Originally, there was only one way of creating a book.
Soon after, William Caxton introduced his printing press to England, following Johannes Gutenberg's attribution as the creator of the very first modern printing press.
But long before Caxton brought us the printing press, dozens of monks squirrelled away in monasteries across the land, meticulously copying text, and that text was almost always the Bible. But soon, the advent of printing offered freedom to a whole range of views on topics that went beyond religion and politics. Pamphlets could be created in secret and those in power for the first time faced criticism from anonymous writers.
There have always been human made stories, but a lot of credit should be given to playwrights of the late 16th century (Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, KIt Marlow) for broadening the world of fiction.
As with all things, people felt that there should be legislation or at least a sense of order to this growing industry. There have been people in every era who believed books to be dangerous, and as soon as printing was founded, there were many that were banned.
If somebody wanted to write a book from the 16th century onwards, and then mass produce it, it was quite a laborious process.
Printing was still very slow and the equipment expensive, and you needed staff to run the press. There began the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between the writer and the publisher, and there are many early examples of where writers complained the text had been changed or edited before it had left the printing press.
Slowly, a tradition developed where writers and publishers were separate, but eventually we would see the rise of intermediaries, now called agents.
This settled as the status quo for some time, and certainly in the days of the Brontë’s and Charles Dickens, publishers mass produced books when they considered them to be well written, interesting, or carried a moral message like ‘A Christmas Carol’. It would be difficult to say when that purpose changed to mostly addressing the commercial or moneymaking potential.
What we now call self-publishing (previously referred to as indie or independent writers) has surprisingly upset the historical balance.
How dare people presume they can write and that the work they produce be good enough for public consumption?
Well, let’s start there. If you allow practically anyone a stab at what is an established art form, the results will vary in quality, but they will also create new areas of interest. But look at it the other way around, traditional publishing has a portcullis that keeps so many people from getting that work to the public, which could also be seen as non-inclusive.
Now that self-publishing has evolved, and people can make a living from it (and there are some excellent works being produced) there should be no reason why traditional publishing and self-publishing can’t live alongside one another.
Lee and I set up 'Meet The Authors' because we shared similar thoughts about the industry and had a passion to support those who wished to write without having to spend a fortune. We were also concerned about how the process was incredibly isolating. Having spoken to a few authors, some very young and who have published traditionally, it is clear it is not all it pretends to be. We have spoken to people on both sides of that divide, and there is a commonality to the response.
Some traditionally published writers say they barely recognise their own work when it comes back to them and there are occasions when the proofreading has left something to be desired. Moreover, they tell me that there’s been little effort to market and promote the book. I have been a member of more than one author society, and, despite assurances to the contrary, they seem obsessed by ‘the industry’ and have certainly left me feeling that there is still a degree of elitism there.
One of them has a whole range of attractive grants and financial support for members. Again, I was alarmed that I seemed excluded from practically every one of them. The part I found incredibly difficult was trying to find out why one person was accepted and another wasn't. I have had decades of experience in the education sector at all levels and there are moderating standards for anything that is required to be assessed (from SATS to Doctorates) and people who do so are highly qualified. As I understand it, there is no existing recognised qualification for being a literary agent and neither is there a nationally recognised moderation for what passes and fails when you submit your book. You can’t help thinking, what then are the criteria for acceptance?
I chose to self-publish for several reasons and I made several mistakes. If anyone ever confronts me with that, I would be honest. Nothing was perfect straight away and yes; proofreading was one of the problems. Initially, it wasn’t good enough. Like most writers, my self-esteem isn’t great, and I don’t boast. But the truth (without throwing statistics at you) is that there is an average expected sale of a self-published book, and an average expected sale of a traditionally published book and I have far exceeded both. A lot of my journey has been trial and error and I know it has been the same for Lee. What we want to share is our experiences of those pitfalls and successes too.
This is not an anti-traditional rant. The quality of the product tends to be better and I would advise anyone involved in any artistic project to seek the assistance of other people and traditional publishing gives you that support. If your publisher employs the right marketing experts, it will also save you a lot of heartache and you can sit back and hopefully watch your book sell.
So, what am I saying? I think it’s about time that the weapons were put down and we all work together, that there was a halfway house where self-published authors could benefit from hundreds of years of expertise, and traditional publishing could acknowledge that there are very good writers out there who may disappear under the radar. I would ask them to stop worrying about quality because the audience out there is more critical than it has ever been. If your work is terrible, you will soon know about it and (ironically) whether we like it or not, people will still buy questionable traditionally published stories that are badly written, but are nevertheless, a cheap thrill. What everyone in this business needs to do is battle is vanity publishing and all the scams and believe me, there are so many out there.
And on a lighter note, here is one of my experiences that is worth sharing with anybody who hasn’t started yet. My genre, I suppose, can be labelled as Tudor Historical Fiction. Two of the very best (and of course successfully traditionally published) writers in this genre are C J Samson and Hillary Mantel, the author of ‘Wolf Hall’ (sadly, the latter has recently passed away). I am a great admirer of both, and they are very good at what they do and, for anyone who doesn’t understand this genre, research can be overwhelming. Not the general stuff. As a historian, I could easily write a story around the real-life characters of the time. It is when you start digging into stuff that people haven’t referenced before. (which, of course, is also very enjoyable). Like most people who self-publish, when I first published my book on Amazon, I didn’t have great expectations, but enjoyed the fact that a few people were giving it good reviews and (at first!) five stars. What I didn’t expect was that my book would be (metaphorically speaking) on the shelf next to C J Sansom and Hilary Mantel! So be prepared. There is no league in self-publishing for ‘Oh, I’ve only just started’ or ‘can you give me a while to get into this genre’ as your audience cannot make the distinction from where they are sitting.
Having said that, that’s your job, come up with your best work and compete with the best.