Monday, November 29, 2004

Another one for the optimists

There is a monthly magazine (in the UK) called Book and Magazine Collector; it doesn't seem to have a web presence. For the most part it is aimed at the serious collector, as the title suggests, but I buy a copy occasionally to see who is advertising what. The magazine also includes general articles about the various editions of writers' work, how much they are worth, and the circumstances in which they were produced and published.

Issue no. 250 (Christmas 2004) has an article on a writer called Deborah Lawrenson. Deborah, it seems, published three novels through Heinemann in the 1990s, and then hit a snag with her fourth. The publisher 'found much to praise' but thought that 'the book would be difficult to market'. In other words, as usual in today's hard-nosed commercial world, her first three hadn't sold well enough for the publisher to want to go with the fourth. And rather than trust the author to go on developing and learning her trade, they dumped her. Which is so common an occurrence as to be worth hardly a mention.

However, in this case Deborah decided to publish her book herself. And she seems to have made a success of it. So much so that a couple of other publishers (Bloomsbury and Random House) were prompted to show an interest, and the latter firm will now publish a paperback version of the new book, The Art of Falling, next year.

Well, congratulations to the author, Deborah Lawrenson. She has invested a good deal of time, money, and effort, and won herself a renewed lease of life as a result. So hers is another success story which will be added to the list of self-published authors who have made good.

Should you be remotely thinking of publishing your own book yourself, you may now feel the urge to google the words "self publishing" and see what comes up. When you do that, you will find that there are a multiplicity of firms ready and willing to take your money to provide the relevant services. And, I dare say, most of them will do a reasonable job. Deborah Lawrenson used a company called Matador; judging by its web site, this is a great deal more respectable and responsible than most.

But you won't have to go far in exploring the web sites of these service providers to find an article which assures you that almost every famous writer in the entire history of literature started out by publishing his or her own work. Trafford, for instance, gives us a list including Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Margaret Atwood. Advocate House reminds us of Mark Twain, James Redfield, and John Grisham. And even so straitlaced a body as the UK Publishers Association mentions Jill Paton, Timothy Mo, and Susan Hill. The longest list is to be found in the self-publishing hall of fame.

Yes, dear friends, no doubt it is true that a substantial number of famous writers have at one time or another gone in for publishing their work themselves (usually, I suspect, at the start of the careers). But so, if I may make so bold, what?

Does it follow, as night follows day, that J. Bloggs, or Freda Farnsbarns, the unknowns from Clapham and Blackpool respectively, will, after arranging for the private publication of their own dazzling novels, also become as rich and famous as John Grisham? I venture to suggest not, and for a variety of reasons.

For the chief of these reasons I am indebted to Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who refers to it several times in his work. It is a circumstance known, I believe, as survivorship bias, and attention was first drawn to it in 1620 by Francis Bacon.

Bacon, it seems, was aware of a number of shipwrecked mariners who had escaped drowning and had ascribed their survival to the fact that they had previously offered up suitable prayers and had generally 'paid their vows' -- which I suspect means that they had given some money to the church in order to get special treatment from God. And lo and behold, when in due course their ship had been wrecked on a rocky coast, they had been cast ashore with little more than a wet suit of clothes to trouble them -- thus proving the efficacy of prayer.

Except, of course, as Bacon pointed out, their survival illustrated absolutely nothing at all other than the capriciousness of fate. The survivors, we are told, had their portraits painted and became famous men (the church naturally wanting to publicise the good fortune which follows from the payment of large fees). But where, Bacon asked, were the pictures and other details of the countless mariners who had also offered up earnest prayers, and paid out large sums of money, but had drowned nevertheless?

Exactly the same question could be asked about those who publish their own books. Yes, over the last couple of centuries, we can find examples of writers who, at one point or another, have paid for the publication of some of their work, and have then gone on to become rich and famous. But how many of them are there, when compared with the countless thousands who have also shelled out large sums of hard-earned money, only to sell three copies and remain entirely anonymous?

As ever, a little logic and clear thinking would not go amiss in the mad worlds of writing and publishing.

And just in case you've forgotten, let me add that I publish my own work through my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, and amazing stuff it is too. Buy something today. Please.


Anonymous said...

In other words: One lemming drinking coke on a Carribean beach does not prove that lemmings have a wise migration strategy.

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