Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Publish and Be Published. Why?

Why did I do it? I was desperate, of course. Naturally, I’ve invented more interesting motives since, to make myself seem clever.
I was 14 in 1977. The 70s punk scene’s DIY ethic affected me loads. It showed me culture wasn’t just something you consumed. You could have ideas yourself, and get them out there. You didn’t have to be superhuman or wealthy. I left school at a peak period in UK zine culture. According to Simon Jenkins’ book Rip It Up and Start Again, in 1980, London’s Rough Trade shop received an average of twelve new zines weekly. Publishing a DIY novel seemed a logical progression from the beliefs I picked up as a spotty young herbert.
It was Hobson’s choice, but DIY publishing gave me creative control mainstream publishing can’t offer. According to Dan Poynter’s Self Publishing Manual, 60% of publishers don’t give authors final say on copy editing and 25% don’t even let the author choose a book’s title. Acquaintances signed to ‘proper’ publishers tell horror stories of providing endless rewrites, only to have their novel ditched when editorial staff move on.
I’m pragmatic. I like my writing, but know I work slowly and couldn’t churn out novel after novel. And I know that, partly because of the people I write about, my writing isn’t that marketable. I’ve never had a career in my life, and don’t intend to start now, but given the above, it seems the chance of me having a conventional literary career is negligible. The facts of the publishing world support my hunch.
The average novelist gets 8% of retail price. The Society of Authors recently found that its members’ average income was £16,000. Not starvation wages granted, but hardly encouraging. J.K. Rowling got a £2500 advance for her first novel. Philip Pullman wrote for 20 years before he made enough to go part-time at his day-job. BBC Radio 4 pay £150 for a 15 minute story by a new writer. So to earn the average wage of a typical low-paid UK worker (£6 per hour), you’d need to produce a 3000 word story in 25 hours. Possible at a stretch, but not regularly. Despite the rubbish money, payment is often seen as proof of value in someone’s writing. It’s odd; I wouldn’t think someone was crap in bed because they’d never been paid for sex. My view now is, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for nothing.
This is political. There’s clear movement in cultural industries towards centralisation. Figures for 2003/4 (http://www.nielsenbookscan.co.uk/ ), show the big 3 publishers in Britain have 40% market share. The top five have 50% market share, and the top 10, 65%. Similar applies in book retailing. In 2001-2002, 37% of book sales were made via chain bookshops, e.g Waterstones, ( http://www.bookmarketing.co.uk/ ). Bookshop chains, Amazon and supermarkets account for 70% of retail sales. This means cultural industries form a pyramid with a very broad base. You get lots of poorly-rewarded people working at the bottom. I reckon this fosters attitudes similar to ones recognisable in many workplaces. At most jobs you’ll find some workers who are recognised by colleagues and punters as hardworking and skilful, while other staff thrive by making the boss like them. The culture industry’s structure privileges crawling to the boss over the work itself. This discourages efficency and productivity. 30% of books make a profit.
Resistance is possible. Independent record labels have been around for decades. Indie film-making is widely respected. But somehow, self-publishing is still stigmatised. You can change that. If you DIY publish, you’ll be in good company. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Blake did it. Won’t stop some patronising arse from offering you 70p for your novel, though.

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