Everyone’s been trying to get their heads around the ramifications of e-publishing: authors, agents, publishers, booksellers, readers, governments and institutions. For authors, the possibilities that are presented by e-publishing are dizzying: exciting, but also anxiety-‐making. I’m not against publishers. In fact I appreciate very much the immense amount of work my publishers do in editing, marketing, distribution, promotion and taking me on in the first place! I have good relations with all my publishers, and intend to keep it that way.
But like so many other fellow authors, I am also attracted by the experiment of e-publishing, and of having many options open to me. And there are so many options, with e-publishing! For instance, with my agreement, two of my publishers have recently started making some of my novels available as e-editions; I’ve just had a novel which I love dearly but had despaired of ever seeing published, contracted by an innovative digital-only publisher, and plus, I’m working with another digital-only publisher on an interactive digital graphic novel I’ve created with two illustrators and a musician. And, last but not least, I’ve recently taken the first tentative steps on the journey to becoming a micro-‐publisher myself: Sixteen Press.
There’s lots and lots of issues around e-publishing, of course. But what I want to look at in this piece is something very particular, something I’ve not really seen anyone else write about but which I think many authors might recognise. And it’s this: we hear all the time about how e-publishing is the new frontier, the brave new world, the ultra-modern hi-tech phenomenon. And yet, for me, this hi-tech future has done something surprising and counter-intuitive. It’s taken me back into the low-tech world of my past, into the realm of the hand-made and home-made.
When I was a child, I loved not only writing and illustrating my own stories, but also creating my own ‘published’ versions of them. I didn’t do it with all my stories, just a few favourites. They were as ‘proper’ books as I could make them, with a cardboard cover, illustrations pasted in, a blurb, and ‘published by Sophie’ emblazoned on it in my best block printing. I’d staple the whole thing together or occasionally attempt to sew up the spine with coloured thread – not a good idea as my stitches wavered like drunken spiders! And then I would proudly show my ‘published’ books to family and friends.
It was such fun and totally absorbing, making what could have been long tedious hours pass like a flash. What’s more, it made me feel for that I had power, I was in charge: and when you’re a child, that’s such a sweet thing. Normally, you’re a little person in a land of giants with little control over your timetable, let alone your own fate. But in the world of your own story, you were the powerful one: the one who decided characters’ fates and how they’d look in your pictures. And when you published your own books with the important-‐looking cover and blurb, that was even better! I had no idea at the time how ‘real authors’ went about publishing ‘real books’; but that didn’t matter. I was playing but also being serious, in the way children often are.
As a teenager, being both more self-conscious and having realised that publishing was an actual business, I was much shyer about public display. Dissatisfied with my own lack of talent in art, I’d stopped illustrating, too. But I didn’t stop writing, or making books for all that. The only surviving ‘self-published’ book I have dates in fact from late in my teenage years: a children’s story called Valerie behind the Bottlebrush, illustrated with beautiful watercolour and pastel pictures by my younger sister Gabrielle. The book’s made of the same gorgeous, thick art paper Gabrielle used for her pictures, and when I hold it, I still feel the thrill I had when we finished it.
Later, of course, I achieved my dream and became a published author, and as the years went by, a much-‐published author. I love the thrill of holding one of my new books in my hands, with its gorgeous cover and design framing my story. I love the interaction with my publishers and I love much of what goes with being a full-‐time writer. But occasionally, over the years, I’ve felt like I was back to being the ‘little person in the land of giants’ with no more control over the fate of my books than I had over my life as a child. For example, there have been times when projects I really believed in were knocked back for reasons I didn’t think were valid; or a book of mine might be swept along to oblivion for reasons that had to do either to do with publishing company decisions or circumstances beyond even the publisher’s control, such as the GFC.
And so, when I started experimenting with creating my own e-publications through Sixteen Press, it was with a delighted shock that I recognised the excitement I was feeling. Here was the same sense of play and of serious purpose that I remembered from childhood. Here was the same giddy feeling of taking charge. Here back again was the possibility of illustrating my own work, with black and white photographs I’d taken over years now coming into their digital own. I have no idea whether any of it will be a success in material terms. I hope it might. But right now, it doesn’t matter, I’m enjoying myself so much.
And as I happily work away on my many projects, I’m struck by another insight: this isn’t just good for us authors. For publishers, it’s also a good thing. Because happy authors make for harmonious relationships. And an author who feels he or she has many options open to them is likely to be happy, and to look on their relationship with publishers as a real partnership.
Or am I kidding myself (forgive the pun!)? Are we still just little people in a land of giants? What do you think?