Whether a project should be self-published or the writer should go the traditional route is one of the key questions all writers grapple with these days.
Conventional wisdom decrees that if the project is one of the following (or a combination thereof) then you should probably self-publish: if it is ‘experimental/avant-garde’; if it is aimed at a niche readership; if you want full control over all aspects of production; if you have enough web presence or platform to reach a significant amount of potential readers. With that in mind, over my next few posts (if it goes to plan), I’ll try to look at different aspects of this tricky choice we face.
Firstly, the big question is what type of book have you written? Experimental fiction is rather broad and encompasses aspects of the following: a lack of progressive narrative; intentional omission of character arcs; excessively ‘unlikeable’ characters; deviation from consistent third-person narration; phonetic regional vernacular; stylistic devices over storytelling; a wilful exploration of the boundaries of what’s possible with the written word; a rejection of regular form to convey an idea, however inaccessible it makes the book — in other words, working in a genre that, at a stretch, could only be pitched as that great catchall ‘literary fiction’.
Now, being any of these things (or indeed all of them) doesn’t necessarily make the book experimental because it’s a question of degrees. Infinite Jest (with 100 pages of footnotes dissecting the narrative) is experimental. The Naked Lunch is another example. Yet both went on to become bestsellers. A book’s accessibility and readability is at the heart of the matter, and the writer, who’s emotionally invested in the project, is in a difficult position to gauge accessibility and readability accurately.
Another thing to ponder is the market conditions at the time of writing. These days, narrative arcs are deemed more important than style. High-concept ideas trump character driven stories and style innovations. Agents want to hear about character arcs and choices, and they want them framed by big ideas. At a time when experimental fiction was more dominant, say the 1920s or the 1960s, the mainstream became more experimental as a result. Experimental fiction is most definitely about style and technique and how far your book deviates from perceived norms.
Niche is more about content although it can overlap with experimental fiction to incorporate elements of style. An example of a niche readership is aiming the book at a certain political group (let’s say a 21st century Marxist parable) or a specific subculture (maybe a LGBT love story). Trainspotting is a good example of a niche/experimental book. Its structure of interconnected short stories (it’s nothing like the film) and its narrative voices in Scots, Scottish English and British English pitch it squarely as experimental while the theme of drug addiction makes it niche. Welsh’s insight and dark humour appealed to the UK’s considerable ‘weekender’ crowd (people with jobs who go to dance clubs and party all weekend but who are most definitely not heroin addicts like the characters) and the book soon gained cult status. Its target was the people who bought it — people who dabble in the counterculture. Knowing where your book might fit into the market is crucial to deciding which route you take towards publication and is something I find very difficult (although writing this post is making it a little clearer).
That a writer wants full control of the project is another valid reason to self-publish. This can (and probably will) incorporate the two reasons above (experimental, niche) to some degree. If you don’t want to work with traditional publishers because you’re worried that they’ll screw it up, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, because if they believe in your idea, however experimental, they’ll want to make it better (although covers and even titles are often beyond a debut writer’s full control). It’s also worth noting that a writer needs one or all of these to produce good work: critique partner(s)/an editor/a proofreader and a cover designer/graphic layout whiz. They’ll also need…
Internet presence or platform. Because your book is just one of millions on Amazon. There’s no easy way to acquire platform apart from pounding pavements in the real world or giving it some cyber-shoe-leather, rather like I’m doing now, cough, cough.
More from me in two weeks when I’ll look at: the advantages of placing your manuscript with traditional agents, self-publishing and simultaneously querying agents, and hybrid solutions to the self/traditional publishing conundrum.
Next week, Andrew Oberg shares the results of his ‘novel in a bottle’ marketing campaign, which involves: an unpublished manuscript, scissors, and two thousand empty wine bottles.