Dan Holloway: thoughts on self-publishing: an “unreal but unshakeable thing”

Dan Holloway

For me self-publishing is an unreal but unshakeable thing. Like the memory of landscape where something terrible once happened or a twin that died at birth, it follows me everywhere, enticing, entrancing, mocking and thwarting me in equal measure. You are a self-publisher, it says. You will always be a self-publisher. Learn to love it, like you once did. Before it happened. Before that terrible thing happened.

Like a badly edited thriller, what that terrible event might be is never revealed. All I am left with is the memory that self-publishing was once something wonderful and without horizon, and is now something claustrophobic that refuses to let me go. And all the chapters that stretch out before me seem like lines on a highway desperate to find its way back to that horizon.

My first steps in self-publishing came, after months of planning and plotting, when I posted a long manifesto on Myspace entitled “Let’s make 2009 Publishing’s Year Zero.” It was the outline for a completely self-sufficient self-publishing collective based on the LETS model of barter-based economics. That developed into Year Zero Writers (http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com), a collective that lasted two years comprised of around 20 writers from 8 countries. We published new material every day. Eventually we started holding live shows in great venues like Rough Trade in Brick Lane and a host of galleries. There was something exciting about what we were doing, but there was also something exciting about what we were writing. Indie stood for more than just how you got your work out there. It stood for a subject matter that was liminal, urban, dark and experimental. It was a world of weird fiction and magic realism and urban punk where the outcasts and the addicts, the silenced and the self-harmers wandered at will, their voices echoing in deserted spaces with glorious disrespect. We gigged with bands and burlesque and artists and filmmakers. We each knew what our art meant. It was the collective voice of the outside, battering down the walls and sending shivers of draft to chill the bones of a mainstream that had stood in judgement over us for decades.

Gentrification is the inevitable next step for any beautiful wasteland, and self-publishing has, for the last three or four years, slowly morphed into a world whose vocabulary is that of content and consumer, sales and strategies. For readers, and for artists, self-publishing has become, like so many urban landscapes before it, somewhere safe after dark. Yes, you might encounter the occasional piece of dino porn, but you can walk the streets without your world being turned upside down, without the verbal claws of the damned tearing the fragile shell you’ve built and churning at your insides.

Outside has become the new inside, which leaves outsiders where they always are, looking for their place and realising they don’t have one. Increasingly the publishing industry, small presses in particular, has started outflanking the world of DIY in providing a home to edgy, risk-taking fiction. But self-publishing won’t go away. It is still there, its imago deep in our subconscious insisting that it alone is where we belong.

The changing landscape has led to the strange situation where the past two years I have led a double literary life. On the one hand, I have been privileged to be able to take a leading role in the Alliance of Independent Authors (http://allianceindependentauthors.org/), the leading representative body for self-publishers. With them I have tub-thumped for three London Book Fairs in a row and headed up a campaign for the literary industry to be more inclusive of self-publishing. On the other I have been touring the UK with the spoken word show The New Libertines, which brings together many of the most original and powerful voices in today’s literary underground for some truly spine-tingling shows. What’s so very strange is that most of those voices now have their work with small, edgy, exciting presses. And when I have my self-published hat on with the Alliance I feel as though I am among professionals, people into the business of books. It’s like two halves of me have been photographed and turned into a negative.

What I want to do now is to make the New Libertines more of a specific showcase for the wonderful self-published writers out there who struggle to find a voice either in the mainstream or amongst other self-publishers. The public deserve to know there is a dark lovely underbelly of poetry and prose that mainlines passion into its readers’ veins, turns their world upside down and makes them see beauty in the every day they never dreamed of.

That theme of dark beauty in the everyday is what has always driven my own writing and it’s what always fascinates me about others. What we think of as the everyday varies so much from person to person, group to group. For every space there are so many ways of occupying it. So many different groups literally walk the same paths in the world without ever noticing each others’ presence. Take Shaftesbury Avenue in London after dark. On the south side is Chinatown, on the north Soho’s gay village, and Theatreland bleeding through the tarmac and each of these worlds and countless others co-exist and barely touch. It’s that way of coexisting that forces you to redefine the other big theme in my writing and my life, the idea of the outsider. We all share the same space in different ways, but that space doesn’t belong to any of us. The space is there, separate from us, and resisting any attempts to occupy it. None of us is an insider or an outsider in the city. Those are notions that belong solely to people’s narratives. We frame each other as outsiders, we frame ourselves as outsiders because of our absence in each others’ narratives. But to the city we are all just there, each finding our way to live alongside and inside it. The stories I want to hear are those about how we learn to find ways of occupying the space that’s given to us. By making ourselves outsiders to the things that oppress us, by withdrawing from narratives that constrain us, we can find our own ways of being, original, creative, beautiful ways. That’s what I want to write about, the pathways we seek that no one else has found before. And those are the voices I want to read, and to share.

Dan Holloway is troublemaker in chief of touring troubadours The New Libertines, has been a winner of Literary Death Match, and is author, among other things, of Evie and Guy, a novel written wholly in numbers.

Dan Holloway can be found at danholloway.wordpress.com

Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a 'recovering musician', he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

3 Comments

  • Reply August 6, 2014

    VM Gautier

    The thing that is most disturbing to me about what self-publishing has become is the split and stigma which has grown wider and more ugly with the Hachette v Amazon brouhaha. I am not Jeff Bezo’s bitch. Yet, Amazon is a means to an end — an affordable way for me to reach readers both electronically and in print.I’ve seen people who self-publish compared to scabs (union busters in the US). I feel the breach is growing. Writers should not be divided this way.

  • Reply August 6, 2014

    Rohan Quine

    Through his New Libertines events, Dan is being the actual positive change himself, as has often been the case. One side of the literary wall-mirror he’s describing here shows him drinking cheap absinthe in an urban dive-bar, while the other side of it shows him in a polite suburban Starbucks sipping a skinny frappuccino (yes, with sprinkles). Here’s to the absinthe!

  • Reply August 8, 2014

    Dan Holloway

    VM, the Amazon hypocrisy makes me sick. For 2 years I stridently boycotted Amazon with my books because 1. they undercut independent stores, 2. their tax record sucks, and 3. they treat their workers questionably. Vast numbers of authors rounded on me for being simplistic and troublesome – authors who now that the threat is to their pay packet rather than a wider social sense are queuing up to diss Amazon. The level of self-interest the whole thing has revealed amongst those writers has left me feeling sick and tired of the literary world.

    Rohan, absinthe indeed!!

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