Our Main Query Now Is “Why Not Self-Publish?”

It’s that time again. Another manuscript has reached “final draft” stage, and is sitting in relative completion on my hard-drive. Ordinarily I would be in the finnicky stretch near publication, sorting out type-setting and punctuation, and labouring with a kind of soothing intensity over the cover design. When not in a hurry, designing book covers is the best part of publishing after the actual writing part. I ought to be, at present, making sure that 133,500-ish words of alternative fantasy with a political bent and some giant bugs and a heavy science-vs-superstition message has all the smart quotes facing the right way and all the em-dashes are em-dashes and not en-dashes. Making use of a hectic six months of typesetting training which would otherwise have had no use.

Instead, I’m procrastinating on opening a tab for QueryTracker and getting down to looking for suitable agents to query. I haven’t queried an agent since I was 17.

There was a time when the idea of sending manuscripts to agents and editors was an automatic extension of the process of writing: when I was a teenager, still plugging away with my first (unremittingly awful) novel, I read a lot of guides on getting your book published and submitting work. This was the 1990s, and stern advice from agents and editors alike about how to submit and what to submit and how not to address people put the fear of God – or at least the fear of Commissioning Editor – into me, until I had no courage to submit anything other than short stories to competitions. It took winning one such competition to get me worked up to send my manuscript to the editor of the publishing house which ran the contest, and even that was specifically after I’d talked to the editor about it in person and she’d told me to send it.

(I should note: this was a book I wrote when I was 15/16. It was the wrong genre for the publisher and nowhere near good enough, but they were good enough to give me a lot of very valuable feedback about pacing and voice and a suggestion of other places who might take it).

In the intervening years I’ve met quite a few people who write books, some for publishers, and some self-published. There was one author who wrote for publishers, but set up his own printing press (and solicited me for a short story for the inaugural anthology, which ended up never happening due to a lack of funds); there is the very successful Melanie Clegg, who self-published four novels and was finally queried by agents, and has now been commissioned to write a book in one of her many areas of expertise; there is another friend who wrote erotica novels for a publishing house and has since moved on to self-publishing non-erotica work; a friend who has written for national radio and major comics companies and has a selection of contacts which would make most beginners green with envy and yet still chose to self-publish his prose; and one friend who is just beginning, and opted to self-publish her dystopian Young Adult novel. In the press, too, there have been examples of people who self-published and were eventually picked up by larger publishers, the most well-known of which is of course E L James and her Fifty Shades books.

Their reasons are many: dissatisfaction with the strictures of traditional publishing houses, dislike of operating through agents, fear of rejection, a disinclination to remove sections of their work to make it more “marketable” (acceptable to the lowest common denominator), an interest in retaining a specific literary style which isn’t in vogue with publishing houses, work in a format or length which is incompatible with mass markets, or the apparently insurmountable difficulty of breaking the market without prior fame (or indeed with prior form but in the “wrong” genre). There are obstacles to publication: agents or editors who don’t believe the public are interested in a book about Marie Antoinette are proven wrong by Melanie’s success with her first novel; the idea that women aren’t interested in BDSM in fiction are proven wrong by the astronomical sales of the Fifty Shades books (apologies to Melanie for mentioning her in the same breath as E L James!) and then we have books which don’t fit neatly into a marketing profile/genre; books which have niche appeal; books which feature scenes or themes distasteful to a publishing company’s core target demographic (Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse, which was very influential for me as an older teenager, was bounced from pillar to post around the UK before Orion was prepared to take it); books aimed at younger readers featuring gender variant or non-straight characters often find it hard to find a publisher, etc.

With all this in mind, it’s almost surprising that I’m even considering “proper” publishing at all. My books typically don’t fit well into one genre at a time (“alternate urban sci fi literary fiction”, “cold case murder mystery litfic”, “revenge tragedy horror”, “political steampunk with bugs”), they usually feature uneasy morals and non-straight characters in major or leading roles whose narrative isn’t a coming out story or a poignant AIDS death, and happy endings tend to be like hen’s teeth.

But I promised a very indignant friend that this book would at least see some agents, and she went to the trouble of drafting a query letter for me so that the inevitable brain meltdown in the face of trying to say something about my book. So, for the sake of not having an angry editor/author/kindergarten teacher beating me across the Atlantic with a sharp stick for letting all her good work go to waste, at some point I have to open that damn tab.


  1. I have made some progress in addressing Vincent’s Problem, by changing the parameters. The goal is not to get my work published or even read, but rather to keep the short stories in continual circulation of editors: all I have to do is keep the ball in the air, send the stories back out the same day I get my rejection notices through, and I’m “succeeding”. Turning failure into a game is an easier way to deal with it.
  2. This blog post came about as a result of a discussion on Twitter with some of the people mentioned in the body, one of whom made the worrying observation that some of the public Twitter accounts of agents and their mentions of books had made her go for self-publishing. I don’t know what to say about this precisely, but it suggests to me that my paranoia about being publicly humiliated and ridiculed for sending in a manuscript to an agent may not be as paranoid as I’d hoped. Part of me thinks that sounds really unprofessional on the part of said agents, but I know that as an unpublished jobbing author I have not even a hint of a hope of complaining about that.

Saints Alive

Today we visited the Wallace Collection, which is overpoweringly rococo and needs to make more of a fuss about the incredibly rare horse armour it casually keeps shoved at the back, and the National Gallery, and Selfridges (which needs to be smaller and contain fewer loud people) and Primark (which needs to just not).

One thing I wasn’t aware of, and I don’t know how many people were, is that the National Gallery seems to be doing an artist in residence thing and has been doing one for some time. I found that out today because we stumbled across an exhibition of Michael Landy‘s work in response to the collection, “Saints Alive”.

It was a very playful response, a series of Monty Python-esque mechanical, interactive statues which distilled the saints down into their distinguishing characteristics, although in the accompanying video detailing the process of bringing about the collection, the surprisingly personable artist cited Jean Tinguely‘s kinetic art as his other inspiration. The brainstorming designs created along the route to a giant model of (among other things) a headless St Francis of Assisi  with a funfair grabber trying to remove his innards and failing are also on display, and are what lured us in: they contain several disembodied torsos of St Sebastian, heavily peppered with additional arrows. During the queuing time (which was just long enough to discourage a couple of people in front of us) I amused myself by trying to identify all the artists who had painted the torsos that were visible through the door.

Sebastian, however, is not featured among the saints in the exhibition. Those are St Catherine of Alexandria, represented by a giant torture wheel (which can be turned by the visitors to allow them to read all of the inscriptions); St Apollonia, who yanks out her own teeth with pliers when the visitor stands on a pedal; St Francis features twice, once in headless fairground form and once as a violent self-harmer, beating himself in the face with a crucifix when a visitor puts money in his collection tray; St Jerome, who is headless and graced with an abdomen made of wheels, beats himself on the chest with a stone in response to the press of a pedal; St Thomas the Doubter jabs the disembodied torso of Jesus so violently with his disembodied hand that Christ (who is mounted on a spring) was Out of Order when we got in around 6pm. Hopefully he will be back to bouncing about soon. The installation called “multi-saint” is a confusing mass of saintly influences, including St Lawrence’s griddle, St Lucy’s eyes, St Peter Martyr’s head, and St Michael’s feet. The midriff contains several wheels, one of which was apparently St Catherine’s: it is less concrete and more randomly violent than the others.

I would say that on its own the exhibition was good fun, entertaining and mildly blasphemous stuff: obviously as the curator of Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian I am no stranger to interest in the saints and to a less than holy perspective on them. I found it light-hearted, charming, and unchallenging, but I think the inclusion of a video introducing the artist (who cuddled a dog throughout his pieces to camera) and the process of responding to the collection was what made queuing truly worthwhile. Understanding what brings someone to a particular conclusion and the methods they use is something which for obvious reasons doesn’t come up much in the little plaques by artwork in the gallery.

The Profane and the Divine: Art In London

Still a little sporadic in my updating, and my current excuse is that I still have a guest staying with me and making sure she is entertained at all times means no time for blogs, Dr Jones.

Today we visited the National Portrait Gallery, which I have not been in very often, and I had a high old time finding out what various British historical figures (Walsingham, Drake*, Sarah Siddons, Blake, Dalton, Castlereagh, Johnson, Boswell, etc, etc.) actually looked like, or how they were willing to let people see them, which is not always the same thing. We pondered the interactive stations which allow you to examine the collection in context, putting paintings in a timeline and relevant to each other, giving you an opportunity to look at the archive documents related to this painter during this period of his life or that sitter and so on. It’s a bit like falling down a WikiHole, but with art and in the middle of a gallery.

As a consequence of which the Australian now knows a lot more about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire than she previously did, and I feel a lot more informed on the subjects of: Lord Castlereagh, the 1801 Act of Union which involved lopping off what little executive power the parliament in Dublin had at the time, and how delighted the artist Thomas Lawrence was by basically everything in Vienna. I read a nine-page letter by the latter in which he was effusive about his patrons and about the high society of Vienna and frankly nauseating in his sucking-up. I can’t imagine receiving a letter like that from someone I liked.

Later I had to explain to the Australian who Nye Bevan was (there was a bust of him in the gallery for the first half of the 20th century), and used the phrase “father of the NHS”, to which she replied:

“I imagine he’s doing a lot of turning in his grave at the moment.”
“That… that observation has been made a few times, yes.”

The latter half of the 20th century yielded, at least in the portraits, an unremitting stream of “no I don’t like it”, except for the large portrait of Thatcher which produced the same leap sideways of revulsion that images of the architect of my childhood starvation always has. On the other hand, being able to contrast a self-portrait of Lucian Freud with the photograph we’d seen in the earlier gallery was an interesting experience.

Before we went to the National, though, there was a much smaller gallery and the actual purpose of our visit.

At 15 Bateman Street in Soho, until the 14th of June, Pertwee Anderson & Gold are collaborating with the Museum of Curiosity on an exhibition called Memento Mori. I was sent a link to their site by a friend who is well-informed about my morbid taste in art, and we took it upon ourselves to pay a visit.

There were some marvels, like photographs of morbidity rendered in three dimensions, and a concept called painting which was peculiarly destructive and under other circumstances might have annoyed me – but under these seemed entirely right. My favourite pieces, excluding the obvious appeal of the Chapman skull, were probably a black, sparkling skull in the apparent process of detonating; a gold skull whose teeth had been replaced by dangling beaded tendrils, and the magnificent stuffed peacock in the window. The Australian professed a great love for Saira Hunjan’s work (the attendant at the gallery informed us it had been snapped up at the opening night), and a skull covered in a distressing carpet of varying sizes of pearl, until it looked as if it had some sort of very expensive illness.

As the cheapest work of art (a design for a carton of “death cigarettes”) would have set me back £50, I neglected to become a patron of the arts today. I did buy a postcard of Wilfred Owen from the National Portrait Gallery, however, so I’m going to claim that I have kept my hand in and am still supporting the frivolous and beautiful. For more on the Memento Mori exhibition and biographies of the artists, go here.


The City and the City and the Church and the Church

Today I sat through Fast & Furious 6 for someone else, and now I am posting her photos from our trip into East central London as if they were mine, because I demand compensation for not falling asleep at any point while experiencing a selection of clichés stapled together with car chases.

Yesterday we walked around the London Museum, the Guildhall Art Gallery, and the Barbican Centre, but in between absorbing so much culture that my feet started to bleed (that’s how education works, right?) we also popped into a variety of churches: St Mary le Bow, for example, where there is currently a small exhibition of paintings, and – because the sky decided to piss water onto us – St Lawrence on Jewry, just by the Guildhall Buildings. It was entirely deserted when we went in, and we were only disturbed briefly by a cleaning lady in inspecting a certain amount of bling and passing our judgement on the saints.

This was our favourite:


St Mary Magdalene
St Mary Magdalene

We reserved our opprobrium for St Paul (“bit heavy on the homophobia”) and the Arch-Angel Michael (“boring hero dude”), and our praise for Mary Magdalene, who featured for some reason in a dream I had recently: where an imprisoned woman was giving someone a stern lecture about how Jesus loved and protected lepers and sex workers and that anyone who said prostitutes “deserved it” (the context was, unsurprisingly considering I’ve gone shitnuts for Hannibal on NBC at the moment, a serial killer who focussed as many do, on women who provide sexual relief in exchange for money) had no business calling themselves a Christian. Not a bad little lecture from my subconscious!

St Lawrence on Jewry
St Lawrence on Jewry

The church is in terms of architecture quite a modest little building, neither the gothic splendour of the cathedrals I love nor the sturdy little stone boxes I had to sing hymns in as a kid, but there are some lovely stained glass windows and some nice wood carvings and the organ pipes are BLINGY AS FUCK.

Stay tuned for further adventures in a city I have been living in for eleven years, in which I reduce centuries of art and culture and technological progress to phrases like “blingy as fuck”.

Irn Man and the land north of the border

I have been on a brief holiday. Contrary to my usual criterion for holidays, I deliberately visited a city I knew full well to be made out of rain, hills, wind, and friendly people, all of which are anathema to me. I am more in the field of hot weather, cloudless skies, flat places, and people who fail to acknowledge my existence unless I am drowning or threatening them with a gun.

No you do really want to know what I did on my holidays, and if you don’t, bear in mind that the only news I have outside of this is that I went to Vauxhall City Farm last week and touched a pig.

I wasn’t joking.

Because both myself and the certifiable lunatic who wanted to go on holiday to “Scotland” in the first place (I wrestled her down from “Scotland” to merely “Edinburgh”: she is from Australia and doesn’t understand that inhaling lungfuls of midges and getting hypothermia are Scottish Summer Activities) are somewhat deficient in drive, we did not end up doing most of the things we vainly insisted we were going to. My friends in Edinburgh, who are all terrible people who should be ashamed of themselves, did not help with our loosely-held determination to experience culture and the zoo:

  • “We’re just going to walk to this bar…”
  • “It’s not far…”
  • “I thought we could probably get a little bit drunk.”
  • “Oh, don’t bother going inside the castle, it’s expensive.”
  • “THERE’S THIS PLACE THAT DOES A REALLY NICE [insert food here]”.

Things we did succeed in doing:

  • Cocktails, at Bramble (corner of Queens Street aaaaaaand one of the other streets. I’m good at directions), and at the Rose Leaf. These are a certain distance apart which, for some reason, we walked in a significant amount of rain. On the plus side the cocktails at both were enough to make the middle bit less traumatic. I forget what I had, but one of them was purple and one of the others had rose and chilli in it…
  • Getting to Illegal Jacks on Lothian Road in time to meet some friends for lunch, where we mostly talked about food, statistics, and Lego.
  • Walking alllll the way up to the castle and then deciding that, owing to having a head like a struck bell, we weren’t bothering with going in…
  • … in favour of stumbling down the Royal Mile to the National Museum and prodding some DYNAMIC TAXIDERMY.
  • There were also some, you know, some remains. Of pre-Roman peoples. Possibly. And some kind of suggestion that civilisation existed before the aforementioned Romans came and introduced the peoples of this fine archipelago to things like (the signs assured us): central heating, straight roads, and cats.
  • Cringing with embarrassment on passing some hideously posh English tourists haw-haaawing about Trainspotting and making me want to fling myself down the remainder of the steps in an attempt to distance myself from my eternally-embarrassing countrymen.
  • Falling asleep in front of hotel TV while inhaling Pizza Hut because holidays are also holidays from eating like a responsible adult (see also: consuming close to own bodyweight in tablet and then crying hysterically). Accidentally inventing the hotel room cocktail of “rose and elderflower presse and raspberry vodka”.
  • Taking in most of the National Portrait Gallery, which is astonishingly beautiful, and much nicer than the National Portrait Gallery for England. It also has fun things you can do, and Billy Connolly singing things, and currently has Annie Lennox singing things, and really, the one in London does not have anyone singing anything at all and it also doesn’t have phrenological plaster casts of people described as “female idiot” (or portraits of [insert female hate figure here and chortle to yourself at your own wit]), so frankly: advantage Edinburgh.
  • Attending very briefly a trilingual (English, Polish, and Latin) Catholic Mass, from which my heathen companion (whose experience of organised religion is almost non-existent) almost ran screaming and foaming. Apparently mass bears a rather closer resemblance to impending death, which I suppose is appropriate considering most religions exist to help humanity to deal with the reality of our inevitable mortality. I intend to spend the rest of the Heathen Australian’s visit casually informing her you’re going to die at the least appropriate junctures.
  • Most important: causing accidental noisy delight in some passing young men as we struggled to break into a plastic bag full of soor plooms on a bench in St Andrew’s Square. The yelp of awwwch, soor plooms was an unexpected response, to be honest. Being nominally “from” London (I’ve lived here since 2001) I tend to assume that the response of anyone not from London to my actual existence in their home is liable to be somewhere between contempt and violence…
  • Speaking of contempt, we ended our stay with a truly contemptible meal at some pub which served food made of lies. I have erased the name of the place from my memory, but stand ye warned: it was on Rose Street, and it had root vegetables farmed in the Paleolithic Era and a rabbit pie made of of the kind of rabbit that goes “cluck” and lays eggs.

My review of Edinburgh is that it is a fine, fascinating waterlogged mountain to which I will no doubt return: my review of the intervening landscape between the capital of England and the capital of Scotland is that there is far too much of it and that most of it is entirely unnecessary.

30 Things I’ve Learnt In 30 Years

Shamelessly ripping off Ian Martin’s 60 thoughts about turning sixty:

  1. Adulthood does not preclude laughing at puerile jokes about bums.
  2. If you need to find your friends in a crowded place, shout “BUTTSEX” as loudly as humanly possible. The people not staring at you like you’re mad and in fact desperately trying to pretend they have neither seen nor heard you are the ones you’re looking for. Sooner or later they will relent, and you will be able to find them by listening for the answering cry of “BUTTSEX”.
  3. As a woman, turning thirty is a blessing, because you are now officially dead. I believe this is also true of gay men (last time I checked in with a colleague about this he informed me that you were Gay Dead by twenty-four): it means you are now officially On The Shelf and can be as laid-back and disinterested in the struggle to Look Foxy as you like, and also gives you carte blanche to sneer at anyone still trying.
  4. If you eat it at breakfast time, it’s breakfast.
  5. “Breakfast” is a time defined as “the first meal you eat after waking up”.
  6. The best thing to do on falling down a flight of stairs is to laugh, and then assess whether or not you can stand up. Laughing helps soothe the pain, stops you from looking like a sourpuss, and means people are more likely to help you up.
  7. There is no point in pretending to like something for the sake of engendering acceptance: people need variety amongst their friends, and if that’s having one friend who doesn’t give a damn about purple, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Virginia Woolf, or Cherry Coke, that’s somewhat better than having one friend who thinks slavery wasn’t such an awful idea.
  8. You also don’t have to argue the intellectual merits of something when you like it because it’s mindless guff that hits your buttons. I’ve had a lot of conversations which run along the lines of “BUT HOW CAN YOU LIKE THAT” recently, but I can assure you none of them were especially sincere.
  9. Being your job is entirely optional.
  10. Sticking raw dry spaghetti into Nutella makes a pretty nice snack.
  11. The time to be angry about politics is roughly 15–25. You’ve got ten years of righteous fury in you. The problem is that this mostly doesn’t coincide with ever having the power to do anything about what’s making you angry.
  12. All the anger left over after your mid-twenties turns into bitterness and sadness and makes it impossible to do anything even if you do have the power to do anything.
  13. Learn about methodology and trial design, read about medicines you’re about to take for more reputable sources than the lady with the silver and purple jewellery who talks about “energy”, and do not refuse vaccines.
  14. Magazines are designed to sell magazines, newspapers are designed to sell newspapers. There is no one single source of information which is infallible, especially your mum.
  15. Don’t sleep with someone because you think you ought to.
  16. Don’t sleep with someone because they think you ought to, either.
  17. If you make a lot of something and plan to put it in the fridge or freezer and eat it all week, make a lot of something else as well so that you can alternate it, otherwise you will be sick of it by the third day.
  18. For fuck’s sake, learn to drive. I didn’t and now I can’t go and raid Hay-on-Wye’s innumerable book shops with a massive van and it vexes me.
  19. Don’t throw out books.
  20. After a certain point in drinking, when you start to feel nauseous, it’s a good idea to stop and drink something that’s not alcoholic. You don’t have to go home, but you should probably avoid drinking anything else because otherwise it’s going to turn into one of those nights you don’t entirely remember where all the bits you do remember involve throwing up or having fights with people.
  21. Whoever you vote for will disappoint you: it’s better to feel disappointed in your representatives than a kind of blind cold fury that makes you start ranting on public transport about how much better you’d feel if we could “go properly Cromwellian” or “bung their heads on spikes on Traitor’s Gate”.
  22. Become known for your quirky likes and people are more likely to buy you things than if you have entirely unknown or usual likes, because the minute they see X they will associate it with you. The downside of this is that you will continue to get forty emails about bee conservation every single day of your life from people you barely talk to any more until you die.
  23. So that business about taking an apple in your bag with you in case you are hungry: your mother was right. Not in the sense that you will ever while not actually in an altered state seriously consider eating that apple, but your level of disgust at that apple helps you gauge how hungry you are and whether you can make it home to eat food or whether you are going to throw money at someone to give you food or if it’s worth going to prison for capturing and consuming a small child because you are sure as hell not eating an apple that’s been in your bag for five months.
  24. Famous people are basically the same as other people but more used to dealing with large numbers of people, up to a point. They will also disappoint you if you put them on a pedestal.
  25. Sooner or later you will get pickpocketed so it’s a good idea not to keep anything enormously sentimentally valuable on you.
  26. Learning is a lot more fun when you’re doing it for your own pleasure, but the way that gets the most out of you is when you’re doing it for your own pleasure and being graded on the results and there are twenty-odd other people to compare yourself against and compete with and decided that you have to be better than or else.
  27. There isn’t actually a law against sleeping on the toilet and sometimes it’s better than dealing with the last minute rush to work.
  28. If you have to sign your email or phone number up in order to get free stuff, make sure the free stuff is worth the bother of the endless marketing emails/phone calls from every company ever.
  29. Always take a book, especially if you’re going to Accident & Emergency.
  30. Writing a 30-point list is hard.