Sunday, 19 January 2014

Publishing and other cons

I’ve just spent all day at a really inspiring and eye-opening seminar on self publishing, one of many masterclasses run by the Guardian in a desperate (but I have to admit stylish) bid to stay afloat whilst still flogging a cultural product rather than – say – mineral water.

Like with an AA meeting, showing up took courage and came at the end of a long process of self-examination, as well as indicating the intention to turn over a new leaf. So here we go....

My name is paolabi and I am a writer. I have written (and re-written several times) two novels, a travelogue/memoir and a play. I have spent my 20s and 30s locked away in a room (after hours at the day job) working conscientiously and happily at my craft. Many people I know love my writing. I cannot vouch for any people I do not know because they won't have had any chance to see my work .

Over time I have had any confidence, enthusiasm and eventually love for the writing itself  beaten out of me by the traditional publishing process. This starts with the gamble of finding and retaining an agent. He or she then becomes your sole gateway to publishers, determining all the different ways in which you and your book have to change to be deemed even theoretically acceptable by famous and powerful houses. Those will be completely obsessed (depending on the year) with strippers’ biographies, cookery books, Nazi spy stories or incest memoirs.  In the late 90’s I was urged to be more ‘like Bridget Jones’. I’m sure today I’d be chastised for the lack of S&M in my copy.

The lucky, lucky bastards I spent my youth utterly envying, the bright young things who were allowed to write literary fiction and have it published un-cretinized, now languish on an income of £600 a year, juggling many part time jobs and visits to the food bank.

For every JK Rowling (and let’s not forget the ten publishers who passed over her manuscript) there are thousands of writers starving because of the measly royalties, the lack of any marketing or distribution efforts, the glacial lead times.  

What they do get is the affirmation of being deemed a writer (in the ten minutes they are in print and in the shops) by virtue of sporting the logo of cultural institutions that would really prefer even crassier strippers’ bios and even darker incest memoirs.

The final irony is that the industry is now trying to muscle in on the self-publishing racket by buying up companies that offer dubious publishing services, where money is made not through the selling of books but the fleecing of would-be published authors via devious practices I cannot be arsed to fully lawyer up but take my word for it.

The spread of online publishing has also greatly lessened the stigma of the ‘vanity publishing’ tag. You don’t pay thousands to someone to publish your worthless, badly written book. You can upload your ebook for next to no cost and Amazon pays you royalties of between 40 and 70 pc on whatever you can shift. The reader out there decides, not some pissed up executive after a very liquid lunch.

So who will buy that book of yours, once you’ve uploaded it on Amazon Kindle?
Who knows. All I know is that if one person unconnected to me were to download one copy that would already represent a 100 per cent increase on my sales on a book that is currently not published at all on accounts of not being sufficiently about ‘ a pole-dancing Bridget Jones who exorcises the demons of horrific child abuse through cooking’.

As for any difference in prestige and authenticity between traditional and independent publishing it’s now becoming as moot a point as with meeting your partner online or ‘in the real world’. It’s not the process, it’s the outcome.

By all means stick with the domestic abuser who swept you off your feet at the school disco 20 years ago. I married the brilliant, mild mannered, younger man I met in my 30s on a dating site – go ahead and pity me, why don’t you?

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Captain Europe finds a home

 I begin this 2014 still on somewhat uncertain ground professionally, so it's with a certain amount of nostalgia mixed with pride (and a teeny-bit of retrospective horror) that I share with you the chapter of my memoir which describes the gloriously random beginning of my 17-year journalism career.

Captain Europe had been the name of my anonymous (and incomprehensible) satirical column for the Edinburgh University student newspaper (Student). But the term presciently described what became a theme in my professional life : because of my foreignness and initial uselessness I was put to work on something 'international' and forgotten about. And then, like a miracle, news, foreign news, found me.

The chapter is a sober, honest, warts-and-all assessment of my inclinations and talents and sheer bloody good luck. Reader, I'm not a natural born reporter, due to my shyness and instinctive dislike for, I don't know how to put this, new stuff happening.

Read how I coped with journalism school, dodged reporting on Lady Diana's death. Read about the complex hierarchies and epic power struggles in the wild animal kingdom that is a newspaper newsroom, in an era where - younger readers avert your eyes now - there was no internet and Google and stuff, just highly fallible people and paper files full of cuttings.

As this account was written more than ten years ago, when a thing called journalism still recognisably existed as separate from entertainment and when newspapers were not generally considered an endangered species yet, I didn't even reflect upon the multitude of technological changes that have occurred since that first day at the European Newspaper.

It's a memory preserved in aspic, of a time unaware if its own growing irrelevance. It deals mainly with human types and human emotions, not systems and methods. It is not an historical document in any way. I hope you like it.