By Dan Holloway
This Wednesday the Alliance of Independent Authors will launch at London Book Fair. Set up by bestselling author Orna Ross, this is an organisation designed to promote the interests of self-published authors in today’s changing publishing environment. And their first campaign is to get self-published authors a higher profile at literary festivals.
One of the things I was asked in advance of the launch is why I became an indie. This is the answer I gave – prickly and idiosyncratic but one that Orna was more than happy to receive – and that is another reason why I’m so happy to be involved – this is an umbrella organisation that doesn’t require homogeneity – and surprising as it may seem for an indie community, that’s a rare thing!
Self-publishing was a very simple choice for me to take. Back in 2007 I decided I wanted to give writing for a wider audience a proper chance. Like most writers, I’ve always written and I have my share of drawers full of emo poetry and really angsty teenage novels, but at 35 it felt like the right time to give it a proper bash. I churned out a thriller set in Oxford, and set about fine tuning it with a view to getting an agent and then a publisher. To this end, I joined the writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy in 2008, where I soon discovered I preferred writing literary fiction to writing thrillers, and by mid 2008 I had churned out a second book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a literary work set in post-communist Hungary about a girl growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nothing is constant. I set about finding an agent for it, still rather wet behind the ears and not really knowing anything other than that “this was what you did.”
I had a lovely letter from the only agency I really wanted to work with (one that focused on international fiction) saying how excited they were by the book but they couldn’t sell it in the current climate. At about the same time I was learning more and more about the vibrant literary world that existed online, and I started to wonder why I’d ever looked for a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t interested in making “a big splash” as the agent had put it. I wrote because I had something I needed to say, in whatever form it needed saying – whereas publishers wanted to tell you how you should be saying it in order to get sales. I didn’t want sales. I didn’t even want readers overly much. I wanted to get what was in my head out of there in the form it wanted.
And I wanted to play with what was and wasn’t literature.
I’ve always loved art since a school trip to the Tate introduced me to Rothko. I’d spent hours at the infamous Turner Prize exhibition of 1999 and fallen head over heels in love with Tracey Emin’s work (and, it’s probably true to say, with her). Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is set largely in the art world, and references Emin’s works throughout. Art was very very exciting. My childhood and young adult heroes were artists – Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat, Emin and Lucas, the Wilson Twins, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread. Art was heady, dangerous, talked about, argued about. It incited passion. And whilst I was aware of the storm over Satanic Verses, that was hardly the same as the reaction to Sensation, to Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley. Yes, YBA was full of marketing and slick and surface and phoneyism. But it was also dangerous, challenged the way people thought about art, about the world, about themselves and reality.
Literary culture just wasn’t like that. And aspiring writers just talked about how to get published. That wasn’t a conversation I was interested in. I wanted people to talk about literature like they did about art – I wanted to work with people who were doing wild things that would have people shaking their head and asking “but is it a book?” The whole world of getting published was, quite simply, a different conversation from the one I wanted to have.
Of course that was simplistic. But it remains the case that the most exciting discussions of words take place “in another place” and not in the world of publishing. I have also been saddened rather than heartened by much that has happened in self-publishing since the launch of the Kindle. Self-publishing is now (and fair play to everyone concerned) a place where people can set out their stall and hope, with a following wind, marketing acuity, and great writing, to make a decent crust. Which means its landscape is much like the landscape of mainstream publishing. And the conversations self-publishing writers have are, now, about how to market, how to format, what their sales figures are. It is a conversation that is increasingly squeezing me out the way regular publishing did. Or, rather, it is a conversation that regularly threatens to subsume me the way regular publishing did, and that would be my biggest single piece of advice to a self-publisher – remember why you’re doing it and don’t be a magpie. Don’t let sales or invitations or publicity distract you – unless they were the reason for self-publishing, in which case go for it.