Friday, 17 June 2011

Open House Day 18 - John Travis

(Half) Self Publishing – What It Is And Why I Did It

Self Publishing. It needn’t be a bad thing.

There, I’ve said it. I don’t say it lightly either, knowing the shock and disgust it can inspire in some people (along with disastrous physical injury – various reports suggest that over the years several people have spontaneously combusted just at the very mention of perhaps ‘putting something out themselves’). If nothing else you’ll find yourself in very good company – the most recent Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook gives a list of some of the writers who over the years have gone down this route: Balzac, Walt Whitman, G.P Taylor, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Zane Grey, to name just a few.

Of course, person-based explosions aside, it can be a bad thing – an admission of defeat, the last refuge of the talentless scoundrel, just another in a long line of deluded nobodies who thinks they can write and don’t mind destroying a few trees to prove it – the literary equivalent of the halfwits who appear on talent shows, convinced that they need to share their talent with an eager world. And yes, you say – all those people I listed above – didn’t they have ‘real’ books published first, by ‘real’ publishers? Well, yes, they did. And after years of getting nowhere I almost joined their ranks. Almost. Self-publishing? Hah!

By 2007 I’d been writing seriously for 14 years. I’d had a fair amount published too, about 30 stories, and had roughly the equivalent of 5 books worth of material that I felt was fit to print. I sent things out, and more often than not they got rejected. Sometimes though, I got lucky. That year I sent a novella to up-and-coming publisher Humdrumming. A while later I got one of those communications that writer’s dream of: Yes, we like the novella very much and would like to publish it. In fact, what about us publishing a book of your novellas, how does that sound? I said it sounded wonderful. I duly sent along three other long stories and my first book, It Came Through The Leslie Speaker, was announced as ‘forthcoming’. Then while I waited, the company asked to see my novel The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, and promptly surprised the hell out of me by accepting that too. On top of that, they also said they’d like to see the follow up to this novel, which I was very close to finishing.

A few weeks later, I finished that novel, The Designated Coconut – it had taken me 25 months to do and weighed in at 103,000 words. It was also (I felt) the best thing I’d ever written. That night to celebrate, I had ‘a few drinks’. The next morning I woke up with a headache and found three emails waiting for me – one each from Simon Strantzas, Gary McMahon and Tim Lebbon, all fellow Humdrumming authors, each commiserating with me on the sad demise of the company.

There had been talk about this – a few days before I’d had an email to that effect – but at that point all I could think about was the finishing line for my novel. In fact for about a week afterwards that was still all I could think about. Then came the comedown, and the truth of the matter sunk in.

It’d be fair to say I felt a bit sick. It wasn’t anybody’s fault – these things happen in the small press – but all things combined, it was enough to swear me off writing for what I thought might be for good (a foolish notion, I can see that now). And after all those years slogging away, it I felt like I didn’t have much to show for it.

Enter stage left, Terry Grimwood.

I’d known Terry for a few years. Around that time he’d put out his own collection The Exaggerated Man and made a very nice job of it. At some point I was moaning to Terry about my woes, and he suggested that if I could come up with the money for artwork and to buy some stock, he’d sort the rest of it out and put it out under his own Exaggerated Press. A year earlier I’d have said a definite no thanks. But at that point, thinking that That Was It, I thought, why not? I had all this material lying around doing nothing. And if I never was going to scribble again, it’d be nice to have something in print to show for all those wasted years, even if nobody bought it.

Then I really began to warm to the idea. I remembered that a lot of my favourite US punk/hardcore bands – Black Flag foremost among them – had made a virtue out of putting out their own albums when the majors turned them down, and nobody thought any less of them. So, I picked a list of stories I thought representative of my work and sent them off to Terry. He edited them, put them together in a file, and we tried to get rid of as many glitches as we could. While we were doing this, a strange and totally unexpected thing happened to me: one night, as I was going through the book, I turned back to the contents page and realised there were some pretty good stories in there, and I’d written them. For the first time in my life I actually felt proud of something I’d done.

That left the money. By this point I’d managed to sell a story to a paying market, the Cemetery Dance anthology British Invasion. The money paid for the book’s artwork (take a bow Faye Grimwood). I also managed to scrimp and save a bit here and there.

A couple of months into this process, I got an email from Ian Alexander Martin, who’d been in charge of Humdrumming. He said he was setting up a new publishing venture called Atomic Fez, and asked me if I’d found a home for my novel yet?

I hadn’t. Besides Humdrumming, nobody had ever showed much interest in it – novels about mutated cats who think they’re Phillip Marlowe apparently aren’t that popular. To show faith after what had happened with Humdrumming, Ian sent me a cheque for the novel pretty much straight away, which would pay for a boxful of the collection, Mostly Monochrome Stories, which was now ready to be unleashed on the world. But was it ‘self publishing’?

The Terror and the Tortoiseshell (Benji Spriteman Mysteries)Maybe in some people’s eyes, yes. I’m not entirely sure. It has something in common with both self-published and general small press publishing though: neither Terry nor I have made any money out of it (interestingly, from what I can gather, the sales aren’t really that different from most small press ventures). But between us we’ve put together a book that we’re both happy with. We’ve sold a few copies, got some cracking reviews, and the whole thing proved very satisfactory.

Amazingly, that was over two years ago. I started writing again after about four months, and The Terror and the Tortoiseshell was published by Atomic Fez in March 2010. Of course, I could’ve waited at this point and knocked the collection on the head, and my first book would’ve been the novel. But at that point it wasn’t an option – putting the collection together was too much fun. I still think the right decision was made.

So, would I do it again? I would. Since the book was published, the stigma for self-publishing (half or otherwise) seems to have shrunk a little. Of course, I’d prefer some publisher to come along and sweep my and my fiction off my feet, but the way things are, the chances of that happening don’t look particularly good. And the thing is, now I’ve finally got books out there, I rather like it. Only one thing is certain: however you get a book of stories out there, either through a small press publisher or by doing it (half) yourself, you can be sure that your efforts are not going to be depleting the rainforests that much.

On that at least your conscience can be clear.
John Travis has had nearly 70 stories published in various books, magazines and journals in the UK, Canada and the US. His first collection of fiction, Mostly Monochrome Stories, was published by the Exaggerated Press, and his first novel, The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, was published by Atomic Fez. His work has been praised by TED Klein and David Renwick among others. One day he hopes to make a living out of writing this stuff.

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