You won't often see Kenny Rogers quoted in a piece on publishing, but his most famous lyrics have become something of a guiding principle for one author at least: myself. You gotta know when to fold 'em, Kenny sang, and especially, know when to walk away. As an author, I get it.
Since 2007, I've had four books brought out by "traditional" publishers: two crime novels, a young adult story and a humorous non-fiction about GAA. This actually isn't bad, all told: many writers never see their books in print, and many more never get past a debut. Even with minuscule sales, four-times published is relatively successful.
I've completed a further seven books, though (plus a few more with opening chapters, extensive notes, plot skeletons and so on). I've sold none of them to publishers. At this stage - my last was out in 2014 - it's increasingly unlikely that I will. Four from 11 isn't a great strike rate; my inner Kenny Rogers has been insisting, for a while now, that it's time to walk away.
Until a few decades ago, that would have meant, in suitably literary fashion, The End. You gave it a good shot, it didn't work out, so now you pack away the Word files and artistic ambitions and get on with life as a "former novelist".
But online technology has changed everything. These days anyone can post anything to the internet, immediately and easily accessible to everyone on the planet - which is why I'm about to upload six novels to Amazon's Kindle Direct e-book service, roughly once a month, beginning with a young adult adventure called Red Raven.
Self-publishing has long-existed - Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Walt Whitman are among the literary immortals to release their own work. The problem, until recently, was twofold: it wasn't taken seriously, and it was expensive. (Most of those writers, you'll notice, were well-off.)
This, after all, is why authors sign with publishers in the first place: they'll pay for everything. Printing, distribution, marketing, cover design, copy-editing, whatever is required to transform your manuscript into a real book, bought and read by others: publishers handle the bill. In return, they get most of the profits (if there are any - most books, in reality, lose money).
Were publishers of yore not interested in your masterwork, you could publish yourself through what were witheringly known as "vanity presses". Frustrated writers paid companies a whack of cash to print and distribute their book.
This was inevitably considered the mark of someone, well, vain; not to mention egotistical, delusional and ridiculous. In the digital age, though, self-publishing has lost some of the stigma, becoming at least halfway respectable.
There seems to be increased recognition that "self-published" doesn't automatically equate to "poor quality" (I can vouch for this personally - all my books are superb). On the flipside, not everything released by traditional houses is necessarily good.
Meanwhile, the gatekeepers have been denuded of much power. The single most difficult thing, say virtually all my author pals, is not finishing their book: it's getting an agent or publisher to accept it. Nowadays the two are inextricably bound, as most houses won't accept submissions that don't involve an agent. Even if you don't want an agent, you have no choice if you want a foot in the door of major publishers.
But the invention of e-books has democratised the process. You don't need an agent, or a publisher, any more. You don't have to pay typesetting, printing, storage, distribution and other costs: all that's required is to write the manuscript, do the necessary formatting (this takes just a few hours), create a blurb and fire it on to the internet. Should someone really want an old-school paper-and-ink version, print-on-demand services are cheap and straightforward.
Self-publishing is now a gigantic part of the broader industry. A few figures prove the case: in 2018, the number of self-released titles increased by 40pc to 1.68 million. Last year, e-books accounted for 18pc of all publishing revenue; a significant proportion was self-published. The global market is now valued at more than $1bn. Notable DIY success stories of the past decade include Fifty Shades of Grey, The Martian and Amanda Hocking's novels.
For my own adventures in self-publishing, I'm going e-book only; should they become an unlikely smash, I'll consider making them available in print. While there are several places to publish e-books - Smashwords, Lulu, Reedsy, Matador - I'm limiting myself to Kindle Direct.
Amazon is the Big Daddy of self-publishing with a lion's share of the market, their system is very user-friendly, and they offer 70pc royalties. More importantly, I don't have time to do all the legwork on however-many separate platforms; it may be free monetarily, but time costs too.
The books were written between - I feel rather faint typing this - 2002 (when I finished a literary novel called There is a Light and It Never Goes Out) and 2018 (a thriller, Devil Hang Over Me). In between, besides publishing those aforementioned four books, I completed a short-story collection, The Driving Force (2005), a novel about 1990s Cork called Pretend We're Dead (2012) and the comedy !!SuperHyperMEGASTAR!! (2015).
Red Raven was begun as far back as 2010, inspired by the birth of our first child. This "final" draft was done and dusted in 2013, and sat on my hard-drive ever since.
A mash-up of superhero comic-books, Celtic mythology and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it retools the legendary Fionn MacCumhaill as a baddie, albeit a complex one. He plans to bring comrades from the realm of myths to our world, at Hallowe'en; three small-town teenagers and their ghostly mentor must stop him inadvertently destroying the universe. It's action-packed, exciting, funny and fun.
I designed all covers myself, using moderately good skills assimilated over two decades in newspapers and magazines. For Red Raven, I commissioned a fantastic illustration from Cork artist Eoin Coveney; we worked together on this paper's Social Stere O'Types column in 2013-14. It's gorgeous: the only cover on which I spent money, but worth every penny.
Red Raven is now available to buy on my Amazon author page. (As are all my old books - buy a few, I need the money.) All that remains is to sit back, light a fat cigar and wait for the money to start rolling in.
Or maybe not. In truth, there are so many published each year - and with half the world writing their "lockdown novel/memoir", this will surely increase - that chances of commercial success are slim. Not quite zero, but slim.
Essentially, I'm just rolling the dice here. But still: long-shot or not, it's a no-risk gamble. Even Kenny could get on board with that.
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