There is no shortage of writers out there scrambling to get their work noticed in the digital self-publishing boon. The smart ones offer you a compelling reason to notice them beyond their presence on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, be it in informative blogs, book reviews, or even paid ads. This means delving into areas traditionally covered by publishing companies: marketing and promotion. One of the most savvy ways to seduce readers to your work is to offer advice to other writers on how they might sell their own work; to act as a tour guide for those who are a few steps behind them. I am wary of such voices: like tips on the craft of writing itself, there are reams of bad advice on the Internet for those who are gullible and unsure of themselves. That is why, when I stumbled upon David Gaughran’s site a few months age, I knew it would be one I would be returning to. He represents an intelligent voice in the fray, and his posts go far to offer valuable insight and information on the quickly evolving state of self-publishing.
With so much good information on offer it is actually easy to overlook that David is also a writer of fiction. So – as I am hoping to review books of a more literary bent than the average indie offering – I asked David for a review copy of his slim two-story volume If You Go Into The Woods. Like his blog, Gaughran has put a lot of effort into the details of his publication. The cover is evocative – not flashy but eye-catching; the text is formatted well and – in contrast to so many inde books I have tried, and failed, to finish – it is edited and proofread, leaving nothing between you and the clean prose but a screen. All this should be standard if publishing a book; unfortunately it’s not.
The first story, which shares the title of the volume, follows a local misfit on a fateful expedition into a the woods. The story has more in common with the absurdist works of Brohumil Hrabel than the dark, grueling writing of Lovecraft, as others have compared Gaughran to. It is a fine story that looms in the mind of the reader long after the last page. This is aspirational fiction, the kind of magic realism that reads deliciously, but like a delicate soufflé, is a difficult feat to pull off. If You Go Into The Woods penetrates beyond its immediate cerebral pleasure and is well worth the cover price. The second, and less successful story, draws more from stock of Irish countrymen Brendan Behan and J.P Donleavy. The protagonist, a dead-beat dad who is immediately forgotten by everybody he meets, might well be a metaphor for any indie writer: he does everything short of physical assault to get noticed, and only when his existence is finally acknowledged, does he find peace. One reviewer on If You Go Into The Wood’s Amazon product page expressed that they wanted more from this second story. I agree. The protagonist really wants to extend his boozy arms and make himself comfortable beyond the limitations of this short story. In fact, in both stories, the writer doesn’t give the impression that he has fully allowed himself the permission to demand too much of the reader’s attention. Gaughran’s protagonists are expansive, social misfits. These are characters that want a larger canvas, particularly in the second story. This surprised me because Gaughran’s daily blog posts are lengthy and develop on the chosen topic far beyond the average blog post. All in all, however, If You Go Into The Woods is a fine edition – I look forward to the writer’s forthcoming novel.
The question – and I ask this more to myself than Gaughran or any other indie author – is where does the marketing begin to interfere with the actual writing? It is easy to believe that because your title is being bought, you have talent. This, of course, is not true. There are people who are selling hundreds of thousands of books on-line who are bereft of anything new or interesting to say. Where does popular opinion sway you enough to say “My writing is good enough, as the market has proven,” and stop working on improving your craft? There seems to be the belief amongst indie writers that once you have a traditional book deal, the gates of heaven swing open, a wreath is placed on your head, and your divine reward of irrevocable acceptance is delivered. But most first-time novelists don’t see a second book deal. And only time will tell if the writers who are so popular with 99 cent offerings will be similarly embraced when their books are twenty times the price. My guess is that a lot of them won’t. These writers filled a previously unavailable niche, but now they will have to compete with far greater talents on the bookshelf. But despite my misgivings about a lot of what I see, it is a still a fantastic time in history for writers – and I look forward to answering these questions for myself, and following the promising career of David Gaughran.