from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 15 November 2013


This time, I'm posting a guest blog, and a practical guest blog at that, for writers. Before I do, a little background: I ran my first novel-writing course in around 1998, courtesy of a far-sighted Adult Education administrator and programmer who brought me in to teach 'Writing a Novel in Twenty Weeks'.

I designed a fairly intensive and advanced-level course. I remember looking around in terror at the group of 25 unselected participants and wondering how the hell I was going to pull together a group consisting of a self-confessedly not-very-literate dockyard worker who had a tremendous imagination and needed help expressing it; a high-powered woman with a PhD in feminist studies; and two elderly men, one in a wheelchair, who'd come to write war memoirs. Another difficulty was that I was basing this course in Jung's work on myth and archetype, and the so-called Hero's Journey, but a Jewish man objected loudly every time I mentioned Jung's name or ideas because some say Jung was anti-Semitic (I don't know the truth of that but I find it extraordinarily unlikely).

Anyway, it worked, mostly (though at least three people dropped out early on); The Guardian featured it; and I went on to run many more, and out of that first group came my book Creative Novel Writing, and then later my online course, 'Storymaking'. Some of my students have had their novels published.

When I was first teaching that course, vanity publishing and self-publishing were synonymous, and definitely frowned upon. If you publish your own book, word went, no publisher will ever take you seriously thereafter, etc. And back then – my gosh, it's fifteen years ago – e-books hadn't been invented; or at least, if they had, they hadn't reached sleepy little port-town Plymouth, Devon, UK.

I'd hand out a supplement at the end of the course: 'How to Get Published'. The basic info remains the same, except that these days it's as hard to get an agent as it is a publisher; but what has changed dramatically and swiftly is the removal of the stigma attached to self-publishing, and the advent of the e-book. It's now not only one option, but very often the most sensible option (but the problem of distribution remains).

Writer Jenny Alexander offers a good blog: Writing in the House of Dreams. I thought this post on self-publishing might be of interest to some of you, and Jenny has links to other relevant sites on her blog. It's also worth heading over there at the end of reading this, as there's some useful info in the many comments below her original post. Thanks, Jenny, for permission to reblog this.


Someone in the book business recently asked me ‘What’s the point in self-publishing a book, when it won’t get any promotion without a major publisher behind it?’ For me, as a much-published author, this is the point… 
I’ve had scores of books published and worked with a dozen different publishers in the course of my writing career but I’m currently in the throes of self-publishing ‘Writing in the House of Dreams.’

Earlier in the year, my agent sent the MS out to publishers, and their feed-back was overwhelmingly positive. ‘An inspirational idea’ said one; ‘a rich feast that sets off all sorts of sparks and recognitions in the reader’ said another; ‘very readable indeed’ said a third, ‘I read it in one sitting.’

So here are the reasons they didn’t take it on (although it went to an acquisitions meeting with one publisher and another said, ‘It was close.’)

‘Too niche’, ‘Too tough for us to sell enough copies’, ‘with such a niche topic we’d struggle to get a good number of copies into shops’, ‘the sales would be too modest’,'a company the size of ours can’t make enough of a go of books on this subject as they would need to.’

One of the big changes I’ve seen since I started in this business is that where previously the decision to take on a book lay with editors, who were generally driven by a passion for reading and discovering interesting writers, now it rests firmly with marketing departments.

I first came to this realisation a few years ago when I proposed an idea for a children’s series to an editor I’d worked with, and she was blown away by it. Bursting with enthusiasm, she asked for six story outlines, then for twelve, to take to the acquisitions meeting, but the series was not taken up because she couldn’t persuade the marketing department.* When she told me how disappointed she felt I realised how tough this situation might be for editors as well as authors.

The thing to bear in mind is that marketing people will not usually have read your manuscript, so your book succeeds or fails on how well they think the concept and title will sell. A yes or no doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of your writing, but just how easily it will fit into the market.

I know ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a bit off-the-wall and ‘in many ways a brave book’ as one publisher rather unnervingly remarked, but I also feel that it’s good. I’ve worked for a reading agency and have a lot of writing experience now, and my own judgement has been backed up by the half-dozen authors, psychologists and dream-workers who have read it.

I’ve been working on it alongside my children’s books ever since I was first published; it’s my child-of-the-heart book, the secret pearl I’ve been feeding with all the writing skills and experience I’ve worked so hard to build up.

I know my book won’t appeal to millions of readers but hopefully it will appeal to some. Five years ago, no-one would ever have got to read it if no major publisher had taken it on and the MS would have stayed on my shelf forever, gathering dust. It would have felt devastating.

It’s better to have some readers than no readers at all – that is the point of self-publishing. It’s also better to carry on show-casing your work to publishers who may happen upon it on the web, rather than putting it away for several years before sending it out again.

Now that authors can be publishers too we can write our passion in the reassuring knowledge that our work may still bloom surprisingly at the edge of a difficult market like a little poppy at the edge of a big field of corn.[1]

If you’re interested in self-publishing, Nicola Morgan (who was one of my lovely readers) is doing a series of interviews with authors who have gone down that road on her blog – well worth a look



* My addendum: my first book was held up for weeks, and was very nearly binned, AFTER I'd written it to commission, because the (all-male) marketing department of Element Books, who'd commissioned it, didn't like my title: Riding the Dragon – myth and the inner journey. They wanted 'TAMING the Dragon' – because that's what you're supposed to do with dragons, if you don't kill them, no? – completely missing the point. The marketing depts these days hold all the strings...

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