National Young Writers Festival
used to be an independent book publisher for ten years and
also a print magazine publisher, and even though I do print and web
design for a living these days, I am still publishing literature on
the Internet purely out of love for the written word. In my
early twenties I was Austrias youngest publisher and most of
the emerging writers I first published are established authors today.
Back then I was always running on sheer determination and Arts Council
grants, however, I never cashed dole cheques as I never received unemployment
benefits in my life, and only once I had to sell my Yamaha XT 500
bike to pay a printers bill.
From the 1970s
on many new small publishers emerged to become professional players
in the book market. I was one of them from 1984 to 1994, and had gained
a reputation for hard hitting avant-garde. I even founded and managed
a writers street festival in Graz, a city very much like Newcastle,
from 1982 to 1986. Some say, indies is the only place where contemporary
literature belongs. On the other hand, there is not just the small
press out there today. The old publishers like Penguin
are often taking very young new names on board. Therefore, if you
dont produce crap, its only a matter of time to find the
right match (just as in your love life), as long as you have enough
passion, talent and patience.
When I asked
Kylie Purr, the festival manager, what the audience would expect from
our panel, she reckoned it could be some practical information of
how to self publish. Where to get ISBNs and such hands-on stuff. My
alarm bells rang: in all these years I would have never published
my own book in print. If your heart goes to publishing rather than
writing, learn the trade or ask people like myself for help (just
dont think computers do it all for you), start with your mates
work, and leave your own material better in the drawer. Its
OK if you read it at events you organised or write in a (maga)zine
you edit, but just dont do your own books, ever. Its damaging
to your career.
With few exceptions,
self published books lack editing, professionalism, get nowhere in
the media, as no reviewer takes them seriously and never make it onto
the shelves and from there to the readers anyway. Leave that to the
experts without embarrassing yourself. You cant be dancing on
two parties at once. Take the long road and start with submissions
to lit mags, and read your stuff at as many gigs as you can get. Make
friends with a published writer, and ask if he or she could recommend
your work. Also, when you read the books you like, talk to the people
who made them, as these are the ones who would eventually take you
on board as the right publisher for your own material. No point in
ringing every publishing house listed in the Yellow Pages.
However, if you
write non-fiction, know exactly who and where your target audience
is (bypassing bookshops with your own distribution), can afford to
invest at least the equivalent of a new car, are a quick learner how
to market and promote your product, and are prepared to
cooperate with (and pay for) graphic designers, typesetters, pre-press
houses, printers and book binders, go for it as you would start any
other business. If all works out, you should have earned your royalties
and made a profit. But thats not my way (and supposedly not
So far I talked
about paper books, what about new media? Well, a real book is still
a book in print. No-one will download an e-book onto his or her PDA
to take it to the loo to read. Not many would bother reading a longer
text stored on a CD-ROM on a computer screen. Well, not the general
public (unless its non-fiction, where the search functions can
come in very handy). There are, of course, works conceived for multimedia
only, but I assume we talk about traditional texts here, where e-books
are a great marketing tool. Instead of hundreds of pages of expensive
and environmental unfriendly paper you just send one URL to a potential
agents, film producers and the like also search the Net for new material.
And, yes, you get the occasional nerd who prefers a (free) e-book
to a paper book he or she has to borrow and copy or buy. In my opinion
e-books are an important step towards the real thing, but have your
material edited (or stress its not edited) and presented in
a user-friendly format. Again, it might be better to have your e-books
published with an established site, rather than on your own homepage,
for they already have the traffic you will take years too create.
Copyright issues with the electronic media have finally been sorted
out, so in this regard theres nothing to worry about any more
but getting the written word out there.
paper was presented at the National Young Writers Festival
Newcastle City Hall, 7 October 2002
also: Evading the jaws of giants.
Independent publishing in Austria.