I am delighted to welcome Melvyn Small to Bloomin’ Brilliant Books today with a great guest post. Melvyn is the author of The Darlington Substitute and the founder of Indiepenned.
Write It And They Will Come?
Over the years I have had numerous ideas for novels. I thought the only things that stood in my way were my ability to eke seventy or eighty thousand words from those ideas and having no experience whatsoever as writer of fiction. If I could circumnavigate those minor hurdles, then I would have a bestseller on my hands. Following that, the likelihood was that scores of Hollywood producers would be ringing my phone off the hook. Easy!
A few years ago, yet another idea struck. As I lay slumped on my settee with the familiar companion of a glass of Hardy’s Crest (other Australian red wines are available) I had a thought. My televisual delectation that particular evening was the CBS show Elementary starring Jonny Lee Millar as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Doctor Joan Watson. I liked it. At least, I liked the idea of it. They’d taken the original work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and moved it somewhere else. My overriding thought was that they could have gone further with it.
As it transpired, this idea for a literary masterpiece was different from all those that proceeded it. It was peculiar in that I actually got on with it and wrote the book. Actually, two books. Given I was uncertain if I could turn an idea into seventy thousand words, there is a little irony in that I managed to find one hundred and sixty thousand across the two volumes. In the interests of full disclosure, I should point that I cheated a little by writing a series of short stories. That said, I’m told the books read very much like a novel, as there is a story arc running across the piece. One reviewer described the books as an “episodic novel”. Which, in hindsight, makes sense.
If I park the reserve of my Englishness for a moment, I can tell you that these books are actually bloody good. I’m not aware of anyone who has read it and said differently. Apart from my brother who read the first page and objected to my prose. Hey-ho.
The tale that tells the story from red wine-lipped idea to paperback is a little longer than that. The story of conversations in pubs and bizarre synchronicity is well documented elsewhere, and I will therefore spare you. Suffice to say, I hooked up with an independent publishing company who helped me turn my manuscripts into very professional-looking ebooks and paperbacks.
The independently published route was very good. It got a paperback with my name on into my hand pretty rapidly. It also gave me complete freedom with respect to what I did with my books. I had a copy of the ebook to send to reviewers and a box full of paperbacks to tout around the local bookshops and send off to movers and shakers in the world of film and television. The success of the latter is still a bit of a TBC. What this freedom and independence also means is you are on your own. It means you don’t have the backing of a marketing department and the advantages of the connections of a large publishing company. The world is awash with books, some good, some not so. Therefore, it is very difficult to get the word out about a new book. It would be nice to think that if a book was good enough then the rest would be easy. I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case.
The question therefore is: Should I have explored a more traditional route to publishing? The answer is: I don’t think so. I’m quite confident that I would have spent a lot of time sending out manuscripts and received a disproportionately small number of rejection letters. The Holmes books are a cult thing. People really like them. Whether the marketing machine of a large publishing company could scale that popularity is debateable. Although the books have received good feedback from around the world, the popularity they have achieved does tend to focus around the North East of England. This is from where I originate and is where the stories are set.
Personally, my honest assessment is that they could gain popularity across a wider audience. I’ve seen the reviews… several times. Whether I could convince a London-based publishing company that, I will probably never know. I somehow imagine a working-class Sherlock Holmes from Middlesbrough might not be their thing.
Let’s be realistic. A publishing company isn’t going to publish a book that they don’t think will sell in large numbers. Why would they? They are a business and in they are in the business of selling books. The problem is what they think might sell is largely down to their experience of what they have already sold. They work within the world as the perceive it. You can’t blame them. We all have bills to pay. No one wants to hang their hat on a flop. However, literature is an art and art is about taking chances and stressing the boundaries of what’s gone before.
The traditional publishing route is harder than that for someone with an original idea. Many publishing companies, large and small, have stopped taking submissions from new authors. Consequently, to get your masterpiece onto the desk of a publishing company you must first convince a literary agent, with bills to pay, to see outside the established norm. This shift in how things work has resulted in literary agents facing a deluge of manuscripts to wade through. As a result of this, the agents have found a new way of working and are now looking for new authors from within the ranks of those enrolled on creative writing courses. The point here is that there are a few hurdles to cross and those involved in this process don’t appear to have an interest in expanding the art form.
This may all seem very anti the traditional publishing route. It’s not meant to be. They fulfil a need. There’s as much a place for fast food as there is gourmet restaurants. Things can happily coexist. I’ll leave it to you to decide which part of that analogy is working with the big five and which is independent publishing. If somebody starts their writing career as an indie author before getting snapped up by one of the big boys, then good on them. Let’s just hope they don’t forget us indie renegades when they do. Personally, I’d be more than happy to kick around the idea of a six-figure advance. I’m also not too adverse to moving a few things around to talk about a TV or film deal.
Failing that, I think there is a massive opportunity for both indie authors and book lovers to band together and extol the virtues of some of the great literature being created outside the mainstream. To that ends, I created Indipenned, a corner of the internet exclusive to independent literature. At the core of this is that thought the most effective form of promotion is word of mouth. If we can get enough authors, poets, small presses, book reviewers and independent bookshops to start extolling the virtues of independently-written literature, we can give indie authors a real chance. The plan is to make books more about merit and less about marketing budgets. We want to lend a hand to those working outside the world of the big corporations.
Indipenned is still in its first year. This initial period has been all about getting some of the great indie authors that are out there to join us. We’re really happy with how this has gone. Although we are still looking for authors, the focus has now shifted to letting book lovers to know about us. One of the ways in which we are doing this is by publishing a brand-new Holmes novella in the short stories section of the Indipenned website. This story has just completed a blog tour, which included some of the web’s leading book reviewers. The reviews have been brilliant.
“An interesting and enjoyable take on one of my favourite classics.”
“I giggled from start to finish with the dry humour that rolled off of each page.”
“The best novella I have ever read.”
A huge thank you Mel for this insightful and interesting guest post. I really enjoyed reading it.