Saturday, July 12, 2008

You really must take a vista. Be vigil though!

It used to be quite hard to find bad books. The nature of the publishing industry is such that it rarely takes a gamble. And certainly, in recent years, the business seems to have drawn up its skirts and run away from even the vaguest hint of risk and has invested in safe bets such as the biographies of barely pubescent pop stars, vacuous WAGs and sports stars. Or recipe books that enable you to utterly fail to cook like Gordon Ramsay or Gary Rhodes. Or TV tie-ins. Or clones of existing successes. How many times have you read the phrase ‘the new Harry Potter’ or 'the new Dan Brown'? (The same thing happens with book cover designs. See John Soanes' collection here). It seems to be harder today than at any time in the past for a struggling new author to get a book published.

Or is it? The conventional publishing houses may have pulled up their drawbridges but the rapid spread of affordable digital printing technologies now means that anyone can publish a book … and at an affordable price. Companies like Lulu and CafĂ© Press and Authorhouse now provide a complete service from manuscript to marketing and can organise print runs from one to a million copies if you’re willing to pay. All of which means that publishing is now open to anyone, no matter how good or bad a writer they are. Of course, if they are good, you get to keep all of the money and to Hell with publishers and agents. Sadly, however, most self-published books don't do huge sales because the authors simply don't have the money for expensive ad campaigns. Or because they are horribly bad books.

My first experience with the world of what was known back then as ‘vanity publishing’ came in 1997 when I was asked to paint the front cover of a book. The book was called The Wayfarer: Bilbabalbabul and it was by a man called Aaron Jones. How he'd heard of me I don't know. Why he chose me is even more of a mystery. I had no idea what I'd do for the cover as I really can't paint very well at all. Perhaps reading the book would inspire me I thought? So the reclusive Mr Jones sent me a copy of the manuscript via his printers (I never got to meet the man) and a copy of his previous book Souls of the Universe.
After just one page I was hooked. The book begins with a description of the Middle Earth-like world of Gyral the Tall Elf:

‘This was a world known by so many names in aeons past, whose indigenous life intelligence had evolved through millions of years; through epochs of profound science and technology, through an age when they had mastered space travel; ventured to the far stars and had brought back many alien things. Super minerals and materials, life forms of numerous kinds; thus had created a world of time resilient synthetics; a world of hybrids, of humans; a mixture of countless breeds gone wild.’
The back cover blurb told me this:

‘He had heard of the great immortal city; the citadel of mystery and foreboding. It was the fabulous infamous city all outsiders feared to enter. Yet the bold wayfarer became obsessed by its existence, thus he sought to find it. On his far journeys he would confront all evil obstacles, encounter the wizards of science, the wondrous characters; wild and weird communities. He visited the inns and taverns, braved the deep forests, and he relished the damsels. But he knew he must one day find and behold the phenomenon; thence brazenly enter into the citadel of Bilbabalbabul.’
Having set the scene, Jones then goes on to tell the tale of Gyral, his talking mount Lollyvok, and their adventures in the grimly mysterious and extraordinarily named city of Bilbabalbabul with a disregard for English grammar and punctuation that borders on genius. He sprinkles semicolons around like sawdust on a Hobbit’s floor and happily substitutes synonyms without realising that he’s swapped from verb to noun or vice versa or has used a word completely out of context. The result is curiously mangled sentences like ‘He climbed the hill for to get a better vista’ or ‘Thus I reassert you; my house, my ladies, viands and refreshments are yours’, or ‘You have style in your mode’ or the delicious ‘He is diseased beyond repair’.

The book is a delight to read. I didn't hesitate to do the cover. Among my favourite pieces of prose are these treasures:

‘And one room in his grange was said to be filled with a great jumble of curios, antiques, preserved ancient books of wizardry, incantations, and tales of bygone aeons, and everything.’
'The effeminate albino pursed his thick lips in that certain way to suggest he was male, but homosexual.’

‘Gyral was ever vigil with shifty eyes, hand ready with sword. He then heard voices again and saw something shifting among further Orcle trunks. He just kept walking until he came to a clearing. And nothing happened.’

'He then looked on to his destination again, tilted his feather billed hat, Lollyvok broke wind, and off they shuffled under the frowning red sun’.

And my personal favourite:

‘A couple of pigmy beings then came out from a hut, hobbling in that odd swaying simian manner. In fact they looked like pigmy simians.’

As I say, it takes a kind of genius to write like that. Jones later released an expanded second edition with over 10,000 additional words. And then, either because the edition sold out (I have no idea of the size of the print run) or, more likely, he’d given them all away, he ordered a third print run and expanded the book still further. This third edition is twice the size of the first. I suspect that Jones may have run out of money by this time though as the cover of the third edition is monochrome rather than full colour.

You can still get copies of The Wayfarer: Bilbabalbabul through book outlets like Abebooks and it still has a listing on Amazon. I was surprised to see myself credited as the illustrator (under the nom de plume of Stephen Meryk Colgan - I was still experimenting) as I only painted the cover. And I didn’t do a terribly good job of that. But it was the best I could do at the time and Mr Jones was massively happy with it, apparently. But I say to you now – buy it while you can. It will become a cult classic I’m sure.

If it seems like I am attacking Aaron Jones, rest assured I’m not. I think that the book is brilliant in its naivety. It is apparent to anyone who reads The Wayfarer: Bilbabalbabul that Aaron Jones is not a writer but he loves to write. You can feel his passion and you cannot fault the man’s self-belief. And that’s the whole point isn't it? If you love to write then you should write. If it brings you joy, write all the time. But if you desperately want to get published and can't do it by conventional means, there are avenues available to you.

I hope that Aaron Jones is still writing. I hope that seeing his book in print brought him joy. Because that would mean that, despite all of the knock backs and rejections, his passion is undimmed.

Good for him. There's a lesson there for us all.

For more on the world of self-publishing, see my previous posts The worst book ever written and Naked came the spoof.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to "Good Show Sir - Only the worst Sci-Fi / Fantasy book covers" which can be found on Facebook, I read this article and I have to say it's very well written and the last two paragraph just got me: it was very kind that, in fact, you weren't mocking this guy. For me, it was very touching.

Tomas Mihalciak, Slovakia

hannahbelle said...

I agree with what Tomas said. Good show.

Anonymous said...

Great post - made me laugh so hard I cried.