It’s strange to have to report this, but I have to say I have had absolutely no negative reaction to the fact I decided to self publish my book. I’m four months into the Olives – A Violent Romance project (Olives launched at the TwingeDXB Urban Festival on the 10th December 2011, but wasn’t widely available in bookshops until February) and I have since not had one ‘We’re not taking you seriously, mate, you’re self pubbed’ from anyone.
I’ve had a number of reviews now from a variety of ‘mainstream media’ as well as blogs. I've even been invited to attend literary festivals as an author. My review in Read Magazine (it's on page 14) this week actually made reference to the fact Olives is self-published. But it didn’t stop them taking it as a review book.
When an author self-publishes his or her first novel, there’s a sense of apprehension when choosing to read it. If it wasn’t picked up by the publishing houses, it can’t be that good, can it? Happily, though, Dubai-based author Alexander McNabb puts those fears to rest with his first novel, Olives.The review, apart from being very kind (thank you, chaps!) raises an important point. Self published books used to be awful things. I actually bought one of those ‘first generation’ vanity books as part of my research on the third novel in what you might choose to view as ‘The Olives Cycle’, which is about a retired British diplomatist with a Middle Eastern career behind him. What better source for inspiration than the memoirs of real retired British diplomats? The book I bought shall remain nameless for fear of shaming its author, but it’s a dire, dreadful and colourless career that plods through those pages. Which was fantastic for me, because that’s precisely what I wanted. Anyone in their right minds who’s not researching a novel about a British diplomat in the Middle East would quite rightly take this particular book and fling it from Beachy Head. With lead weights attached, I might add. It’s typical of its type, a book that should never have been imprinted on dead trees.
The extremely well-written story follows Paul Stokes, an English journalist sent to Jordan to work on a government magazine. Immediately, he’s plunged into trouble, though he’s promised help by his friends at the ministry, including love interest Aisha and her family, and shady British embassy agent Gerald Lynch.
The story twists and turns as both sides vie to influence Stokes, but what really impresses is McNabb’s ability to offer a balanced view on the tensions in Jordan—he really has done his research. This makes Olives an educational read as well as an enthralling and entertaining one.
But that was then, this is now.
The fact is today's publishing industry is fighting in an increasingly difficult environment. The march of e-books and online retail have cracked the model the industry is comfortable and the changes are forcing publishers to take decisions based on mainstream appeal with minimal risk. So if you're a TV celebrity publishing a book, you're in. If you don't fit comfortably into 'three for two' supermarket dump bins or your work will require marketing to reach its audience, you're out. Adding insult to injury, this is an extract from one of the 'big six' publishers who declined my agent Robin's cunningly worded invitation to take on 'Beirut', my second serious novel:
"There are lots of elements to it that I like – there’s an austere, almost Le Carre feel which I like and the author can clearly write. The dialogue and plotting stood out for me in particular. I’m afraid though that it is – for my purposes – a bit too low-key; the ‘commercial’ bit of my job title requires me to pick out titles which are going to appeal directly to supermarkets and the mass-market, and I feel that this would be too difficult a sell in that context."QED, no?
As more authors take control of their back-lists and self publish them and more mid-list authors lose patience with the way they are being treated by publishers and go it alone, we are seeing a remarkable explosion of talent available to us. The sheer choice now open to readers is not only breathtaking, it’s also confusing.
Authors are having to learn new skills in order to stand out in this brave new world of almost limitless choice. But there are also new opportunities – as more books see the light of day, we need more freelance editors and cover designers. People are finding that skills in formatting and page design can actually find a new market – and there’s a new demand for reliable, competent book reviewers, too – because we all need help in sifting through that new wave of choice.
There’s a tremendous opportunity out there based on this movement, an opportunity to let people’s talent find its way into other people’s hands freely and without restriction, for writers to find global audiences without the huge burden of print and distribution and the risk-averse, highly strictured gatekeeper mentality that traditional publishing applies.
Reviewers and the like will take their cue from your approach rather than your origin. Is the pitch well-written? Does it sound plausible and even interesting? If so, they’ll agree to take a look, believe me. They will then, also believe me in this, take their own sweet time getting around to reviewing the book. But gone are the days when self-published books are automatically anathemised.
In fact, most people’s reaction to the fact I self-published Olives has been ‘Good for you’. Not only a pleasant surprise, but yet another reason I believe I was right to take the plunge.