Receiving the new beautiful book cover for Changing the Subject, out October 31st, deal or no deal, pre-order it here, designed by Alex Cameron while hearing a bit of a Bob Dylan song on Radio Four has made me realise how much times have indeed a-chang-ed. I have also been reading a few online bits and pieces about how having a proper publisher can improve a writer’s work, which makes me re-evaluate some of my childhood memories.
I am old, and my parents, who are/were proper writers, are even older, being born during World-War-Two. Are/were? Not paperless but still paper-full, my mum had her final edits laid out ready on a table when she died suddenly. My dad is in his 70s and still going strong.
I never wanted to be a writer. A writer’s life, even for fairly successful ones like my parents, was not always a happy one. Added to not knowing where the next cheque was coming from, or how much it would be, people in the trade did seem to spend a lot of time bitching about writers, agents, editors, publishers and distributors. Not my parents obviously, they are/were paragons of virtue at all times.
There were snipes in the ear of what we might now call ‘influencers’, nasty gossip, letters back and forth in the newspapers, and bad reviews just to spite. My dad hit someone in the face with a fish once, I don’t know why exactly but he was undoubtedly entirely justified. I didn’t know a more acrimonious bunch of people until I started to hang out with academics; academics are worse than writers. Having an idea and writing it down is not that hard and in those days, writers of all sorts were effectively in competition with one another.
It’s hard to remember or imagine but there was a time when the UK publishing industry did not produce 20 books an hour. When my parents started out it was more like 10 or 20 a month. And those lucky 20 had to get past a small number of what we now call gatekeepers; the doyennes of what was good and what would sell for what was a very high price by today’s standards. When I hear the word gatekeeper I can’t help thinking of a bouncer in a bomber jacket outside a well-fortified nightclub and he is saying ‘you’re not on the list you’re getting in’. But the gatekeepers of old did not wear bomber jackets, bomber jackets are too low class for that. And they were competing too, to get the few gatekeeping jobs that existed at the time.
Snobbery was rife. Most of the people involved in writing, editing, publishing, reviewing and distributing books were solidly middle-class. Not just a bit middle-class like my parents. They kind of snuck in via magazine publishing and making the most of what we can now see was a short social mobility blip after The War. The gatekeepers were proper middle-class; privately schooled, Oxbridge educated, mainly chaps and white.
And my parents, who weren’t proper middle-class, were also ‘popular’ and ‘commercial’. ‘Popular’ and ‘commercial’ for a lot of these gatekeepers meant ‘not very good writer’. Think Paperback Writer by the Beatles (or look it up on Spotify so I don’t have to learn yet another new trick only to get done for copyright). Unless books were cheap reprints of old classics, it appeared that they weren’t supposed to sell in any great quantity. I got the impression that quite a few of what we now call gatekeepers felt they were protecting perhaps a few thousand people with sufficient taste to read good books. It was assumed that the majority of people could only handle shlock. That wasn’t a very nice way to look at most people. Also, in retrospect; now that the small publishers have been swallowed whole by multi-nationals, it was not the best business model.
My parents weren’t just popular, when I was very small, they mainly wrote Science Fiction. Science Fiction is vaguely acceptable now but it is still not seen as being as good as the ‘literary fiction’, that respectable genre that no-one seems able to define. The reading landscape may have changed to the point where it looks like another planet altogether, but the maps still say ‘Here Be Dragons’ in places. The label Science Fiction Writer can still be used as a put down.
But the times they were a changing and so, even if some of the gatekeepers weren’t particularly happy about it, my parents did well from proper publishing. No-one ever called them ‘respected’ or anything, but we ate well, had lots of toys and went on interesting holidays.
This was partly thanks to something called The Net Book Agreement, price fixing for books that was something to do with the aforementioned War. Anyway, it artificially kept the price of books, even paperbacks, at a level that could sustain the infamous publisher’s lunches, from which excesses it was usually necessary to get a taxi home, as well as keep a relatively small number of writers’ children in good shoes (blue, red or brown, but that’s another story).
The Net Book Agreement was abolished in the 1980s and readers got Waterstones; the Tescos of bookshops, stacking them high and selling them cheap. I like Tescos, I get good quality, reasonably priced groceries and the boy on the unwieldy bike has been replaced by a grown up in a van; great. And before Amazon I used to get a lot of three for two deals in Waterstones, still do occasionally.
Mum and Dad didn’t spend much time talking about writing, they were too busy either doing it or dealing with malice. But I do remember quite a bit of talk about publishers. In the olden days. A writer who had a proper deal with a proper publisher, because that was the only kind, would submit their book and start on the next one. They did not have to concern themselves with cover design, book blurbs, publicity or distribution
The publisher or editor, publishers had editors on their payroll back then, would get in touch soon after. There were publishers and editors who empathised with the writer and truly helped them produce a better book. There also weren’t. Through what was supposed to be an emolliating spiel they would convey which changes were required. And because publishers were ‘gatekeepers’, a writer had do quite a bit of emolliating themselves.
Even though none of her children expressed any interest in living like she did, I can remember my mum telling me, ‘draw the line at changing the end’, anything else; characters, plot lines or themes, were up for negotiation apparently. The publishers had access to reviewers, publicity budgets and distribution and therefore a lot of power.
A few months after this less than pleasant process my mum would open a jiffy bag sent by her proper publisher and reel back in revulsion. Phone calls, letters and sometimes meetings would ensue and nothing about her book cover would change.
For me, the process has been entirely different. Yes, I have to use up valuable reading and writing time on book covers, blurbs, publicity and distribution, I am even a bit of a printer, having to format my manuscript into the correct size etc. And yes, I don’t know other writers, or know people who know people, who might review my book,
(If you want to read a little bit of how writers and publishers friends were important in the ‘gatekeeping’ process, see A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, available through my website page: books Kate loves, where you can also find my mum and dad.)
But that also means that no, I don’t have to be nice to people simply because they have power, my future success does not depend on who I went to college with or how acceptably opinionated or witty I am at a dinner party. And I can be as controversial, that is disagree with the gatekeepers, as much as I like. I can be me all the time.
And the times they are a changing again, I can rely on other independent publishers; individuals and small publishing ‘houses’ who, on the internet, support, critique and encourage others like themselves. I was recently accepted into a Facebook group called Book Connectors; a group of just such people, some of whom took time to help me entirely re-write my book blurb, so that it is now actually comprehensible. I do not know these people, they don’t know me, but we have a common goal. We are not all vying with each other over publishers or distributors with limited shelf space. We don’t have to be nasty to each other: we have Amazon.
Which brings me to WH Smiths. Before Waterstones came along, and after for a while, WH Smiths used to be the biggest book seller in the UK. If you didn’t get into WH Smiths, you just didn’t sell enough books to feed your very greedy children. If a book was not in WH Smiths, a reader had to have heard of it and go to a small bookshop, find it, or order it and wait for a phone-call or keep popping in to see if it had come in yet. Ours was called Mandarin Books, a block from WH Smiths. They were very nice and then a Waterstones opened up opposite.
WH Smiths did not like what they called smut or anything too ‘controversial’. My dad had problems with WH Smiths a couple of times that I can remember. I think I recall friends going into WH Smiths and ‘ordering’ copies of dad’s books to try and get over a couple of his titles being, not banned, simply not stocked by them.
Amazon does not have time for judging content, it is too busy selling books, lots and lots of books. Or giving them away for free and still paying the writers a percentage, how I do not know. Unless you say anything illegal you can write and publish what you like.
And this is another thing I like about self-publishing; I am not really in competition with other writers and we don’t need to master the art of the vicious letter or review. We can help each other. It's not just that Amazon is the biggest book seller now, big has grown to huge, with hundreds of titles published from all sorts of sources every day.
Then there’s book bloggers, people who have taken their own time to make a website and read and review books for the pleasure of it. Book Connectors has lots of members who are book bloggers and, from what I’ve seen so far, they appear to be as supportive and encouraging of new talent as the writers and/or publishers that are there.
In order for me to sell books on Amazon; readers or reading bloggers have to read them, like them and write a review. Readers are increasingly the gatekeepers now. Yes, Amazon promotes its own titles most, but its aim is to sell in staggering volume. Printing costs are low and ‘on demand’ and if readers like a book then they are happy to put it near the top of their very long list.
But what about the old gatekeepers? They’re still here. The proper, multi-national conglomerate, publishers? What about the print media reviewers, with, often justified, reputations for taste and discernment? Small independent book shops, that most of us love to browse through to get reading ideas, where do they fit in? Do we, as readers or writers, need any of them anymore? Will we be drawn to reading and writing shlock or pap if they are not there to guide us? Can the daughter of parents who filled our flat with brilliant books, and whose friends have led her to some wonderful stories, afford to be complacent about the need for the old sort of expertise? Time to shrug my shoulders and make that sound like a B movie version of Frankenstein’s monster saying ‘I don’t know’.
I do sense from some of the online articles I have read, whose tone can be defensive, even fearful, that there are many people whose incomes or status rely on being gatekeepers, or gatekeepers friends, and that they can be quite acerbic in their attempts to convince us that they are still necessary. And, if not them personally, then their trade does have form.
I am reminded of some research I did for Changing the Subject, out on October 31st, deal or no deal (it has a lovely cover over which I had control over by the way), into art criticism. Don’t worry; art criticism is woven into a couple of paragraphs and hopefully you won’t see the stitching. Anyway, apparently High Art, you know; things and people looking like things and people, form and colour and the golden mien and whatnot, is viewed increasingly as a subculture. It’s still thriving, with lots of customers, many of them wealthy, but high art is no longer the one dominant ‘way of seeing’, so to speak. Is that the way that the book trade is going?
I’m not sure the proper book gatekeepers would like that parallel, a lot of them seem very keen on the new ways of seeing art, so am I sometimes, but you get my drift? In the ever-expanding book universe, is there room for all sorts? In the digital and cheap printing age can we accommodate different ways of reading and writing? For now at least, there appears to be plenty of status for those that want it and lots of money to go round.
Self-publishing Changing the Subject, out on October 31st, deal or no deal, won’t tell me the answer to these questions. I am also an agent and I am going to schlepp my story to every print reviewer and blogger I can find online, thereby contaminating the experiment. But I’ve got two years before I will need a proper job again and am giving it my best shot.
And if I don’t sell? It won’t be because my book’s no good. It will not be due to the relatively recent discovery that most readers have actually got pretty good discernment skills. I will not have only myself to blame. It will be entirely down to the proper bitchy gatekeepers, who still wield untold power, and their complete lack of taste.