THE FO­RUM

COLIN MACPHER­SON

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

USU­ALLY, I try to keep a low profile, hop­ing that my ar­ti­cles and works of fiction will speak on my be­half with­out me feel­ing com­pelled to say any­thing else pub­licly. But some­thing has hap­pened that has forced me out of my shell. And I’m re­ally pissed off about it.

I re­fer to the in­au­gu­ral Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Awards, a com­pe­ti­tion that is worth $ 100,000 to the win­ners of the fiction and non­fic­tion cat­e­gories. As an au­thor, I was ex­cited at the prospect of en­ter­ing my sec­ond novel, The Holy Well .

It had taken a great deal of re­search and ef­fort to write, and the feed­back I’d so far re­ceived, lim­ited as it was, had all been pos­i­tive.

How­ever, when I looked at the guide­lines for en­try, I was as­tounded to see the stip­u­la­tion: ‘‘ Self- pub­lished works are not el­i­gi­ble. This in­cludes any ar­range­ment whereby an au­thor pays a third party to pub­lish a work.’’ My as­ton­ish­ment turned to anger. You see, I’m a self- pub­lisher. I set up a pub­lish­ing busi­ness in 1999 for the free­lance writ­ing and edit­ing I’d been do­ing for some time ( and still do), and I used it as the im­print for two of my nov­els.

Now, I know that th­ese days al­most any­one can call them­selves an au­thor and have one of a host of com­pa­nies trans­form their man­u­script into a good- look­ing fi­nal prod­uct. Th­ese com­pa­nies will ad­vise, edit, de­sign, print and mar­ket the book, all for a sub­stan­tial fee.

This fee, how­ever, has now been re­duced in many cases be­cause of the easy avail­abil­ity of print- on- de­mand tech­nol­ogy, so an in­creas­ing num­ber of writ­ers are us­ing this route to get their work out there.

And good luck to them. But it would be a mis­take to in­clude me — and a num­ber of other self- pub­lish­ers — with this lot. I don’t want to go on about my back­ground and ex­pe­ri­ence in mak­ing a liv­ing from my work, but for years pub­lish­ers, edi­tors and or­gan­i­sa­tions have been pay­ing me for what I do.

And when it comes to self- pub­lish­ing, I do al­most ev­ery­thing my­self. The writ­ing and edit­ing is just the be­gin­ning: the de­sign, the pre­press work, the cover art, the print­ing, the mar­ket­ing, the web­site con­struc­tion and main­te­nance, the dis­tri­bu­tion and de­liv­er­ies are all ei­ther done by me or heav­ily su­per­vised by me.

There’s no pack­age deal in­volved. I do more than any one per­son could pos­si­bly do in a main­stream pub­lish­ing house. And I do it for a lot of dif­fer­ent rea­sons, the hope of mak­ing more money be­ing one.

But is my work any good? Of course, the only way any­one can an­swer that is for them first to

ON IN­DE­PEN­DENT PIT­FALLS

read some of it. This logic, how­ever, seems to be lost on a num­ber of lit­er­ary com­men­ta­tors who, al­though they may be as­tute re­view­ers, know very lit­tle about what goes on in main­stream pub­lish­ing houses, and they dis­miss out of hand any­thing that is self- pub­lished, with the naive be­lief that for the work to have been self­pub­lished it must first have been re­jected by main­stream pub­lish­ers and is there­fore in­fe­rior. Codswal­lop. Three lots of codswal­lop, in fact.

First, some — not a lot, but some — self­pub­lished work orig­i­nates from ex­pe­ri­enced and pro­fes­sional writ­ers who have not tried ap­proach­ing main­stream pub­lish­ers. They do it them­selves be­cause they want con­trol over the whole process and they want to make a big­ger profit for each book sold. Some­times they’re suc­cess­ful, of­ten they’re not.

Sec­ond, it’s not usu­ally the ac­tual pub­lish­ers — the in­di­vid­u­als who carry that ti­tle within the com­pa­nies — who read and then re­ject manuscripts from un­known au­thors. They’re far too busy. This job is car­ried out by other peo­ple, of­ten 19- year- old in­terns. But that’s only if you’re lucky. Most sub­mis­sions are dis­carded with­out a sin­gle read.

It’s not re­ally the fault of the pub­lish­ing houses; there’s just too much ma­te­rial com­ing in for them to eval­u­ate prop­erly.

Agents used to be an aid in the se­lect­ing process but now they too are of­ten over­whelmed by ma­te­rial. The point is, re­jec­tion from a main­stream pub­lisher doesn’t mean your work is no good; it of­ten means it just hasn’t been looked at.

And third, some work does man­age to get through the in­terns and is eval­u­ated care­fully by main­stream pub­lish­ers — and then re­jected — not on the ba­sis of lit­er­ary qual­ity but be­cause of mar­ket­ing con­cerns. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions in the past, I’ve had edi­to­rial staff in large pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies in­form me that they have urged ac­cep­tance of my sub­mit­ted man­u­script, only to be over­ruled by mar­ket­ing staff, ‘‘ it’s a hard book to cat­e­gorise’’ be­ing the over­whelm­ing con­cern. Noth­ing to do with qual­ity, im­por­tance or unique­ness, just the pre­dicted num­bers of sales from peo­ple who are good at read­ing spread­sheets. So some au­thors self- pub­lish, for an as­sort­ment of rea­sons, and some­times their work is as good as — and oc­ca­sion­ally bet­ter than — most of what comes out of main­stream pub­lish­ing houses.

In view of all this, I wrote a long let­ter to the Prime Min­is­ter and to the rel­e­vant min­is­ter ( Peter Gar­rett), point­ing out the rea­sons why I thought the award guide­lines were dis­crim­i­na­tory and based on false as­sump­tions — what I’ve writ­ten here fo­cuses on just one of many du­bi­ous ideas that un­der­pin the guide­lines — and asked that they change the rules. I also pointed out that the state pre­miers’ lit­er­ary awards don’t have such an ill- in­formed and dis­crim­i­na­tory ex­clu­sion of self- pub­lished works. Nei­ther of them has writ­ten back yet, and the dead­line for en­tries has passed.

As a re­sult, I’m play­ing with the idea of set­ting up an al­ter­na­tive com­pe­ti­tion. I thought some­thing like Not the Prime Min­is­ter’s Awards Awards — which would ac­cept self- pub­lished sub­mis­sions as well as works put out by main­stream pub­lish­ers — could bring some bal­ance to the present sit­u­a­tion and in­ject a lit­tle eq­uity. I may have to ap­ply for a fed­eral grant to fi­nance it but, hey, the new Gov­ern­ment sup­ports the arts, right?

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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