Why 'self-publishing' is no longer a dirty word | Comedy writer Dave Cohen on his new 'how to' book

Why 'self-publishing' is no longer a dirty word

Comedy writer Dave Cohen on his new 'how to' book

I’ve got a book coming out tomorrow. The Complete Comedy Writer is written to help people decide if they want to become comedy writers, and for current comedy writers to improve at the craft. 

It’s being published as an e-book on Kindle and in print by T6 Publishing. T6 is the brand new publishing arm of a business that has been working in comedy for more than 35 years. That arm, along with two more, two legs and a collection of organs, belongs to me. 

My name’s Dave Cohen and I’m a self-publisher.

For most of my adult life, the phrase ‘self-published’ was English for ‘crap writer unable to get a book deal’, and there remains a whiff of that around the industry. I still occasionally see adverts that explain how for just £700 you can pay someone to create the book of you that you always suspected was waiting to be unleashed. The stilted graphics and ransom-note typeface style should alert you to the fact that even before that company’s crack team of scribes get to work on your masterpiece, there may be some issues with presentation. Still the advert runs, still you fall for it.

It’s also fair to say that the exponential rise in books published over and above the catalogues from the usual well-known companies, has led to an exponential rise in crap books. The jokes about post-modernism travelling up its own shiny posterior that we wrote 20 years ago are now reality: probably the fastest growing area of publishing right now is the one that tells you how easy it is to write, publish and market your own book. Carefully selecting which section of the Amazon library to place your tome may allow you to sell half a dozen copies but still legitimately call your How To Publish A Best Selling Book book a best-seller.

And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, my latest creation sits firmly in the section of giant landfill labelled self-help – or ‘how to’, or yikes, ‘life coaching’. Was this where I expected to end up, 40 or 50 years after watching Steptoe And Son on TV and deciding that what I would like to do more than anything in the world would be to write audience sitcoms?

It appears so. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last six months learning how to self-publish, and to embrace the world of webinars, search engine optimisation and internet traffic flow, and how to ensure that unlike my previous book, this one is actually targeted directly at people who will be most interested in reading it.

After I’d finished writing How To Be Averagely Successful At Comedy around five years ago, I’d assumed that most of the work was over. I understand now that that’s when the most important work starts. We all want the thing we write to be the finest of its kind, the best we could make it, the best it could possibly be. I’m proud of that book and have learned to live with its weaknesses, but I wish I’d known then even a quarter of what I’ve learned this year about publishing and marketing books. 

The reason there are so many crap books now is because there are many many more skilled marketers and publishers than there are good writers. It’s a lot easier to find a book that has become ubiquitous due to its ability to second guess Google’s algorithms than for its merit as a work of literary distinction.

I remember decades ago, indulging the teenage pleasure of cassette taping the top 40 from the radio. The selling of blank tape was greeted with shock by the record industry, who regularly produced adverts with a skull and Crossbones and the warning: ‘Home taping is killing music.’ Who would have guessed, as we mocked the record company fat cats for warning us of the dire consequences of our innocent pleasures, that they would be proved correct, and the music industry would be killed this exact way.

The internet hasn’t killed the publishing industry so much as kidnapped it, recalibrated its inner workings and sent it back into the world with a new identity. Instead of wandering round the world to attend book fairs, and offer titles to libraries and stores, it hawks its goods from warehouses the size of small towns to every house in the world. That thing you’re holding in your hands and reading on the bus still looks, feels and reads like a book, only you didn’t have to go into a boring old shop or library to get hold of it.

Yes, you, don’t deny it, me too, even as I tut and sigh wistfully at the boarding up of yet another shop on the local high street, I don’t stop and think enough about how my online purchasing actions helped directly to cause that.

Because the book I’ve been writing required among other things an up-to-date knowledge of the state of the comedy industry, it soon became obvious that the internet was beginning to do to us what it has already done to music and publishing. It didn’t even cross my mind that I should try and find a conventional publisher for this book, the subject matter is so specific that it wouldn’t make  sense for them to touch it – and as far as they’re concerned I’m as well-known in the publishing world as that bloke who just paid £700 for a vanity book about his fantastic life.

I’m at least known enough in the comedy world to obtain meetings with channel heads and independent executive producers to talk about my ideas. And what I’ve seen is an industry that’s fighting a losing battle with the internet to hold on to viewers and listeners. They still want sitcoms and screenplays and sketch-shows and stand-up, but if you’re hoping to survive as a professional in the industry you’re going to have to learn to self-comede. And you thought webinar was the worst word you’d read in this piece. Bracing.

What started as a book about how to get your work made on TV has developed into a guide about how to navigate the new unknown territory of comedy. We still have the BBC, just, although jolly George Osborne’s parting shot of forcing them to subsidise licences for old people may be what finally kills off the corporation – and who knows what the shiny new dawn of Netflix and Amazon will bring our way. My guess is, not a lot for most of us.

Best to ignore everyone. You’re on your own, which is horribly scary, but it also means the whole world is now your market. You may find it harder to sell your screenplay or sitcom script, but if you start learning the Mandarin for ‘pratfall; you could go a long way. 

Published: 27 Nov 2018

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