Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Pretty though none too relevant image from Unsplash
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Having studied law in the 1970s and found that I took to the practice of that discipline “like a cat to water”, I went back to college in my 30s to do a degree in what I should have studied in the first place: English literature. Graduating at the age of 39, with a grade that impressed even me, I decided to start on a doctorate straight away, without doing a Master’s degree first. I’d already wasted enough time. A Master’s would be nice to have but I told myself couldn’t afford the delay. I didn’t have the patience to go the long way around.

In the event, it took me 15 years (part-time) to finish the doctorate. A Master’s would have taught me things I thought I already knew (but didn’t know well enough), about research skills, marshalling evidence and finding my way through a plethora of details (some fascinating, some not at all) which were never going to make it into my thesis.

Three years after I finally submitted and defended my thesis and got my PhD, I completed what I thought was a satisfactory draft of my first (and so far only) “novel-length fiction”. Until that point, I hadn’t given much thought to what I was going to do with it once I’d finished it. I was now 18 years older than I had been when I decided I didn’t have time to do a Master’s!

One thing I was sure of was that I couldn’t face the long, repetitive slog of submitting to one agent after another, waiting interminably for the inevitable rejection and eventually concluding, several years on, that my book was never going to make it into the hands of the reading public. I didn’t have the patience for that, particularly at my age.

On the other hand, on my Mac there was a copy of Pages, which I knew was capable of generating an ePub book, ready for upload to Apple’s iBooks Store (since just called Books), where I could offer it for sale to the world at large. So that’s what I did. Immediately, I realized that I was also going to have to do a Kindle version as well, since Amazon’s store was selling many multiples the number of ebooks that Apple’s was.

I sold only a handful of copies and in the end withdrew the ebook and posted it in 30-odd instalments on Medium instead. And just today it occurred to me that this is another instance of my impatience leading me in the wrong direction.

That realization struck while I was attempting to write a post titled “The writer’s dilemma”, in which I intended to draw some lessons from the very different approaches of Kim Liao and Kristine Kathryn Rusch to the business of writing. Broadly speaking, Kristine Rusch advocates writing fast and prolifically, bypassing the whole apparatus of traditional publishing, and putting out several books a year as an independent, while Kim Liao’s idea is to submit through agents and to periodical editors, treating the accumulated rejections as an opportunity to improve as a writer.

Rusch’s method led me to think about the various genres that tend to work for indie publishers and that in turn led to the realization that the traditional publishers are still doing very well with crime fiction. I agree with Rusch’s assessment that (unless they make fundamental changes that they won’t find easy) traditional publishing houses are in terminal decline. I believed that three years ago when I chose to self-publish and I’ve seen nothing since to change my mind on that score.

What I’ve been overlooking, though, is that the decline is not happening at a uniform rate across the board. (When did it ever, in any industry?) For now — and this could change very suddenly — it still makes sense for crime fiction writers, if for few others, to go the traditional route and to start by looking for an agent.