Friday 14 February 2014

A Valentine to my Publishers

The interwebs have been busy this last week or two. A great many words have been written, and many graphs generated, about the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Chuck Wendig's post about the "shit-volcano" brought the issue back onto my radar again, and it seems to have been followed by a lot of back-and-forth between various interested parties. All of which I keep reading purely for the purpose of annoying myself, masochist that I am.

Now I'm going state a thing that people keep having to state, but really shouldn't: I have no axe to grind with self-publishing. None at all. A lot of people are doing very well in that market, and more power to them. I'm happy for anyone whose talent and hard work is rewarded, through whatever channel. I wish I didn't have to start with this disclaimer, but the debate has gotten so mired in name-calling, so much my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad nonsense, that it seems every expression of a moderate view has to be prefaced this way in an effort to deflect the anger of those who might take it as a slight.

My position on self-publishing has changed: if you'd asked me about it three or four years ago, I'd have said no way, but now it has proven beyond all doubt to be a viable and lucrative option for many people. I don't think anyone is arguing otherwise now. What I do take issue with is the argument that it's the only viable option.

If you're reading this, then you've probably read all those other posts, and seen the graphs that are currently circulating. There's a lot I could say about the most recent round of hysteria, but to be honest, I really can't be arsed. There are people with agendas, with grudges, with all sorts of negative reasons to write all sorts of negative things. The use of a deliberately pejorative (and inaccurate) term like "legacy publishing"puts up an immediate bias flag. The whole Them & Us mindset that has evolved around the self- vs trad-publishing debate, fuelled by certain key players, is at best unhelpful. I'll leave the invective to them. I want to look at the positive side instead, thus:

I love being traditionally published.

This morning, I was writing the acknowledgement page for my newest book (The Final Silence, out in the UK this summer, thanks for asking) and listing some of the people who've helped me along the way. As I wrote, I realised how privileged I am to work with these people. You know that old expression, it takes a village to raise a child? I find that true for my books. Every stage of the process, apart from the writing itself, is accomplished with the help of a bunch of people. And I really, really like those people.

I know my experience doesn't match everyone else's. It takes a particular blend of ignorance and arrogance to believe that because X, Y and Z are true for you, they must also be true for everyone else. I've heard enough horror stories from other authors about ill-treatment at the hands of agents and publishers to know how lucky I am. But most traditionally-published authors I know have had a positive experience. Sure, we'd all like bigger advances, stronger marketing pushes, and a 50% ebook royalty rate would be lovely, but the impression I get at conference bars is that most - not all, but most - authors don't feel like they've been shit upon from a great height by their publishers. Your experience may vary, but I can only speak from my own.

Before I get on to the lovey-dovey stuff, let's look at the money end of things. I guess you could describe me as approaching the border between midlist and bestseller status. The general trend is upwards, I'm glad to report. I'm not rich, but I'm making a decent living from basically sitting on my arse and making stuff up. Some will argue (well, someone in particular) that I'd be making tons more money by self-publishing. But going by my own calculations, they'd be wrong. Setting aside the fact that selling traditionally is no guarantee of selling through any other channel, I've looked at the numbers many times, and to match (let alone exceed) my current income from trad-pub - including the all-important subsidiary rights - with self-pub, and given the low pricing of that market, I'd have to sell an enormous number of ebooks. A number so big, I'm really not confident I could achieve it. Add to that the anecdotal evidence from writer friends who've unsuccessfully dipped a toe in the self-pub market, and I've reason enough to maintain my current course. But there's more to it than money.

Traditional-publishing, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1) I have a great agent. Nat Sobel was once described to me by an editor as one of the great men of publishing. He's my mentor, a sounding board, often my harshest critic ("fluff and horseshit" is my favourite of his notes), and my first-call editor. He and his wife/partner Judith Weber are great with subsidiary rights - they sold me in Japan before the US, and have gone on to put my books in more countries than I'll ever visit. And they travelled all the way from New York to attend my wedding in Belfast. They are my friends, and I don't know what I'd do without them. It's not about 15% of anything. It's about the support and trust of human beings, about guidance through fields I know nothing about, and knowing they have my back. Oh, and by dint of having Nat for my literary agent, I also get a stellar Hollywood agent as part of the deal. Bottom line: if anyone ever tells you to avoid all literary agents, then they're a fool, and you should ignore them.

2) I have great editors. Geoff Mulligan in the UK, and Juliet Grames in the States. Like my agent, they are also my friends. We've been to each other's homes. They have counselled me when I was unsure how to proceed. They've made me look at my work one more time, just another try, to make it better than I ever hoped it could be. Sure, I could pay a freelance editor a fixed one-off fee to copyedit my stuff, but what I get from my editors is an ongoing relationship, and trust built up over years of working together. And a freelance editor is unlikely to take me to a Korean karaoke joint in the middle of a New York night, or share jokes over a pint (or four) in some backstreet London pub. All that personal stuff? It's worth something. It's worth a hell of a lot.

3) And let's not forget the army of people working on my behalf. On those rare occasions when authors I know talk about shoddy treatment by publicists, editors and marketing departments, I just don't recognise the world they're describing. My time spent visiting the offices of Random House in London, Soho Press in New York, Rivages in Paris, and others, has never been anything but lovely. I think of all those warm, kind people: Bronwen Hruska and Paul Oliver at Soho, and Paul's predecessor Justin Hargett; Fiona Murphy, Bethan Jones, Briony Everroad, Alison Hennessy, Faye Brewster, Vicki Watson, and so many more at Random House/Vintage Books; my French publisher Francois Guerif, who had me to dinner at his home and told me all about his time with Ted Lewis, and my French publicist Hind Boutaljante who's also acted as my guide and interpreter. I could go on and on. The point is: people. Real people, who are decent and passionate and hard-working. They enrich my life as well as advance my career.

4) I get to travel! I always wanted to travel, but somehow never got around to it. Now, in middle age, I get to go all over the place. I've been coast-to-coast in the US, all over France and Germany, stayed in the swankiest of hotels, and once almost wound up in a hostel for criminals out on bail (long story). Best of all, it's mostly been on someone else's dime (i.e. my publishers'). It's not always fun; those 6:00am flights out of Houston TX are a pig, I wouldn't wish US airport security queues on anyone, and it can be difficult to be away from my kids. But I get to see, touch, taste and feel so many things, have so many experiences, that I never dreamed of.

5) And all the nice people! All sorts. The other authors, for one thing. I've made so many friends out there at one conference or another, had so many laughs over so many drinks. Then there are the people I meet from other industries, like journalists, movie and TV pros, fascinating people I'd never have met otherwise. I get to be on TV and radio, I get asked to review books for newspapers, all that ego-stroking stuff. Not to mention meeting and hearing from readers, which is always a joy, even though I'm not always as responsive as I should be. And the thing is, I'm not even that well-known. I'm only moderately successful, and I get to do all the stuff that makes shallow old me feel good about himself in the most superficial ways. And, oh yes, the experts who've helped me with research over the years. Being trad-pubbed opens a lot of doors.

There's so much more I could write about, but I'm guessing this screed hasn't kept too many readers engaged even this far, so I'll wind it up. The point I'm trying to get across is that while self-pub is undoubtedly an excellent way forward for many, many writers, the traditional route is still worth striving for. Yes, the odds are stacked against you. Yes, it can look like a closed shop from the outside (I just read a comment from someone who seriously claimed that all trad-published authors got there by knowing the right people in New York). Yes, the rejection is soul-sapping. But for a lot of people - me included - it's still worth taking the hard road instead of the path of least resistance.

The financial aspect should be good enough reason for me to keep my current course, but when I consider all that other stuff - there's really no question. Every writer is different. Some won't be as lucky as I have been, and others will have even more good fortune. Some will have tremendous success going the self-pub way, others will not. You never know, some day I may find it a more attractive option than it is right now.

The point is, every writer should choose their own path based on their ambitions, their resilience, and their faith in their own talent. So many people are shouting right now, saying their way is the only correct one, that it actually makes me glad the option to self-pub wasn't there when I first started submitting that crappy novel that remains unpublished. Had all this clamour been around then, I probably would have self-published it. It might or might not have sold well, I don't know, or I might even be embarrassed by it (I certainly wouldn't let anyone read it now). What I do know is the experience of keeping on trying, and honing my skills writing yet another novel - all that made me a better writer. And also, I believe, a more successful and ultimately happier writer.

Just do what you want. The rest is noise.