DIY Dreaming

South East Asia. Indonesia. Malaysia. South America. In all of these places, people are doing it for themselves. 

A lady sells freshly squeezed orange juice from a street corner in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

“I used to have a shop,” someone told me when I visited Thailand, “but after that didn’t work out I realised I made great noodles so I opened a restaurant.” I looked around at the packed little café, locals and tourists cramped into small plastic chairs and queuing out of the door. “It’s going quite well,” shrugged its new owner, “but I might start a new business hiring out kayaks.”

Everywhere in South East Asia, Malaysia, South America – there are the brave young shoots of new enterprises. Cafés open up, crammed into tiny alleyways between shops, market stalls set out on upturned boxes in the street. If you can’t find an unoccupied street corner, you open your business from your house. Failure appears to be accepted with equanimity, if something doesn’t work, you simply shrug and move on. But giving up altogether, or neglecting to try something at all is absolutely not an option. Even the lady I passed each day in Bolivia, scraping an existence on the street, used her meagre takings to invest in a bag of wrapped sweets or a packet of tissues and sell them one by one, a coin each.

It’s not begging. It’s a business.

All of this is a rather round-about way of telling you why I decided to self publish. But of course making the decision, fuelled by lag and dreamy eyed optimism, is one thing – taking the plunge is surprisingly difficult. For years I have written things, sweated blood into them and sent the grimy remains to various publishing houses, first large, then, as reality dawned, smaller and smaller until eventually it seemed I had been rejected by every publisher and agent from here to the ends of the earth. And there’s something about rejection. Something about someone who ‘knows’ telling you that you didn’t make the grade. I have always been someone who likes to get an ‘A’. I continued writing, but I stopped believing.

I stopped sending the manuscripts anywhere. They stayed safely in comforting obscurity. That way I could tell myself I was an undiscovered genius.

A alleyway cafe in Georgetown, Malaysia

So by the time I sat in a sweaty alleyway café on a cracked plastic chair in Georgetown, drinking Tee Tarik, and having something of an epiphany, I had several abandoned manuscripts to choose from. I also had a paid job. I didn’t need to live off the earnings from my novels. Even if nobody bought them, I would survive. I had literally nothing to lose.

In fact, many of us in the western world have nothing much to lose. We don’t tend to open street cafes and dream up businesses with the same abandon, perhaps because of the capital and the regulations required. But why are those of us whose passions are not so bound by administrative and legislative complexities not throwing ourselves, and our caution, to the winds?

One word – validation. Everyone needs someone else to tell them that what they are doing is worth it. It’s a human condition, the need for approval and for acceptance from peers. It drives us and it tortures us and sometimes it kills us. And in the west, and for artists in particular, we have learned to require this validation from a higher power. A publisher. A record label. An agent. A gallery.

Gary Smailes, cofounder of Bubblecow, a business which provides professional book editing services at fair prices for indie authors, points out in his TED talk, that publishers are not always judging your work on whether it is good, but whether it will sell. The two may coincide, or they may not.

When you think about it, art is supposed to push boundaries. Every artistic movement in history started because someone created something that probably wouldn’t sell.

Reality check:

  • I am not leading an amazing artistic movement. I decided to self publish, not because I am a bohemian free thinker, but because the authorities didn’t think my stuff was any good.
  • I am not saying anything particularly new. In fact self publishing has become quite fashionable nowadays, thanks to Amazon and CreateSpace. Also it’s free.

These things are better told by the experts. Gary Smailes’ TED talk can be found on youtube here. Bubblecow, his business, has a website here and can provide an editorial review of your book or a proof read if you don’t trust your own grammar skills before you release your masterpiece to the world. I have used both these services. Bubblecow, with its blogs, resources and Gary and Caroline’s open, friendly advice, has been an invaluable part of my personal journey to self publishing.

Living the dream…Eric’s space in the jungle

There are numerous blogs about how to use Amazon and CreateSpace to publish your work. I found this one by Christopher Felden to be particularly helpful. The Book Designer, here, provides internal book designs which look professional and I tapped in to my sister’s creative genius for my book cover. And as for knowing how to go about it – and being prompted for the bits you wouldn’t think of, such as the hideous ‘self promotion’ activities, setting up websites and email addresses and separate facebook pages, you can download for a small sum a checklist from The Book Planner, here, which takes you right through from start to finish.

I will leave you, not with my story, but with the vastly superior story of my friend Eric. Eric lives in a small cleared space in the middle of the jungle in Langkawi, Malaysia, earning a living as a very skilled masseuse. Previously he worked rather miserably for an insurance company in Kuala Lumpur. When he decided to leave and pursue other dreams, his friends were incredulous. “You will be back”, they told him, “in no time”. Eric moved to Langkawi and took up the first job he could find, as a receptionist for a masseur and beautician. They soon discovered his natural talent and he qualified as a masseur then left to set up his own business. It failed. “Now,” said his old friends, “now you will come back to Kuala Lumpur.” Eric ignored them.

He owned a hat, a stool and a bottle of oil.

He took all three to the beaches, where for a time he lived, worked and slept, giving foot massages to tourists. When he had enough money, and quite a growing reputation, he bought a small piece of land in the jungle, cleared it, and opened an airbnb space and a spa. He still has the hat, the stool and the skills. You can stay at Eric’s airbnb here or visit his spa in the jungle here.

If you do visit him, don’t be surprised if he gets stopped for his autograph. He is actually something of a celebrity. He took his voice and his personality to an audition for a televised singing competition not so long ago. The rest is history.

Just do it. Grab it. Pick up your lost manuscript. Take your hat and your oil and let’s go.
What have any of us really got to lose?


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