People reading this who know me will know that I’m a left-leaning grumpy old punk. People who have known me a really long time might remember me as a fanzine-running spray-painted t-shirt wearer who used to cut her own hair, thought that was more through poverty than any conscious style choice…
This weekend Merrie England has been buntinged up to the wazoo to celebrate the diamond Jubilee of the Queen. Which also makes it 35 years since “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols did / didn’t make it to number one, to the immense consternation of the Establishment.
(I missed that. I was three months old. But I would have sold my grandmother to see the Clash.)
BBC 4 are hosting a celebration on punk over three consecutive Fridays, and, by happy coincidence, I have been reading Chris Salewicz excellent biography of Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song.” At the same time, Fantasy Faction have posted a number of interesting articles about self-publishing. And in this stream-of consciousness ramble that sometimes passes for a blog, I was thinking about DIY.
The great thing about punk (I’m talking about British punk specifically here) was that, all at once, the DIY aesthetic came to the fore. You didn’t need expensive instruments, singing lessons, or sometimes, lets face it, very much talent to be in a band. And if you didn’t want to be in a band, you could start a fanzine, or a record label, or a club night. Whatever you wanted to be, if you had the will, you could go out there and do it yourself.
(The spray painted t-shirts, mentioned above, were inspired by the Manics, who lifted the idea wholesale from the Clash. You can be original and derivative at the same time, armed with only a can of Halfords car spray paint and a stencil.)
The trouble was, as Sturgeon’s Law states, “99 per cent of everything is crap.” The very best punk bands – yer Pistols / Clash / Damned etc are still listened to and still relevant now, thirty-five years on. Most of the rest are largely forgotten.
And here’s the thing. Publishing now is in an interesting state. It hovers on the verge of its own Year Punk Broke. The big six publishers are the proggy supergroups, the ELO’s and Yesses on the industry, and nipping at their heels like rabid corgis are a myriad of small presses and self-publishers, snapping to get in on the action. The rise of the e-reader means that, the way anyone could pick up a guitar and bash out three chords, now anyone can publish a book.
Not write. Publish. They are not the same thing.
Being able to finish a book is a laudable achievement for anyone. Well done if you’ve finished a book. Even more well done if you’ve edited it, rather than just reaching the end of a complete first draft, clapping your hands and going “Right, that’s done! Pub, anyone?” Finishing a book to a submittable standard is bastard hard.
But now anyone with what passes for a first draft can feed it into Createspace / Lulu / Amazon / whoever, and hit “publish.” Job done. And it’s tempting, everything takes a long time in the publishing industry, submitting is tedious, waiting for responses from publishers and agents is soul-numbing, and all you want is for people to read your brilliant creation…
Now, I’m all for DIY. If you want to do it yourself, because you’ve thought about it and it’s the best option for you, then good for you. But think, before you hit that publish button – is this the best that you can be? Have you edited and re-edited, ruthlessly hunted down every last typo and plot-hole? Are you proud of your work, and will you still be proud of it in six months, or six years? Have you honed your craft to the point where this book is as good as it’s ever going to get?
There have been very few break-out self publishing success stories, just as there were, in the end, very few break-out punk bands. Those that survived either had something so magical, so special, that they captured one instant in time perfectly and then crashed and burned, leaving a perfect corpse (The Pistols), or less excitingly, they fucking worked at it, day in day out, until what they had was damn good (The Jam, The Clash). And those albums – London Calling, All Mod Cons, Never Mind the Bollocks – are timeless classics.
The question is, do you aspire to be the Clash? Or are you happy to settle for being Subway Sect, or the Merton Parkas? By publishing before you’ve honed your manuscript to damn-near perfection, all you’re doing is settling for being second-rate.
The future, your future, is unwritten…