THE ADVICE THAT J. D. SALINGER AND DORIS LESSING GAVE ME
The first sound I can remember is the click-click-click of typewriter keys.
The machine was a pre-War Olivetti, and the fingers that gave it life belonged to my father – the Sufi scholar, Idries Shah.
In a career that spanned forty years, he churned out dozens of best-selling books, most of them relating to philosophy and human thought.
He was obsessed with creating work.
One summer, I remember him leading me by the hand through blazing sunshine. I must have been five years old.
‘When are you going to write your first book?’ he asked earnestly.
Any other father might have been joking.
But mine was deadly serious.
Nothing is taken quite so seriously in our family as the creation of written text, the telling and retelling of stories. It’s a kind of ancestral lifeblood, a matrix by which one generation passes on ideas and wisdom, gleaned through centuries of experience.
Some family weave carpets in the shadows of their homes.
We weave stories.
Just about every member of my immediate family is a published writer – both my grandfathers, one grandmother, my father, aunt and uncle. And, both of my sisters have books out this week – same as me.
The key idea passed down to us, generation on generation, is that you must write for yourself – and not as part of a crazed circus, one created to publish for the sake of publishing.
It’s an idea that has been drummed in to me throughout my life by a close family friend – Doris Lessing. She would always say that writing is a way of creating equilibrium in one’s mind, a method of escape unlike any other.
The advice was echoed one afternoon by an American guest. He had turned up to see my father at our home in the English countryside. And his name was J. D. Salinger.
He said that a typewriter was a kind of magic wand, and that the ability to harness it was an alchemy of its own.
And so it was that I learned the obsession of putting words on paper, and the puritanical work ethic and the angst needed to create.
My first book was an assortment of travel writings that I called Beyond the Devil’s Teeth. Looking back at it now, I was fumbling in darkness and hadn’t yet learned the craft. But I was enthusiastic, even when I couldn’t get an agent.
I’d been refused by absolutely everyone.
Undeterred, I started my own agency. It consisted of a plush color letter-heading, a telephone, and me…
I was the agent (William Watkins) and the only client.
Having sent the manuscript out to a zillion publishers, I sat by the telephone, waiting for it to ring. It didn’t. So I got into bed and hunkered down under my quilt.
Days of hibernation.
Days of misery.
Then, one morning, the phone rang. I picked it up and answered breathlessly.
‘Is that Worldwide Media?’ asked a prim woman’s voice.
Pinching my nose, as if I were a receptionist on a switchboard, I answered in the affirmative.
‘I would like to speak to Mr. Watkins, please. It’s about Beyond the Devil’s Teeth.’
The rest is history… a history of toil, grind, and wordage.
My books were commissioned by increasingly large publishing houses – book projects with a pay-check even before I had written a word. It was good. My wife and kids were clothed. We could travel. All our mouths had smiles. Editors took me to fine lunches and ordered rare wine. There was a joie de vivre, a sense that the glory days would never end. I was swooned over and praised, and told how absolutely fabulous I was.
And I believed it.
But, worse than that, was the small fact that, with each book I produced, I was coaxed (and sometimes cajoled) to rejig my work – taking it in directions I was less than happy to go. ‘Just change the beginning old boy,’ the editor would say as he poured another glass of Chateau Lafite. Or, ‘Think we could lose chapter 9. It’s a bit of a downer, don’t you think?’
And the foreign publishers were no better.
In Germany they excised the entire 80 pages from one of my books, while muttering apologies. I found out later it was because all German letterboxes are apparently the same size (the mind reels), and that my book was a shade too thick to get through any of them.
And so, as the years passed, we were lavished in royalty cash. I bought myself little pressies, and jewelry for my wife, and a shiny new car, and toys for the kids.
I even bought a cabinet of curiosities.
Inside it was an assortment of prehistoric dinosaur teeth, a phial of sulphur from an ancient mine, a bent nail from a gallows, and a strand of hair from an Amazonian shrunken head.
But, all the while, I found myself slipping away from the sound advice of Lessing, Salinger, and of my own father…
The advice to write for myself.
On the rare occasions I entertained the thought of going it alone, my editor choked. Charging my glass with claret, he poured scorn on the abysmal anti-world of ‘self publishing’. Agreeing with him, and laughing at the idea, I shuffled home and got down to my new commission.
And, as it did, I kept thinking and wondering.
What did all those people in a big publishing firm actually do? Some of them pushed paper from one office to the next, and back again. Others made restaurant bookings, or soothed the editorial egos.
A great many more appeared to do nothing at all.
Then, one morning, I received an email from my editor in New York. He was an untouchable, the ruler of a kingdom all of his own. I half expected him to be inviting me to another luncheon – roast suckling pig and another cascade of Chateau Lafite.
But it wasn’t like that.
The editor’s tone was suddenly meek and crestfallen. He was ‘moving on to new challenges’. That’s publishing speak of having been laid off. I gawked at the words, and I gaped.
It was the beginning of the end.
That night I saw Salinger and Lessing in a dream. They were looming over me, as was my father. Each of them was wagging an index finger in my direction, while shaking their head in disappointment.
‘Stay on the true path,’ they said as one.
‘How do I do that?’
‘By going it alone.’
And so I did.
Over the next year I created a new publishing model for myself. It consists of two distinct parts, under the name Secretum Mundi Publishing.
The first part is dedicated to creating some of the most beautiful books ever printed – books written by me. I scoured the world for the finest book printer, and found him in Hong Kong. His firm printed my epic novel Timbuctoo, interleaving within it a series of enormous eighteenth century maps of London.
Timbuctoo was followed by Scorpion Soup, another exquisitely-bound volume, with yet more maps – this time hailing from the seventeenth century.
Both books made me proud to be a writer for the first time in years. Beyond that, they filled me with joy at having created the kind of opuses that no number-crunching money-man in publishing would ever have signed off.
The second part of Secretum Mundi is devoted to releasing print-on-demand editions and Ebooks of my backlist, as well as to a great new panoply of work. Among them is a new series of novels that I am releasing them under the title PSYCHO ZONE.
The first book in the series is called Eye Spy. It is about a serial killing eye surgeon called Amadeus Kaine who develops a curious delight in eating human eyes. I used Lulu.com for the initial books and have been quite happy with them. The most recent book I have self-published is Casablanca Blues. It just came out.
With my own small team of freelance editors, typesetters, proof-readers, and designers, I have brought out books that are how I want them to look and to read. They are launched when I want, and the way I want. I don’t even have to beg an editor about anything, because I can have my way.
It’s like a child’s dream. No grown-ups to hold me back.
And, the result has been that I can produce far more work than a conventional publisher would allow. But, better still, it means that I have total control.
You don’t need to hear it from me to know that publishing is going through a revolution. Nothing gives me more joy than to see the monolithic publishers of yesteryear sliding into oblivion. I just can’t believe that they didn’t spy it on the horizon. Didn’t they consider the music industry fair warning?
I guess not.
The result is a complete leveling of the playing field.
Technology is making the business of printing in mass, or shipping books vast distances, unnecessary, and even laughable. It’s making it simple for anyone to bypass a crooked broken system, and to go it alone. Ebooks and print-on-demand will change publishing more in the next five years than anything has in the last century and a half.
The way I see it, the business of books is getting back to how it was in the early days – to the time when a writer would have their work edited, bound by a bookseller, and put for sale.
The key difference now is that we can get our work out to the whole wide world in the blink of an eye.
My own journey has brought me through twists and turns, trials and tribulations, but at last I feel contented. For the first time in my life I am holding the reins of the work I am writing… work that I am publishing as well.
After an eternity of suffocation, it’s like being able to breathe at last.
Visit Tahir Shah’s site at TAHIR SHAH.
Joe sez: Everyone's journey is different. Sometimes you get what you want. Sometimes you get what you think you want.
I just bought Shah's Eye Spy because I followed the link after the description an immediately smiled.
Shah is no doubt doing exactly what he wants, and that kind of self-awareness is rare.
I'm big on self-awareness. The root of it is not only knowing who you are, but understanding your effect on others and the world around you, and cultivating how you are perceived. To implement self-awareness, you have to be deliberate (as I stated in one of my more controversial blog posts.)
It's hard to be both deliberate and self-aware when your publisher cuts 80 pages from your novel so it is slimmer. You could either recite the Writers Serenity Prayer and accept it, knowing it is wrong without trying to change things. Or you can change things.
If your future as a writer hinges on someone else making important decisions that will effect your writing, your sales, and your career, I hope you're self-aware and being deliberate. You need to understand exactly what you're getting, and what you're giving up. You also need to consider what you'll do when your expectations aren't met.
A wolf in a trap has two choices; die or chew off its own leg.
A self-aware, deliberate wolf would have avoided the trap completely.
Many in this business believe the revolution going on right now--the growth of the shadow industry of self-publishing--makes this an us vs. them scenario.
There is no "us vs. them". There is only setting realistic goals, informing your decisions, and being deliberate and self-aware.
I've never been anti-legacy publisher. Many of my good friends have legacy deals, and I'm thrilled for them.
I have always been pro-writer. Which means I spend a lot of time explaining why many legacy policies aren't good for the writer, and cutting through the BS that legacy pundits spout.
Doctors, lawyers, engineers, plumbers, electricians--these folks have clear career paths. They figure out what they want to do with their lives, they study, they learn it, they do it. There are timeworn paths that one must follow to complete that journey.
With writers, the paths have changed. All the things we thought we needed to do to get published, we no longer need to do. Writing dozens of query letters to find an agent isn't the same thing as interning in the ER. It never really was the same thing, but now it isn't needed at all.
Figure out what you want, and why you want it, and set appropriate goals. Whenever you make a decision, know why you're doing it, what you expect from it, and what you'll do if it doesn't work out.
You don't want to suffocate for eternity. I've been there. Tahir Shah has been there. Thousands of other authors have been there. It sucks.
But the cool thing is, because writers now have options, the only writers who will suffocate are the ones who choose to.
Or, in different terms, don't step directly onto that wolf trap unless you have a damn good reason for doing it, and a really smart exit strategy.