10 years on the road to freedom.
10 years ago this week I took the plunge and ‘self’ published my first novel The Threads of Time in paperback (ebook wasn’t available then or it would have saved me much aggravation)
At the time I was Writer in Residence for Dumfries and Galloway and I undertook the project of publishing the novel, which had been doing the rounds and sitting gathering dust for some 7 years, after 4 years of doing the rounds as a TV series idea (who says we live in a fast moving technological world?) as a way of illustrating ‘options’ to other writers who wanted to be published but didn’t want to spend their whole lives waiting for mainstream acceptance.
It was a steep learning curve and an interesting experience. And to ‘commemorate’ the tenth anniversary I thought I should try to make some sense of, and reflect upon, the journey which has led onward from that moment. In the spirit of full disclosure (and to prove that we live and learn) I’ll talk about mistakes made, lessons learned, warts and all.
In the beginning, I had to find a way of getting my book in print. (No Createspace in those days.) I managed to avoid the worst and most obvious ‘vanity’ publishers and their offers/packages (top tip: they are still very much OUT THERE and hiding amongst a lot of small print. Avoid if at all possible) and I found a company which were primarily a printer for ‘self publishers.’ They are called ProPrint and were Cambridgeshire based (they are still on the go and now in Peterborough) As I recall, I paid some £800 and got 200 copies of a 250 page book. I’ve looked at their current prices and this would now cost me some £1600. Ouch. With the options available today (more of that later) I certainly wouldn’t go down this route now. But times change, don’t they?
The difference between printers who work with ‘self’ publisher and vanity publishing is pretty slender (and I think a large part of it is attitudinal on the part of the writer and ‘commercial’ on the part of the printer) and you really do need to look at the small print. I have to say that I was reasonably happy with ProPrint BUT. These days there are many options for first timers and I think the most important thing is that you are truly honest with yourself about your skills and abilities and how much hand holding you need. And that you look carefully at all the options. It’s a very easy way to let go of a lot of money, and this is irrespective of whether what you’ve written is a work of rare genius, or a heap of dogs mess! That’s one of the first and most important lessons to learn. You CAN pay to publish anything. You need to work out WHY what you’ve written is worth publishing. And if you can’t go beyond vanity at that point, perhaps think again. I’m not suggesting that the only reason to publish is the (deluded) hope that you will ‘compete’ with mainstream market titles simply by dint of your work being every bit as good creatively; I’m only saying that you need to know what your motivation and goals are. And cut according to your cloth. There are a myriad of reasons why people publish. I’m all for people having the choice to do what they want creatively, but it’s very easy to get sucked into a market driven style which is completely inappropriate to one’s real needs.
For me, this first time, I had the cover design more or less roughed out and they ‘designed’ it for the book. Beyond that, I didn’t take any editing services (I couldn’t afford it but I probably should have done), I just got them to print for me. I published under the name 3dnarrative ( was producing short films under this banner) and I did not use an ISBN. At that time I really didn’t want to sell through bookshops (ISBN is nothing more than a product descriptor for sales/marketing/distribution) because they took 40% and my ‘margins’ even selling at £9.99 didn’t allow me to make the sort of profit I wanted. I worked out that I’d have to sell over 130 to get my money back if I sold via bookstores. Selling copies myself, it would only take me 80 sales. I set aside 50 copies for ‘giveaways’ which left me with 150 copies to sell. So theoretically I could make £700 profit if I sold them all. Yeah, right.
I remember swithering a lot about whether I should print out 100 or 200 copies (the more copies the cheaper per unit) and on reflection I should have stuck with 100. That’s the optimism of the first timer. Of course I had high hopes. Of course I believed I’d sell far more than that. Consequence. I still have some 25 copies on shelves reminding me of the error. These are now no better than ‘pulp’ copies. Why? Because of the ‘errors’ in them which at the time I didn’t notice/bother too much about but which now make it impossible for me to even want to give them away. I still believe in the story, that never has changed, but the ‘production values’ are now not acceptable to me.
And what are these issues? Mainly punctuation. I came at this novel fresh from a life as a screenwriter where normal rules of grammar and punctuation (in scripts at least) if not don’t apply, then aren’t relevant most of the time. All too late, I’ve realised that going to 13 schools in a lifetime and being part of the late sixties ‘be creative, don’t worry about grammar’ generation, actually has some downsides as well as some advantages. Yes I’m hugely creative but I have waged a rearguard action against what I saw as the ‘grammar police’ all my writing life. Only now have I come to some sort of mid ground in that respect.
My particular blindspot in The Threads of Time was the use of speech marks and punctuation surrounding them. I never notice them when reading. I thought they were little more than a sort of affectation. I was wrong. It took nine years for someone to point this out to me in terms that I understood – that you are confusing the story, holding up the reader, jolting them out of the ‘world’ you’ve so carefully created by making them pause to think about your punctuation. I justified my actions on the basis that I was trying to write something ‘different’ where thought and speech become kind of melded – but really, looking back, it didn’t work and it alienated some people.
Lesson learned. I can’t apply my own standards of punctuation to my readers’ expectations. The jury is still out on grammar for me – I have used grammar ‘creatively’ for too long to try to change it and become ‘mainstream’ CORRECT in all aspects. My use of language is, I believe, part of my ‘voice.’ But sloppy punctuation, I have come to realise, is just sloppy punctuation. And it does matter.
Which is the main reason why, ten years on, and with those 25 ‘first edition’ copies still begging me to make a bonfire of them, I thought I'd at least best do something to 'celebrate' a personal journey which is still ongoing. Whether I publish a 2nd paperback edition or not is up in the air...
To be continued…
You can’t buy The Threads of Time in paperback now but I’m having a retrospective relaunch party on 3rd October on Facebook and the ebook will be available for free from today till then on the HoAmPresst website.