To publish, or not to publish (that is the question).
When people ask me how I spend my time in retirement, I’ve stopped telling them that I write because I have learned from experience that their next question, almost inevitably, will be: “Have you had anything published?” And when I tell them I have not, they almost invariably offer a withering smile in consolation as if to say: “Oh, well…” followed by embarrassed silence. It’s as if not publishing is an admission of failure – a swing and a miss. But my decision not to publish is a conscious choice, not taken lightly but arrived at after months, and perhaps years, of soul searching.
In order to explain why I do not publish, I think it would be sensible to state what I consider are the most common arguments in favour of publishing. I don’t claim that my list is exhaustive. I’m sure that if you pursue greater granularity you will discover almost as many distinct reasons for publishing as there are authors. But when I was considering the question of whether to pursue or not pursue publication of my own work, these were the four potential reasons that stood out in support of the affirmative (i.e. to publish).
By this I mean simply, financial gain. Having spent weeks, months, perhaps even years locked away on your own, scribbling in an exercise book or tapping away on a keyboard, selecting the most appropriate words, arranging them in a specific order, moulding them into sentences and paragraphs and chapters, massaging them into a story, spelling them accurately, punctuating them in such a way that the intended rhythm and pace and meaning of your prose is conveyed to the reader, it is not unreasonable to expect some financial return on investment, if only to subsidise the creation of your next opus. But the sad reality is that only a small percentage of published authors earn enough from their writing alone to make ends meet. We’ve all heard and been inspired by stories of spectacular success: James Patterson, Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, to name a few. But according to UNESCO, almost 305,000 new titles and re-editions were published in 2013 in the United States alone (not including self-published work), and China published even more. And in 2014, in relatively sparsely populated Australia where I live, roughly one book was published per 1,000 head of population. So how are all the other authors doing? Probably not getting rich.
If you have the time to spare, and only expect to supplement your primary source of income, or have an extremely modest lifestyle, maybe publication is right for you. But unless you think you’re the next Stieg Larrson, I wouldn’t recommend you rush out and quit your day-job the moment you type that last full-stop.
It takes most writers a long time and a great deal of effort to conceive of and craft a novel. It might look easy. After all, you pick up a book at your local bookstore, read it through and when you’ve finished realise that you already knew all the words, so what’s stopping you from belting out a couple of best-sellers of your own? Well, the best way to find out is to try it. So after spending countless hours closeted away, setting scenes and inventing characters, throwing obstacles in their path and helping them overcome them, it is not unreasonable to seek reassurance that all your efforts have not been in vain – that you have, in fact, created a readable story. And having your story accepted by a reputable publisher is often the first step in that affirmation process, because self-publishing proves nothing. Anyone with the right know-how and enough cash can do that. But as they say in the classics, be careful what you wish for, because most publishers are in business to make money and they will generally only accept your manuscript if they are fairly certain they can turn a profit from it. I know that some publishers retain a part of their catalogue for what they consider “worthy projects” – and what they mean by that is books that they think are worthy of publication but will probably not generate a positive return on investment, at least in the short term. But they still consider these “worthy projects” worth the investment because they bring credibility to the catalogue, and that credibility enhances the publisher’s reputation, thereby generating sales elsewhere in the inventory. So, if you began your project with the intention of churning out a best-seller and making pots of money, then having been accepted by a major publisher is clearly an indication that you are en route to commercial success; but it might not be a reliable indication of your literary skill.
So let’s say you’ve written a manuscript and it has been accepted by a publisher. Production of the initial run is complete. Distribution has taken place. How good would it feel to pass a bookshop and see, displayed in the window, piled high in a pyramid, the splendid progeny of your hours and hours of solitary toil? That’s assuming, of course, that the publisher accepted your manuscript without amendments – no additions, deletions or changes required; no editor stamping his or her authority on your pristine prose and judicious punctuation; no sculpting and shaping at the behest of some marketing guru to render your brainchild more appealing to a fickle book-buying public. No, it’s your book, in your words, with your photograph on the back cover, with testimonials from reviewers who have at least read the synopsis compiled by the marketing department, and deigned to give your tome their imprimatur.
Frankly, I would be thrilled to have written a book that was published and sold. I don’t care about best-seller lists and literary prizes. But I fear the Emperor with no clothes. A book that sells simply due to the genius of the marketing department would be, in many respects, worse than having written an unpublishable work of genius or even an unpublishable dud. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have to respond to what you know in your heart is misplaced praise, torn between loyalty and contractual obligation to your publisher on one hand and your own creative integrity and self-respect on the other? If one’s aim is to write disposable fiction that tops the charts for a week or two then tumbles to obscurity forevermore, then the balance sheet is an adequate measure of commercial success. But only time can truly measure quality; and time is a commodity many of us have in short supply. We are already on the clock.
So where does that leave us?
Of the key arguments I have listed for publishing, only the final one do I find compelling. What a joy it would be to know that I had written a book that others buy, or borrow, or even steal and read (no, not steal, that’s wrong!); and when they have finished reading it, feel enriched by the experience. Whether it is a book that entertains, or informs or provokes readers to think about subjects not previously contemplated or in a way that fosters a fresh perspective, the idea that I, after all my hours of toil, had given them something that they valued, perhaps even cherished, I would find profoundly satisfying. This is the kind of book I like to read; and if I could write such a book I would gladly commit myself to the task, earning nothing from it, and eschewing all approbation, settling only for the affirmation that I had made a contribution – a donation – to the corpus of literature that elevates humanity to a slightly higher plane.
Unfortunately, I have not yet managed to write that book. And I remain, therefore, unpublished. But I am still trying.