When I decide to do something in life – start a diet, work abroad, write a novel, learn a language, take up a new hobby – the first thing I normally do is buy a book that tells me how to. This is why I’ve a vast collection of How To Write Books Books and why I spent much of May 1998 studying things like newsgroups and Yahoo! chat rooms in the pages of The Internet for Dummies; the arrival of our first PC and home internet connection loomed and I wanted to get a head start on how to use it.
Oddly, when it came to self-publishing Mousetrapped, I didn’t read any How To books. This was partly because I was trying to keep costs to a minimum, and partly because a wealth of information on the subject is available online, for free. I also struggled to find titles that didn’t read like self-publishing propaganda. (If I never see the word ‘gatekeepers’ again, that’s fine with me.) But now that the job is done and I’ve reached an impasse on the promotional front (anyone got any ideas? ‘Cause I’m all out!), I figured I’d order up a few, read them and see what I could glean. I was particularly interested to know if I’d have benefited from them before I went ahead, or if the free online information sprinkled with a light dusting of common sense did just as well. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the ones I did read, starting today with The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter (Para Publishing, 16th Edition 2007).
Enter ‘self-publishing’ into Amazon.com’s pretty little search box, and The Self-Publishing Manual will probably be the top title in the returned results. At time of writing the book has 278 reviews; 240 of them are five stars while another 20 offer four. It’s tagline is ‘the book that launched a million+ books’ and Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul – one of the most successful self-published books in recent memory – credits Poynter for its astronomical sales, calling him one of the ‘essential ingredients.’ On the back cover is an endorsement from Dr. Robert Muller, ‘Past Assistant Secretary General of the UN’ (and therefore self-publishing expert…? I’m confused) and in more than one place in the book Poynter is referred to as ‘the father of self-publishing.’
Understandably, I was expecting big things.
I felt my first tremor of annoyance on page 14, where a helpful ‘tip box’ informed me that, “a common observation by those who use a highlighter to indicate the important parts of The Self-Publishing Manual is that their copy winds up being completely yellow”. I don’t like it when non-fiction authors tell me not to skip chapters (“Even if you’re already happy, DON’T skip Chapter 3: Discover a New, Happier You Now, Today!”) and this warning against highlighting made me feel the same way. I got annoyed for the second time on page 15 when, in the second of two glowing author bios (both written, presumably, by the author himself), the reader is informed that Poynter’s books have been ‘translated into Spanish, Japanese, British-English, Russian, German and others.’ Well I, for one, am really happy they took the time to translate it into British-English, because I can never understand what those damn Americans are on about. It’s a shame we don’t speak the exact same language. It also claims that Poynter’s mission is to ‘see that people do not die with their books still inside of them’, which, to me, sounds morbid and icky, as if the book is a diseased organ that must be removed at all costs.
But maybe I’m just easily annoyed, and after all, I hadn’t even started the book proper. I read on, but soon came across these nuggets that made me take my pencil and write ‘WTF??!!’ in the margin (literally):
- ‘Writing a book is probably easier than you think… If you can say it, you can write it.’ (page 20)
- ‘Be careful if you hang around with people from the traditional book industry. Learn, but don’t let their ways rub off. Study the big New York publishing firms, but don’t copy them. You can do a lot better.’ (page 31)
- ‘Professionals sell then write, while amateurs write then sell’ – [a quote from Gordon Burgett] (page 33)
- ‘According to Literary Market Place, about 40% of agents will not read manuscripts by unpublished authors… of those who will… 80% will charge for the service.’ (page 36)
- (my favorite) ‘If the large publishers are doing so well, why do they require authors to send return postage with their submitted manuscripts?’ (page 80).
Oh boy, oh boy.
Then in a paragraph listing ‘well-known self-publishers’ the names John Grisham, Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard were included. Anyone who has read his brilliant writing memoir On Writing will know that King didn’t follow a path of self-publishing to success, and that Grisham self-published is one of the most prolific urban publishing legends floating around today, but it ain’t so, and –
L. Ron Hubbard?
By this stage I wanted to stop reading, but the £10 I spent on the book, this post and the guilt-inducing photo of Poynter as a smiling, kindly, grandfather-type pushed me onwards into the book’s sections about promotion, distribution and advertising. These were the topics I was genuinely interested in, the ones that were likely to be of use to me, and so there was a greater chance I’d find something beneficial in there. But instead, I found gems like, ‘If selling books through bookstores was good business, the bookstores might be paying their bills’ (page 295), ‘at Para Publishing, we tolerate, but do not pursue, bookstores’ (page 310) and – quite possibly my favorite psycho quote from the entire book – ‘try to submit to an agent or a publisher and you will be dead before you hear back’ (page 352).
The Self-Publishing Manual is filled with useful, detailed and comprehensive information ideally suited to a writer based in the U.S. who is looking to self-publish in the strictest sense of the term, i.e. establish their own publishing company and produce a print run of their own book. It is laid out clearly and is, I’m sure, a great go-to reference to have to hand.
Unfortunately it is also propaganda for that god awful Self-Publishers Against Fat Cat Big Publishers and The Agents They’re Clearly in Bed With Unite movement, the self-publishing evangelists who claim that in ten year’s time only the likes of Dan Brown, James Patterson and [insert topical celebrity here] will be getting published, the ones who could paper their walls with rejection letters and yet think the problem isn’t with them but the gatekeepers’ (read: agents’) failure to recognize their talent, the ones who spend their mornings working on their 350,000-word opus, Things That Happen in Space During a Bleak Period in the Future, and their afternoons chiseling away at a tombstone engraved with the words ‘The Novel.’
As you’ll already know if you read my blog, I’m not one of them, and therefore I can’t recommend this book.
I can make a perfect latte in my kitchen with my (over-priced!) Nespresso machine, but last time I checked Starbucks were still in business. Moreover, I’m not marching through the streets screaming, ‘Death to the coffee shop!’ or blogging about how the baristas are only saying that my Nespresso lattes aren’t as good as the ones they make because they don’t want to face up to the fact that the writing’s on the wall and their days are numbered and who cares because they’re all in bed with the coffee roasters and are only motivated by money, blah, blah, gatekeepers, blah, BLAH.
There’s room for self-publishing in this world, but it’s not the death knell of the traditional model and it won’t be taking its place. Why we all can’t just simmer down, admit that and get on with it is just beyond me.
Now I’m off to consider writing the sequel to my Sane Person’s Guide to Walt Disney World, The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing: How To Self-Publish Your Book Without Proclaiming Death to the Traditional Publishing Industry, Saying “Gatekeepers” Every Other Sentence and Generally Coming Across as a Paranoid Loser.
I think it has best-seller written all over it – don’t you?