30 June 2012 - 1:02 pm

Paper dreams and virtual legitimacy

I’ve had this one dream since I was little. I don’t mean the kind that happens when you’re sleeping; I mean the kind that you have when you’re awake. The kind you hold in your hands and turn over and over; a beautiful, warm idea that your imagination tells you would be so wonderful if you could only touch it.

I want to be a published author. I want to see books on shelves with my name on the spine. I want to see them in bookstores, catch glimpses of people reading them on the train. I want them to be tucked under people’s beds and dog-eared. I want them rippled from reading in the bath and crumpled from being stuffed into handbags.

I want to be able to point to them and say: those are mine; that was me.

It’s not about money or fame; it’s for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with either of those things. I’ve loved stories since I was a child and I can’t think of a better thing than sharing my own. Spreading some of the joy and inspiration that books and stories have given me.

It’s also about being recognised for it. Not in the street or the media; a name on a book on a shelf is what I mean. And a contract from a professional that says, ‘this is worth publishing’. Writing is a big part of who I am and I want people to know that.

I have self-published and it’s not the same. Don’t get me wrong: self-publishing is fantastic and I’m glad that I’ve done it for many reasons. But it’s only a small step towards that dream I have.

It’s not a publisher saying that they want to make my book happen. It doesn’t carry the same kudos.

Talented self-published author M.C.A. Hogarth has an interesting post on her view of this predicament.

These days, that view is falling out of fashion. Self-publishing is becoming more respectable and more recognised. People – including established writers – are moving away from traditional publishers (I have my own reservations about them, too, but that’s a different post). And self-published authors are able to make a decent living now, as a recent post on Indie Reader shows in glorious detail. The market is moving on.

But the kudos isn’t keeping up. I look at the published authors around me, I look at the industry, and there’s still a gap between self-published writers – particularly those who self-publish e-books – and traditionally published authors. It’s the type of writers who are on panels at writing festivals. It’s the books that are nominated for awards. It’s the books that bookstores hold launches for. It’s the books that authors hold signings for and with.

I’m not even sure that I disagree with that gap. After all, it is easy to self-publish these days (and getting easier all the time), while landing a traditional publishing deal is still hard. The easier it is, the more crap that comes through. There’s no stamp of quality or standard of writing, often not even an indication of an editor’s input. (Note: I’m not saying that the quality or standard of writing is bad in self-published books; I’m saying there’s no way to tell quality work from bad.)

In self-publishing, there’s no independent party that has declared they think the work should be published. That makes a difference to me, most especially in terms of my own work. I want to feel that I deserve to be on people’s shelves.

So where does legitimacy in self-publishing come from? Can it? You hear about break-out authors who sell huge amounts of books despite not having a traditional publisher behind them, but they’re the exception. What about the mid-list self-published author? Will there be a day when they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with traditionally published authors?

I don’t have all the answers. I think the market is moving that way and the walls are coming down. Perhaps I’m just impatient, caught in the stickiness of an incomplete transition.

I still have this dream of seeing my books on the shelf of a bookstore, in a library, in a commuter’s purse. I want to sell and sign books at conventions. I want that publishing contract and an agent to manage it for me. I want a book launch that takes over an entire bookstore.

One day, maybe I’ll get there. But it won’t happen if I don’t send manuscripts out for consideration. Do I hold off self-publishing more books in the meantime? How long do I wait? Or should I forge ahead on my own as I’ve always done, and damn the rest?

This is what I ask myself every time I finish a book and have to decide what I want to do with it. And I’ll keep asking, because that dream is still there, shining and warm. After all, you never know, right?

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