Why I Self-Publish My Literary Fiction
Self-published books are still largely associated with genre novels, while authors tend to turn to traditional publishers for literary fiction or upmarket fiction. We were curious to hear from someone who has been challenging labels and going against industry wisdom to carve her own niche in the publishing world. Indie author Jane Davis used to be bullied into changing her work just to fit into an easily marketable category. She decided to take matters into her own hands and self-publish her daring, award-winning fiction.
Eimear McBride used the platform provided by her various competition wins to urge publishers to back challenging fiction. McBride had spent 9 years submitting the manuscript for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing before it was taken up by Galley Press, a small publisher which puts story before profit. For many writers, 9 years would be too long.
Traditional Publishing houses ‘play it safe’
So much of what we read from traditional publishing houses feels safe or sanitised. In 2014 I collaborated with hybrid author Joni Rodgers on a multi-author box-set. She shared my frustrations: ‘As a voracious reader, I was overwhelmed with the over-editing and lack of creative risk that had come over so much of the fiction I was being fed by the marketing machine.’
I already had some idea of how much creative control is relinquished by authors when they’re under contract, but the process of sanitization starts far earlier, with the literary agent.
My first novel earned me the services of an agent, but not a book deal. My agent hadn’t had time to read my second novel when I entered it in a national competition for unpublished authors. I only admitted what I’d done when my entry was shortlisted at which point my agent said, ‘I think I’d better read it then.’ She absolutely hated it. On her advice, assuming I could never win, I totally re-wrote one of the main characters.
When I was told that I won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, the publisher insisted on my original version (the judges had loved the character my agent so objected to), but here are examples of the changes that were imposed on me:
- Re-structure so that big reveal came in the penultimate chapter/ new end chapter.
- Title change.
- Great cover, but totally inappropriate for the book.
In other words, when I held the book in my hands, it never felt as if it was mine. It was as if I was selling someone else’s book!
From Bad to Worse
But worse was to come. Without any discussion about my long-term writing plans, the book was published under a women’s fiction imprint. Speaking for myself, I share Joanne Harris’s view that ‘women’s fiction’ isn’t a genre. All it does is reinforce the idea that books written by women are not for men. At a time when bookshops have been asked to do away with ‘boys’ fiction’ and ‘girls’ fiction’, this category seems outdated, not to mention inappropriate. Not only had I been I pigeon-holed, but my publisher exercised their right of refusal on my follow-up novel because ‘it isn’t women’s fiction’.
I spent three long years in the wilderness, looking for another agent, paying thousands and thousands of pounds for the advice that ‘no self-respecting writer with long-term career goals would self-publish’. The issue wasn’t my writing but I needed to tailor it to the market. My novel These Fragile Things, for example, is an exploration of a near-death experience of a teenage girl, which the father believes is a miracle, the mother believes is scientific and the girl comes to believe she is seeing religious visions. Several agents were interested, but they wanted more ‘dark family secrets’. Already aware of the need to add a commercial strand to the storyline, I had made the mother of the ‘saint’ a sex addict. The agents also wanted my couple to divorce. I could have made the changes, but there comes a point where you have to say, ‘No. That’s the story.’
You’re not the only one!
I read about this experience everywhere. Cornelia Funke, who writes a hugely popular fantasy series, had demands from her American publisher who told her ‘We want you to change the first chapter and to turn the ending into an epilogue’. Her answer was, ‘This is a published book. That is the book.’
It’s not a question of not wanting to be challenged - far from it. But, with self-publishing, I can choose to collaborate with professionals who understand my visions and values, and who will work to help me make the book the very best it can be. As Joni Rodgers said to me, “If I go down in flames, I’d rather go down for something I believe in, something I’m proud and happy to have in my body of work.”
Self-publishing is the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction. Instead of being dictated to, I am free to write about the issues I’m passionate about and fascinated by - the big subjects. Remove the pressure of trying of to mold something to fit the current market – which agents admit is risk-averse and overly-commercialised – and it grows wings. For authors of literary fiction, creative control isn’t just a plus. Increasingly it’s becoming a must.
Jane Davis is the author of six novels. Her latest novel, An Unknown Woman, won Self-Published Book of the Year, awarded by Writing Magazine and The David St John Charitable Trust. You can find it on Amazon here.
Do you think the self-publishing is the better alternative for literary fiction? Have you had similar experiences with publishers? Share your thoughts and experiences — or any question for Jane — in the comments below!