Saturday, September 1, 2012

First let's save the book

To start, let's get the cynicism aside: publishers want a manuscript that will sell millions of copies and make them tons of money. Period. Ditto, literary agents.

This blog is based on the experience of reading hundreds of manuscripts (and letters of introduction) sent to Silverfish Books, a tiny indie publisher from Kuala Lumpur. The industry has gone crazy, has lost the plot and is on self-destruct. There's plenty of whistling in the dark, but the big boys are floundering like fish in a drying river. They have no idea what they want, and hope to be saved by a messiah, magic, or miracle. Writers are bailing out by going electronic, by self-publishing. But that doesn't change anything much. It remains the same frying pan and fire story, because both this too is controlled by a set of 'big boys'. That mass market success that some writers look for does not exist, or is one in a billion.

We'll start by declaring what this blog is not about. This is not about writing for publishers run by marketing departments, namely the big four, or five, or even some of the bigger indies who have totally lost their way. This blog is not for you if you're looking for instant fame and fortune. Sorry, it does not exist, nor does magic, nor tooth fairies. You'd have a much better chance of winning a lottery; so, go buy a ticket. It's not about writing another Fifty Shades of Grey. It's about writing what you have to write; what you absolutely must write.

This blog and forum is for book lovers who want to save the book (electronic or print).

Here's something from Charles Bukowski (from Factotum):

"If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine ... you will be alone with the gods ..."

At Silverfish Books, we are publishers in a very niche market -- we only publish books by Malaysians for Malaysians. We figure there's no other way to survive in this big bad world. We don't make tons of money, nor do we look for million sellers. We publish books that are important, and relevant. If you're still interested, here are some rules:

  1. Forget big publishers, they are not worth your time. They are run by their marketing departments that wouldn't know a good book if it bit them on the nose.
  2. Literary agents: ditto.
  3. Self-publishing is good, but it's also a black hole and the chances of being discovered (or selling more than 18 copies) is, again, like winning a lottery. Besides it is controlled by marketing predators.
  4. Go small. Look for success in your own little neighbourhood, for that little shop in the corner that also does limited publishing. Show them your work and make a deal with them. Hold readings and talks, and run workshops and courses there. Go to your community, door to door if necessary. Visit libraries, schools and colleges. Become a household name in your village, your town, your city, your district, your state. It's okay if you sell only 1000 or 2000 copies, though you'd probably sell much more. (It's better than 18). But, if you persist, you may even get noticed nationally, or internationally. Then again you may not; so don't hold your breadth. Be happy with your that small-town following, and the status of the writer who lives down the road. (You can still put your books on Amazon, and leave it to the gods, but you'll at least have a fall back position.)
  5. Pick a niche, and pick a publisher who also loves that same niche. Do your research. Too many wannabe-be authors don't even know (or bother) to write a polite letter to the publisher. We have received some emails with just the word 'attached', and some that sound like wedding proposals. Publishers are human; write to them nicely and they will reply likewise.
  6. Don't give up your day job. You write because it's something you have to do. You'll still have to pay your rent, though. (Maybe, at the same small shop that has agreed to published your work!) Teach writing. Write copies for companies even if you hate it, as long as it pays.
  7. The tree most important tips for writing are, one, read; two, read; and three, read. Imitation is good (at least, initially). Plagiarism is bad.
  8. Please get your work edited (and critiqued, if possible), but beware of the sharks; they are the ones with those popups, and advertise in a dozen different names all leading to the same website and use the word 'free' a lot. Nothing is free, but you can get good bargains from honest indies and freelancers. There are many good people out there. Learn how to spot them.
  9. Consider tupperware styled marketing of your books in the neighbourhood. 
  10. Work very hard.
I was discussing the state of the current publishing industry (because that's what it is, an industry) with Ian (an American) who is now working on his third novel after having tossed the first two. At first it appeared as if we were talking at cross purposes. Then I realised we were both on the same side. He had used a metaphor of a table with many legs and how, if one was removed, it would still stand. That didn't sit well with me, the engineer: anything with more than three legs requires exact engineering. I prefered the biodiversity (or ecosystem) metaphor: if a virus kills one strain, it will not destroy the entire population. I think he didn't get that at first. But, in the end, we agreed.

Conclusion: small is good; and diversity is better. Help the world get back to basics, and save the book.


ChatteringMing said...

Good advice. Don't take the shortcut. Don't expect the editor to clean up your mess. Learn to write so that others want to read.

But I would add too that publishers and agents will always look for the winner (which may mean 50 shades) because they still have to watch out for the bottom line.

Bukowski is rather dramatic. :)

krishna said...

Very good advice.I have long forgotten about big publishers,literary agents and self publishing(this was never in my mind!)I read alot of books especially old ones(I get them cheap from the secondhand shop)as I feel their language is better.Correct me if I am wrong.Other then that I have been working really hard and manage to get a few children stories published in the Children's Corner of the Star paper.Sad to say that too has been taken off.Thank you for the advice.

Shiuli said...

Love the cynacism in the blog. The advice is worthwhile. Being a frog in the pond, like to wade the small ebbs rather the big shores.
And its better to write about things one feels than about things one knows.