Is this the future of fiction publishing?

by Hugh Ashton

About two and a half years ago, I finished a novel with which I was quite pleased - Beneath Gray Skies - it’s an alternative history novel, set in the Confederacy of the 1920s. Actually, I was very pleased with it indeed. I’d done things in my writing I’d never done before: multiple points of view, different plots and sub-plots meshing together, and very different styles of dialog for the different characters. I also wrote a lot of it in a foreign language—Southern US English, which is far from my native mode of speech. And it was a proper length novel - none of your “slim volumes” for me - this baby weighed in at well over 110,000 words!

As you are meant to do, I sent off the synopsis and the first chapter, etc. to various agents and publishers, and collected a healthy crop of rejection letters. Now, authors are meant to be 100% dedicated to selling their work - if at first you don’t succeed, etc., etc. So I sent off another round. But it gets a bit discouraging after a while, and in any case, when you live in Japan, the time factor, not to mention the expense, come into play. After all, some people seem to say that etiquette demands you don’t submit your work for consideration by more than one person at a time. And how am I meant to live while I’m waiting for replies (the traditional publishing world still revolves around paper - no e-mail here)? At this rate, I’d be collecting an old-age pension before I collected any royalties on this thing.

But happily, I found an agent here in Tokyo who was willing to look at the manuscript, help me improve it, and sell it off through contacts. The book accordingly went through at least three more independent readings, resulting in tightened dialog, structure and plot – a completely new chapter was added at the end, which made the denouement (that’s a great word - never written it before) much more credible and balanced the story better.

However, options within Japan are limited, and we quickly exhausted them. But enough people had read the book and commented favorably on it for me to believe in the inherent worth of the book. I didn’t want to go in for vanity publishing – where you pay for copies of your book to be printed, and you end up with the minimum print run lying in your back bedroom while you wonder what to do with the 2,950 copies you didn’t send out for review or give away as Christmas presents. Read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum for a wonderful account of vanity publishing.

It also seems that there is only a handful of English-language publishing companies, who own most of the imprints you see in bookstores. These are “media conglomerates” who concentrate, not on literature, or even entertainment, but on quarterly profits and balance sheets, in order to swell the shareholders’ dividends and the management’s bonuses. Gone are the days of publishing as something bigger than itself (i.e. literature). There was a time in popular music when the music industry took chances - released material that probably would only just turn a profit after a number of years, but it was released because “we like it” or “it deserves its chance to be heard”. Those days disappeared a long time ago - now if you want to listen to something non-mainstream, go to the independent labels, who are often not producing physical products, other than the souvenir CDs sold at gigs. Although so many books get published, many of them are non-fiction self-help or similar “mumbo-jumbo” and the vast majority of fiction purchased in the USA comes from a mere handful of authors (fewer than a dozen authors are responsible for 80% of fiction sales, if I recall the statistics correctly). What chance does a new writer have in this market?

Someone recommended Lulu to me, but I was still interested in getting the thing published commercially, so I didn’t take the idea that seriously at the time, but when I re-read the manuscript, I was convinced again that this was something that at least a few people would want to read, so I looked into it a little more.

Lulu is not a vanity press - but a way of facilitating self-publishing through Print-On-Demand services. You basically upload a PDF of your work (you can use other formats as well, but if you make your own PDF, you get what you want) and a cover and you’re away. To publish through Lulu costs nothing except the cost of ordering a proof copy - they even supply you with an ISBN, and will distribute through You can also pay ($50 or so) for distribution through other Amazons, Barnes & Noble, etc. Of course, your profits (royalties) are less if you go through outlets other than Lulu, but you do reach a wider audience. Unless I am really lucky, I am not going to get rich out of this (I wouldn’t mind being famous, though).

But Lulu states its goal is “to have a million authors selling 100 copies each, rather than 100 authors selling a million copies each”. That suits me fine (though I’d like more than 100 copies to be sold) - it’s a very welcome step away from the major monoliths, who seem reluctant to take any risks at all when it comes to new content. I’m not expecting to sell a million copies - it would be nice, of course, but given the amount of time and money I have to spend on promotion, it would be nothing short of miraculous (and I would have badly misunderestimated my story-telling skills - to borrow a memorable phrase) if I sold a million copies.

Beneath Gray Skies would make a wonderful movie, though, I think. So why not buy a copy and judge for yourself?