I started my authorly life as a ghostwriter, turning out thrillers that soared up the bestseller lists. When I went to agents and editors with My Memories of a Future Life, they said they liked my writing and my ideas, but asked me to make it more like a thriller because that would be easier to sell. That wasn’t where I saw myself, though. I wanted to make my own mark on the books world, with novels like the ones I enjoyed reading – quirky, character-driven stories that went to the edges of strange.
I started a writing blog and it did well, so I wrote a companion book, Nail Your Novel. Publishers told me to double its length so it looked like the other books in the market. But I abhor padding and I don’t think it serves the reader. Fortunately, I’d run an editorial department in a small imprint. I knew about editing, proofing, layout and liaising with designers. I self-published Nail Your Novel and promoted it through my blog. Within a year it had sold 10,000 copies.
And so I had my novel, which was not finding a publisher. I wondered: should I also publish that myself?
It used to be seen as dodgy to self-publish, especially fiction. But at that time, 2011, the climate was changing. The top London agencies started to talk about helping big-name authors to self-publish their out-of-print backlists. They also talked about doing the same for new authors if they couldn’t be placed with a publisher. This was the same situation that I was in. My novel was represented by an agent. It had passed the quality gatekeepers.
I self-published My Memories of a Future Life. I found the readers who understood what I wanted to do. It was the best thing I ever did.
For me, this is the reason to self-publish – creative control. I can decide what to write about, follow my instincts and my interests. For my second novel (Lifeform Three) I went fully into science fiction, which wouldn’t have been allowed if I was under contract to a publisher. It would disrupt my brand. I then disrupted my brand even more by a detour into humorous travel essays (Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction). Real writers do this. We are versatile – much more adventurous than the traditional publishing world will allow. With my third novel, Ever Rest, I swapped back to a contemporary setting, and blended some genre elements – the mountaineering novel, the coming of age novel, the rock music novel, the mourning novel, the past returns novel – to make a new symphony of my own.
As an indie, I can publish whatever I like, so long as I do it with proper professional care (and I do). I don’t have to chase a market or emulate a fashion. If I make mistakes, they will be in the pursuit of something I genuinely believe in, rather than a compromise. (Reality check? Am I writing self-indulgent drivel? Here are some responses.)
When I write for someone else I’ll do whatever they want. And I don’t disagree with those who compromise to secure publication. We all are aiming for different things.
But publishing my own novel has reminded me why we should respect our own artistic integrity. Our stories become a reader’s most private moments. My prose becomes the voice whispering beside their own thoughts in their alone-time on the train, or the drowsy pre-dream period before sleep. With that in mind, how could I not be true to my material? Obviously I’ll take advice on what isn’t working, but I won’t change anything for markets and fashions. Our books outlast those anyway. And I reserve the right to try new directions.
This is how my favourite writers developed their art. Invention and innovation never came from publishers; it came from writers. And we can do this when we self-publish.