Bad breath at parties is a bad thing. And I know, because many years ago I used to have bad breath. I don’t any more, for good reason – but there was a time when people backed away from me or turned their heads unexpectedly and buried their noses in their wine glasses. It was not a good place to be.
But more of this later, because right now I want you to imagine we are somewhere else completely. We are at a party, watching a female figure approach across the room.
See her now, coming near, this woman in her fifties with the tinted blonde wavy hair, proffering a bottle of wine as if it is some kind of magic talisman, or a piece of bait to get you hooked. Notice the lean frame and the sharp eyes that seem, at their centre to have a vacuum, and notice that friendly enough smile. She seems interested in a conversation… so why not?
The next few minutes are spent in prattle and intros – so how do you know x, and isn’t y lovely (notice how good she is at digging around, and notice again yet more vacancy behind those eyes) alongside calculations about property and people, and where do you live, and so on.
Then there’s the inevitable question: And what do you do? Suppose now that she tells you that she is a publisher. Then after a while, imagine that she tells you she is actually a “self-publisher”, which, you establish, doesn’t mean that she only publishes her own work. You might get a feeling that she would never be quite that careless with her own money. Nope. She publishes books for other “selves”.
Imagine that you ask her what she publishes, and she tells you: Oh, anything. Anything and everything. And if you’ve got half a brain in your head, despite the wine she has lavished on you, you might start getting a little warning bell sound. Especially when she describes how an author approaches her with a manuscript and she makes it so easy for them. How she organizes the printing of the book, she organizes the layout, she organizes the publicity and she organizes distribution. Which doesn’t make her a publisher. It makes her a high quality printing service.
So, you might ask yourself, what about the content of the book? It’s possible that you have friends who have self-published books that were so close to being really good, but which, somewhere along the way, let themselves down. Books that are fantastic ideas, but just needed working up. Books, in fact that needed a judicious eye to make them sing, but which croak at times instead – or raise themselves up to sonorous heights, only to stutter and stammer at the crucial point. Or others again that are playing a symphony of marvellous ideas, but which suddenly have a foghorn blaring right in the middle of the performance.
Perhaps she blinks now, this self publisher. Perhaps she talks of how it isn’t her place to comment on the content. And perhaps, as you watch her more closely, you might begin to realise that that emptiness in her eyes is the void that comes from inhabiting a world devoid of values. The pages of whichever book she is thinking of right now, might as well be blank, you suspect. And without values – writing values – she can add nothing to raise any of the books she publishes to the next saleable level, either.
What business is it of mine to dictate what you find in the pages of a book? she might well ask, with a rhetorical flourish. These authors are experts on their subjects. I am not.
Perhaps at this point you might consider that yes, they are experts, but not necessarily on writing. An image might swim before you as you talk to this woman, as you consider the plights of those desperate to be published at any cost. It’s possible that you begin to think that if ever there was a duty of care towards a client, it really should exist in this world of self publishing.
What I have written above is just a daydream – a little picture to consider, as you read this little blog. And it can fade now, as we get back to the real point: bad breath.
One of the best things my brother did for me was, while driving me home from a party, to open the window on his side of the car. It was a winter night many years back, icy and cold, and I asked him to close it again. It was then that he told me: “Matt, you need to see a dentist or a doctor. Someone who can help you. Because there is something wrong with your breath.”
I was gutted. I cast my mind back through the preceding year and identified a definite pattern, which up to then I had been oblivious to. It was a recent problem, I realised, that had coincided with the pain I was getting from my wisdom teeth. Pictures came up of close conversations in which people had stepped backwards, and walked away and I had felt an unidentifiable sense of rejection. How awful! And all it would have taken was the right word for me to have dealt with the matter months before.
Once I was told about it, I decided to sort it out. I went to see the experts. The dentist edited my mouth, taking out a few unnecessary bits. He removed my wisdom teeth and life got better. People not only liked me, they were also willing to stand near me. My brother had done me a big favour.
Now consider this: if I had not received that great piece of advice, I might well have ended up in friendships only with people with no sense of smell. Or, worse, if I had a bit of money to throw around, I might have been surrounded by people who did have a sense of smell, but were willing to put up with the reek to get their hands on the wonga, and secretly sniggered down their sleeves when I left. Either of these scenarios might have made me feel good in the short-term, but the problem of being unpopular with lots of different people at parties would still have been there.
Now let’s go back to the vanity publisher we imagined. I haven’t made a decision about her breath in my imaginary scenario. I didn’t stand close enough to her in my imagination to find out. But if you are going to go to someone like her, heed this one piece of advice:
Don’t think she is interested in your precious manuscript or that she thinks it has value. That’s not her job. For her, the only book you have on your person of any value is your chequebook. She ain’t going to give you advice, she ain’t going to help you make your book better. She’s not going to sidle up to you and let you know, in the nicest, most caring way, that as it stands, right now, your book stinks and needs a proper professional eye on it – and that only that way will it make new friends. Because although she calls herself a publisher, making a profit from sales of your book ain’t her job. So she isn’t going to care one jot of ink.
Remember: at a dentist’s, at some point you’re going to have your mouth open wide. When you walk into a vanity publisher’s, make sure your eyes are open wide, too.