A Writer's Life 1: The Oldest Question In The Book

Christopher Fowler
DSC_0023 This is an occasional series about the problems of writing full time. My photo shows the factory in China where they make Dr Who dolls. To a publisher, this is a very exciting picture. After all, it's the world's longest running SF series and has spawned a zillion spinoffs. Nobody remembers Sydney Newman, the drama director who came up with the series, but everyone is happy to ride the brand. It's a bit like that with authors. The marketing dream is to have a character that's bigger than any one author. But most of the authors I know don't work like that. They don't fit a convenient category. They fight to stay in the field by changing their names, or try to write what publishers are chasing this year. Recently I was told to 'do a Dan Brown, only younger'. I tried, but it didn't take. For every book I get published, there's another that stays in my bottom drawer. It would be fine if the ones that didn't make it were of inferior quality, but they're not. Most writers face this problem. You tread a line between what you want to write and what the publishers think the public will like. And often at some point, selling it becomes selling out, because you have to make a living. You leave your dreams in the bottom drawer. When you go to a pub with a group of writers, you often hear about the things that didn't get published. You hear their real dreams. I wish publishers could hear those conversations, instead of only seeing writers on their guard, their best behaviour. It would remind them why they fell in love with books, and would change what they published. I write the Bryant & May books because I love the characters, and hope readers manage to find me, then read some of the other things I've done. I think I've read everything some authors ever wrote, and my favourites are often their least successful creations. Which brings us to the oldest question in the book. Do you write for an audience or write for yourself? It's a question no-one has really been able to answer, except that there are occasions when the two overlap - and then you have a hit.


Tony (not verified) Sun, 15/11/2009 - 12:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I havn't written for years after trying to write what the books/courses etc, told me what publishers wanted.
I ended up writing stuff I didn't like.
You've got to write for yourself and hope others like it.

Reuben (not verified) Sun, 15/11/2009 - 13:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We are constantly being told that we are living in a technological age where print is dead. Let's assume for a minute this is true, then why not embrace it. If you have a bottom draw full of good quality unpublished novels, then how about skipping the publisher and doing it yourself. Sell them straight to your fans as a download/E Book/whatever. If there are other writers in the same position, then club together on a website to promote your work.

Clare (not verified) Sun, 15/11/2009 - 15:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree with Reuben. One of my other favourite authors, Storm Constantine, set up her own publishing house rather than having to fight to get her things in print.

Self printing or E-books must be the way to go, same as all those musicians dumping their record labels I guess.

Steve (not verified) Sun, 15/11/2009 - 18:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What I write is music. If I'm hired to write a certain "type" of music - happy, sad, tense, outre - I still have the freedom to arrange the music within the genre. If I write because I'm inspired - say, by the characters of a favorite author - then I have more complete freedom to construct the piece as I see fit. I much prefer the latter, and I'm sure that goes for writers of the written word as well (alliteration unintended). Creativity wants to have its way with you, it doesn't like to be told what to do. Rather like a life partner.........

Jefy (not verified) Mon, 16/11/2009 - 12:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Great blog!

I have read your previous blog about how to write fiction many times and am working my way through all of your novels.
Personally, I eschew popularism and shirk advertisers' progaganda.

I.A.M. (not verified) Mon, 16/11/2009 - 20:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm a newly made lover of Marillion's music (yes, they're the ones that did "Kayleigh" years ago; no, they're nothing like that anymore) and they chucked the Big Record Label Support several years ago and went with their own fan-base as their direct to customer distribution/sales model. So far, after about four albums or so, it seems to have worked for them. Part of the assistance comes from having a group of rabid enthusiasts for your art, probably.

There are quite a number of Christopher Fowler-penned books I can't get my hands on for anything less than several times their cover price here in North America, due to them no longer being in print, yet presumably the rights are still in the hands of the original publishing house. Were copies to be made available through this site of the 'old' works, I would certainly snap up the lot!

'New' works, on the other hand, while I would enthusiastically obtain them, might have the taint of "not good enough for a Real Publisher", wouldn't they? Certainly those of us who know your abilities would not be of this opinion, but for someone coming across an author – any author – for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that one whose books were not in the shops but were done through their site "can't be too good a writer then, if they don't have a real book deal". The so-called "Vanity Press Houses" are to blame for this impression of lack of quality, often for a good reason, but to the detriment of the few decent books out there through that method.

Is there a bias against 'self-published works' to some extent, no matter the track-record of the author?

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 17/11/2009 - 02:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm not sure about that evaluation as it's probably either much better or much worse. I bought a book for our school library, a WWII survival story sponsored by a Jewish group and written by a professor of fiction writing. It was badly written to an appallingly low level. It was an important story written by the person herself but I wanted to shake her for not having someone edit her. I had a professor tell us that 75% of books published were needless destruction of trees.
On the other hand, I have read self published poetry (a special case, I grant you; no one is willing to publish poetry unless they have money burning a hole in their pockets) and memoirs that were pieces of wonderful writing. General or special section fiction, though, doesn't seem to go the self-publishing route and I think there would have to be mad fan support for there to be success with it. Would it work best if there were a public row between author and publisher so that new readers were attracted to see what all the fuss was about? How would one ensure that the row was public enough so that it would attract new readers? Would it mean that said author would be left to self publish for the rest of his days, since no publisher would touch him?

Scott Andrews (not verified) Tue, 17/11/2009 - 10:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm with Reuben - an ebook or download, or even a nice print-on-demand Lulu copy, would certainly get me to part with my money.

I think the stigma of self publishing is fading, especially if the author or musician has an established track record.

Bascically, I think due to the advent of Lulu and ebooks it's possible now to both serve the market AND yourself.

I'd say try a pilot - pick your favourite unpublished book, put it up on Lulu and as an ebook, and see how it flies.

Fiona (not verified) Wed, 18/11/2009 - 10:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Dan Brown only younger'?!!! What can you say? What was that book that got made into the film? Anyway, it was one of the worst books I've ever read. Wooden charachters, forced plot, forced pace, IMHO. Haven't read another one since. But if that's what the public wants....Or is it what they think the public wants.

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 18/11/2009 - 16:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And now, just in time for Christmas, the kindle is available in Canada. I will watch my local public transit for visible usage.