How I learned to stop worrying and self-publish

It is entirely appropriate that I bought this mug for myself

It is entirely appropriate that I bought this mug for myself

There was a minor kerfuffle recently regarding Ros Barber (of whom I had never heard before she popped up in the Guardian) and her thoughts on those who choose to Self-Publish And Be Damned. Since her arguments have been roundly refuted by people who have published more books and made more money than I have, I won’t wade in on that particular point. Also, this was a fortnight ago and nobody cares any more.

All the same, I’ve been meaning for a while to explain how I made the decision to self-publish.

Up until last year, self-publishing wasn’t on my list of options. It wasn’t because I didn’t know about it. I knew about it. I knew people who had done it. I thought they were incredibly brave. Personally, I was too scared of the following factors to contemplate it myself:

  • the gargantuan amount of work that I’d have to do (or organise) myself, rather than outsource to the publisher’s friendly in-house editors, cover designers, proof-readers, publicists, and so forth;
  • the huge amount of money I assumed it would cost;
  • the possibility of some joker taking some element of my book personally and trying to sue me;
  • people whose opinion I respected thinking the less of me, as a writer and a person.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think my book was good. I wouldn’t have been sending it round agents and publishers if I didn’t think it was worth, well, publishing.I just wanted somebody else to tell me that.

I already knew that the target audience for my book was limited. I knew that it would be difficult to sell even if it were very, very good. At the same time, I knew that there would be people with whom it would resonate, who would enjoy it, who would find it useful. I’d written it to relieve my own feelings, but I knew that those feelings were not unique to me. I didn’t want to leave the thing languishing on my hard drive for ever, but I was far too scared to self-publish. What would people think?

Last year turned out to be fairly heavy in the ‘personal epiphanies’ department. I discovered that I thought the institution of marriage human at best and idolatrous at worst. I told people to stop fucking apologising for swearing in front of me. I moved from thinking of myself as a ‘liberal’ Christian to thinking of myself as a ‘radical’ one.

I found that other people’s ideas about who I was and what I was worth were becoming less important to me. I found that I no longer needed other people’s approval. I didn’t need a fairy godmother to give me permission to go to the ball. I was my own fairy godmother. I got myself a dress and a pair of shoes, and I gate-crashed the party.

Put like that, it doesn’t seem like much. Looking back from where I am now, it doesn’t seem like much. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was an epic mental shift.

I did send the manuscript to one last publisher after I’d made the decision to self-publish. I felt a bit ambivalent about it, but a family member had gone to some trouble to get them to take a look at it and it seemed churlish not to.

You can’t imagine how relieved I was when they weren’t interested. I’d gone beyond wanting someone else to do all the hard work. I’d taken control, and now I didn’t want to relinquish it. I had learned to say: Yes. This is my work. I am not ashamed to claim it, to put my name on it, to send it out with no one’s approval but my own. And it turns out that I don’t want to go back from that.

Deleted scene: a wedding

2013 June Jim and Val wedding 352

Once upon a time, this was going to be the opening scene of Speak Its Name. Not this particular version, which slots in after another deleted scene where Lydia’s mother is driving her to Stancester (literally, not metaphorically), but it definitely started with a wedding. I was trying to do something clever with doubling and framing; also to introduce all the Alma Road characters; also to drop in the point that the ministers of a marriage are the couple themselves. It does all that, but it also introduces three completely unnecessary characters and slows up the action. And it doesn’t involve Lydia.


The wedding was at Wardle Street Methodist Church. Lily Wicks, former President of Stancester University Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed Church Society, AngthMURC for short, was marrying Ross Whitehouse, former Social Secretary of the same organisation – a commitment that most of their friends affected to deplore, on the grounds of their excessive youth, but were secretly rather pleased about.

‘And after all,’ Peter Nathan observed to Olly Sennick as they awaited the arrival of the bride, ‘who cares if they have only just graduated? If you know what you want, you know what you want.’

‘Well,’ Olly said, cattily, ‘Lily always knows what she wants, and Ross is so laid back that I don’t think he much cares. Ridiculous institution, anyway. It’s just a piece of paper. I can’t see why they need a vicar.’

Peter could not resist rising to that particular piece of bait. ‘Not a vicar, in a Methodist church. You’re right, though: technically, it’s the couple themselves who are the ministers of the marriage. The chap in the dog-collar is just the registrar.’

‘Hmph,’ Olly said.

The pair of them, together with their housemates and various other friends who, if anyone had asked them, ‘Bride or groom?’ would have replied, ‘Um…’, filled the second row on both sides of the church. Peter glanced left and right. On Olly’s other side sat Ruth, attending her last service at Wardle Street before leaving to start her PhD in America. Across the aisle was Colette, managing to look slightly dishevelled even today. She saw him looking, and turned away, a flush streaking up her cheekbones. Peter sighed, and told himself – again – to stop barking up that particular tree. It was pointless, offensive, and liable to cause difficulties sharing a house in the year ahead.

Speaking of which… The two unknown quantities sat on Colette’s right – her friend Becky, the Lancastrian Quaker (loud, but not, so far as Peter had seen, obnoxious), and then her friend Will, the incongruous posh-boy Evangelical, to whom Olly seemed to have already developed a violent antipathy. (Why? It couldn’t be the Christianity alone, or Olly could hardly have survived last year, stuck in the middle of the assorted gaggle of Anglicans and Methodists. It wasn’t as if he had a strong personal liking for anybody beside Georgia…)

Georgia’s seat was empty, of course; she had a place reserved on the front row, handy for bouquet-catching and train-bearing and whatever else a chief bridesmaid was meant to do. Although – was that her voice? Peter looked at his watch.

‘Early,’ Olly said. ‘Trust Lily.’

‘She’ll be wandering around talking to people, and Georgia will be trying to shove her back in the car and drive round the block a few times until she’s properly late.’

‘Not a wise move, in Stancester on a Saturday. Particularly not in Freshers’ Week.’

‘Do you know, I had actually forgotten, for five seconds, that it was Freshers’ Week?’ Peter groaned. ‘And, no matter how bad the hangover, I have to be up tomorrow to shepherd all the little baby firsties to Chapel. I bet there won’t even be any…’ He shook his head. ‘Just don’t remind Georgia, OK?’

Colette leaned across the aisle and said, reproachfully, ‘She’ll be fine once it’s actually started. Actually I think it’s been good for her, being bridesmaid. It’s taken her mind off AngthMURC stuff.’

‘I love Georgia, and I know I voted for her,’ Peter said, ‘and she does get stuff done, but I’m still not convinced that her taking over from Lily was the best idea in the world, from the point of view of harmony in the home and everybody’s mental health. Wait until you’ve lived with her for a term: you’ll see.’

‘Dunno why she wastes her time with it, anyway,’ Olly said. Peter put it down to the enforced churchgoing, and ignored him.

‘What are we – Colette began, but she was interrupted by a well-intentioned fanfare on the electric organ. Peter was the first to his feet, Olly close behind, the whole congregation rising and simultaneously turning to look over its collective shoulder at the west door.

Peter felt surreptitiously in his breast pocket for the card on which he had printed his reading, just to make sure that it was still there. He could have done it without the text, at a pinch, but it was 1 Corinthians 13, which everyone knew from all the other weddings they had ever been to, and to complicate matters Ross had insisted on compiling his own ‘translation’ from all the versions he liked. This, Peter was fairly certain, was not legal (though you never knew, with Methodists), but at least it wasn’t the Street Bible. He wondered if he was nevous, and rejected the thought: he read, in church, without the stutter, which, he thought, showed, if anything did – but here came the bride.

‘End of an era,’ Olly murmured, as Lily passed them, and winked.