Writing, the book, publishing – the modern way.

Because Pioneer Books has always been a publisher as well as purveyor of secondhand books, we have, over the years, a lot of authors write hopefully to us, looking for somebody to turn their work into a book. As it is, we published most books we took on at a loss – knowing that would be the outcome, but feeling that we were dealing with things that deserved the public eye but were never going to be looked at by commercial mainstream publishers. Poetry, for example. When I talk of ‘loss’ there, I’m talking only of the overt financial loss, counting nothing for the large amounts of work that could be involved in the publishing of a book, even if the ms is received in good order.

Needless to say, for each one we published, there were lots that went by the wayside, which is not to say they lacked merit, but more that we lacked resources, both finances and manhours. I was better than my father at handling the angst of knocking people back and knowing that they really had no further recourse. They could either put up the money themselves to publish and then go through the heart-breaking routine of the self-published author, the cartons of books that now provide the main interior decoration of one’s life and maybe never selling. Never. Or – or give up.

It seems like it was overnight that all this changed. Suddenly with the advent of sites like Lulu, anybody could self-publish and it cost them next to nothing. Potential profits were now largely taken by Lulu instead of by the middle man publisher and the bookshop of days past, but still, at least the outlay is zero. Not one dollar do you have to pass over to see your book in print.

Of course, having said that, the publisher middleman played an important role aside from the financial aspect. It is the publisher that takes responsibility for both the visual aesthetics of the book and the accuracy of both the actual words on the page – grammar, spelling and so forth – and the facts. Oh, and we can add to that, turning the work of the author, which can be all but illiterate as first submitted, into something that is actually readable. Who does that now? The author may be good enough to do it themselves, may have friends who do it for nothing, somebody who does it for money, or maybe they just don’t care. I’ve been gobsmacked by some of the publicity for self-published books I get sent at Pioneer Books; fancy not even being able to write a flyer without a couple of spelling errors.

The new self-publishing goes from one extreme to the other, in a way publishing (almost) never did before. At one end is the utter rubbish, both in content and presentation and at the other are wonderful works of art or reference which might never have seen the light of day in the old system. You take the good with the bad and maybe it can all be straightforwardly sorted by price. If you pay a dollar for it, why should you expect to get more than a dollar’s worth of value? I’m not saying you won’t get more, but perhaps that should be a pleasant bonus.

Amazon, which is one of the market places for self-publishing, found that people in practice responded in quite different kind. They were outraged to buy books for $1 that might be functionally illiterate or so badly put together that they might as well have been. Amazon in response started a system where outsourced ‘editors’ – ie people for whom English is not necessarily their first language, but willing to work for poor wages – began censoring material that went up for sale on Amazon. Writers would be informed that their English wasn’t up to scratch and that their work was being removed from Amazon until it reached an acceptable standard. Hilarious stories started where well known authors were given these notices, a bit like if James Joyce was given his book back with a link to an introduction to English grammar. Stories that are scary, despite the funny side but more on that another time. Perhaps it would be a better method if the customer simply accepted only getting $1 of value for $1.

As well as books now having quite a different way of being produced, they frequently also have a different way of being created. Many authors start out writing small pieces on the internet on websites and blogs. From this, an audience and a realisation of how good they are grow. After a while they are able to make money from their talent and hard work. Sometimes that will be by accepting advertising on their sites. Often it is by turning blog material and perhaps new material of a similar ilk into a book.

I have recently finished proofing one such book:

If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures.

To come clean straight away, let me make clear that the author and I share food, books and sheets together. Our germs are intimately acquainted. Fortunately he is one of the most well-liked reviewers on goodreads, so anything nice I say is no more than an echo.

This is the good end of self-publishing, going the modern route from short pieces on the internet, favourable response, book. It is the second collection Manny has put together from his work on goodreads and like the first is a potted variety of this and that – from children’s to chess – and a strong section on science. Although ostensibly the idea of goodreads is to review, in practice people have taken that to mean anything goes. Yes, there were substantial serious reviews here such as his thoughts on Sartre, which begin:

Many reviewers on goodreads don’t appear to like Sartre. But, if you think he was a complete asshole as a person and you’re not too thrilled about the way he supported the Communist party, you might want to read Les Mains Sales; it’s a short, engaging play, that won’t take you more than a couple of hours to get through, and Sartre does a better job of taking himself apart than you’re ever liked to manage. Hugo, the central character, is a nightmare self-caricature: pathetic, whiny, neurotic, and completely out of touch with reality. He spends half his time agonising aloud over the fact that no one takes him seriously, and that he isn’t able to do anything concrete to help the work of the Resistance. Sartre loved casting himself in the worst light imaginable…

and on Lee Smolin’s latest book Time Reborn:

Two themes in particular dominate the book; one, as the title suggests, is time, and the other is physical law. Smolin argues that there is a deep connection between them. In the picture of science which many scientists use without even reflecting on what they are doing, physical laws are mathematical objects. They do not form part of our everyday existence, but live in an eternal, Platonic world of abstract entities. Yet somehow these abstractions are supposed to be intimately linked to our ‘real’ world. I thought his analysis was very insightful, and helps explain why science is so often compared with religion. A scientist who subscribes to the Platonic picture is not in fact that far from being a kind of priest. He probably doesn’t believe in God (most scientists don’t), but he still claims to be able to mediate between our world and the eternal world of mathematics.

There is a nice skill I see here of being able to talk about intellectual things in accessible ways, which makes his reviews very popular.

But substantial as many of them are, a lot are just plain fun. You don’t need to have read Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, I’ve heard of it, those who think my popular culture knowledge is lacking) to laugh out loud at this:

Bad Book is Like Other Bad Book Shock

At a standing-room-only press conference earlier today, top researchers from the world famous Goodreads Centre for Bodice-Ripping, Bondage and Twlight Studies revealed that a bad book was quite a lot like another bad book.

‘When I saw the final results of the data analysis, a cold shiver went down my spine,’ said the Centre’s director. ‘The chain of inference is long, and at first we weren’t sure all the steps were watertight, but now we’re confident enough to go public. Expressing it in layman’s language, what we have here is basically that this bad book is similar to another bad book, which in turn closely resembles a third bad book. The implications are literally mind-blowing and we’re still trying to understand them. Thank you.’

In other news, EL James was brielfy hospitalised after a pile of gold coins collapsed, partially burying her for several minutes. She suffered ‘minor contusions and abrasions’ but was able to return to have money-cave following a medical examination.

What I like about this book is that everything about it holds up to scrutiny, the content, the typesetting and editing, the cover, this is a proper book, a book that would have passed any exacting test set in the past when there were standards. It’s been an honour to be part of the process.

One thought on “Writing, the book, publishing – the modern way.

  1. Cathy is too modest to say so, but, if the book is any good, a lot of it is due to her excellent editing. Probably I should have taken all her advice, but the 80% or so which I did accept improved it enormously.

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