Reviewed by Will Sawyer
Claudia, who is 12, is considering her future as an author after winning a writing competition at her school. She wants to be rich like J K Rowling and says it can’t be too difficult. She is unperturbed after I point out that lots of people would like to be rich authors, but there’s only one J K so it can’t be that easy. I elaborate by saying that even J K got dozens of rejections from potential publishers before someone decided to risk their money and publish her first book. This starts a whole discussion on the publishing business and we agree that for the title “author”, to have any real meaning, it belongs rightly only to those whose work has been judged worthy of publication by somebody whose opinion mattered.
The “vanity press” of the internet age goes by the euphemism “self-publishing” and has been seen as a simple way for writers to get their work out to the reading public. It is also a way for anyone to get anything they like published and then, shiny-covered hardback volume in hand, they feel they can call themselves an “author”. Claudia finds the idea amusing. She wants to write a novel consisting of a single word (four letters, very rude, and no doubt misspelled like most things she writes) printed large enough to fill a page, have it hardbound with a nice dust jacket, and get copies printed for all her friends. It would be a better read than some books I’ve seen.
There are websites (lulu.com, for example) which do the “self publishing” service for you and even provide you with an Amazon.com-style listing so you can advertise your literary effort and pass it off as a “proper book”. If you have an outlet where you can sell hard copies to customers, you can even order up boxes of your book to put on show; customers won’t know that the book they are buying has had no editorial review, and unlike the many thousands of books they’ll find in their local branch of Borders or Waterstones, has never been judged worthy of publication by anyone more impartial than the book’s writer her/himself. As ever, the vanity press, in whatever form it takes, is no way to increase the World’s literary karma, but a method of doing the exact opposite.
Take Symi 85600 as an example. Written by James Collins, an English ex-pat on Symi and with some contribution from his partner, Neil Gosling, it can be found for sale online. If you are fortunate to be on Symi, you will find hard copies for sale at outlets including Collins and Gosling’s shop. If you read the Symi Visitor Free Monthly during your stay you will see Collins described as an “author” and feel that this badge of honour is legitimate and so endows his books with some promise of merit. You may, by the look of the book, feel that it is a proper publication worthy of its sale price. If you part with your cash, though, you will learn quite quickly, that all this is illusion; this book isn’t quite up to the standard of the books you expect to find in your local library. Its amateur style, dire content and abundance of obvious errors are dead giveaways.
I shall defend myself in advance against the easily-predicted charge that my own writing contains many, if not more, mistakes than Collins’s and that his style is better than my own. Who am I to criticise? The simple reply to this is that I provide my writing for free; if I were taking money with a promise that a book of mine justified the price tag then I would make sure that what I was writing was at least written well and not, for example, spoiled by a legion of grammar and spelling errors (e.g. “Venician”, “spade” instead of “spayed” etc.) that would grate with many readers (Collins seems particularly prone to splitting words, for example “no where”, “mid day”, “on coming”, “back ground”, “home made”, etc.). It may be, however, that these errors are just a case of careless laziness, such as is evident on the front page of their own website which has been incorrectly advertising the book as “Symi 8560” for months.
The actual content of the book is undoubtedly more important than the spelling inside it, but unfortunately for Collins (and the reader) no refuge can be sought here for this is also of the quality that we would expect from the vanity press. Symi 85600 is, in essence, a rag-tag recollection of the writer’s first four years living on Symi. The narrative is a mixture of straight prose, emails, and website diary entries in a more-or-less chronological order. We are told nothing about why Collins and Gosling decided to make the move from the UK to Symi; the story simply begins (after a stereotypical jab at Athens) with their search for an island to live on and this beginning is wrapped up within two pages. Collins then fills the next thirty pages with recycled emails from his first year on the island. These tell a tale that is, more-or-less, one of job-searching, drinking, the weather and cats and dogs, told in a camp style that is light-hearted and bearable for a short while, though not sufficient nor witty enough to sustain the interest by itself. It was while reading this section that I began to realise two points. Firstly, that I wasn’t actually reading much about Symi, and secondly that not a single character, not even that of the writer himself, was being developed beyond the level of a cardboard cut-out. An excuse for this, that I had only been reading old emails and emails aren’t necessarily the best medium for developing character, was proved false by the next hundred-odd pages. Here, after the recycled emails, Collins recycles his website diary. It would appear that the whole book is recycled, in fact.
These central one hundred pages form the main part of the book. Simply to say they are dull would be to insult the word; crashingly boring may be more near the mark. If I had not committed myself to a review of the book I would never have even started this section as the emails would have already finished me off. The best analogy that I can think of is that if Claudia brought one hundred pages of diary prose such as this from school and asked me to read it, I would do so because I know her well enough to read between the lines and could flesh it all out. If, on the other hand, the diary had been written by a different child that I didn’t know, I’d not have bothered. For a piece of diary prose over a hundred pages long to sustain the reader’s interest, one has to be shown enough about the central characters, the writer, his partner, their best friends etc. to care about what happens, or to be able to infer their responses or feelings. Collins gives us not a jot of this. He simply uses a camp style to seemingly record events on paper for nobody else’s benefit but his own; in short, he utterly fails at being able to look at what he writes from the position of the reader. This egocentric solipsism is clearly exposed when one looks for any writing describing how he actually FELT about a situation, or indeed to find any verbs at all in the book that apply to emotions of any kind. Needles are easier to find in haystacks.
I have tried and failed to find anything positive about the first 136 pages of the book that is worthy of note. Interesting anecdotes? I found none. Intriguing characters? They are completely absent as Collins seems completely unwilling or incapable of writing about people in any sense worth knowing. Descriptions of Greek Culture? Nothing more than a veneer with the occasional inaccuracy. Prose extolling the beauty of Symi? I found no writing in the book that made Symi seem more beautiful than a million other places; simply saying Symi has hills, beaches and forests just isn’t enough. If you like writing that is unemotional, uninformative blather then this book has much to recommend itself.
If any real use for this book may be found, it is contained in its final forty pages, where practical advice is given, e.g. what to ask prospective landlords or letting agents, work permits and benefits, hospital matters, etc. and it is well-written and reasonably comprehensive. As I’ve never rented a house in Greece nor worked in Greece nor used the Greek Health service, however, I am in no position to comment on the accuracy of what Collins writes, though I am not encouraged by his accuracy elsewhere.
I only decided to read this book at all (it is the only vanity press book I have ever looked at) because it is being pushed heavily and it may be that those buying it will think that the book has a proper publisher, and that they, like me, will feel they paid too much for too little. If you feel tempted to buy Symi 85600, you are able to check out Collins’s style beforehand by reading his monthly column in the Symi Visitor Free Monthly, though this is not, so far as I know, available online. The content is often patronising, excruciatingly unfunny, monotonous and banal, as is usual for the Symi Visitor.
If you have a strong stomach, you can also look at the other websites that Collins writes for, and from them you will get an insight into his character that seems absent from his other writing. Collins and his partner Neil Gosling have written well over a hundred stories of “gay erotica” (i.e. hardcore pornography) on websites they own such as gaystorycontent.com where they use their own names but also several aliases (Collins’s choice is “Ed James” or "Luke Preston"). Common themes are fantasizing about male rape (e.g. “Punished by the Police” where a man is raped by two policemen and concludes that this is “something that he has been missing out on”) and schoolboy abuse (The School Master, "A three part recollection of my introduction to spanking"). Of course, you have to pay to buy these stories, hardbound courtesy of the same vanity press that produces Symi 85600, but Collins and Gosling also offer up a few freebies that give a taste of the style you can expect. The story “The Greek Landlord”, where a man is raped (surprise, surprise) by his Greek landlord (surprise, surprise) is repugnant and so hilariously bad that it had me both sickened and laughing out loud. I run the risk of being called a prude here, but I have never found rape or abuse to be healthy, and would worry that I would be encouraging them by making them appear in any way acceptable. Overall, they are something I would feel ashamed to earn money from writing about.
Symi 85600 is about a couple earning a living on a Greek island, and it feels like earning money is the sole reason for its creation; a re-packaging of those old emails and diary entries that could be pulled into service to earn a few extra euros. Like the authors’ pornography (and in particular its choice of focus), the earning potential of the idea seemed to outweigh any lack of merit that the project had. Symi 85600 has very little merit; I shall steer well clear of the vanity press from now on.