A time-slip story. It is 1962 and in a studios in London a band are auditioning for Decca records. It is The Beatles, a combo popular in Liverpool and in Hamburg but unknown nearly everywhere else (though bizarrely, they have just done a one off gig in Stroud). This audition does not go well. The band are disconsolate until somebody (probably Paul - it would be Paul) says 'Never mind, guys. Let's put it out ourselves.'
And so they do. Because this is my story and not a true story, my version of the 1962 Beatles are able to convene around a lap-top in Paul's bedroom and record their first album. No George Martin producing and with Pete Best on drums. It's a more or less faithful rendition of their live set, only not as good because they don't yet know much about capturing sound in the studio. Also Pete Best is very, ah, limited as a drummer so the time-keeping is erratic.
But the album comes out, their friends and family all love it. Fans buy it at gigs and it sits there in this strange 1960s internet I've just invented, available to everyone to download at will. Which is a shame, because all four members of the Beatles will have cause to regret rushing out their first album. A producer called George Martin hears it and decides he'll pass on what sounds to him like just another rough and ready beat group. Eventually Paul gets a day job in PR, George goes back to the electricians apprenticeship. Pete gets that civil service post working in a Liverpool job centre, where he regularly sees John. Because John is actually unemployable and so is always in the Job Centre.
And now back in the real world... the thing is, the Beatles needed rejection in order to get good. It was as vital to their development as the hours spent playing to drunken sailors as the warm up acts for the strippers in Hamburg. And even when they were ready for greatness they needed the special midwifery of a producer, plus the distribution of EMI, the PR guy, Brian Epstein.They needed a team of people that loved them, would fight for them and would also challenge them. They needed talent yes, but they also needed resilience.
Knock-backs are part of the process. Who was it said 'if you don't get rejections, it just means you're not trying hard enough'. Someone smart anyway.
We, of course are unluckier than the Beatles. We are unlucky because we live in a place where it is possible to have a rejection free artistic life. Because it's emphatically not a good thing. Musicians, writers, we can - if the knockbacks get too bruising - just stick our stuff out there. We can skip the whole tedious business of rewriting, reworking, redrafting, reshaping, arguing about plot decisions and character. We don't need agents or editors. we don't even need copy-editors - who wants to argue about commas, when they could be having fun, fun, fun. We can do it all ourselves and put it up on the internet and sell our work for 10p. Because anyway what is the point of trying to get published the old-fashioned way, everyone knows the traditional publishers only want nubile women or their mates from Oxbridge don't they?
Well, no. The rest of us, can with talent, luck and perseverance can still get proper deals. And I say that as a balding, greying middle-aged man living in the North who only ever went to Cambridge to see my dad, who was a porter in one of the colleges there.
Publishers often get it wrong. Maybe they even usually get it wrong, but at least you know the gateway was tough to get through. For a book to arrive in a bookshop it has been pretty thoroughly road-tested and interrogated. As a reader I find that comforting, even if it's annoying as a writer.
And if your book is too edgy for the mainstream? Well, there are dozens of eager indies putting out good stuff. And making a success of it. Sandstone, And Other Stories, Cargo, Bluemoose, Peepal Tree, Tindal Street, Cinnamon... and those just the ones I've thought of off the top of my head this second. And they accept unagented manuscripts too.
And the other thing that puts me off self-publishing? It's the zealots who advocate it. They are so angry. It's like publishing is a girl who inexplicably rejects their advances while blatantly flirting with some less worthy bloke from down the road. She likes someone else. Get over it. Maybe she'll see your worth another day after the pointless affair with the lesser writer burns itself out.
And it's not like the self publishing ebook authors are at the vanguard of some youthful revolution, because you know who really values the printed artefact? Young people that's who. In a world where anything can be 'published' on the net, then it has no real value. But if someone has invested time and money in making a real Thing, and then that Thing is transported from printers, to warehouse, to shop. Where people have browsed and chosen your Thing over all the other shiny Things they could buy. Well, that is really worth something...
So if you're considering self-publishing on the internet or anywhere else I would say wait. Ask yourself if you are really a skilled enough editor, copy-editor, publicist, designer and marketeer to do it all yourself. And even if the answer to those questions is yes. Then still wait, because maybe you are The Beatles in early 1962. Maybe you are just not quite ready. You need to get rid of the inner Pete Best that is holding you back. And you need to find your George Martin. Of course you can BUY the services of editors, designers, marketeers etc but actually that's my other big beef with the self-publishing industry...
Self-publishing, indie publishing whatever you call it, is one of those things that sounds democratic but is actually anything but. Is the opposite of that. It sounds like it is one of those games anyone can play but actually the indie authors who are most visible are generally the ones with the deepest pockets. If you're skint how will you afford all the help you need to publish properly? If indie publishing were ever to become the norm (and it won't) then how will the marginalised voices ever find a way to be heard?