Thursday, 22 April 2010

Dreams and DIY publishing

You'll notice, regular readers of mine, that I've been fiddling about with my colour scheme - as if I've nothing better to do! Queen of Displacement Activity, remember! I'm not sure I like what I've done so may revert to the template - let me know what you think.

The good news today is that my fictionfire communications problems are, I think, solved. Site support was there, to a degree, but responses came at the speed of a snail. You can always deluge me with messages at to test it out!

You know how there are certain phases in your year when you know you just cannot afford to let your guard down and relax (apart from fiddling with blog colour-schemes, that is!) - that's where I am now. I'm juggling nagging of A level son and A level students, doing a large amount of editing and report-writing, and getting ready for the May fictionfire courses. I look out at the sunshine and hope this weather holds so that my students can enjoy an Oxford college at its absolute best. Trinity has a gorgeous garden with long open lawns and will be well worth strolling around.

I looked out the window yesterday to see a funny white streak in the sky - oh, a vapour-trail! Planes flying once more, but the London Book Fair was seriously affected by the inability of cohorts of foreign agents and editors to attend. The advantage may have been that some proposals for books got more of a chance to shine, being not so swamped by the volume of meetings and deals there would normally be. I am crossing my fingers really really hard for a couple of friends whose agents intended promoting their books there.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article by Cosmo Landesman about the writer Stephen Benatar, who is about to break through to a wider readership after thirty years in the literary desert. He's a resourceful, bloody-but-unbowed chap, who accosts people, asking them if they would 'care to look' at his book, hand-selling it on an individual basis. Landesman succumbs to what he first thinks is a 'pity purchase' but then realises that Benatar who 'is not one of the deluded; he is one of the talented' - and the world is waking up to that, with a British edition of one of his books, 'Wish her Safe at Home' coming out. Why has Benatar single-mindedly gone on printing and selling his books in the face of indiffference? Not because he wants to be famous: 'he wants to be read.' 'All over Britain there are Benatars - hopeful men and women who, despite critical indifference and commercial failure, keep writing novels.' Landesman recites the gloomy statistics with which we are all familiar: the near-impossibility of being published, of earning a living, of maintaining a toehold in the literary world. He tells us of eleven novels Benatar tried to gain mainstream publishing for, to be rejected by the well-worn phrase, 'Not one for us.' We hear how Benatar married, had children, taught English to survive, eventually was selected from the slush pile in 1982- only to see that temporary success wither away - and still he kept on writing. He got John Carey, a prestigious name, to write a foreword to a reisssue of 'Wish Her Safe at Home'. No publisher would touch it. So he set up his own imprint and went on to sell 4,000 copies himself. He uses charm, a polite relentlessness, a direct engagement with potential customers who feel they've had personal attention: it works. Finally, by chance, he pushed (or rather ushered - 'pushed' is too pushy a word) a copy of 'Wish Her Safe at Home' into the hands of  a man who happened to be an editor with The New York Review of Books, who loved it. Now he's getting attention, his now-ex wife says 'I admit there were times when I thought he was wasting his time. He had the talent but not the luck. And now he's been vindicated.'

This is a story of commitment and determination, of incredible resilience in the face of knock-backs. But more than any of that, it's a story of faith. Stephen Benatar believes and has always believed in the worth of what he writes. It's a quiet, prolonged self-belief, quite detached, it seems, from the influence of the opinions of others. He does not care about the success of other writers. He does not care about being 'recognised in the streets.' He does it because he has something to say and he wants people to hear it: he does not want to go into that good night where all are silenced without a fight: 'My greatest fear is that my life's work will just vanish.'

This is a story about modern publishing, about self-publishing and marketing, about happenstance and fate. It's about how writers want to leave their footprints in the sand. It tells us it's never too late, if we are true to the contract with ourselves. As Landesman says at the end of the article, 'don't let your dream die. One day it might just come true.'

Let's all hang onto that thought.


Karen said...

I love the new look - that shade of green is my favourite colour!

What an inspiring story about Stephen Benatar, I wish him well. I doubt many people would go to those lengths, but it shows his level of self-belief and commitment. Fantastic.

Sounds like you've got your hands full - good luck with A-levels and Fictionfire :o)

Anita Mathias said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anita Mathias said...

Self-publishing has many advantages--the ability to say exactly what you want to say, among them. Given that most of us spend more time on our laptops than with a book (writers included?) web 2.0, blogging (with a view to publishing the best posts), and self-publishing are probably effective means to gain a far wider readership than the medium of print.

Lorna F said...

Karen - glad you like the new look! Thanks for your good wishes - I really enjoy running my courses, meeting such interesting people.

Anita - absolutely. When I started this blog, it was that freedom to have instant unmediated publication that appealed so much to me and has been so rewarding. The author has the chance of having so much more autonomy these days. I think many people find it a bit unnerving but once you're into it it's wonderful - albeit terribly addictive!