Look at them all. Rows and stacks of books for sale. In charity shops (thrift stores) in this case, between 50p and £1 for a paperback; hardbacks £2. Some clearly have been read, handled, a whiff of sun cream here, a splosh of coffee there. Though many more are in amazingly good condition, unwanted gifts or mistake buys — or perhaps simply they belonged to the type of reverential reader so careful not to crack a spine.
This is part of a mini project to photograph second-hand books. See some of the titles? The must-read trends that you remember: Alex Garland’s The Beach from some twenty years ago; Don Tilman’s The Rosie Project from these several summers past. The chunky John Grisham best-seller; the zesty lime-green humour of Marianne Keyes. Dickens’ Hard Times rubbing up against Heller’s Catch 22 because they both are in hardcover editions; James Joyce next to a detective noir; Michael’s Moore’s Stupid White Men strayed inquisitively into the fiction section. A psychological thriller shoved carelessly back on top, and a Donna Leon, too – hey, her mystery series is great, remind me why I stopped reading them? Many of the others will now be out of print.
Take a book from the shelf and open it. Most of the dedications are simple, For Dave; For Pat and Jenny. Some more elaborate, “This book is dedicated to Jillian, for her kindness and support, and for reasons only she will understand.” The pride is evident in the authors’ gifts to their loved ones.
One might assume the most loved books do not make it this far, too thumbed and furred by re-reading, or owned by someone unable to prise them from their shelves out of love and separation anxiety. But we do know this is the tip of the book-berg. To give context, in 1900 around 6,000 new books were published in the USA* (though obviously with a smaller and a smaller literate population). In 2018, in addition to print, every day countless e-books are published – well over five million Amazon Kindle Ebooks** alone now exist. How many of those lurk unread on E-readers, downloaded in a freebie frenzy?
The book mountain
Print or electronic, some of these books will be a cynical bid for a buck, from a passing trend, a social fear, or the groomed back of a minor celebrity’s dog. Others produced by a slick, clever writer who has learnt or studied what the commercial market wants. But many represent dreams, months even years of work, a cherished goal: to write a book. Preferably one you can hold in your hands, sniff and riffle the pages.
Why add to the book mountain, the literature lake, this torrent of tomes?
Hm. Well, personally speaking, I wrote because I had the urge to do so, then I finished a book to see if I could (many don’t complete theirs), and for the satisfaction of it. Then I self-published because…? I am not quite sure why. Because the book was there and why not? To give myself a goal? To make the book feel ‘real’? To see if anyone might want to read it? To sprinkle the ‘gift of me’ onto the world. Perhaps a bit of all those things. Except the last one – truly.
Around a year on from my first toe into the self-publishing waters, time for some reflections. No, this is not one of those ‘should I go the traditional publishing route or self-publish?’ items. It’s so notoriously hard to attract a literary agent or small publisher to be interested in one’s work, it never occurred to me I would have a choice of the former option and, in consequence, have no experiences to share on the latter. This is not a caution either on how few authors ‘make it’ with their work, what a tiny per cent make a living wage from writing; such facts already are well documented. Nor is it a warning of how complex the demands of self-publishing are – or not directly. Though true, the multiple requirements not only to write but to get edited, format, commission covers, publish, get reviewers, and publicise is largely the cause of the reflection. Because I need to stop if I cannot do all those things to the best of my ability. And I simply do not have time to give the best of myself to each task, not alongside my job and children, house, wider family…
Money plays a role. Though I do not consider it a ‘mistake’ that my budgets for covers and promotions and so on are not large. Actually, it’s all my children’s fault for having these costly demands: they not only want to eat, they also require clothes and hold grandiose expectations of living indoors. Of course I’m aware of the old maxim of ‘speculate to accumulate’, but it’s not only on my own behalf I would be taking the risks. So my writing and publishing adventures are kept as cost neutral as possible — anything I make can go on promotions etc., but not more. I am lucky that I never supposed any fame and fortune; there was nothing ‘at stake’ — except my ego. I am aware that within its genre (or any other) my work is a bit of an ‘odd fish’, failing to meet all the expected tropes and without a snug sub-genre to call its natural home.
Still, I may have bitten off too much here, made too many mistakes due to lack of time and space to focus on the steps along the path from draft to sales. For instance, recently I messed up my ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) phase. You’re meant to have reviews cued up for when you’re book becomes available (unpaid and honest of course), to help sell it off the bat. Only I had technical difficulties with my distribution, had to send out copies by email and forgot to give a deadline, and almost certainly didn’t line up enough reviewers. Unless you have devoted fans, I believe only a fraction of ARC reviewers will actually post a review. Perhaps some don’t want to leave a poor review. That would be a relief, because there is anxiety, too, around low ratings.
And Oh, there are numerous other examples. The promotional text I thought was edited within a scintilla of its existence – but wasn’t. The incorrect link I inserted into another promo. The blog reviewer I addressed by the wrong name in an email when one of the kids rushed in with a nose-bleed (did I have to press send or did I fear it would never get it sent otherwise?) And so on.
I have learnt a lot across these areas of self-publishing, enough to understand how much more knowledge there is to acquire. And I don’t think I am a bad writer, even as I accept my stuff is going to be far from everyone’s taste. But I am not sure I can – or should – keep on doing it, self-publish. The more tasks required for one busy person to attend to, the more can go wrong.
Thing is though, could I go back to writing purely for its own satisfaction, without the ‘goal’ of publication?
*Digital History: Twentieth-century revolutions http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3176
**Just Publishing Advice, https://justpublishingadvice.com/how-many-kindle-ebooks-are-there/