Those Who Wait
Essay: Original version published in Eastlit, October 2013
“Patience (n): A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” – Ambrose Bierce
There are a great number of articles, books, podcasts and videos out there on how to write, or how not to write, or what to write, or when to write, or whatever. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is useful and what is landfill, partly because it’s different for everyone. It’s easy to dismiss the whole damn genre with a “sit down and write, damn you”, but being forearmed against pitfalls can save a lot of time, effort and stress; honest stories about similar experiences often relieve anxiety and may even counter feelings of imposter syndrome. This is especially true for those of us who once imagined that writing was a sensible career option.
Over the months and, chronology willing, years ahead I will add my jar of tuppences to this stack. Here, at the beginning of all things, I'd like to resurrect and update an editorial I wrote for Eastlit in October 2013 about patience, self-publishing and the democratisation of writing. It began with this couched declaration:
I think the single most important aspect of being a writer is patience.
The first novel I wrote, Sometimes Sleep, was awful. Really bad. At the time, of course, I thought it was great. I was chuffed. A novel is a marathon and, as anyone who has run a marathon will tell you: "I've run a marathon!" I showed it to everyone who would stand still long enough, and the response was universal.
Writers tend to react to criticism in two ways. Firstly, there's the "Yes, you’re right, this is bad. Who was I kidding? Turns out my imposter syndrome was bang on the money." Alternatively, there's the, "Who are you to judge me? I’m an artist! Screw you! I'm the Beatles and you're Decca!" I vacillated between the two, still at that time unable to tell the difference between quality and perseverance; publishers and agents were united in their opposition. In the face of such unwavering distaste, I stuck the manuscript in a drawer and started novel two.
Dog Mountain was an improvement, but still nowhere near the target. I now had two marathons under my belt and not a single medal to show for it. This is where despair set in; the pain barrier. You've got to run through that. I wrote novel three, First Time Solo.
It was painful to discard those manuscripts. As with all training, though, it wasn't in vain. It was leading somewhere, the road dark and winding. I thought maybe I was doomed, forever running in circles. I kept lacing my shoes, pounding the pavements.
I didn't have any other choice. Back then, self-publishing wasn't a thing and all of this was fields. I was so damn invested that I just had to see the traditional route through to the finish line.
Between then and now came a revolution.
The barricades were quick to erect. On the parapets, keys to the armoury clasped firmly in one hand, keys to the gates in the other, were the establishment. Publishing houses with their editors, marketing departments, distribution networks, close relationships with media, and booksellers. At the gates with halberds and stern faces, the agents.
Taking to the streets with banners, bricks and fiery cocktails were the self-publishers, a Kindle strapped to their bandoliers, shouting:
What do we want?
To be read!
When do we want it?
The democratisation of literature. As with all revolutions, each side had its hardline adherents. Most writers, however, found themselves like Buridan’s Ass, unsure which way to turn.
Mainstream publishing comes with a support network. Once you get beyond the gatekeepers and sign a contract with a publisher and deliver a manuscript, your responsibility is largely over. The marketing, distribution, and legal issues, all are done for you. You are on the inside and all that bureaucracy that used to so infuriate is hard at work getting glowing reviews, primacy in shop windows and podcast interviews. Very tempting. With self-publishing, all of those people are you. Don’t even think about getting to work on the follow up, you’ve got a month’s worth of Tweets to schedule.
Then there’s the money. The simple truth is writers do not get rich through writing. Apart from a highly elite group, most writers are never able to give up the day job. Once the publisher, the agent and the bookseller have taken their cut, there’s not a whole lot left to keep us in wine and therapy. With self-publishing, these fingers get nowhere near the pie: Amazon take 30%, the rest is yours. Also tempting.
For me, the biggest concern about self-publishing isn’t one of effort or finance, it’s one of quality. Yes, there are some great writers out there whose books have been denied an audience because they are long or difficult or obscure (the books, not the audience), writers set free by technology, but these are a minority. The vast majority of self-published novels on Amazon’s list are badly written, unedited, unproofed and often unreadable. Publishers refused to touch them not through meanness of spirit, but because they are bad books.
A thought experiment to illustrate my fears of self-publishing: Rejig the timeline so I finish my first novel in 2014. This time, rather than sticking it in a drawer, I have a second option. I load the novel onto Amazon and start selling.
A few friends buy it, some family members. They read it and hate it, but maybe through loyalty they give it a quick five star review. So now people I don’t know pick it up and read it. They too find it bad and, as they have no reason for loyalty, give me a bad review. Before I’ve even begun my career, my name is forever linked to a bad book. Googling my name leads to page after page of negativity.
I keep writing. I get to book three and I’ve finally written something good, something publishers are happy to look at, but it’s too late. The people who might have given me a chance have already been burnt and anyone else is going to take one glance at earlier reviews and steer well clear.
Democratisation of publishing is all very well for the reader. For the writer, it can be a curse.
That's the gist of what I wrote back in 2013. You'll note the date was slightly pre the publication of First Time Solo. It was written with the contract signed, edits underway. I was writing in the knowledge that the marathons had started paying off.
Many twists and turns lay ahead, not least First Time Solo going out of print when Freight went into liquidation but all in, it's been a pretty consistent trajectory. So why, in 2021, am I returning to a kind of self-publishing?
Honestly, I'm not sure. I still feel a bit weird about it. Perhaps that's why I'm beginning with the archives series, bringing back pieces that have already been published but are difficult to get hold of, or going for the safe seasonal fare. They've already been edited and proofread, given the seal of approval by others with a more objective eye. Perhaps it's because I trust myself more these days. As well as publishing six books, I've been commissioned countless times on the strength of my writing and have spent most of the last decade working as an editor, a job which has really honed my sense of what I want my writing to be and how to achieve that. Perhaps it's lingering impatience.
If anything, the technological revolution in publishing has led to the mainstream being even more narrow. My most recent book, Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags, wouldn't have been published by an established publisher. You have to be Don DeLillo to get a novella out these days, or you have to smuggle six of them out together under one cover (David Mitchell, I'm looking at you). It's a form bookshops and reviewers overlook, a form publishers don't like. To them it looks too much like an unfinished novel. Write the rest of it. Then come back.
Luckily Liminal Ink were around, a new small press with fewer constraints, prepared to do something less ordinary, to take a risk. But financially, small presses can't run around publishing everything and anything that doesn't fit the mainstream. I can't unload the poetry manuscripts, the unpublished novels and memoirs, the short story collections, essay collections and scripts on their desks. It would make no kind of sense for them, both financially and artistically. I can't turn Liminal Ink or any other small press into my own personal publishing house.
So, I'm left with a choice: the drawer or self-publishing.
This is where, for me, Substack comes in. One of the options I never had back in the day. Choice, politicians love telling us, people want choice. Sometimes, yes. I want to be able to do it all: publish with the mainstream, get that support, that network, that reach. I want to publish with the small presses, get that indie creativity, that feel of collaboration and doing it for the love of it all. I want to keep 70% of the money though I’d rather the remaining 30% didn’t go towards any more rockets. And I want people to read all those perfectly good stories, poems and essays that are consigned to the drawer not because of quality but because of form, or theme, or the simple realities of marketplace economics.
What is Substack? People have been asking me this as I ask them to subscribe. For me, Substack is a way to have my cake and eat it. For me to take everything I've learned over decades of being patient and use it to feed my impatience. I don't want posthumous collections of juvenilia to be published, à la Sylvia Plath, and I don't want editors rooting through my hard drive à la Douglas Adams. Nor do I want stories I think people will enjoy disappearing forever simply because people don't buy short story collections in sufficient numbers for it to be worth anyone's while printing them. Substack is a way for me to stop the wind whipping away those leaves as they fall. A carpet of leaves on the forest floor is what makes autumn so beautiful.
As with all successful revolutions, after a while a synthesis of old and new is created, the old dialectic three-step, a balance that suits most of the people most of the time. Ebooks didn't kill print, and publishing didn't fight off the insurrection. When Salman Rushdie, a figure that to me represents the last century of British mainstream publishing perhaps more than anyone, self-publishes his new novel chapter by chapter to paid subscribers, the war is over. We are in the stage of synthesis, until inevitably a new antithesis comes along and it starts all over again. Permanent revolution, as Trotsky wisely advised.
So patience is a virtue; a misery-inducing one. Patience with yourself as you develop the craft; patience with the industry, as it goes through ructions; patience with technology as it catches up with your dreams. Patience to wait until the time is right to be impatient, and for me, that time is now.