One of the wonderful things about letter writing is that occasionally a missive lands on your mat – or in the mailbox in my case – from a sender you do not recognise, have never heard of, have never suspected existed. Some people go out of their way to advertise themselves, while others simply take the quieter route – as I prefer – and write letters at will to whoever they can find, with the hope they will receive a reply. For those receiving a letter from me for the first time, it is much the same as my receiving your letter: the envelope is there, the hand writing is different, the name is different, a possible adventure is awaiting my letter opener, my eager gaze and, when everything works out, my reply.
For many it is this reply which causes them the most anguish and pain: not what is going to be contained in my letter, but whether I will take the time, exert my energy, to reply to what they have set down on paper, to their own thoughts and opinions. I have met many people who claim they are scared, or held back in some way, from replying to me, so that they do not have to undergo the disappointment of me not replying back again. They would rather not take a chance, would rather yield before the fight, so to speak, than take a chance on disappointment. The question is, of course, would they be disappointed? It is similar to Schrödinger’s Cat: there is a cat in a box but no one knows whether it is alive or dead. If you open the box, one or the other answer will be there: the cat is either alive or dead. But if you do not open the box, firstly you will never know and, secondly, the cat will remain forever in a form of limbo between alive and dead. If a person does not reply to one of my letters, they will never know whether I would have been prepared to continue writing, whether I accept them as they are, whether we, as two separate entities, would ever have been able to find a level upon which we both could feel happy, where we could both have written and expressed our opinions, our beliefs, and added to our knowledge.
I think the idea runs something along the lines of: if you do not try, you cannot fail. But this, to me, is a form of failure: the lack of courage to accept that you could fail, that the chance of you not making the grade is there, but that you could also pass, win, succeed, be triumphant. If you do not try, you can also not succeed. And what happens when a person fails? If they have anything inside their head at all, they learn.
It may seem strange, but even a person who comes across as being intelligent, intellectual, well-educated or however you wish to term it, has still a good deal to learn. There is no end to the educational trip we make in this life; if there was then many people would be wise before their time and have nothing else to live for, life would be boring because they have seen and done everything. Those who believe they have learned all they need when they pick up that High School graduation certificate, or their college certificate, or a piece of paper saying they have passed this or that examination, are cutting themselves off from parts of the most exciting aspects of life. Every day brings something new, and every person we meet has an experience we have not had, an experience we will never be able to live. And many of the people we look up to as being intelligent, as having made it in the world through their ability to think, failed in school, were written off as being less than intelligent, as being impossible to educate, as being unworthy of a place in society.
I don’t have a problem with my details being passed on at all; my main aim is to write letters to people and form some sort of connection which, I hope, will bring something of them, something of their life experiences into my life and allow me, on the other side of the world, to share my own experiences. We all have our own journey, and this is mine. Every person has their own reasons for communicating with another, public or private, and, in the end, it is up to them whether they write the truth or attempt to create an alternate lifestyle, belief structure, personality for themselves. Someone may well be ashamed of the level of his education, of their social status, of what they have done or what they do and wish, as a result, to hide the truth. But who are they hiding it from? A person on the other side of the world who offers something special through written communication, through personal letters and friendship, or from themselves? There are too many stories of people getting caught out in the lies they spin, the stories they fabricate, and having lost everything in the end. I hardly need tell you about the results; I am sure you can see them around you every single day of the week, coupled with those who have still not realised their actions are hurting themselves more than anyone else.
Creativity is good, it brings pleasure both to those who create and, in another sense, to those who view. I often have chats – through my letters – with people who write poetry, who are thinking of putting g their stories down on paper, who have written books or are involved with a theatre group, a choir, an artists’ union or similar. I have my letter writing and an exceptionally active life of travelling from one meeting to another, of visiting people who do not yet know we are going to be friends and remain in contact with one another for many years to come, of reading books. I do not doubt for one moment that, if one of these activities was missing, I would find another to fill its place.
The idea of your work interests me, but only on an ideal level. I recall a similar treasure hunt back in the early Eighties, where an artist produced a beautifully illustrated book, and hid a small golden work of art somewhere in the United Kingdom. The book sold thousands of copies, maybe more, but it was never clear whether the treasure had been found, whether the treasure actually existed. And then we have Ellery Queen, stretching back a few more decades, and this wonder duo who challenged their readers, certainly when it came to the televised series, to name the criminal. There was no prize here, no chance of winning anything but, perhaps, the respect of anyone else who happened to be watching the series with you, and even then enough people were capable of seeing through the few red herrings, the twists and turns in the storyline, and uncover the truth. These, aside from the idea of a chance to win something, had something in common: they were both published and advertised by major, established concerns. They had access to newspapers and magazines and the necessary financial backing to promote their product, to sell the idea, to captivate an audience and make them part with hard-earned cash for a dream.
I can tell you from experience that a self-published book, unless it is from the hand of a millionaire with unlimited resources and contacts, will not be able to achieve this. There is still, and probably with good reason, a lot of feeling against works which are published by the authors themselves, and not by a recognised publisher, not by one of the big names. A few decades ago these publishers were called Vanity Presses: an author paying to have their work published which no one else would accept, merely to see their name in print and be able to claim success as an author. Self-publishing companies do not handle publicity, do not send representatives out to the main booksellers and wholesalers with copies for the bookseller, the buyer to see and assess. In the heyday of the vanity press, a limited number of copies would be printed, enough to cover the needs of the author, and no more than that. These fake publishing houses gained a name as a result, and it was never a good one.
Going back through history, though, there are countless brilliant writers who were effectively self-published, but in a society which is completely different to today. There was a time, about one hundred fifty years ago, when publishers, as individual companies, did not exist. These times were mastered by the booksellers themselves, who would take on a manuscript, arrange the printing, and then publish the work for sale in their own store; a level of exclusivity no author can afford today. So my copy of the 1800 edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, for example, is printed for Wm. Otridge and Son, John Walker, James Scratchard, Verner & Hood, D. Ogilvy and Son, and Darton & Harvey. These were booksellers, with their own shops, who banded together to publish what was to be one of the all-time classics of modern literature, and sell it in their own shops in London. In Germany, Wolfgang von Goethe was also published by an individual bookseller initially, and complained bitterly when another took on the work and, illegally, produced his own copies for sale without reimbursing the author for his content. There are even tales, certain in what is now Germany and around the Hapsburg Empire, of pirated copies being produced and sold, with a lesser quality and thus cheaper than the real versions, before the real versions, authorised by the author, came onto the market.
Copyright laws have changed all this, to a certain extent, but even that took time to achieve international recognition. For many decades, the American book market was one fed with pirated copies of English works, which publishers bought, had shipped over in single copies, and then simply printed and sold themselves. Charles Dickens was a victim of this form of theft, but managed to gain back control of his intellectual property with a series of highly successful tours across the United States, talking, presenting, reading for a small entrance fee. And selling, of course, his own works for his own profit.
Selling works as a series is also not unique, and has its good and bad sides: Charles Dickens works were originally published in various monthly magazines, before being compiled into complete works for publication as books. Stephen King tried it more recently, his The Green Mile coming out as a series of individual books each containing a few chapters which, despite his name and popularity, were not received with quite as much applause as might have been expected. Today it is generally accepted that instalments are not the right thing for longer literary works, and only short stories, which might later be compiled into a book, are published by the vast majority of periodicals. Our modern world no longer produces people who have the patience to wait for the next instalment, nor the level of concentration to remember a storyline from one hour to the next, let alone a week or month.
My main point here is not so much to say that your idea is not unique, there are millions which are copies of older ideas and are still a phenomenal success, but to warn of the idea of a self published book being successful enough to raise the prize money. Without a name, as author, without a major sponsor, as financier, without a guaranteed audience to turn to, the chances of financial success are exceptionally limited. So much for prize money, but not for an idea which could be taken on by one of the mainstream publishers and marketed. There is no reason why you shouldn’t write and try your luck with one of the established houses, or even with some of the periodicals who accept shorter works from outside, from first-timers, from those who are, as yet, unknown. This is also a good method, I might add, for building up a name and a following: writing for a well-known periodical on a fairly regular basis and gaining a following. Whereby it would be much easier for you to find someone prepared to dedicate some of their time to typing up, to producing a fair copy of your works now and then. I, however, because of the obligations I have to so many other pursuits and institutions, would not be a suitable candidate. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t be willing to read a short story or an article now and then, but my ability to sit down and fair-copy type is limited to the time I spend writing my letters and producing my own articles and short stories.
But I also look at it this way: someone who has the courage to approach with a proposition, not knowing anything about the person they are approaching, could well have the ability to succeed once the chances are taken in hand and properly assessed. Thus my long recounting about the publishing business above, with history and personal knowledge as much as personal experience. Sometimes it is better, when the resources are not there, to begin small, with what is immediately achievable, and move on to the greater plans over a longer period of time.