Steven Mcgregor

A writer’s vanity

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‘Jordan’s fourth biography, that’s vanity.  Only writers are subjected to this kind of inquisition about how their work reaches the viewer,’ quipped a panelist at a recent Birkbeck University event on self-publishing. Someone had mentioned the pejorative, ‘vanity press’ and the room of writers stirred. All were seated in neat rows in a wood paneled lecture hall off Russell Square. Appropriate given that Virginia Woolf, who once lived two blocks away, self-published.

Previously, this was known as private publishing. According to Alison Baverstock, another panelist and authority on self-publishing, the Bronte sisters, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, James Joyce, all covered the initial cost of bringing their work to market, at one point in their careers. Devices, like the Kindle and iPad, along with websites, like Blurb and Create Space, have simplified the process.

Advantages? Self-publishing gets you closer to your reader. ‘Publishers sell to retailers, not readers,’ Orna Ross said. She began as a writer with a major publisher before buying back her rights and self-publishing. Now she chooses book covers and titles her readers prefer, instead of what suits the Tesco shelf.

It also lets you publish things you otherwise couldn’t sell to regular publishers. Karen Inglis, another speaker, charts on Amazon’s children’s book list with Secret Lake, even though a traditional publisher rejected it for length. Waterstones throughout southwest London carry the book now.

Disadvantages? Good publishing is invisible so it’s impossible to appreciate the work that goes into a superior book. Inglis said the hardest thing is cutting — it’s cutting things you like and this editing process can be missed without a traditional publisher.

The self-publishing option has already changed the industry. Last year Amazon sold more electronic books than regular print. The Royal Society of Authors has opened membership to include self-published writers who sell 500 books in a calendar year. But for writers the goal remains largely unchanged. As Orna pointed out, self-publishing mirrors the writing career — it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Follow Steven McGregor on Twitter: @SHMcGregor.