Thursday, 18 February 2016

And Now the Hard Part: Getting Your Book Into Print And Onto Shelves

That's the title of the publishing type panel session I'm sitting on at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2016. The other gig I'm doing is also about acts of murder: I'm talking crime fiction with fellow criminal minds Christ Carter and Sebastian Fitzek.

I swear they just put me on these panels to cause trouble, but it keeps going wrong. I got put on one a few years ago with Luigi Bonomi only to find my plan of whacking him over the back of a head with a tyre lever washing up against the uncomfortable fact that he's one of the most pleasant, smiley people in publishing.

Similarly, last year I shared a stage with Orion supremo Kate Mills who turned out to be rather a love and not the mean old harridan I had psyched myself up to confront. We got on rather well, as it turns out, and agreed about a great deal more than we disagreed about.

When I started this here publishing journey, I was full of wide-eyed surety. I have posted before about the Dunning-Kruger effect and my long, slow realisation that publishing didn't want me. It used to make me angry, certainly self-publishing Olives - A Violent Romance was an act of fury triggered when my own agent couldn't be bothered to look at - let alone shop - the book.

But I've had so much fun since then, I don't really have that anger any more. Mainstream publishing doesn't want me and that's just fine: we can co-exist, ploughing our respective furrows in the rich soil that is the reading public. I'm a tad weary of promotion these days and really could use some help with marketing and getting 'reach' into markets outside the UAE, but I didn't even wait for my small test sample of agents to reject Birdkill before deciding to self-publish the book. I'm sort of done with the old cycle of submission and rejection. I have a life to lead.

For myself, I now believe that publishing doesn't want me because I don't sit comfortably topically. It's not about the quality of writing, characterisation and other technical stuff. It's because the things that interest me don't immediately scream 'mainstream appeal' - the Middle East, the grey areas of morality, bad guys you empathise with, good guys who are weak-minded, men dying of cancer and betrayal and retired IRA bombers don't top agents' lists of books just made to sell themselves. And yet I clearly have a readership - the sellout local book sales, rave reviews, feedback from book clubs and all the other good stuff that's been happening tell me that.

I think the million dollar question facing this panel is not really so much 'how do you get an agent and publisher', there have arguably been too many words thrown into the wind about those two topics for any of us to have anything more useful to say on the topic.

For me the question is more, 'What's the secret sauce? What makes book A a soaraway bestseller and book B a guaranteed dud?' Century and Arrow publisher Selina Walker, who gave us 50 Shades of Grey, and Jonathan Lloyd, who heads major agency Curtis Brown, should certainly have some answers. And our fellow panellist Sean Fay Wolf, whose Minecraft themed fan fiction got him picked up by Harper, has undoubtedly tasted of that elusive sauce.

The question is finding it and amplifying it. And that's where I think this panel will be so interesting. The publishers on the panel will either have cracked it or be foundering, as clueless as I as to how you do this thing in the atomised world of the Web and its Medusine long tails. Finding out which of the two states they inhabit are itself be a thing of great fascination.

I'm not setting out to misbehave this year. But I can promise you this panel will be nothing less than mesmerising and insightful. This based on the other panellists, clearly...

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