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The Writers’ & Artists’ Guide to Getting Published By Harry Bingham This is an extract taken from Getting Published (A&C Black, £14.99). The complete text is available to buy from Amazon or can be purchased through the Bloomsbury website. Harry Bingham is MD of The Writers’ Workshop. A Guide to Self-Publishing: Snakes While on the subject of ethics, let’s deal with a few other snakes in the woodpile. Perhaps you’ve sent your book off to a publisher which advertised itself on the internet or in the classifieds somewhere. As far as you’re aware, the publisher is just a publisher. It’s not calling itself a self-publishing outfit, still less a vanity publisher. Then you get a letter back that praises your work in no uncertain terms. An editor – and perhaps a reader too – have read your work. They love your sensitivity. They think your story is terrific. They’d love to take you on. The cost of their services will be anything up to £12,000. You’ll sign a contract and be entitled to royalties in the regular way. It’s a gamble, but you’re tempted. Don’t be. I once received an enquiry from a woman who was dying of cancer. She had written eight poems. They weren’t, to be candid, very good poems, but they were from the heart and they were perhaps the most important creative act of this woman’s life. They deserved to be cherished for that reason alone. She had sent her work off to a publisher and got back a letter precisely as described. The author of that letter commented that he had been particularly moved by this woman’s poems, because he had been very sick himself once. He said that the market for poetry was tough, but that there could well be strong demand in the UK, America and Australasia. This woman, who was not rich, was being asked for £8,000. She was flattered by the praise and tempted by the proposition. The truth is that everything about that letter was deceitful. You can’t plausibly publish a poetry collection of eight rather short poems. A poetry collection needs to be as much as ten times longer than that. What’s more, even the very best debut collection is unlikely to sell more than a few hundred copies. The market for poetry is almost vanishingly small, and this woman’s poems weren’t remotely right for whatever market does exist. The simple, nasty truth is that somebody consciously sought to deceive a dying woman out of £8,000. The deceit might technically have been lawful, but most muggers have superior ethics. The company was loathsome and it’s still in business today. The company probably sends out a letter like that several times a week – and, if you happen to be the recipient of one such letter, then tear it up, throw it away and give it not another thought. These people will say anything to get their hands on your money. You can’t trust a single word they say. Let’s also deal with the claim, made rather widely by some outfits which should know better, that your book will be available through over 25,000 stores worldwide. If that were true, then I should be suing my agent and publisher, because no book of mine has ever been available in 25,000 stores worldwide or anything like it. Indeed, if the second half of this book has taught any thing, it’s that achieving a decent retail platform is a vital, plaguesome and uncertain business that challenges even the biggest and best publishers in the world. So what does that claim actually mean? It means, it turns out, that your book will have an ISBN number. That means that any customer armed with your ISBN number can go into any bookstore anywhere in the world and order your book. Indeed, they can go to any computer in the world and, if the machine is plugged into the internet, they can order your book online, thereby making your book ‘available’ through about 500 million more outlets besides. The trouble is that counting outlets in this way is meaningless. When was the last time you bought a book by marching up to a desk in a bookstore and giving them an ISBN number? That’s not how books are bought. In any case, the challenge is to get the ISBN number into the punter’s hand and the desire to make a purchase into his head in the first place. That’s the hard bit; the physical delivery bit is and always has been child’s play. Which brings us to another dodgy assertion: namely that Amazon has changed everything. It’s levelled the playing field. It makes your book as accessible as anyone else’s. Not true, not true and not true. First of all, an overwhelming majority of books are still bought through bricks-and-mortar outlets: bookshops, supermarkets, gift shops and the like. Amazon and its peers have taken a big bite out of the market, but it sells many fewer books than the supermarkets do. The bookshops proper are bigger again. What’s more, no one goes on to Amazon and just types a random author’s name into the search engine. They either type the name of an author they’ve heard of and like (Dan Brown, J. K, Rowling or whatever) or they type a subject-related search term (‘Getting Published’, ‘Amateur Fishkeeping’, ‘Simple Bombmaking’, or what have you). Amazon is good at selling books of these sorts. It is lousy at selling books with unknown titles by unknown authors. The fallout Unsurprisingly, countless writers are caught out by what are – in my opinion – nothing more than scams that happen not to be illegal, by gross deceit that manages to teeter on just the right side of the law. It’s easy to see how all this happens. Real agents and publishers don’t advertise, because they don’t need to. They just make sure that they’re listed in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and the rest will take care of itself. Consequently, when people who know nothing about the industry go to the internet to research it, they are rapidly exposed to a plethora of advertisements from a collection of self-publishing firms. These firms have almost nothing to do with the regular publishing industry that chunters away signing up authors, printing books, getting them into bookshops and making sales – but there’s precious little information available to tell people that. So writers make ordinary, businesslike contact with what appear to be ordinary, businesslike companies. They believe what they’re told. They make their decisions, sign their cheques, hand over their manuscripts and trust to the future. [Section continues in the print edition]
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