Voyages of Discovery

Part 1

Thor Noggson, the 18th century Icelandic explorer, achieved fame and fortune when he set off to find the North Pole without his compass only to discover, in a roundabout way, the source of the upper Nile…

He summed up his approach to life in the words, “It’s easy to build a ship; keeping it afloat is the difficult bit…”

For me, writing a novel is relatively easy, despite the long time scale. The hard part is getting people to take you seriously by reading it.

I’ve already written two psychology books, but my experiences of the traditional publishing industry did not inspire confidence. After publicising my first book by speaking at two international conferences, the publisher went bankrupt just as the book came out – or rather, didn’t come out. So I then spent a lot of time apologising to irritated professors from obscure places. It took several years to get the rights back from this publisher – he had relocated to Florida, presumably to avoid the lawyers. No, I’m not making this up. Eventually, I brought out a second book, which did quite well for a year. Then the company was taken over by a large American corporation who listed all their British authors in very small print at the back of the catalogue, and I vanished back into obscurity again.

As for the world of fiction, it’s a bit like the world of beer in the 1970’s. A few large companies (breweries) dominate the market and forcibly market a rapidly decreasing number of authors (keg beers). Plus, I don’t tick many boxes. I’m not thirty-something and I’m not a celebrity gardener, soap actress, or failed politician. I’m not an Oxbridge graduate, and I’m not in the masons… putting it bluntly, I don’t know anyone in the world of fiction. JK Rowling was rescued from a bin by a junior assistant who persuaded her boss to take another look. I decided my chances of being rescued from a bin were decidedly slim, since the economic problems mean that most of the junior assistants are now on the dole…

As a reasonably competent DIY man and fixer of anything that goes wrong, I thought, well, publishing can’t be that difficult, can it? It’s not rocket science… is it?

Part 2

“Publishing can’t be that difficult, can it? It’s not rocket science… is it?” Thor Noggson did not say this on his way to the Upper Nile in the 18th century; I did when I realised that, barring divine intervention, the only publishing company likely to publish my novel was… my own. As Thor did once remark, on long journeys confusion is obligatory.

Thankfully I had been well-prepared for this task; successive waves of NHS cuts had gradually deprived me of secretarial support and forced me to learn basic word processing. Maybe I should have taken a secretarial course in the first place.

So, having armed myself with various publishing manuals, I prepared to cross the black and inky sea of the dark arts (fonts, formats, typesetting, bindings, paper types, file conversions). My initial terror subsided as I slowly learned to navigate the ‘word’ help system and discovered that… it was all there. Labyrinthine it may be, but it’s like granddad’s cellar; every tool under the sun, if you can root them out – more like caving than rocket science. So after much, much brain pain, I had a word file sized and spaced like a novel, converted to PDF (printer format).

To get official recognition as a publisher of serious work rather than a back street leaflet man you also need to register with Neilson and buy some ISBN numbers  from them (each book needs one). Not expensive, and it turns out the forms are a piece of piss compared to the average disability benefit application…bingo, Makri press was born. And yes, I am going to publish other people’s work, if it’s good enough.

A quick mention for editing; you can pay someone to do it, or you can risk your sanity and do it yourself. Reading aloud to yourself for weeks on end can be a bit risky, especially when your wife used to be a psychiatrist. (Fortunately for me, these days Sheila usually has her earphones on while she listens to her Ipod.) Then there’s copy-editing; this is a bit like letting loose your inner obsessive-compulsive…yes, I can hear the laughter from my old university housemates at this point…

The most important task is to get a decent cover; when it comes to books, that’s what most people look at before they buy, let’s face it. Here, I was just lucky to meet someone – thanks again, Angela.

Printing? Well, it’s like removals or anything else. Find out what other people say about companies, get three estimates and choose one. Then prepare to fill your landing and other spaces with piles of shiny new books wrapped in polythene.

They arrive; reality bites. “Oh my God, I’ve done it now.” This is where the urge for self-expression (shout it from the rooftops) finds itself at war with the urge for privacy and self-protection (put them in the loft and hide). And the practical bit… how on earth am I, with the business sense of a lab rat, going to get them out to that mysterious entity known as the public?

Part 3

The world of bookselling…

This voyage began when I counted up the number of friends I had and realised that even if every single one bought a book, I was still going have to find a way to sell books to that mysterious entity known as the public. Still, I could see a real upturn for my social life, since being a writer is a bit like locking yourself in a box and throwing away the key. It would give me a great excuse to ‘get out more’…

“It’s not what I expected.” This is how Thor Noggson described the source of the Nile, having set off years earlier for the North Pole. I said this too, about the world of bookselling.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a pre-austerity world of busy high streets and lots of shops, including lots of bookshops often run by very and knowledgeable people. So I set off to explore my local towns and see what remained of this lost world…

These days, it’s a bit like Jurassic Park mixed up with the Mappa Mundi; and the law of the jungle applies. The High Streets are sadly dilapidated and filled with pound stores, charity shops and empty spaces. And yes, there are some scary monsters out there – between them they have gobbled up most of the small bookshops. The biggest monster is probably Amazon who ate the arms and heads by supplying everything the shops did, and more, without the need to leave your house. Then the supermarkets ate a chunk of the bodies by selling popular books dirt cheap. Meanwhile the charity shops, like large neighbourly rats, nibbled the legs away by selling large quantities of cheap second hand books. And then the big high street chains gobbled up anything that remained in a decent location – eg Waterstones gobbled up Ottakars, who had in turn gobbled up Dressers, etc, etc.

So there aren’t many small bookshops left, and those that survive are often mainly selling mostly second hand books with a few new books of local interest. Even the big companies have circled the wagon trains in order to survive. There are very few book wholesalers left because they too have also gobbled each other up. The survivors avoid competition with each other by specialising in one thing eg fiction, academic books, or library supply. Then they demand horrendous discounts to stock your book, and supermarkets and high street chains get their stock from these wholesalers… the net result is an endless downward pressure on the price you can ask for your book.

But, hey ho, there was an upside to my voyage. The monsters aren’t all bad; if you’re clever enough you can get a piggy back ride and use them to sell your books, especially Amazon, but only if your book is good enough. And the big chains bookshops are still full of helpful people, even if their ability to help local writers is more limited by company rules. Plus, I did get out more, and found that one town I had thought of as a real tip, the armpit of the northeast, had a delightful and historic town centre.

Maybe all this is a simply the result of the digital revolution. The paper book may not be dead yet, but most of the people who buy paper books are no spring chickens… I feel an ebook coming on, but not yet, I tell myself, I need to sell a few more paper ones first. So at the end of this voyage I realised that what I needed was… a cunning plan. Where the hell is Baldrick when you need him?

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