If you have typed enough words to fill a book, when does it become a book? Does it have to be printed, or can it be entirely digital? Must there be more than one copy? Is it a book if it's not on sale in a real bookshop?
And when does a would-be author become an author?
I recently asked these questions when I gave a talk to students at City University, towards the end of their novel-writing course.
Having just finished my own novel, I found it exciting to be with people who had almost finished theirs – but I was startled by some of the comments and questions.
It seemed that a few individuals were unaware of quite how much creative power they possess.
These would-be authors had previously heard from two other visiting speakers: a mainstream publisher and an agent. I don't know who they were, but both of them had, apparently, told the students that they would not get anywhere without an agent.
That's bollocks, I said.
Having been an unpublished author myself, once, I remember painfully how much I gave up my creative power as soon as I sent in a manuscript – as if it could only be good if person X said so.And as if I could do nothing until I heard back from person Y.
But here's the thing. I have had several agents myself over the years – all of them well known, highly regarded and also very nice – but NONE of the books I have published came about because an agent “discovered” me and found a publisher for my book.
It just never happened that way. Instead, I found them, or the publisher came to me. Sometimes an agent helped me with the contract, sometimes not.
So agents can be useful, I said. And many publishers are brilliant at what they do.
But authors aren't idiots. An author can publish a book without an agent. You may not choose to do that, but you CAN. You can approach a publisher directly. It may require cunning, and persistence, but it's not impossible.
Publishers need authors, just as much as authors need publishers. In fact, authors DON'T need publishers, because you can self-publish beautifully these days, or crowd-fund your novel, as I have done. (I described how I did that.)
Whichever approach you choose, you are going to want to promote your product.
We don't normally think of authors as – in effect – entrepreneurs, inventing and selling products, but that's what we are.
Even the most obscure and difficult of our works, if they are not given away free, must be sold. We all need to eat.
How are you going to do that? I asked.
Oh, but some of us aren't good at selling, said one man.
No, it's hard, I agreed, but we can all learn.
Oh I can't stand it, he said: all the noise on Twitter, with people going on and on about their books and urging you to buy them. I block people who do that.
Well that's fine, I said. I ignore advertisements all the time – unless they happen to be promoting something I want.
But suppose that the agent and the publisher were right: suppose that you won't ever get anywhere without an agent. You still have to sell the book – to get an agent! And if you get the agent, and the publishing contract, you will have to help sell it to readers eventually.
And that's fine, by the way. It might even be easy. You have spent a long time creating this product. If you believe in it, sell it! If you didn't believe in it, why would you inflict it on the public?
There's something odd about the way we think about books and commerce. Or rather, how we don't think about them – not together, anyway.
(Unless it's to sneer at somebody for being “commercial”.)
At university, studying English Literature, I became quite expert on how Alexander Pope put words together, one after the other, but I had absolutely no idea how he got them published.
Which is a shame, because it's actually a very interesting story. It's key to understanding the kind of writer Pope was. He raised funds by subscription, to cover in advance his work translating Homer's Iliad.
And as a result, he became that very unusual thing, a rich poet.
He basically invented crowd-funding.
I said all this at City. I got quite carried away (after all, Pope, and his crowd-funding, form an important part of my novel).
I hoped that I wasn't being hectoring. I just wanted this group of writers, who had put so much work into their books, to feel that it was worthwhile. So I asked them to think what they actually wanted for their books. What's the ideal outcome?
There were lots of blank looks.
It's a question I've been wrestling with myself, recently. What would be my definition of success, for my novel? In all the years I'd been writing it, I never stopped to give the question a moment's thought.
At best, I probably did no more than wish, vaguely, that it would be published by a prestigious publisher, would get good reviews, and people would be impressed.
But what did that mean, exactly? What makes a publisher “prestigious”? And what makes a review “good”? (Does it need to be prominent? How prominent? Does it need to have a photograph of me on the page? Does it need to say Very Clever Things that I didn't even know myself about the book?)
And how many people needed to be impressed? One? Fourteen? Half a million? Did it matter if just as many people – or more – were not impressed at all? In fact, distinctly unimpressed?
It's hard to answer these questions with a single answer. But it's OK to have a variety of answers.
In fact, by noticing that we don't absolutely need any one particular outcome, we can let go of the fear of failure that is (I suspect) so closely related to our generalised, but desperate, wish for an agent to swoop from heaven, declare our work to be pure genius and find a publisher who pays a fortune for it, puts up giant posters to promote it, and achieves extortionate prices, on our behalf, for translation and film rights.
There are many other ways to publish a book, I said.
When I wrote Sew Your Own, all I wanted was to publish a limited edition of books that I would print and bind myself (in keeping with the book's home-made ethos). I phoned a friend, Maddy Harland, to ask about sustainable sources of paper. Maddy asked to see my book, and after reading it she asked if she could publish it, through her publishing company Permaculture.
Sure! I said. And publishing it became an adventure, with friends.
Not long afterwards, the lovely people at Profile wanted to publish it too. Permaculture happily sold the rights, and a whole new adventure opened up, with new friends, but the same book.
In other words: a book that I had only intended to publish myself ended up being published by two “proper” publishers.
You could do the same, I said, to the 12 authors in the room at City.
You could edit each other's work, find a designer – a good one, mind you! – write each other's jacket copy, and reviews, and upload the books to Lulu.com to be printed professionally. As a group, you could invent your own publishing house, as a one-off, and bung its logo on the spine of each book.
You could be authors, editors, designers, agents and publishers all at once. It needn't take a great deal of work, if each of you looked after just one other person's book.
And when you are ready, to save yourselves the embarrassment of promoting yourselves on Twitter, and risk being blocked – you can promote each other.
As I found, in my crowd-funding, it's virtually impossible to do this on your own. You need other people, not only to buy your book but to help spread the word.
But the identity of the people who help can vary. They don't need to be certified, professional agents and publishers. Every person who has ever shared details about my novel is my agent. Everybody who subscribed cash is my publisher.
You can do that for each other, I said. You need only to organise yourselves. And when you have done that, you might find the agents and publishers come looking for YOU.
Four copies of What If The Queen Should Die?, designed and printed in book form by me, as work in progress