Cover image copyright Veronika von Volkova
Self-publishing offers the author the freedom to break industry rules, such as writing books that do not fit into an established genre. But with such freedom to innovate comes a greater marketing challenge. With any book that defies classification, you need to promote not only the book but also sell the concept before you can expect readers to buy it.
I’ve recently been following with interest the progress of some interesting genre-defying books, all self-published:
Then a few weeks ago I spotted the bravest, boldest genre-buster that I’ve ever seen: Dan Holloway’s novel Evie and Guy, written entirely in numbers. Here was a book that was going to need some serious concept-selling. I’m not saying for a moment that there’s no market for such work – it’s just harder to define and reach it.
I am therefore absolutely delighted that Dan Holloway, novelist and performance poet, is joining Off The Shelf today to give us some insight into his motivation for writing such a ground-breaking novel, how he is promoting it and how he will measure the success of this book, compared with his previous work.
By the way, this post is much longer than usual on Off The Shelf, but do please read it to the end, in particular for Dan’s liberating views on what makes a book successful – a refreshing antidote to the industry’s obsession with sales statistics and Amazon rankings!
Q) Dan, can you please describe briefly the concept behind Evie and Guy and why you wrote it in the form of numbers?
A) Um, no, probably not, but I’ll try. The last time I described it, as briefly as possible, I took 500 words plus. Anyway, in short, I wanted to create a different reading experience. Because language is, in the philosophical sense of something constructed that represents nothing, a fiction, when we think of ourselves or of characters in language we are always removed from them. Our concept of them, and of ourselves, is constricted by what language tells us. Reality is very different, it is made of experiences, but whenever we think about ourselves, rather than purely experiencing, we are back to being trapped by language. What I wanted, among many other things, was to offer the possibility for readers to get beyond that facade, to experience reading the book as something sensual, experiential, and not distant and conceptual. That is only a very small part, but probably the important part – I want to free readers to experience their lives in a way that is more real.
Q) It may come as a surprise to many self-published authors, used to thinking that Amazon is all (especially when it can be hard to get indie books distributed via bricks-and-mortar stores), that you do not sell your work via Amazon. Indeed, when I first read about Evie and Guy, I headed over to Amazon to check out its reviews and was surprised that I could not find the book on there at all. Later, I decided that it might be a strategic move to avoid the book becoming an easy victim to thoughtless reviews by people who haven’t understood the concept – e.g. “I ordered a novel but all I got was a book full of numbers! One star!” But I see that you do not have any of your work listed on Amazon (although you have an author profile page). Why is this?
A) Ah, this is another tricky one. I took my books down from Amazon when the tax row broke. I have had a considerable amount of flak for it, most of it focusing very rightly on the fact that Amazon are not the only ones paying (legally) very low taxes. I absolutely accept that, but I also think that everyone who protests will, just by existing, be a hypocrite in some way or other, and if we let the fact we couldn’t do *everything* stop us from doing *anything* then I’m not sure I see how that makes the world a better place. So yes, it’s a flawed stance, and I’m happy to admit that, but I didn’t feel good about myself as someone who in another hat campaigns on social justice issues when my books were on Amazon. Now they’re not, I feel happy. That will have to be good enough.
On the review subject, that’s a negative (despite this absurd notion I see bandied about too much about judging indie books as good because they have x or y number of 4 star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads – I mean, has no one watched the beginning of Dead Poets’ Society where RobinWilliams’ character mercilessly rips into the idea you can measure quality?) I want my work to provoke strong reactions, positive and negative – my main influence is Tracey Emin, after all, who has had goodness knows what said about her work. Good art should do that. If you don’t offend people you’re probably being lazy.
Q) What is your preferred route for selling copies of your work, and why? e.g. through your own website? other online stores?
A) To pre-empt what I think may come in a later question, it varies according to the format of the book. I always have a stock of paperbacks with me, which I take anywhere I’m reading. That is the very best way I think to sell to readers who are then going to go on and read and maybe fall in love with your book – they’ve already heard you, they know you (which is more personal than “look inside” samples) and want to know your work, so whilst you may never sell huge numbers, you are very likely to attract a very high percentage of “true fans” to use Kevin Kelly’s term.
When it comes to e-books, most of mine are available as free downloads from my website – this will in time become all of them, when I stop touring my poetry and get some time. I like the “pay what you can/want to model”, and encourage people with a little note inside the book to do so by Paypal. I would rather they pay after they’ve read the book, when they know what it means to them – I basically want readers to feel happy with whatever they pay (or don’t pay).
I sell through a number of bookshops, but I choose them very carefully and tend to build relationships where I will put on events so they gain something in terms of audience, and they sell my books. That both supports independent bookstores who are doing great things for readers, and again is built on relationships, which is how to get those readers who will really engage with you. Bookstores in general are not a particularly great place to sell because of the discount they take, which can mean either you make nothing or your books are a silly price, so I think it’s far better to focus on selling direct, be that through your website or in person, and to do your bookstore selling with a few stores you know well so you build relationships for the long term.
Q) What have you done to promote Evie and Guy so far? Which of these things have worked well, which not so well?
A) So far, aside from the occasional tweet and Facebook status, I’ve built on relationships, sending information and a pdf to everyone I know who might be interested, be they friends or bloggers, but most of all people I know in magazines and the media who deal with this kind of experimental/literary fiction. The response has been extraordinary – of the biggest websites in the field (3:AM, Metazen, Pank, htmlgiant, The Millions), 3:AM have featured the book on their buzzwords page, and Pank and Metazen have said they’ll review it. Sabotage, the biggest review site for underground novellas, have done a very detailed interview with me which will be out shortly. Several bloggers have written wonderful reviews.
It’s hard to gauge success because of the pace things move. Blogs about the book have certainly resulted in downloads, and there was a big spike when I got the 3:AM feature. But lots of reviews are still forthcoming because the bigger sites have longer waiting lists, so I don’t know.
The next stage will be a more focused campaign towards the mainstream media, and then the Folio Prize Academy members. It’s very different from anything out there, and yet I’ve spent so long researching and getting it just right that I’m confident there’s no hint of gimmickry about it. Which I hope makes it ideal for media coverage, but that remains very hard – and there’s always a nagging doubt I thin still that because you’re a self-publisher it must be a bit of a gimmick, you can’t actually have thought as deeply as you have, or had such complex intentions.
Q) You are a performance poet with an impressive list of events and achievements in that field. How important a role does your live performance play in helping you to sell your books and find new readers?
A) I treat it as completely separate from my novels, although many people I’ve met in poetry audiences have gone on to read my novels. But for my poetry books, it’s essential. Live performance and YouTube are the two most essential things for the kind of poetry I write. I could blog and tweet till I’m blue in the face, but performance poetry is like music – people fall in love with it when they hear it. I think that teaches a really important lesson – that you really have to think about your readers and go where they are, not where you feel comfortable. And if those two things don’t coincide, you need to have a real think about whether you want to spend decades doing this.
Q) Has having a substantial following for your previous work been a help or a hindance? Like other authors who shift genres, did you consider testing the book under a pseudonym so that it stood completely alone on its own merits and in its own right? Or is the nature of your back catalogue such that people expect you to innovate, so that they were already primed to expect a book as unusual as Evie and Guy? (Trying to avoid using the dreaded phrase “author platform” here…)
A) A help and a hindrance. I made a valuable mistake when I published a thriller a couple of years ago. It sold several thousand copies and people came to associate me with it. But whilst I liked it, it was far from my best book, and I just haven’t been able to write another one. I’ve ended up pretty much expunging all records of it because it got to the stage where people only wanted to talk about that, and that caused all kinds of problems for the writing I was trying to get people to see. I think if I did it again, I’d have put that out under a pseudonym.
Mostly though, it’s been a huge help. I’ve had a reputation since I started the Year Zero Writers collective in January 2009 (and probably before then) for being an awkward curmudgeon who did the weird and wacky stuff and always backed it up with pages and pages of largely incomprehensible critical theory. And I have always engaged with blogs about the more weird and wonderful sorts of literature. So people know both to expect something weird, and that probably it’s not just weird for the sake of it but has a serious purpose, which makes it much easier to persuade people to interview you (as does having a reputation for saying what you think, and for not being afraid to put people’s backs up to speak out for something you believe in). It also meant that I’d got to know a lot of people who were interested in this kind of book. I think you can’t say too many times how important it is to engage in the community you’re writing for, and to do so over a sustained period of time.
Q) I see one reviewer has likened Evie and Guy to a piece of art, rather than literature, and I understand that response. But it occurs to me that by writing the book entirely in numbers, you’ve invented a new form of language, a kind of numeric Esperanto – the book could be read as if in any language (although, tiresomely, you would have to transpose the months and days for the American audience, of course!) Had you thought of having your intro translated and testing it in other countries?
A) I think it would be interesting to see how it was received in other cultures. That’s an interesting thought. I write a lot about Europe, especially post-communist Eastern Europe, and a lot of the theoretical baggage that goes with my writing has its most natural home in Europe, specifically France. I work a lot with the Anglo-Breton poet Claire Trevien, and Andrew Gallix, who teaches at the Sorbonne and founded 3:AM, has been very supportive, so I may well get the intro translated into French and see if with their help I could put it out in France. French media and readers are much more receptive to literature that isn’t ashamed of its ideas than the British media, so in many ways it would be a perfect fit. Thank you for suggesting it! (Note: since things have moved on and Dan is now engaged with two translators to develop a French edition!)
Q) It’s early days yet, but what have you learned from the launch of Evie and Guy – is there anything you’d do differently, if starting over? Anything you’d recommend to others with a similarly experimental book to launch?
A) First of all, I’d say get in touch! Second, I’d say two things – become part of your literary community. Join the conversation, say interesting things, have opinions and argue for them.
And do your research. Experimental fiction is a ruthless world. On the one hand there is a whole multitude of readers waiting to snipe and call you all sorts of names for doing something they don’t understand, so you need a thick skin. But on the other hand, make sure you know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing, make sure there is absolutely no element of gimmickry, and make sure it really is pushing the envelope you think you’re pushing, because on the other side from the sniping hordes are the afficianados and they’re a hundred times scarier, and if they feel like you’re floundering or maybe have some derivative elements you haven’t acknowledged, they’ll tear you limb form limb.
It’s too early to know if I’d do anything differently, but one thing I do a lot that I wish I didn’t is apologise. If I’m with other writers especially. When I’m blogging, I’ll happily talk about “building a poetics of hope” or having grand ambitions to free readers from the shackles of language, but when people talk about what they’re writing, I’ll shuffle to the corner and mumble “oh, it’s just some weird stuff” because I have this underlying feeling that people don’t really take me seriously because my aims aren’t commercial. I would advise everyone never to apologise for their work, but I need to work on it harder myself.
Q) It seems crass for me to ask you about the prospects of commercial success for Evie and Guy: to have written such a book at all is in itself a huge achievement. After all, no-one could call Van Gogh a commercial success in his own lifetime… But what would have to happen for you to consider Evie & Guy a success – not only commercially but in other ways too?
A) There are three things I think I want for Evie and Guy. The first is the grand overarching aim of beginning to chip away at the assumptions people have about what a novel can or should be, and beginning to free people from thinking about themselves in terms of language. I guess actually those are two things, though the second is somewhat intangible (albeit I’ve already had a handful of emails from readers almost in tears at how moved they’d been by the book, so I would say already that’s more success than I could hope for). The former I think I’d measure by the way the media is willing to talk about the book, and the public conversations it sparks.
Second, I would like it to come to be known as the book that changed how self-publishing was seen artistically. That again will be very easy to measure, in terms of what people say about it. It will in many ways be the hardest to achieve, because I think most of the most prominent people in the self-publishing community are nervous of the book, and to a certain aextent of me. Self-publishing has changed a lot since I started, when the underground literary firebrand pumping out a weird mix of avant-garde theatre and politcal pamphleteering was pretty much the norm. No, it’s very much a respectable commercial choice, and people I get the sense are a bit nervy about me because I haven’t gone diving further underground like many from the early days, nor have I gone to a small press like many others have, but I’ve hung around trying to bring the conversation back to art all the time. I also honestly don’t know how many people share my view of what it would mean for self-publishing to be taken seriously artistically. What I mean is that I’d like critics to feel happy trawling self-publishing for exciting new ideas and cultural innovation. I don’t know how much others in the indie movement really care about that.
Third, I’ve made no secret of the fact I want to win the inaugural Folio Prize (set up as an alternative to Booker), both personally and because that would be a huge moment for self-publishing. And when I stop being apologetic, I think that Evie and Guy actually has the potential to do so. I think there’s a huge paucity of artistic ambition in the current literary scene in the UK, especially among self-publishers. We are happy to encourage people to dream of earning a living from writing, why not encourage them to want to change the world through art?
So, whilst it probably sounds ridiculously arrogant to say I’d like to change the world and win artistic prizes, I think it’s important for would-be writers to hear others saying that. There’s a £10,000 prize for the Folio Prize, so I guess that’s commercial. And as a broke writer, it would be a godsend, but I don’t think I could ever equate success with money. I am very lucky to have a day job. It doesn’t really pay the bills and rent, certainly no more than the bills and rent, but many people don’t have even that, so I am incredibly lucky. Of course it would be nice to be able to write full time. On the other hand, if I had that time, would I really use it? I don’t know. Having an hour a night to scrawl and the bus ride home to think focuses the mind incredibly and intensifies the result I’m sure.
Dan, thank you so much for being a guest here, and, of course, I wish you huge success, in every respect, with Evie and Guy.
To find out more about Dan’s work, and to download a copy of Evie and Guy for yourself, please visit his website: www.danholloway.wordpress.com
Dan is also happy to respond to any questions left here on Off The Shelf, so do please feel free to leave a comment for him! (NB All comments are moderated before they go live, to guard against spam, so please don’t worry if yours doesn’t immediately show up!)