Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Who Am I To Argue With Anthony Horowitz?


Well, that answers that question. So now, what of the one Anthony Horowitz asked last week on the Guardian books blog: Do We Still Need Publishers?

(Read the full post here)

It’s a good article. We can’t doubt Mr Horowitz’s writing credentials and he peppers it with many a good turn of phrase. But, as with the Question – you know, the Question - of Life, the Universe and Everything – the answer is less than satisfactory.

By setting aside matters like marketing and promotion, it strikes me that the actual question being answered is Do We Need Editors? To which the response is such a resounding and obvious ‘Yes’ it may as well be followed by a meerkat in a smoking jacket declaring, “Simples!” in an amusingly foreign accent.

Unfortunately for those of us who have ventured into the realm of independent publishing – those of us who aren’t Terry Jones - the sample piece that Horowitz includes in his article seems a highly prejudicial gauge for comparing the markets. But, as a friend and fellow indie (Alexander McNabb) pointed out to me, he could have chosen any number of similarly woeful samples from the thousands out there roaming the internet landscape like the Walking Dead, desperately reaching out to grab you with their substandard prose and grunt-like dialogue. Sensible readers are running while the good books (and yes, they do exist, in both the indie and the mainstream worlds) shuffle nervously around in this overcrowded wilderness looking to hook up with some of those readers who might take them in and give them a good home.

I want to take up my shotgun – or perhaps, shotgun – and put the book to which that sample belongs out of its misery. It’s a shambling, mindless zombie of a piece and it’s only going to eat our brains, at best.

What the sample does is spell out the need for editors – nice and loudly. Which, like I said, earns top marks in the Basil Fawlty NVQ for ‘Statin the bleedin obvious’.

But to view traditional publishing houses as champions or perhaps guardians of quality might be tantamount to what Horowitz’s editor would call ‘over-egging’.

Horowitz asks, “Am I mad to think that if publishers were a little less interested in story, character, style, originality, design, typography, literacy, good grammar, education, enlightenment – and a little more interested in making money, they might have fewer problems?”

Well, no, not mad – just a little wide of the mark.

For one, they are more interested in making money than in the majority of those things. In terms of publishing credits, I can’t hope to match Horowitz – I’ve been allowed to swim in a few licensed fiction pools – Doctor Who and Merlin, for example - but (so far) have yet to find a publisher willing to sign on the dotted line for one of my original works. This is not a frustrated-author anti-publisher rant – far from it as, at the risk of spoilers, you’ll discover later on that I am very much of the view that we do still need publishers. Still, it’s been my experience in making submissions to publishers (and agents, come to that, who are endeavouring to anticipate publishers’ desires) that response letters have followed a consistent pattern: “This is original, imaginative and well-written, but we don’t know how to make it stand out in a competitive market.”

Now, at first glance this could be translated as “You’re clearly talented at your job, unfortunately we’re not very good at ours.” Cheap cynical humour aside though, it’d be unreasonable of me to assume I was the only author receiving this kind of response on a repeated basis, so what does it tell us about publishers’ attitudes to originality, style etc as compared to their attitude to making money?

It seems to me, they couldn’t be less interested in the former. (If any would like to offer a counter-argument, then I’m right here and ready for my contract, Mr De Mille.) And yet it mystifies me as to why ‘original, imaginative and well-written’ (from an author with a proven track record in delivering quality MSS to deadline for some big-name franchises) are not – apparently – the principal criteria for making money in an industry that is, according to its own insiders, in the doldrums and, according to many readers (who, like me, used to buy tons of books but don’t any more) stagnating.

Word of mouth remains the prime motivator when it comes to selling books (43% of book sales according to the last report I read), and surely those three qualities are going to be mentioned in passing if a book happens to possess them. You know, once readers have been enticed to pick the book up and read it, undeterred by the fact that the publishing house has chosen to make the cover closely resemble twelve other series in the same genre. (When Horowitz refers to Alex Rider lookalikes, he’s talking about performers, but it could just as easily be applied to a host of spy-kid books cluttering up bookstore shelves and offering readers a range of choice to rival Henry Ford and his Model T. In the vampiric genre especially, you can have any cover you like, as long as it’s black.) And, frankly, if a publisher confesses to not knowing how to make something original stand out, then yes, we do feel obliged to ask, what use are they?

But although independently published, I’m not an anti-traditionalist, by any stretch of the imagination. I guess I’d simply like traditional publishing houses to stretch their imaginations a bit more.

The fact is, they do (potentially) offer something that independents seriously struggle to command on their own.

Authors can – and should - enlist editors. They can market and promote themselves. And again, they should – and would have to anyway. It’s the side of the publishing racket I’m least comfortable with, but the truth is I would gladly be out there selling myself and fearlessly, enthusiastically talking about my books with the backing of a publisher. Because what they provide is this:


You know what I’m talking about. Respect is that elusive quality you’d love as an independent author, if only it hadn’t been so successfully undermined by the likes of whoever wrote that sample in Horowitz’s article. (Horowitz is disingenuous and polite about it, but we all know it’s rubbish – and I’m being polite too.) Respect is that quality that publishers undermined for themselves with all those umpteen-figure advances for all those celebrity biogs that end up remaindered in your local bargain book store and all those clones of the Last Big Thing going unwanted over in the fiction section of the same shop. Respect is also, unfortunately, that quality the media will accord to a book of comparable (or even lesser) quality to your own if it happens to have the logo of a mainstream publisher on its spine.

As an indie publisher, I’ve contacted book stores, sent review copies to magazines and newspapers to be met with only silence. (Including online magazines that relied on the same social media networking techniques for their independent launch and publicity.) And yet I see other books treated to reviews in the pages of the same publications. Sometimes bad reviews, so clearly it’s not quality that gets them noticed.

It’s the badge.

That’s what makes the difference.

My mum, rest her soul, used to be a bit embarrassed when telling friends about what her son did. Instead of proudly declaring “he’s a writer” to all and sundry, she often preferred to use the term ‘unemployed’. Admittedly, there are – too frequently for my liking – some grounds for confusing the two. Anyway, that all changed the day I presented her with a copy of my first ever published novel, Drift (in the BBC Books’ Doctor Who series). Despite thinking Doctor Who was daft and not liking science fiction one jot, she read it and loved it and from there on told everyone her son was an author. That was the validation, that made it real.

I’m not sure what she’d think of my self-published works – two volumes of the Evil UnLtd series so far, with a third and hopefully more to come. She was conservative (small c, big heart) and would probably have had issues with all this new-fangled ebook technology, so I would have had to hand her a real paperback version. Even then, leaving aside her horror at some of the choice language my villainous heroes use, I fear she wouldn’t have seen it in the same light as my licensed fiction output. Self-publication might not have had the same ability to impress.

We tend to have a mix of views on anything homemade. For flapjacks and chocolate cake, we’ll pay extra and we’ll often prefer a home-cooked meal over a microwave dinner. Despite these things generally coming without all the labels and quality assurances. There’s a degree of snobbery surrounding real ales over mass produced lagers and the like. Indie bands are commonly celebrated by critics and consumers over the ‘talent’-factory karaoke crowd. But when it comes to books we apparently interpret mass-production as a mark of quality and we’re willing to pay more. My mum loved home-baked goods – not so much the real ales – but I can’t shake the niggling feeling she might have considered a self-published book – of much less note than that first published novel of mine.

Maybe, maybe not. I can’t ask her. But what I do know is, she used to love her reading. Historical romances and the like were her particular cup of tea – Catherine Cooksons, E V Thompsons, Virginia Andrews. I can’t speak to their quality, since I’d never read any of them. But I did borrow one of my mum’s books once upon a time – it was some wartime family saga by Victor Pemberton, of interest only because of the man’s background in Doctor Who. He wrote my all-time favourite Doctor Who novelisation (of his own serial) Fury From The Deep. Picture my disappointment then when I read his original, non-Doctor Who work to discover it was – and I’ll be polite again here – drivel. Painfully dreary and dreadfully pedestrian writing at best. Evidently what passes for ‘good enough’ in the eyes of some mainstream publishers. It was a proper book and it wore the badge of a major publishing house so it found its way onto a real bookstore shelf and that’s what matters.

Poor Victor is by no means alone in having produced substandard generic drudgery and along with all the questionable indie material out there I’ve read other dire offerings – in a variety of genres - that wear the badges of major publishing houses. Pardon my French but not only does shit happen, it also gets picked up by commissioning editors.

In the eyes of – I think probably the majority of – readers, publishing houses have a reputation.

Obviously, that’s something they can capitalise on, but in order to fully exploit that in these changing times and keep their heads above the ever-swelling tide of cheap ebooks, it seems to me they need to evolve.

Their badge needs to be a badge of quality - professional editing, packaging and all the rest – yes, absolutely. On top of that though, it needs to be a badge of more than technical proficiency. It needs to be a badge that says, this is original, imaginative and well-written and that is the reason we published it.

I would happily trade independence to stand with a publisher like that.

In short, I’m a great believer in the future of the publishing houses. To my mind, if only they were more about all those things – story, character, style, originality, design, typography, literacy, good grammar, education, enlightenment – and less about making money, then they would probably make more money.

Case in point – all the major movie studios had a go at turning down Star Wars because they didn’t believe it would make any money. To be honest, it wasn’t the greatest writing, but it was born of a passion and drive to tell a story and although it borrowed from old Saturday movie serials (and Japanese cinema) it crafted something we’d never seen before. In that sense it was all about the creativity and originality. Meanwhile, we live in an age where over-expensive blockbusters flop because they set out to make money and word of mouth isn’t good because audiences emerge with the conclusion that they’ve just been subjected to over-commercialised, committee-written pap.

The best writers I know – whether personally or through their work – approach the art of storytelling with passion. Nobody (sensible) would deny that passion needs an editor to rein it in some, but too many great stories are being passed over by publishing houses because they come at story with accountancy. So we end up with too many books getting lost in a sea of unfiltered self-publishing and too many other commercially produced books about as engaging as a spreadsheet.

If publishing houses were to set themselves up as more than guardians of quality – as active champions of imagination, creativity and good writing – then as a reader I would buy more books.

As an author, I’d sign up with them in a heartbeat.

Actually I’d sign up with them tomorrow regardless. At least then my work would stand some chance of being reviewed by publications like The Guardian. It’s one thing for publishers to consistently recognise the qualities of your work, but without their badge – their stamp of approval – I fear it will remain tarred with the same brush as the woeful specimen included in Horowitz’s blog piece. And that doesn’t sit well with me. Only my mum gets to look down on me without being a source of annoyance.

Do we still need publishers? Damn straight. I want reviews, I want readers, I want signings in bookstores, I want prominence for my books on bookstore shelves. And I can’t seem to get those without the one thing that publishing houses still have to grant above everything else.


That to me, is worth more than the advance or whatever royalties are on offer.


(Note: In honour of the late great Douglas Adams, for this weekend only, we are making Evil UnLtd Vol 1: The Root Of All Evil available for half-price on both the Kindle - Amazon US and Amazon UK - and in all other ebook formats on Smashwords.) After that, in keeping with what we were saying about the price of quality 'homemade' (i.e. independent) goods the price will be going back up to more respectable levels.

From an (unsolicited) Amazon review:
"Evil UnLtd: The Root of All Evil is a genius space farce. It is a wickedly funny, extremely well-written sci fi comedy that reads like a mash-up of Douglas Adams meets the TV sit-com, Red Dwarf, and one of my favourite sci fi tribute films, Galaxy Quest. It's literate sci fi, chock full of humour and word play with some lovely nods to the genre and a wonderfully fitting cast of characters. Happily, as you'll also no doubt have noticed, The Root of All Evil is only Part 1 in the Evil UnLtd series... I can't wait to rejoin this band of villains on their next scrapes as they chase Evil domination of the Universe. I suggest you beam the first volume down to your eReader and buckle up for the ride. It's great fun being Evil."

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