Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, 3: Seven reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality

On Olten’s covered bridge, the Holzbrücke, a costumed girl-Viking recalled by a brilliant encapsulation of old-fashioned publishing by Holly Ward (see below) - HAPPY NEW YEAR from postgutenberg@gmail.com

On Olten’s covered bridge, the Holzbrücke, a costumed girl-Viking recalled by a brilliant encapsulation of old-fashioned publishing by Holly Ward (see below)
HAPPY NEW YEAR from postgutenberg@gmail.com

[ In earlier entries here: part 1 and part 2 of this Testimonial series ]

7 reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality

  1. Ignorance

Practically no one knows that the Swiss are the world champions at working collaboratively – in ways that go far beyond the ‘extreme democracy’ by which they rule themselves. This matters because so many of us would like to see the egalitarian feeling of this internet translated into workplaces restructured to flatten hierarchies, and because inequality is the supreme flashpoint in public debate, today.

  1. Publishers can’t help being as ignorant as everyone else on this and many other subjects

Like most educated – and even over-educated – people, book publishers in the English-speaking world share a clichéd, hopelessly mistaken view of Switzerland as no more than an abettor of tax-dodgers and holiday destination for fat-cats on skis. Practically no one outside the German-speaking sphere learns any Swiss history in school. Switzerland is effectively awarded only non-speaking walk-on parts in history textbooks. Institutions such as the Centre for Swiss Politics at the University of Kent have had to be created in attempts to fill the void in higher education and research.

  1. Courting rejection from publishers who know nothing about a subject makes no sense

Preliminary conversations with publishers and literary agents made it clear that writing and submitting a book proposal to them would be pointless. The book I envisioned would have to be written without their help to show them exactly why Switzerland deserved it.

  1. Other writers on Switzerland confirmed the soundness of the indie route

I compared my impressions of publishers’ prejudices about Switzerland as a subject with the experiences of other writers – most helpfully, in a conversation with Diccon Bewes, whose elegant Swiss Watching, de-mystifying his second home for fellow-expatriates, deserves its huge success (for reasons explained in an earlier entry on post-Gutenberg.com). In looking for a publisher, he had the advantage of being a graduate of the London School of Economics working at the time as the manager of Stauffacher’s, the most popular English-language bookshop in Bern. But even he had to put up with the lazy response, over and over again, that I got from a literary agent in Oxford – that Switzerland is ‘too small and boring’ to merit attention. Anyone intellectually curious could have read Jonathan Steinberg’s riveting Why Switzerland? (1996) to be cured of that delusion. But many publishers are suffering – too lost and confused in this transition to digital media to have the mental energy to challenge their preconceptions.

  1. It is impossible to justify waiting for publishers to make decisions at their traditional pace when your subject is red hot

There is a huge appetite, now, for exploring practical egalitarianism. The German head of a small, respected literary publisher of English books referred me to her editor-in-chief, when I asked if she would be interested in a look at my work-in-progress. The reply from this colleague was friendly and encouraging, but warned that months could go by before she got to any manuscript pages sent to her for vetting, when I was ready. This is still a typical editor’s sense of time, in print publishing.

  1. Even commercial publishers who claim to be eager to cross over to e-publishing are terrified of experimenting – with, say, e-serialisation

That same editor-in-chief told me that if I were to experiment with publishing the first section of my book as Part 1 of an e-serial, I’d be ruling it out for consideration by her firm. That convinced me that serialisation was the right route for me – and, lo! … last Sunday’s New York Times quoted several writers with proven money-making instincts who are also switching over to publishing their books in parts.

  1. The most practical writers are, increasingly, most apt to choose the indie option

Also in that New York Times article is the wittiest, most incisive explanation of why writers should resist ceding control of our work to publishers in the old-fashioned way (barring exceptional circumstances — and publishers). It is in a quotation of Holly Ward – whose words instantly conjured an image of a fellow-pedestrian playing girl-Viking whom I met, fleetingly, in Olten, in my research on Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality:

“The only person I truly trust with my career is me,” she said. “If you hand over your work, it’s like dropping your baby in a box and kicking him to the curb. Maybe he’ll grow up and be awesome — or maybe he’ll get sucked into the sewers and be raised by rats.”

Published here and on Medium.com by Cheryll Barron, 1 January 2015

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