I’ve spent most of lockdown locked down with IT. Which has little to do with writing, but a lot to do with books.
The priority was getting Joe Faber and the Optimists out, first as an eBook, and soon in paperback. The last few days were the worst, spent troubleshooting and tracking down missing but essential information that the tech giants don’t see the need to tell you. It was like fighting Grendel’s mother whilst doing a cryptic crossword, but I wasn’t going to be beaten. By the time we finally uploaded, last Friday night, the wail went up, ‘Why on earth am I doing this?’ After two seconds of intensely satisfying self-pity, I remembered.
- I have to get this story out there.
- A lot of my readers like paperbacks.
- Nobody else is going to do it for me.
- And even if they did, I’d still have to market it.
As an independent author, you can take as much control as you like, which suits a serial obsessive like me. I want to be the one who dictates where to compromise, when faced with commercial and technical constraints. I decide the look of chapter titles, running heads and page numbers. I get to choose the cover and to control the metadata. There’s plenty of opportunity for error, but they’re my errors to make. Hands up anyone who’s ever bought a book from a big publishing house which has been scrappily edited.
Truism: it has never been easier to publish a book than it is today, which means it’s easy to do it quickly and rather badly. If you care about the product, though, there are decent people out there who will help you with any of the editorial or technical aspects. I rely on a skilled graphic designer for my covers. The technology to go DIY is there, both for a cover and even for the book interior with all that faff about margins and print areas. I’d spent hours painstakingly designing and setting my text before I noticed that IngramSpark now have a book building tool for your print book which takes all the stress of measurements out of the equation. (Nerd that I am, I didn’t use it because I had a feeling there’d be things I couldn’t tweak.) If your target readership is family and friends, marketing considerations simply don’t apply – you just want something that looks like a book, with a cover you like. The most amateur watercolourist in the world puts a frame round their paintings, and nowadays it’s just as natural to put your writing between covers. I’m trying to promote literary fiction, though, so I have to take the whole process more seriously than that.
The physical production of a book holds a romantic allure for many writers. A John Bull printing set first captured my imagination as a child. In the sixth form, the boys’ school had a print shop with a couple of Arab presses (patented 1872), where I learnt to set moveable type, right to left and upside down, minding my p’s and q’s – not to mention b’s and d’s. The scent of printers’ ink, metal, oil and coffee is unforgettable, unmistakeable, and to me intoxicating. Another heady experience, more recently, was a visit to IngramSpark in Milton Keynes; we had to sign their own official secrets act, so I’ve no photos to share. Suffice to say, their technology is unbelievably wizzy, with books of different sizes and shapes and in different quantities all trundling through the production process together. A thing of joy, if more prosaic than letterpress in terms of aroma.
Well, the world might still have had Canterbury Tales without Caxton, but it certainly wouldn’t have Joe Faber without the eBook and Print on Demand.
Books can be very desirable objects. Take for example Nigel Slater’s Tender, a great favourite of mine in 2 luscious volumes. Nothing is more pleasing to view, hold, read and use. Colour, texture, weight; content, fonts, photographic prints and every aspect of interior design form the perfect container for an accomplished piece of writing which is very much more than a cook book. But I write fiction. It’s mostly in your head. Give me cream paper and a margin and I’m happy. I’m not producing coffee table books, or demonstrating what something ought to look like, or trying to make any statement other than read this. I may dream of a crafted letterpress edition of Joe, but it can’t be and it isn’t the point. More than anything else I want lots of people to meet Joe Faber and love him, and view the world somewhat differently for having known him. A paperback makes that easy. An eBook invites another set of readers, which includes not only commuters and phone-addicts, but also people like my husband who finds a tablet easier to hold than a physical book, or my mum whose eyesight is poor, and who read Joe on her laptop.
It is surprising how far you can get with fairly simple tools. Microsoft Word can do a lot more than most of us ever ask it to. It’s four years since I uploaded my first novel; in that time, every platform has become easier to use, and there is just so much more technology to help an author. And whereas software used to be designed for administrators, apps are now designed for children. It’s worth persevering. Most people are happy to share what skills they have, aren’t they? Same goes for IT. Ask a friend to show you the basics, and decide what skills you’re ready to acquire for yourself. (But don’t ask them to do the job for you. Remember where this blog post started? Designing your book thoughtfully is more than an afternoon’s work.)
Novelists are curious about the world. They like to know how things and people work, and find other people’s lives more interesting than their own. They are willing to disappear down rabbit holes, writing, discovering, worrying about the connections between ideas and characters and places and events and paragraphs. If I didn’t enjoy puzzles and that dizzying feeling of endlessly commuting between detail and big picture, I wouldn’t be a novelist – or I’d be a very two-dimensional one. So the hands-on business of producing an edition is maybe just another of these rabbit holes. As an indie, I’m able to indulge my inner nerd.
There’s one thing that’s very difficult to do well independently, and that’s to write.
After decades of solipsism, this was a revelation to me. Finding a class or a writing group, sharing hearing other people’s work and reading your own out, is the single most liberating thing you can do. It makes your endeavour real, and makes your work real too. As a writer you may be the world’s greatest authority on your own intention – but you’re a complete klutz when it comes to the output. Only a real live reader will laugh or snigger or weep, which may or may not be in the place you wanted or expected them to. Only other people can tell you what you’re actually doing.
So to anybody who’s embarking on this widely held ambition of holding their own book in their hands: start by finding other writers. Enrol on a course. Real people are best, but there are online communities too. Start where you are and work outwards.
The nitty-gritty of producing a book …
IngramSpark Academy offers free online courses which will help you scope out the task ahead.
The Alliance of Independent Authors has an outreach service which provides self-publishing advice. If you are serious about publishing as an independent author, ALLi is well worth the subscription. The member site offers a useful directory of approved services, sometimes with worthwhile discounts.
Whatever stage you’re at Jericho Writers provides a supportive community plus shedloads of advice on writing, producing and selling books. You don’t have to be a member to subscribe to Harry Bingham’s weekly newsletter, which has been a good friend to me.