Thursday, September 25, 2008

Public Funding and Self-Publishing

I was astonished to read a story on the blueblog (the blog of bluechrome press) about YouWriteOn.com, a group offering to produce books for the first 5000 people who apply from either the UK or USA free of charge. They’ll produce the books before Christmas so, essentially, this is a Christmas present for the 5000 to give to friends and family. Anyone wanting an ISBN has to pay a small sum (less than £40) and their book will become available in the usual outlets.

It’s self-publishing. Nothing unfamiliar about that these days. But how can this organisation do this free of charge? The answer is that ACE, the Arts Council of England, has funded the project. This is the real controversy for me. Why should public money be used in this way? It’s no longer possible to argue that the project is democratic, that it gives people a chance to publish a book who otherwise couldn’t have done so. Groups like Lulu.com enable this very same thing. Lulu charges, but doesn’t rip people off like traditional vanity publishers – the charge is reasonable. So why should UK taxes be used to fund a self-publishing project without any attempt at quality control? Funding isn’t easy to come by. Other literary publishers will have lost out on the funding that has been given to this organisation. I’d like to see the Arts Council try to justify this decision, and they ought to justify it – it’s UK taxpayers’ money that finances them.

Self-publishing has become a controversial topic in recent times. Anthony Delgrado (at least I presume the blueblog is written by AD – if not, I’ll make a correction) asks what has driven the change in attitude over the last few years, given that organisations like Lulu are now seen as “cool rather than seedy.” Well, there are no doubt many answers to that question. One can argue, for instance, that the presence of organisations like Lulu make it less likely that naïve writers will fall victim to the worst vanity press merchants. Why pay a fortune to have your book published by a traditional vanity press when Lulu will do it for a relatively small sum? The worst vanity presses might be kicked out of business for good.

Also, while most books published via the likes of Lulu have no literary merit and will largely sell only to the author’s friends and family (if that), some writers of genuine quality have taken a deliberate decision to self-publish (even though their writing is of sufficient quality to have had a chance with literary publishers) – people like Julie Carter, Rik Roots, and Nic Sebastian, for example. They have the capability of selling copies using their profile on the Web, and their work is of good quality. Their motivations may vary. It might be simply because they can (successfully), or because they distrust the ‘win-our-competition-and-be-published’ scene in North America (high charges for entry and a [allegedly] suspiciously large proportion of winners from specific college MFA programs contribute to this distrust), or because they can’t be bothered to submit in the traditional way, or because they regard their work as too unfashionable to interest a publisher etc.

Of course, a recognised literary publisher can offer things that self-publishing can’t, and I think it's true that there is an automatic suspicion of self-published books, an expectation that the quality will be poor (usually, but not always, justified). Most literary awards won't consider them. There's a sense that they don't "count" as publication, not really, and I can see why. If publication means no more than "printed" (to use the blueblog's phrasing), then publication means nothing, given its technological ease. However, I’d hazard a guess that quality, self-published collections by such as Rik, Julie and Nic will sell more copies than many books published by traditional publishers. And this is the key factor - for those with a quality product and the ability to market themselves, the World Wide Web has opened up new avenues to sell books far beyond the usual family and friends who bought self-published books in the pre-Internet world. I don’t see that changing.

However, I don’t think this will adversely hit the more traditional literary publishers, particularly those who use the Web to good effect. They should always be able to extend a writer’s audience wider than he/she could have managed if self-published and – if they typically publish good books – they create trust in a list among writers and readers. Good writers will always want to be published by good publishers and, if you read a few books from bluchrome and enjoy them, chances are you’ll be interested in more. That will never be the case with Lulu!

25 comments:

David Floyd said...

Are you sure that the Arts Council has really sponsored this specific project (as opposed to providing some funding for part of YouWriteOn's work at some point)?

If the Arts Council are backing this specific project, it's certainly a decision that needs querying.

As you say, there isn't any significant financial barrier to getting a book self-published by Lulu - and there is certainly no shortage of self-published books.

Maybe those established publishers who've lost funding in recent years would get their funding back if they agreed to publish books without reading them.

All that said, I think it would be good for the Arts Council to fund a reviews site for self-published books.

Anonymous said...

I have just sent in the e mail. I think it's fantastic.

There is a very interesting thread on todays guardian blokes blog andrew gallix authored and which the poet Billy Mills responded to with something i would concur with:

"The introduction of print meant one big thing, really. From then on, mechanical reproduction of texts meant that there were cheap (relatively) identical copies of books that were widely available. This was the beginning of the democratisation of reading and writing and was the print quantum leap.

Now, the Internet also means that there are cheap (relatively) identical copies of texts that are widely available. So theres nothing new there..... Of course, there's always the possibility that digital is not a revolution, but an evolution, print by another name."

I find it interesting when you say *quality control*

Who controlled the quality prior to the recent leap, was very few people, in positions of wealth and privelege and the increasingly redundant view was that these people, due to their position, were arbiters of Quality in literature, but what constitutes literature is an individual belief. One persons porn, is anothers poetry, so *quality* is never absolute, but contingent on the individuals response.

I think it is great. Who cares if there are a lot of crap books out that no one will buy. If a person wishes to create a paper object and in that show off what they have written and sell it to any who want to buy it, what's the problem?

Imagine someone with a sincere beleif that your book unworthy of passing their quality control test and started saying it was outrageous that this book is in print?

The fact is anyone can publish, who cares if what they write is not what we think quality, why should we feel hostile to this fact of life?

Live adn let live i say, as if we set yourself up as a custodian of taste and quality, we run the risk that someone of a differing view, may be able to counter our case and make our claims appear less credible than we beleive they are.

If i get on it, that means i don't have to spend four hundred euro at Xlibris, and get 40% royalty instead of the 25 Xlibris offer.

What's the author royalties at Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Faber, or Salt?

Are they all the same do you know please dave or rob?

If they are only 12% it looks like you might have been better off doing it yourself, from a purely economic standpoint. Of course these imprints offer the author far more in terms of quality, which i suppose is worth the few quid you miss out on, as you can't buy that sort of guarantee of quality..

ron sillyman

Anonymous said...

Royalties from the UK publishers are usually 10-12%.

ABJ

Roddy said...

As I've said before - royalties from book sales are only a small amount of what is actually made from a book. I consider myself a performer, with my books as necessary printed calling cards.

From each book, I hope to make the following direct and / or peripheral / indirect earnings:

-£6k for readings, c40 over three years at an average of £150
-£2-3k in payments for poems from the book in magazines etc
-£2-3k for commissions which end up in the book, often resulting from the last one
-1-2k from awards / prizes
-£5-7k for one-off talks, teaching, editing, residencies etc that come via the book and not my regular teaching
-2-3k from royalties

In addition, the imprimatur I have mainly due to being published by an established press leads to supporting myself with a basic wage through teaching / editorial work etc

I'm not in anyway against people deciding to self-publish - I just think this talk of democracy through the web and 'better off doing it yourself' is quite ridiculous.

Collin said...

Another part of the story that you missed is that many small and micro presses are now using Lulu as their printer. The great No Tell Books and VRZHU Press both use Lulu to print their books and utilize the online storefront to sell them. I am working with two other poets to start a new press that will focus on GLBT poetry and fiction and we will be using Lulu because the price is right and the books they print are gorgeous. Lulu pays attention to detail and offers a superior product. Small presses now using Lulu DO offer oversight and editorial control over the titles.

And as you noted, there has been a move by a number of well-known poets -- Jilly Dybka, Cherryl Floyd-Miller (who has a book coming out form Salt) and many others -- have utilized Lulu to bypass the the contest lottery here in the US. On a personal note, I self-pubbed my first collection and it's sold quite well thanks to good promotion and reviews. I still get royalty checks five years later.

Roddy said...

Re "there has been a move by a number of well-known poets... to bypass the the contest lottery here in the US."

Sorry but much as I might accept that there is a contest lottery, I don't believe that it can be bypassed by self-publishing.

Rob said...

David, I'm not sure that ACE has sponsored this specific project, but the website certainly seems designed to give the impression that the project has ACE support.

Anon, I never suggested any hostility to self-publishing, nor any hostility to millions of crap books that no one will buy. My objection is that ACE has funded this organisation. Read my post again before jumping to conclusions. As far as quality control goes, there are standards against which poetry's quality can be judged. Judgements can be wrong at times, but to suggest there are no standards is just nonsense. If someone thinks my book is crap and unworthy to be published, then fine. It doesn't bother me. Some people are bound to think that! As far as royalties from books go, there is so little money in poetry anyway that royalties make little difference. You can't live on royalties from a poetry collection.

Roddy, that's interesting. I guess these kind of figures are higher than for most UK poets (!) but I guess that's been down to you. I suppose too that it depends what a person wants from self-publishing a book. If it's just to have a book so that people will read the poems, the Internet offers ways of selling as many books as a traditional publishing house - with enough effort put in. But if the writer wants more than that, it's a different story.

Collin - yes, I know several magazines that use Lulu and other POD outlets. That's made a big difference to the ease of producing print magazines.

Again - and I stress - I have no problem with self-publishing in itself. My post reflects the pros and cons in quite a balanced way, I think. It depends what people want from publishing a book, what the aim is.

Rob said...

Oh, and Anon... please leave your real name or at least some genuine identification if you post again. If you've something to say, put your name to it. I don't mind you disagreeing with me - that's no problem.

mark said...
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Roddy said...

Rob, I don't think my figures are higher then most poets published by any of the 12 or so most established UK / Irish presses. They may seem a fair whack - but that's over three or four years between books.

It's important to stress how much work comes directly from people reading the book and contacting you / your publisher and asking you to read / submit / teach / do a commission.

I'm 'fairly well-known' but nowhere near the top league of UK/I poets - many people will make far more than me from these avenues. And there are plenty people on comfortable wages via teaching appointments which are directly related to them being published.

Self-publication might be preferable to small or very small press publication if you do lots of readings and want to make money from sales. That's a fairly specific scenario though. The great majority of poets are seeking to be published and the internet age has not altered the way young poets feel about this. Those seeking self-publication other than the case above or as a gift for friends or a stepping stone to publication should consider whether they are simply not ready yet to publish.

Hazel said...

Rob, I have no problem with my tax money being used in this way, at least no more of a problem than I have with it being used in many other arts council projects.

I could several pages on this subject, but your comments box is not the place…however, the one important person that hasn’t been mentioned is the reader. If you take your craft as a poet seriously, the most important person is the reader and finding access to your readership should be done in whatever way suits you best. There is no reason why the arts council should not fund another method of reaching readers, some of the money may be wasted, but some of the money going to existing publishers is already wasted. I look on this as funding for readers, not poets.

Don Paterson has said it better – of course!

So here's how you achieve 'access': you remove all the mediators…assuming we've got them out the way, we close this now smaller gap between poet and reader through publication, a sacred duty and the aim of the poem… Publication - by which I simply mean 'someone else reading your poem' - directly unites the reader and poet, and to read out a line someone else has written in your own voice is to experience a little transmigration of souls.

Don Paterson – The Dark Art of Poetry

This quote is from his TS Eliot lecture on The Poetry Library website.

P.S. I don’t wish to buy books from publishers that I ‘trust’. I want to read poems which surprise, shock and change my point of view. I want the unexpected.

Rob said...
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Hazel said...

Thanks Rob but I don't really see why the expanded quote makes any difference to what I understand Paterson is saying - that the poem is for the reader - both need each other but they have to find each other first.

I know that he's editor at Picador but don't see why that would instantly set him against this project - unless it's nicking money from him - but then that would be a rather selfish reason anyway.

My understanding is that he doesn't necessarily want less poetry published; I think he wants less people calling themselves 'poets' unless they commit fully to the craft and have 'talent' - not just been to a few writing courses.

Without a reader, the poem is a secret, not a poem. I don't write with the reader in mind, but until it has been read I consider it unfinished as it needs that transmigration which Paterson refers to.

In a sense, what we've both taken from the Paterson quote shows that the reader is important and even more so with poetry, readers take a different view on what they read – that’s why I believe it is so important to publish your work in whatever form suits, if it finds someone to connect with, then it has worked - or someone will tell you why it doesn't work!

I'm sure all editors wouldn’t agree on a definitive list of good poets – although agreeing on a list of bad poets might be easier. I think a poem needs 50 years to pass the test of being any good. Why not use the money for this? It may find a wonderful new talent who’s been writing only secrets until now.

I can see this argument going on, so I’ll let you have the last word and will say no more…on here anyway ;-)

Background Artist said...
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Roddy said...

The Paterson lecture has been much misquoted, much misunderstood. I was there that day (sounds momentous!) and he wasn't knocking new / amateur / whatever poets - he was saying take your time and get good before publishing - and boy do I agree, having (re)read over 250 British and Irish debut collections in the past few months!

Hazel - 'I think a poem needs 50 years to pass the test of being any good' - I vehemently disagree with this - it's classicism of the wrong sort. Poems still known and popular after 50 years are often so for wrong reasons - for every gem, there's an If, a Red Wheelbarrow, a Road Less Traveled, a Naming of Parts, a Do Not Go Gentle.

If you trust your taste and knowledge, read a poem and think it's good, then why might it not be good?

Background Artist said...
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Rob said...

Hazel - thanks, I now understand better what you were meaning first-time round. I agree with some of what you say and don't agree with others, but you make your argument well.

BA - I'm going to delete your posts and also my previous comment as both probably assign views to people that they don't hold. Also, avoid prolixity in comments boxes. Long comments are fine, but not if they consist of self-indulgent tedium.

Roddy - Yes, I guess DP is saying that. He must have known he was being controversial and was going to piss plenty of people off, mind you. I've read the whole lecture several times over the years and it's still not quite clear to me exactly what he means - in practice - in certain paragraphs. But it is very interesting stuff.

Background Artist said...
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Rob said...

Oh well, looks like we're back to the 'delete BA on sight' scenario.

David Floyd said...

"There is no reason why the arts council should not fund another method of reaching readers, some of the money may be wasted, but some of the money going to existing publishers is already wasted. I look on this as funding for readers, not poets."

There's some very good reasons, in terms of the remit of Arts Council England, why they shouldn't fund self-publishing as an activity in itself. The generation of more self-published books, in itself, does not lead to the product of high quality art, does not support professional artists in producing art and it doesn't broaden and develop audiences for high quality art. Of course, 'high quality' is subjective but part of the arts funding system is that people are employed to have a position on what it is.

The problem isn't self-publishing as a method. I don't see anything intrinsically wrong with established (or new and talented) writers getting funding to spend some time producing something and then self-publishing it if they think that's the best way to go about things. The problem would be giving money to anyone to publish anything. The Arts Council (in England) doesn't have a remit to fund writing as an amateur, unskilled participation activity.

There are plenty of other taxpayer supported funding streams for that.
As I've said above though, I don't think the Arts Council is funding this directly.

Background Artist said...
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Background Artist said...
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Colin Will said...

Interesting debate here Rob. I may have mentioned it before, but I'm using a POD house purely as a printer for a book of short stories I'm bringing out from Calder Wood Press very soon, because I can't afford the quotes I've been given by conventional printers. The POD company is one-sixth the cost. Once I get the proofs I'll blog about the experience - might help others.

BTW, I decided years ago that I would never seek public funding to support my publishing efforts - it's the marketplace or I don't do it. Just a personal thing.
Colin

Jane Smith said...

I've blogged about this today, and Writer Beware blogged about it yesterday. In my view, this offer to publish from YWO is an offer to be avoided: it gives no advantage that self-publishing provides, and could be damaging to the reputations of all concerned.

For more detail on why I, and many others, don't like this offer have a look at my blog:

www.howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com.

There's a link in my post to the one from Writer Beware. Apologies for the self-promotion: I just want to ensure that writers know what they're getting themselves into before they sign up.

Rob said...

Jane, thanks very much for this information. I'll post something more on it later.