Self-publish and be damned

He's been nominated for the Booker three times, but publishers sniffed at the graphic sex scenes in his latest book. So Timothy Mo has gone it alone. By Nick Lezard
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Timothy Mo runs his hand over his face and slumps down on to his sofa. "This book is going to finish me off," he says. What he is worried about is not so much his life, or his professional reputation, but his personal reputation. He is publishing his new novel, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, himself. That, in itself, is a risky enterprise; but one of the factors behind his decision to dump his previous publishers was the book's first chapter, which consists of a detailed and thoughtful description of coprophilia. Mo is worried, perhaps, about the way people jumble up authors and their works.

"I've obviously never lain on a jungle path trying to shoot people through the head," he says, talking about his last novel, The Redundancy of Courage (set among the guerrillas of East Timor). "I may not actually be queer - you know, `Maybe he's queer because the narrator's queer.' But with this one people are bound to say, `Oh yes, he definitely gets women to shit on him.' God, it's going to finish me off." He is rather anxious to point out that he does not go in for that sort of stuff.

There has been a lot of unruly gossip about this latest novel, which has dovetailed, in a way, with the year's other literary storm in a teacup, the hoo-ha about Martin Amis's publisher-shuffling and advance-chasing. The rumours have gone like this: Mo's previous publisher, Chatto & Windus, wouldn't publish Brownout. Or they weren't offering enough money. So he put the book out to auction and no one else wanted to publish it either, or for not enough money. The book is lousy. And there's this first chapter... But what has raised everyone's eyebrows is that Mo has decided to publish it himself. Writers are not meant to do this. As Amis himself observes in that book, writers are meant to be able to say - like men boasting about sex - that they've never had to pay for it.

The enterprise carries a whiff of failure about it. And then there's this business about faecal matter. The first chapter's an eye-opener, and makes the novel's title deliberately ambiguous (a brownout is actually a blackout which still leaves filaments in light bulbs glowing, a daily feature of Philippine life). And guess what name he chose for his new imprint? Paddleless, which is what you are when you are up certain creeks. ("A flippant afterthought," he says.) I am a long-standing admirer of his work, but this still struck me. The shit, as it were, hit the fan.

It is important to get things straight. Mo's story actually carries some warnings to the new breed of publishers, who might learn something about how to treat writers. Mo used to be dealt with by Carmen Callil, who, about a year or so ago, got kicked upstairs and given one of those grand titles (editor-in-chief). This made Mo wary - as if he wasn't wary enough already.

"When I went to the new offices I used to have this sinking feeling every time I went up in the lift there. It was like going to the CIA. Have you been in that Random House office? Full of suits and the smell of new carpets and plastic. I wanted to find out what my paperback sales were - and they were terrible, worse than my first and second novels, absolutely abominable. I said to my agent, I'm not going with them, whatever they offer me. He said, they're going to offer you quite a bit less than they offered before. So I said, well, they're not going to bloody get it, let's try another publisher, I really don't like the signals I'm getting from these people." Because of the first chapter, Mo's agent decided to ask other publishers for editorial comments.

And this is where things got ugly.

"I had a real feeling of pearls before swine. I mean the fucking idiot remarks I had about the book. The line now seems to be, `It's so obscene that we can't publish it.' But I've got letters from publishers, there wasn't a hint of that, it's all, `It's not a good idea, reviewers will concentrate on that to the exclusion of everything else and, er, could you tone it down a bit?' What they mean by that I don't know. Make it three lumps of shit instead of six?"

One editorial commentator pointed out that it does not transpire until some way into the novel that two of the characters are related. Couldn't he have signposted this earlier? This made Mo livid.

"I thought, do you think that I am so incompetent that I forgot to put it there? Since Ford Madox Ford you don't have to put everything up front. It's not a piece of journalism, where all the facts are high up in the article: you can reserve the information for effect. So I thought, I don't like any of these people, they are not going to work terribly hard on the book."

One does wonder about the mentality of publishers dealing with Mo. He does not fit the standard profile of the weedy neurasthenic scribbler, even though he is no giant. He is sporty. He goes diving. He can box. He could probably thrash Martin Amis at tennis. And, in literary terms, he's a contender. Of his first four novels, three have been short listed for the Booker. This can do wonders for your self-confidence and, if you're not averse to a scrap, it makes you someone to avoid antagonising.

"I fought my way up from the ruck of writers, the ruck of very, very good writers: no one buys their books and they don't get a lot of publicity and they don't make anything from it - there are about 20 of them. If it was tennis, they'd be low-down seeds who could give the top seed a spanking on their day. And I thought, they're going to shove me back down there, if not with this book then with the next one. I don't have a lot of faith and goodwill towards publishers and they don't have a lot of goodwill towards me either."

The bidding had gone up to £125,000 and might have gone further; Mo claims that later he was offered the same sum as he had been offered for The Redundancy: £200,000.

"Even if they gave me that, I thought, I don't want them to fuck up my paperback sales for ever. The important thing is readers, not the money. And then I didn't like the look of the publishers. Their comments didn't inspire a lot of confidence in me. I'm used to being published by people who think I'm the bee's knees, like Diana Athill, Carmen Callil; they like my writing, and it makes a big difference."

At which point Mo, who does like his writing, decided to terminate the auction and publish himself.

"It was a very bad feeling. It was like I was committing suicide as a writer. But it was a bit like jumping into an icy pool - you get used to it. Every day that has gone by I've felt more sanguine about it, until about six months ago I was figuratively jumping up and down with glee because I was doing it myself... I'm just so pleased that I did it. Number one, it's going to be in my material interests. Number two, I really like doing it - and what's in your material interests isn't necessarily what you like." He pauses, and then says, with insouciant wistfulness: "I feel sorry for other authors, actually."

Publishing, he says, is "money for old rope". £6,000 will get you a print- run of 5,000, although he's printed more than that; and he has complete control of his output.

"If you're one of those conglomerates, then picking good books and publishing the authors well is secondary; you're playing office politics, you're pinning your flag to the correct superior, you're intimidating your subordinates and you're bullshitting the authors, in that order. I think journalists are amazingly bloody incompetent and slapdash - but if you read some communications from publishers, the fuckers can't even write. People would be surprised how simply you can do it for yourself."

I can imagine some publishers reading this and wincing. You can partly see their point of view. Mo is a charming individual but not, one would suspect, malleable; and he has this annoying habit of writing a different novel each time, which drives some editors mad. Brownout is a political comedy set in the Philippines, with a character-list of grasping politicians, tooled-up goons, venal hacks, even more venal writers, and the glorious pariah, Professor Pfeidwengeler, whose perversion of choice sets the metaphorical subtext of the novel. This is not a review, but I am happy to say that I thought it was a hoot, even though I was more on the look-out than usual for sloppy editing, literals and skewed plots, which is very unfair.

"I'm going to go pale with rage and grit my teeth when people say it's not as professionally edited and written as the other ones. I'll do my nut. But I really don't think that's true."

n `Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard' is out on 11 April, price £13.99 hardback, £8.99 paperback