers who, it turned out, didn’t finish the book because of … you guessed it, the shoddy editing. Suddenly a thousand copies were returned to him by the stores who’d once supported him. He had to fork out the little money he made from sales to the shops, even though he’d already spent it all, putting him in twice the trouble he was in. When I last spoke with him, he was locked in a furious legal battle with money his parents had loaned to him. But the self-publishers had more greenback than him, better lawyers and a rock-solid contract.

It’s called vanity publishing for a reason, and it panders to that thing that is every writer’s nemesis: insecurity. Both authors had only approached one or two publishers, been rejected and turned to self-publishing out of despair. In the end, they lost doubly – they lost money in the enterprise and they lost a precious first idea.

Separating the wheat from the chaff
Eighty percent of writing is about sitting down and actually doing it. If that’s not hard enough, the next 15% is about the trial by fire, the publishing system’s cleansing ritual that rids itself of most of the chaff that’s out there. It’s not necessarily about you as an author, it’s about refining stories.

Traditional publishers know what the market wants, because they largely drive it, not consumers. They are also extremely good at spotting stories that have talent, and then developing these to such a level that they’re happy to put their brand and reputation on it. Within that process there’s an agent and editor who have your interests at heart. Why? Because if they don’t look after you and what you write they lose money and credibility when it goes to market. It means as long as you’ve not convinced them with the quality of your story, there is some lesson, some door, which you haven’t yet unlocked within yourself as an author. Self-publishers, they don’t walk that road with you. They take their money upfront and head the other way.

Self-publishing teaches you nothing
For me self-publishing’s greatest flaw is that it doesn’t teach you anything. With a traditional publisher, you’re learning something every time you get rejected, but only if you’re willing to objectively reflect on what you’ve written. And once the publishing world takes you on-board, there’s yet another steep learning curve ahead as editors slice up your manuscript to such an extent that you think you know nothing about the English language. Your agent has advice, as does the salesperson, the publicist, the copyeditor, the proof reader. If you can’t listen with an open mind to any of what they say, you’ll never learn. But that’ll be your fault. With a self-publisher, there’s none of that. No advice. No guidance. No realistic expectations. Just show me the money, babe.

Self-published novels don’t get sold in the major bookstores
Bookshops and publishers have a heavily syndicated relationship. All the big retailers decide in a distant head office somewhere what gets sold at the local bookstore, and self-published work never features on that list. This means that you pay money to a self-publisher, thinking maybe that you can convince at least ten bookstores to stock your books, except they won’t. And in the rare instances that they do, staff are pressed to position the top sellers in the best rows, the self-published novels hardly ever face cover outward, and worst of all, the poor design and paper quality sticks out like a monstrous aberration amongst the other professionally published books.
If they don’t take your book, suddenly you have little more than printed newspaper clogging up your garage.

And in the internet is not much different
To some extent, the same is true for the internet. Self-published work just doesn’t get the same exposure.
Quick test: I’m not a best-selling author on the international platform by any means, but my first novel with PanMacmillan UK comes up 23,000 times on a Google search. A first novel by someone else, with a New York-based self-publisher, comes up 634 times.

You wouldn’t give the patent to Windows to a second-hand car dealer, would you?
Don’t give away your intellectual property to someone that’s going to do a half-assed job bringing it to market. A novel idea has only one shot at becoming something; if a self-publisher fouls that up for you, your chance is gone forever. It’s hard, but it’s much better to go through the trial by fire that is rejection after rejection. It teaches you to reflect on your work, to rely on yourself for courage and determination, and forces you to hone your skills as a writer, until you’re good enough to bring out all the best elements in your story.

Am I absolutely against self-publishing?
Having said all that, I think Kindle and e-books are set to shake things up completely. We now have a medium through which an author can publish and conceivably run no financial risk as no novel needs to be printed. There’s, which exclusively markets self-published work and it seems to be working. Still, unless you’re absolutely confident in your skills as a writer, a professional fiction editor is invaluable, not only in shaping your current novel, but also helping you along the path of becoming a better writer.

Richard Kunzmann is the author of three Harry Mason and Jacob Tshabalala krimis, Dead-End Road, being the most recent.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Brandon</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @05:35 #

    Richard makes some good points, but is he able to inform me what to do if there are no publishers for the kind of book one has created, for example graphic novels, and no professional editors in that area to evaluate the type of work you do? How would one then go about finding out if what you've written is wheat or chaff?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @08:30 #

    Hey Brandon,

    The point I was making takes into account that there is already a well-established publishing culture around the medium you've picked -- and in your case there is hardly anything in South Africa. I remember writing about the woeful state of graphic novels in South Africa for the Weekender a few years back when the first Comic Brew appeared in Cape Town. It's not just the lack of funding, it's the lack of an entire structure around the medium, negative perceptions about comics, never mind the tiny market. In that sense the few comic book writers in this country have it much worse than book authors.

    The best advice I can give is, do what most upcoming film students do: enter your work in as many international comic book festivals you can. This way you're pitting it against other writers (thereby making yourself known in case they launch international projects) and putting it in front of various judges who are gatekeepers to DC or Marvel or Image, whoever. It will take time, but hopefully that'll get you noticed.

    At the core of my blog is the point that the biggest danger of self-publication is intertia and listlessness. If you don't find a mentor or don't compete in an aggressive market place, you have no idea if you're progressing as an author.

    If you asked me what I would have done had I been a graphic novel writer, I would've probably gone the same route as you.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @08:34 #

    The last paragraph of this column should have been the first - and indeed the whole focus of the piece. Anyone writing about self-publishing today cannot relegate the electronic revolution to a mere postscript.

    It almost goes without saying that you will be ripped off if you hand your money over to conventional vanity publishers (with several notable exceptions, such as Stephen Clarke and the first of his "Merde" series). But e-books and print-on-demand have changed the face of self-publishing forever.

    Brandon's point is also very valid and not addressed at all by Kunzmann. What do you do if your book does not fit neatly into one of the narrow pigeon holes of What Publishers Believe Will Sell? Publishers are getting more and more conservative and risk-averse. They are only prepared to wager money on the kinds of books that have been shown to sell well in the past. If they can't label an author as the new Marian Keyes, or the new Jeffrey Deaver, or the new Jilly Cooper they're just not interested.

    You'll have a hard time convincing me that a lot of quality and innovative fiction is not slipping through the cracks in this ruthless process of giving the public only what it thinks it wants to read.

    Electronic publishing is going to hand some of that power back to the writers and the risk-takers, and that, I believe, can only be a good thing.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @08:40 #

    I wrote my comment above before I saw Richard's response to Brandon. Obviously, he addresses Brandon's concerns very directly in it.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @09:11 #

    Whoa -- everything Richard says here is true -- of vanity publishing. I've written at length about the perils of doing this, as have others in the local scribing business, such as Gary Cumminskey. Some brilliant authors have felt they had no choice but to tread this path: Frances Thomas (the highly-respected author of children's books) had to vanity-publish her brilliant and comprehensive biography of Christina Rossetti, even tho this meant double-spacing (of course -- the vanity press was charging per page) and the most egregious of type-setting errors. Fortunately, in her case, real publishers subsequently picked it up. She was a classic victim of market pigeon-holing: one can imagine the squeals of her publishers. "You're an award-winning writer of children's books! Why would you write a literary biography?"

    BUT: self-publishing is a different matter altogether, and in South Africa, I'd say (with great caution) that there are certain cases where this is valid. Colleen Higgs has written about this for the Centre for the Book, I think. Small niche publications that one is reasonably confident one can hand-sell can be ventured upon by employing professionals: professional assessors, professional editors, professional typesetters and printers whose work you already know and trust. (This kind of thing is possible here because of the tininess and tightness of the industry.) Shabbir Banoobhai self-publishes his religious poetry this way, using a small team of very good suppliers (editor, proofreader, a superb designer, printer). He breaks even because (by SA standards) he has a large-ish market he has painstakingly built himself, using networks within the local Muslim community.

    It is NOT the way to get rich or famous: you're aiming for break-even at best. But, for instance, if I write a history of the breathtakingly beautiful gardens my mother has raised up out of raw bare red earth of their remote Free State smallholding, that's the sort of thing I'd self-publish. It would be a sentimental project (with a very specific audience and a tiny print-run) I wouldn't want to subject to the sometimes necessarily brutal publishing and marketing process.

    The biggest caveat about self-publishing is that you need to be established in the word business before you go down that route, so that every single illusion has already been knocked out of you.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @09:21 #

    Phillippa Yaa De Villiers - one of our best, most celebrated and invited-everywhere poets - self-publishes her poetry, I believe. Colleen self-published "Half-Born Woman", which is brilliant.

    When the three children's stories I'm busy writing now re-emerge from the Baobab Prize process next year, I will self-publish them.

    The very process of blogging is a form of self-publishing that has entirely transformed the way information is disseminated. It caught the print media entirely on the hop, causing countless newspapers to close down. The same may well happen to mainstream fiction publishers if they don't look out.


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