Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Blogging and publishing

A couple of pieces which may be of interest. One is from today's Indie:

Cyberclinic: I want to start a blog. But will I just be writing into a void?
Rhodri Marsden, The Independent, May 9th 2007


"It's nothing personal," begins Independent reader Carole Hayes, "but please don't start a blog. If it's any good, it'll be just another one that I fail to keep up with reading."

Carole is not alone in her hair-tearing response to blog overload; news has emerged recently of a book by Andrew Keen which indicts the gigantic blogging community for "destroying culture", and for "undermining our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary".

It's a harsh accusation to lay at the door of, say, a 13-year-old girl who's merely writing a few sentences about the deteriorating health of her pet rabbit, but the fact that she is doing so at all demonstrates how easy blogging has become. You can start publishing online within seconds by using services such as Blogger or Wordpress; the search engine Technorati reports a staggering 175,000 new blogs started every day, and a grand total of around 75 million.

So why would you bother, given the inevitability of your blog disappearing into a sea of political posturing and wearisome whining? Some are attracted by the prospect of joining a like-minded community of people who write in a similar style, or about similar subjects. "Using social-based blogging services such as LiveJournal helps to round up an audience," e-mails Vicki Macintosh, "rather than giving you the feeling that you're bellowing into a void."

Obsessing about the size of one's readership is a common issue for bloggers. While gaining a short-lived peak in audience size is relatively easy, retaining those people over a period of time is managed only by established blogs, such as BoingBoing.net, that are often maintained by a team of writers.

Simon Hartnell believes that worrying about readership distracts from the whole point: "You have to enjoy writing for your own pleasure, otherwise blogging is going to feel like a chore, and you'll probably give up pretty quickly." It's a warning that many would no doubt offer on their own blogs, had they not abandoned them; it's estimated that more than 200 million blogs lie dormant, many just tailing off without so much as a "cheerio".

Indeed, the American IT company Gartner has predicted that the number of active blogs will peak this year at around 100 million, as the number of those giving up starts to outstrip those keen to give it a go.

The final word comes from a reader, Jason Day, and I'm tempted to agree: "Give it a try. But be prepared for a feeling of overwhelming futility."


The other, on more traditional forms of publishing, is from Sean Gabb:

A Brief Guide to Self-Publishing by Sean Gabb

As you ought by now to be aware, I have written and published a novel. A
close friend has told me that my plotting does not compare with that of
Marcel Proust, nor my characterisations with those of Dostoyevsky. But he
assures me it is otherwise a decent novel. He says he enjoyed reading it.
He is, moreover, buying copies to hand round as presents to his friends
and loved ones. This is, you will agree, a better indication of what he
thinks than any amount of written or spoken praise.

Of course, I invite you to do likewise. I think we have missed Eid and
Diwali—I am not prejudiced in these matters—But Christmas and Hannukah are
approaching; and I will, for the trifling sum of £8.99 each plus £2
postage and packing, send you any number of copies of The Column of Phocas
signed and inscribed with any message you may desire. I will even get Mrs
Gabb to gift wrap them.

You can take advantage of my offer by following either of the links at the
foot of this article.

But here is an end to my advertising. Several people have asked me in the
past few weeks how I managed to publish a book that looks like a real book
and can be sold on the Internet and via Amazon. So I will go now into the
whys and hows of self-publishing.

I begin with why. As said, I have written a decent novel. It only took a
few weeks to write on my various railway journeys; and though it is taking
longer because of my other commitments, the sequel is just as easy. My
problem was not with the writing, but with getting someone else to publish
me.

From my reading of literary biography, there was a time when you could
write a novel, and then send it off—perhaps under a pseudonym—to a
publisher, who would carefully read it and then bring it out in a limited
edition to see how it might sell. If it ever existed, that time is passed.
Most publishers nowadays are members of large conglomerates. For them, a
novel is a commodity, and the lower the speculative element in
publication, the better it is for them. They want something in a style
that is currently popular, and preferably from an author who is already
known. So what if the product is ghost written trash fathered on a
television personality? Their object—and I do not think it fair to
complain—is not to promote literature, but to make a profit. If, like me,
you are unknown as a writer of fiction, and if you write a novel that does
not easily fit into one of the established categories, you have very
little chance.

And you have very little chance even if what you have written is
manifestly outstanding. I do not think much of the Harry Potter books.
But, plainly, many other people disagree with me. Even so, J.K. Rowling
took years to get her first novel accepted for publication. If, like me,
you are merely decent, the outlook must be gloomy.

Indeed, in recent years, publishers have tended to refuse all manuscripts
submitted directly. The spread of word processing has made it easier than
ever before to write fiction, and publishers have been overwhelmed by
submissions of variable quality. They have therefore taken to considering
only work submitted through a literary agent.

But this has simply transferred the flood of initial submissions to the
agents. These also cannot cope; and so they have adopted policies as
restrictive as those of the publishers before they stopped accepting
submissions directly.

The result is that, unless you are unusually enterprising and persistent,
or lucky, you will not get your first novel—or your first book, for that
matter—published so easily as you might in the past.

The answer is not to sit about, lamenting a state of affairs you can do
nothing to change. It is to do the whole job yourself.

This is much easier than ever before. When I first looked at
self-publication in the 1980s, I had a choice between spending an ocean of
money and producing something that looked like a school newsletter. I
could use a manual typewriter to punch holes in a stencil, and then run
off jagged and whimsically faded copies on a duplicator. I was once told,
let me add, that they only way to avoid getting ink on your clothes is to
strip naked within a yard of any duplicator. I can tell you this is good
advice! This done, I could staple the sheets together, and hope what I had
written would be read without too much prejudice against its format.
Otherwise, I could put myself into the hands of the vanity publishers.
These might produce something vaguely resembling a book. But they might
not. Whatever the case, they would run off thousands of copies and charge
a prohibitive unit price. No bookshop would stock them. No mainstream
publication would review them.

The technological revolution of the past few decades has made all this a
distant memory. Using Microsoft Word, or any other word processing
software, you can format a book in any style that takes your fancy. My own
preferred style is the "Everyman" series. This may not be suitable for a
new novel. But that was a matter of my own possibly defective judgement.
You can format an archetype in any font you please, justified as you
please, with headers and page numbers. You can even generate an index if
that is what you want. This requires some familiarity with computers. But
it is probably less difficult to acquire than to use a sewing machine
effectively or to learn how to drive.

Next, you need a cover. You can do this also in Word, though I prefer to
use Publisher, which comes with the more expensive versions of Microsoft
Office. This gives much greater freedom with positioning text and pictures
and the spine. Again, getting the cover right is a matter of judgement
that some people have and others have not. This being said, there are
templates for book covers all over the Internet; and anyone can produce a
basic cover.

Then there is the matter of an ISBN. I believe these were introduced in
the 1960s by the British publishing trade as a means of identifying a
stock of new publications that was already expanding beyond manageable
limits. An ISBN is made up of eight digits that remain constant and
identify the publisher, plus two digits that identify the publication, and
a final checksum digit to ensure soundness of the whole. The numbering
system—it will soon contain 13 digits—is now used in just about every
country. It allows books to be traced more effectively than would
otherwise be possible.

The problem emerging is that book shops tend to refuse anything that is
without an ISBN. Certainly, on-line booksellers like Amazon will not touch
anything without one.

But this is a problem easily solved. When Chris R. Tame and I started the
Hampden Press in 2001, we obtained an eight digit ISBN and a sample eleven
digit ISBN for free. We were then expected to buy further numbers. I
believe this practice has now changed, and you must pay for this. I do not
know where you should go for your ISBNs now, as the company we used has
been bought by Nielsen Bookdata. But in England, you can try Carolyn Timms
of Nielsen Bookdata. She will point you in the right direction. In
America, there is bip.bowkerlink@bowker.com at RR Bowker Books in Print.

As for buying subsequent numbers, there are websites that will
automatically generate them for free once you have the initial eight digit
number. The one I use is provided by The College Park Press.

You may also want to translate your ISBN to a bar code with another number
the function of which escapes me. There are also free services on the
Internet that will do this. The one I use is provided by Robbie's ISBN Bar
Code Generator.

It is not enough, of course, to generate an ISBN. You must also register
this with the various bibliographical agencies. Without this, your book
will not appear on any of the databases, and might as well not exist. You
can register by approaching the English and American companies given above.

Now, there is the printing. My experience is that an initial print run
should be around a thousand copies. Fewer, and your unit costs will be
high, and you may run out of copies. More, and first delivery of boxes may
get you into the divorce court. Printing remains expensive, whatever your
print run, and it is worth shopping round for quotations. Some of these
can be prohibitive. The cheapest printer I have been able to find in
England is Biddles. These print the "Modern Masters" series and provide a
fast and professional service, so long as you provide them with the right
kind of pdf file. My unit cost for The Column of Phocas was only £1.30.
Assuming a unit price of £8.99, this leaves a tidy sum to cover other
expenses or to be regarded as profit.

We come finally to the marketing. Here, I must confess, I am not very
good. I have generated some publicity in the local media, and have had
some flattering reviews placed on Amazon. I have also nagged all my
friends into buying copies. But my distribution of copies to friends in
the national media has resulted so far in no publicity. Nor have I been
very enterprising at getting my novel into the bookshops.

But this is something of which you may have greater knowledge. Indeed,
since I have shared all I know of publishing, you may care to reciprocate
with some advice on marketing.

So, there it is—self-publishing made easy.

I regret that, unless I am one of your close friends, or have some
reasonable expectation of services from you, I will give no personal
advice to authors beyond what I have given above. This is not because I am
particularly unfriendly. It is a simple acknowledgement of the fact that I
am both busy with earning a living and profoundly idle when it comes to
replying to e-mails. By all means, write if you must. But do not be
disappointed if you hear nothing back.

1 comment:

Mari Carmen said...

"You have to enjoy writing for your own pleasure, otherwise blogging is going to feel like a chore, and you'll probably give up pretty quickly".

Yes, I think in this way. I write what I like. What I want. That's all. Sometimes my writings are a bit long, yes, I know, but... I don't mind. People (well, Spanish and South American people, at least... :) ) enjoy reading me. Or so they say. And I have got almost 80 people reading my texts, every day. I don't know if they are many or few people, but 80 men and women reading me... for me it is enough, I think... :)

I enjoy your posts very much. Thank you, Noel :)

Bye