Times Higher Education asked me to write about the new opportunities presented to aspiring authors by digital publishing technology. It has never been easier or cheaper to publish a book or article. Just about anyone can do it. And sometimes it feels as though just about anybody is doing it. Should we care? My answer is that books and articles are almost always better when professional editors commission and produce them. What do you think? 

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Of course, on the other side of the coin there's the infamous stories of publishers who simply fail to see amazing potential, and practically without exception the way in which great authors of our times are finding noteriety is shifting. You'd be hard pushed to find an author on a bestseller list today who didn't get turned down by a long, long list of agents and publishers before finding one to take them, and when they finally do they describe it more as a lucky break with one publisher, rather than due to a change in what they've written.

In the words of JK Rowling, "if you are turned down by every single publisher in existence, you will have to consider the possibility that what you have written is not publishable" - what's the difference between the book that was turned down by a hundred publishers and then picked up on a whim by one, and the book turned down by a-hundred-and-one publishers? Luck. I think we can all agree that some published fiction is unambigiously and objectively bad. We've all read a book which is bad - perhaps not the worst thing in the world (which, incidentally, is an honour that goes to a 'book' about a cat my brother wrote at the age of 4, which is still sadly unpublished despite my every endevour, but which takes pride of place on a wall at home and is available to read on request), but definitely bad to the point you wonder how it got publihed - well, it got published because the author was lucky. For something as lowest-common-denominator as finding one willing publisher when it's clear bad works can be published, it's somewhat of a non sequitur to suggest that bad works will be unable to find a publisher, and similarly to suggest that good works will. Of course there's the likelihood factor, but there's enough bad authors out there who WILL trawl through every publisher, and good authors who will resolve to self-publish and never sell many copies.

Publishers simply do not work as a filter when they're so inconsistent, resulting in a system which usually filters out the worst of the worst but does not always let in the best of the best, and are notoriously hit-and-miss; I doubt that a previously un-notable author could get even the greatest work of fiction taken aboard by a significant amount of publishers (say, five percent), and I'm sure that a large amount of books which are turned down repeatedly could find favour with one publisher, if the author were to work through every publisher in existence.

Simply put, publishers aren't interested in what makes a good book beyond it being mostly coherent and not too obscene. They're interested in what sells, and more often then not this would cause a huge amount of publishers to shoot down a perfect work of fiction simply because it has 'no mainstream appeal' - in other words, "you aren't already a bestseller author and this book doesn't involve teenage angst, guns, or vampires". You may eventually find a publisher who believes you can sell a book without angsty teenage vampires with guns, but this still isn't a judgement on the quality of your fiction, but your luck at finding that one.

Having read a few self-published works of fiction, it is clear why some of them would never be published; They have an imagination beyond that of mainstream appeal, they have genuinely challenging literary devices and they aren't afraid to assert controvertial opinions or break the last few taboos which send publishers scrambling. They wouldn't sell in the mainstream, but it doesn't mean self-publishing is a bad option. It would be a sad, sad day for literature if we were to disregard everything which will never sell in the mainstream, indeed, so why are you so willing to use this as a barometer for success or delusion? I would take the opposite view; I am perfectly content to write a story for my own purposes and for those around me, knowing that it will never be the next James Pattinson, because if anything fictional I write is read as widely as (for example) the works of James Pattinson, I'd frankly take that as a good indication that I should stop writing, because I would have lost my individuality. I don't want middle-aged housewives reading my books, I don't want commuters reading my books on trains, and I don't want posters for my books at tube stations. That's what publishers want. Books which are everywhere and sell as such. Some self-published authors are truly content without it, because, wary of their content, they know they'll never entice that sort of fanfare without compromising their material.

 

And if their work is bad, or they do happen to want that, so what? Does it do harm? Any author worth their salt will work their way through three dozen unpublished or abandoned stories before finding the one they can work with, but there are things they're still pretty damn proud of, even if bad, and they're valuable things on the journey to becoming a better writer. In December 2008, ever the fresh-faced romantic, I put a few days' work into cleaning up my then-boyfriend's novel, and had a copy printed up for him for Christmas. Though the following doesn't reflect very well on the presents I'd given him in the years before that, it was the first time I ever saw him cry with sheer delight. I don't think he was happy because of vanity, he was happy simply because he could see the product of his own hard work. Maybe he was deluded, and it will certainly never have a circulation of more than one, but I think he was quite happy to be deluded.

I just hope he doesn't kill me when he finds out I told the entire internet that he cried about it.

Easier does not mean better