Monday, July 18, 2005

All is vanity

Inspired by a piece over at Trace's place, I have been racking (wracking?*) my brain this weekend to try and remember the names of those famous authors who have published their own work before finally persuading publishers of their genius and marketability. There are some surprising names on the list, including Mark Twain, Robert Burns, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, as well as more modern writers like Robert Clancy, Jeff Noon and of course John Grisham (who started the whole discussion off). I myself have dabbled in the self-publication business, with my first book Pedalling Uphill Slowly, which can be seen to the left of these words, with its splendid Stuart MacBride original cover.

One of these days I will, of course, be as famous (and rich) as Grisham, with an equally impressive canon of hack works of fiction behind me. And so my dabbling in vanity will be justified. But you only have to look at the list of Publish America or Publish And Be Damned**, or trawl through the turgid waters of fanfic, to realise that there is more dross out there than worthy material in much the same way as there is more sand in Saudi Arabia than there is ice.

But anyone who has had the misfortune to read Tom Holt's*** A Song for Nero (why did he write this book? Goatsong was good. Couldn't he have left it at that?) or his dreadful latest 'humorous' title Earth Wind Fire and Custard (which brought to mind the phrase 'contractual obligation'). Or worse yet Dave Garnett's**** Stargonauts (available from Amazon for 1p) will realise that publishers get it wrong as often as they get it right. You only have to wander through the remainders bookshops to see the failed hopes and dreams.

Why then are we so pompous and arrogant about vanity publishing, or it's slightly less evil twin self-publishing? I can understand why mainstream publishers look down their noses at us amateurs - after all we're taking their potential profits away from them. But why do the reviewers sneer (or more often ignore completely) when a book doesn't have the logo of a well-known publishing company on its spine? Why don't we celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of the self-publisher? In any other arena, such industry is lauded, but sing from the rooftops 'look at me, I've written a book' and you're likely to be the subject of much derision and scorn.

Which is not to say that a lot of writing doesn't' deserve derision and scorn, and the bulk of that is vanity or self-published. But deride it for its failings, not for the nature of its publication.

Hmmm, this has turned into something of a rant, and I've no idea where that came from.

* It's racking. Wrack is a term for ship wreckage, or the seaweed that grows between the high and low tide marks, traditionally collected and used for fertiliser. The steam train that runs from Aberystwyth to Devil's Bridge was originally used for transporting wrack from the Ceredigion coast up into the hills, and for taking lead and silver from the mines back down to the harbour.
** No, I'm not going to put links in to them. Google them if you really must.
*** My apologies to Mr Holt, who has written some very fine, very funny books. These just weren't up to the usual standard in my opinion.
**** And to Dave, too, who signed my (free) copy of Stargonauts when I met him at an Aberdeen University SF Society meeting many years ago. Sorry, Dave, but it's a really bad book.


Blogger Trace said...

I agree with you, James. Whole heartedly.

July 21, 2005 4:10 pm  

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