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Not all is vanity

by Sam Knight,
Editorial consultant at Carys Books.

Once upon a time, in the bad old days, self-publishing was described as “vanity publishing”. Part of the reason was that only those who could afford to pay for their own printing did so. Self-publishing was always dependant upon wealth, not on writing ability or creativity.

Back in 1974 I published my first book. That was a reference book on the economic, social and cultural state of Wales, the first such volume to be produced. The book received genuine praise from every major sector for its scope and accuracy, was an aide-memoire for every department in the Welsh Office, and was distributed by HMSO – a rare accolade for a self-published book.

The book was self-published because no Government body in Wales was prepared to sponsor it. The print cost was more than £2000 back then, and I had to re-mortgage my house to carry out this project. Patriotism went beyond lip service. Fortunately, the growth of digital media and print technology has removed the harsh financial burden of publishing. Today everyone can publish their work at reasonable cost.

But the very ease with which one can do this, the dramatic lowering of printing costs, has created a new set of problems. First, the number of books being published is staggering: there are about 20 million titles on publishers’ lists globally. Last year alone around 500,000 new titles were published in Europe. Just one of the leading UK self-publishing houses has a current list of more than 1,700 fiction paperbacks and 1,800 eBooks.

In Wales the publishing scene is distorted by the fact that most, though not all, of the established publishers are subsidised by the Welsh Government. The reason for this is clear: most books published cannot support themselves as viable income streams. Now my belief is this: there is little difference in the author subsiding his work and the taxpayer subsiding his work. That has as much to do with luck as creativity.

There are other issues. Some Welsh publishers prefer to stay feeding their own small flock of sheep which have provided decent wool, rather than go to market and buy a Monmouthshire ram. Others are not accepting new livestock for two years, again because of their subsidy-dependent business model. Arts organisations should recognise that because a writer is not nurtured by the Welsh cultural scene, and therefore has no status, it does not mean that writer is not producing good material or, dare one suggest, work of literary merit.