PNG King's Birthday Honours List
Shifting

Never a better time to be a writer….

PHILIP FITZPATRICK

Illustration from The Gates of the Kingdom (John Birmingham)
Illustration from The Gates of the Kingdom (John Birmingham)

TUMBY BAY – In 2013 I set up the book publisher Pukpuk Publications when I was looking for a lower cost alternative to the publisher we'd used for the first two editions of the annual Crocodile Prize anthology.

It was in that search for cheaper books that I came across Amazon’s CreateSpace online publishing tool as an economical method of producing the anthologies, my own work and, from 2013, books by Papua New Guinean authors.

But despite the low cost and utility of CreateSpace, I could never get over the idea that self-publishing was somehow second rate, akin to the so-called ‘vanity publishing’ and its reputation for badly written, poorly edited and self-glorifying works.

I thought that, in using self-publishing, I was accepting that I was unable to write well enough to appeal to publishers, even though I’d previously published several books bearing their imprint.

But by the time the Crocodile Prize came along, and as I watched respected authors turn to self-publishing, my prejudice against it evaporated.

Recently, an article by author John Birmingham on his aliensideboob blog confirmed my faith in the concept.

I had first come across John’s writing when he was a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.

He has a wicked sense of humour and cutting insights into the human condition and the flaws that ail society.

He also writes genre-bending books, many of which I’ve read. And now I regularly follow aliensideboob.

John has recently written an essay on the development of self-publishing as it evolved from the early 2000s.

He has told me that he is happy for this to be run on PNG Attitude and what follows is a slightly cut down version of an excellent piece of writing.

_____________

John Birmingham
John Birmingham - "I really do feel that there has never been a better time to be a writer"

Extract from The Gates of the Kingdom

JOHN BIRMINGHAM

The last good year in publishing was 2007. Everything after that has been terrible.

Arguably, though, everything everywhere has been terrible since 2007, which was the year before a bunch of carnivorous greed heads crashed the global financial market because the Matterhorn of money they had made selling each other's worthless mortgages wasn't quite the Mt Everest of value they had been hoping for.

So they just had to push it that little bit too far.

In 2007 it was still possible for an unknown writer to front up at a publishing company with a small, beautifully crafted gem of a manuscript and be welcomed through the gates of the kingdom.

Not guaranteed, not even very likely, but possible.

In 2007, self-publishing was a grift. The only people who made money out of it were predatory shills selling false hope to the hopeless.

If you wanted to become a writer, the path was clearly marked and well-trodden.

There were of course inequities. As always, white male middle class writers played the game on the easiest setting possible.

Women, writers of colour, basically anybody who wasn't a pale male, had the difficulty setting jacked all the way up to instant death. It's a testament to those who made it through. And plenty did.

……………….

I'm going to cut straight to the spoiler here.

Despite the collapse of the old media business model, despite the devastation which has swept through hundreds, maybe thousands of small to medium sized publishing houses, despite the consolidation of the grand old houses into fewer and fewer mega companies, I really do feel that there has never been a better time to be a writer.

If you have a manuscript in your bottom drawer, or just a couple of pages hidden in a file deep inside your computer, or possibly even just an idea that you think would be really cool, I would encourage you to go ahead and write it, or finish writing it, or just publish the damn thing. You can do that now.

It doesn't mean anybody will read it, because it never did. That was never part of the deal unless you were a Stephen King or a JK Rowling who had already made bank their publishers and so consequently gobbled up 90% of the marketing budget for that financial year.

There are an unknown number of really great books which have only ever been read by a handful of people. But I will bet the number is large. And it's only going to get larger.

That doesn't mean the authors of those titles wasted their time, not unless the only return they were seeking was monetary.

And yes, I am aware of the irony, even the hypocrisy of me, a working writer who pays his bills by putting one word after another, plonking on about the immaterial returns to be had from writing. But those returns are real.

Some people write for therapy, for salvation or vindication. Some write for themselves, feeling that nobody else would be listening anyway. Others write simply for enjoyment. (I wrote a whole space opera trilogy because I got tired of waiting for Peter F Hamilton to drop his next one.)

Whatever the reason, anybody who wishes to write and further to find an audience now has that ability, even if the audience is very small. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The publishing industry, by which most people mean the Big Five houses, eventually recovered from the great financial crisis of 2008, the same way that most large businesses recovered from that period; i.e., through a carefully structured process of Big Money cannibalism.

They sacked staff, they cut their author lists, they consumed smaller competitors, they transferred marketing and publicity costs onto their authors at the same time as they paid smaller and smaller advances for new titles, while demanding ever greater shares of emerging income streams such as audio.

And then, the authors fucked them back.

Many in-house production staff had been sacked and hired back as freelancers, who are much cheaper because you only have to pay them the invoice rate, not a lot of expensive and inconvenient add-on costs like sick leave or holiday pay.

But of course those freelancers were free to offer their services to anybody. And who hired them? A lot of authors who had been cut from their publisher's lists, and other authors who had never made the list in the first place.

The houses found themselves squeezed out of the best seller lists, at least for e-books, by a barbarian horde of previously unpublished or simply unsuccessful writers who suddenly found themselves able to write directly to market without a bunch of know nothing know-it-alls in tweed jackets and cravats telling them what they could not do.

They could set their own price and trouser 70% of it 60 days later, instead of waiting 12 to 18 months for a publisher to send them a tiny royalty check which might be worth somewhere between five to seven percent of the recommended retail price depending on how badly they got screwed in the contract.

As you can imagine, the publishers weren't happy. Some of them reacted like mediaeval warlords, lopping off a few heads to place on spikes at the front gate of the castle as a warning to all who might rise up against their Lords.

Stories spread of authors sacked by their publishers for going rogue indie and releasing a simple short story online without permission.

This kept the lid on for a couple of years, but as the screws got tighter and tighter, the advances grew smaller and smaller, and the demands increased for authors to do the sorts of things that publishers used to do for them, the old order crumbled and then collapsed.

Nowadays it's not just common but pretty much standard for published authors to also run their own self-published line of work.

But even more importantly, a whole generation of writers has emerged who've never considered sending a query letter to a publisher in the first place. They just write their damn books and release them.

Some don't sell very many at all, maybe a dozen copies to indulgent friends and relatives. And some sell tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies, generating incomes in excess of six or even seven figures a year.

You've never heard of most of them. They are not and never will be household names. But they are the favourites of their readers and, like you, if you have a manuscript in a bottom drawer, they once wondered if their work would ever see the light of day.

For women, in particular, this has been a revolution. I read somewhere recently in some trade journal or other, that 55% of global publishing revenue is derived from romance novels. Most of these are written by women and bought by women.

They are an important income stream for mainstream publishers, but they are a much bigger deal for the thousands and thousands of self-published female authors who have carved out new lives for themselves as successful writers.

I find myself often not just impressed but in awe of the innovative business savvy displayed by romance writers. Some of the most interesting things happening in publishing, happened because of them.

Anyway, look, I'm not telling you to start writing loved up bodice rippers. I'm not telling you to start writing anything.

But I will tell you, if your thoughts lean that way, you have a much better chance of being published now than you ever did in the past.

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