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I’ll answer this question in a moment, but it’s really tied in with another question: Why have I taken to self-publishing? I think I should say something about that first.
It isn’t because I can’t get published by commercial publishers. In the past I’ve had seven books published in this way, both fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve become disillusioned with that route, as have many other writers.
The science writer John Horgan decided to self-publish his latest book. “After I got the idea for Mind-Body Problems in 2015, I pitched it to a few agents and editors and got chilly responses. Fuck ‘em, I thought, and wrote the damn book anyway.” My feeling precisely. Mainstream publishing ain’t what it used to be.
Publishing as it used to be
My first book was a novel, The Sacred Malady, which came out in 1967. In those days most publishing houses were independent enterprises but they have now virtually all been swallowed up and digested by large international conglomerates.
My novel was published by Chatto & Windus and my editor was one of the directors, Cecil Day Lewis, who shortly afterwards was appointed Poet Laureate. After my book was accepted I went to see him in his Central London office and he asked me if I would allow him to edit my manuscript for publication, assuring me that I could trust him to do a good job! He also said he thought I had married too young (something which I think he had done himself).
A changing scene
Two decades later things had changed a lot but some of the original publishing houses still maintained their independence. One of these was Victor Gollancz Ltd, which published a book of mine in the 1980s.
I got to meet the Managing Director, Livia Gollancz, the daughter of Victor Gollancz, the founder of the firm. She had been a fine concert musician and became a publisher reluctantly, when her musical career ended owing to ill-health. She was a tall imposing woman who I think ran the firm rather imperiously. She took the decision to publish my book herself, but that wouldn’t happen today. Such decisions are now made on strictly commercial grounds by accountants.
If you have a book published commercially today you are most unlikely to meet any of the directors. In fact, you may not even get an editor, which explains the shoddy standard of some of the books I read nowadays. I was fortunate with the last book I had commercially published (a textbook of medical acupuncture) for which I had a very good editor. And she did me a big favour.
Shortly after the book came out she emigrated to Australia, but before she left she gave me some advice about another book I wanted to write which I asked her opinion about. “Self-publish it with Lulu”, she said. So I did.
So far I’ve self-published six more books since then, both as e-books and paperbacks, and I have no thought of going back to mainstream publishing. None of them has made me a fortune, of course, but most of them continue to sell some copies. Which brings me back to the question I started out with: why make any books free?
Actually. many authors who sefl-publish do make some of their books free – John Horgan did so with the book I mentioned at the start of this piece. It isn’t as Quixotic as it may appear. You probably won’t lose much by doing so.
The sad fact is that you are very unlikely to make much money from any of the books you self-publish unless you are extremely lucky or willing and able to invest a lot of time and effort in marketing your work, which I’m not.
That may seem depressing, but don’t think that being published commercially is very different. Contrary to what many would-be authors suppose, in most cases mainstream publishers these days make minimal if any effort to promote your book – they leave it up to you. This means that you are unlikely to become rich or even earn your living by writing even if you do find a publisher. Moreover, your book may not be in print for long; many books disappear quite shortly after publication. (With self-publishing, at least you’re safe from that.)
There can be indirect benefits from self-publishing, however. I’ve produced a medical acupuncture textbook which I use on the courses I run for health professionals, and it costs me far less to print this than I used to pay to buy copies of an earlier textbook that had been brought out by a mainstream publisher, even with my author’s discount.
As I don’t depend on my writing income to make a living my main reason to produce books is to be read. More than that, I’m in favour of making information as freely available as possible, which is why I support the academic protest against Elsevier’s restrictive practices (see the Cost of Knowledge). The books I’ve made free contain ideas I want to disseminate.
One of these books, Making Word.doc Files on Linux, describes how to use free software to make a file that will be accepted by Smashwords. This is my small contribution to the free software movement, which I’m strongly in favour of.
The other two are on ideas that have been thinking about for more than sixty years. Essentially, they are on the nature of belief, and therefore lie on the margins of religion.
The first, Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, is a personal account of my journey through a couple of totality belief systems to a position best described as metaphysical naturalism. The second, Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning, is about the puzzling question of why religion exists and why, despite the best efforts of Dawkins, Dennet and company, it probably always will.
Both the latter two books, incidentally, also exist in print form on Amazon, where they can be (and are) bought by readers, even though the e-book versions are available without charge.