How to survive the world of self-publishing…
I’m getting quite a few queries through from fellow storytellers who are wondering or struggling with the thought of self-publishing versus traditional and so I thought I’d try to answer some of those queries in bulk. Bear in mind that these are my own views and experience and may not reflect how other writers have found the whole rollercoaster ride!
1. “Why did you decide to self-publish rather than wait for a traditional publisher?”
Ah, now, there are several common misconceptions rolled up in this question that I shall try to dispel. Before releasing Holy Island, I was very out of date in my understanding of how the world of publishing works today. I don’t profess to understand it a whole lot better now, by the way, but here’s my tuppence for what it’s worth: when you are a brand new, untried author, whose work has only ever been viewed by family or close friends or even the odd beta reader, it can be reassuring to hear from a literary agent or publisher that your work has merit. That is understandable. It is encouraging to hear from an industry professional that you haven’t just wasted months of your life. In my case, I wrote Holy Island and researched a list of twelve (yes, a mere twelve) literary agents and publishers who might be interested in the type of book I had written. I sent off my little ditty and waited for their responses. Of the twelve, I had one offer and six e-mails containing positive feedback or wishing to read more. The offer was encouraging, so I thought (in reality it was a poor offer in the long-run) but the six positive e-mails were more helpful. After all, I had selected well-known agents at reputable agencies who didn’t have to waste their time sending me detailed feedback. Some asked for an updated version of the book once I had implemented changes.
I took on board their helpful advice, but had an inkling that the process of trying to get an agent and/or better publishing deal could be long and arduous. Entering my thirties and on the verge of making a career change, with a new baby, I couldn’t see myself twiddling my thumbs waiting around. Armed with their overall positivity, I took my husband’s left-field advice and considered the world of Amazon KDP. He’s the kind of wonderful person who believes completely in my work and had utter confidence that it would do well. Now, I will confess outright that I did not have that kind of innate confidence and furthermore had no idea where to begin with it all. I’ll go one stage further and say that my immediate thought was to liken self-publishing to ‘vanity publishing’, which didn’t feel right.
Then, I did my research.
‘Vanity publishing’ refers to the scenario where you pay a traditional publisher (or part-pay) to print your book. In these circumstances, there is no guarantee of the book getting any visibility, advertising or marketing whatsoever, so it’s a bit like being fleeced. Besides, I know it’s a competitive world out there and in some cases it might work out, but it’s not exactly a huge vote of confidence if you’re having to pay someone to have faith in your work. On the other hand, ‘self-publishing’ or indie publishing does not involve paying anyone to do anything (except for peripheral design services if you choose to outsource, for example). Platforms like Amazon allow authors of all shapes and sizes the opportunity to put their work out there, whilst retaining creative control and very good royalty rates (much higher than would usually be offered by a traditional publisher) but you take on board the responsibility yourself.
Taking the decision to self-publish is, largely, risk-free. But, do not be fooled. Thinking that there is no level of quality control on Amazon is inaccurate. For example:
- Readers still get to read the book description/see the cover, as in any book shop;
- Readers can read the first three chapters for free, trying before they buy, which is actually more stringent than in a book shop, where people might have a quick flick through before purchasing;
- Kindle Unlimited (where readers can borrow titles for free) pays authors per page read, not per book downloaded as used to be the case. It is a bit cynical, but in my view, this encourages writers to ensure their book has a consistent level of quality throughout and is of a decent length. The effect is to put a stop to authors cutting corners and writing shorter books where the first few chapters were fine, followed by ten chapters of utter drivel. In the old days, it didn’t matter, because they were paid per book. Now, it does matter, because every page counts.
- Readers can leave their review immediately, online, for all to see. Setting aside the trolls and the generally disgruntled, writers are nonetheless encouraged to write decent stories if only to avoid being panned by poor reviews. Traditionally, readers would have to send letters to the publisher, or leave a comment on a separate forum!
These are just a few off the top of my head, but the message to bear in mind is that self-publishing involves being active in trying to ensure the quality not only of the story itself, but of the cover design, the book copy (description etc.), the editing, the marketing, the internal formatting so that it reads well on a Kindle or iPad, or whichever device… This doesn’t include all the time spent making your work visible through book bloggers, reviewers…
In summary, then, I didn’t accept the traditional offer because I felt that self-publishing could be a more useful platform to make my work visible to readers. It took a degree of self-belief to take that decision and turn my back on the traditional approach, to believe that the book was good enough to do well pitted against thousands of others online. This approach could well have backfired, but my reasoning was this: at the end of the day, I love writing and I am very happy to think that people have now read my stories and (from the feedback) mostly enjoyed them! That’s job satisfaction. If I had been stubborn or lacking in confidence, I might still have been waiting to hear from agents and publishers as a completely untried author, doing another job that I didn’t really enjoy. Now, thanks to Amazon’s platform, I have heard from those publishing professionals again but can offer them some solid sales figures to prove that people enjoy reading my stories. I never say never because it would be foolish to do that, but presently I am one of the lucky ones for which self-publishing has worked. I would always encourage other people to ‘give it a go’, even if only to gather wider feedback about their work. It’s a game of constant improvement, after all.
2. “How do I make self-publishing work for me?”
I can’t tell you how many people have asked me this question over the past few months and I’m not always sure how to answer. I can sense the frustration, sometimes, from writers who have written great stories but for some cosmic reason their book just isn’t selling. I know writers who have done every conceivable thing right, whether that be harnessing thousands of followers on Twitter and tweeting several times per day, gathering followers on Facebook, receiving positive reviews from respected book bloggers, getting local press involved, paying for posh artwork, professional editors… the list goes on.
I don’t have all the answers! There are some extremely well-informed indie authors who have literally made it their business to learn all they can about how to be a successful indie author. Joanna Penn, for example, or Mark Dawson…check them out, their insights are very helpful.
For my part, let me start by making it very clear that I don’t think I’m special. There are some out there who really believe that they are gifted; that they owe their success not to many people, but to their own talent alone. Talk about conceit! Your work is only as good as people believe it to be. I think that I can tell a good story and, what’s more, I love the process of writing it, but I know that there are thousands of other people who are equally as good, if not better. All other things being equal, as outlined above, there should be no logical reason why their work is not well received. But, here is where a little bit of luck comes into play. Sometimes, it is as simple (and infuriating) as that: being in the right place at the right time. In other cases, it seems obvious that a book cover isn’t eye-catching, or perhaps just as importantly, doesn’t relate to the book’s genre. (If you’ve written an erotic masterpiece about a historical Scottish bandit, then you need some sort of half-naked cover picture of him in a loose-fitting kilt…actually, that doesn’t sound half bad…*snaps back to reality*… but, you get the picture!) Likewise, make the book description appealing but equally don’t mis-sell the content of the book, because this will only piss people off.
Self-publication is not without personal cost, or some level of frustration. This morning, for instance, I received a five star review about my second book along the lines of it being highly original and an excellent sequel, followed directly by a three star review along the lines of it being unoriginal and too reliant on the first book. Mentally, you could start tearing your hair out! But, remember why you even started writing – because you enjoy it. Keep ‘giving it a go’ and hard work tends to pay dividends in the long-run.
3. “Do people ‘look down’ on self-published authors?”
Interesting question. I think this is more a case of individual psychology, if I’m honest. If you consider what I have already said about the kind of concerted effort that people put into getting a traditional publishing offer (some people send off hundreds of submissions, spend years trying to get a publishing deal…think of J.K. Rowling!) then the small minority who succeed in this tend to be immensely proud of their achievement. Now, don’t shoot the messenger, but I will point out that not all publishing deals are cushy. The offer could be: “here’s £1000 advance and we’ll do an initial print run of 2000 copies for the whole UK”. I say this to dispel the myth that publishing deal = your book being on the front display table at Waterstones. It is, of course, a great achievement to be offered a traditional deal and if you feel this is right for you, then two thumbs up!
The push comes when you consider the effect of widespread digital publishing on the traditional publishing industry. For my part, as already outlined, it has been a marvellous thing which has brought DCI Ryan to the wider world. However, this is not a view shared by everyone and that accounts for some…lets say, snooty opinions regarding self-publication. Come on, though, it’s understandable that some people will feel a bit miffed. Part of the reason why fewer people are being offered traditional publishing deals is because their market share is being squeezed at the neck. It won’t be endearing for someone like me to toddle along and say “oh look, I did really well self-publishing!” Not only does this suggest that the place of the traditional publisher is redundant, it’s like giving them the finger!
I do believe that traditional publishing has much to recommend it and remains, to some extent, the ‘gatekeeper’ of what literary factions consider to be ‘literature’ and ‘not’. They are like the wise old owls of the business, whose opinions should still be respected because so many great authors have come into the world following their patronage. All I would add to that is, there are a hell of a lot of other great authors who, but for self-publishing, might never have been discovered simply because somebody at a desk didn’t like it their work, or – worse still – because they did like it, but didn’t have the resources to support it.
Yay for progress, and all that! Let’s all hold hands, sing Kum-Bay-Ah and be friends!
4. “I’m thinking of being a writer, but I don’t know where to start…”
What you actually mean is, you’ve been thinking of writing seriously for some time, but you don’t know whether to take the plunge. Most likely, you’ve already written stuff already and you’re scared shitless of showing it to anybody.
Been there, my friend!
The bottom line is that you have to suck it up and show your work to someone other than your nearest and dearest. There are professional beta readers out there, if you fancy it, or just let the most honest person you know look it over. I won’t lie to you: this is scary as hell, and there will be injuries. Your work will not come out of this unscathed. Yes, that’s right, the manuscript you thought was perfect, the one you spent hours tweaking. It will come back like a wounded soldier, bloodied and battered, but still standing. Think of the period following this as recovery: it will come back stronger, though you may carry the scars!
Presuming this stage is complete, that you have edited or had someone do it for you (and there are different types of editing – shock horror – it’s not just about running a spell check in Word!), then it is time to think about which direction you would like to take. You can send it to some agents and see what they say (if anything) but bear in mind that they receive thousands every week and can’t promise even to read it. Or, you could go one stage further and start lining up your ducks to self-publish. That is a matter of personal choice.
Well, I think that is quite enough to be thinking about, for now!
As always, if you have any more questions or queries, I will try to help wherever I can. If I were to offer any overriding advice, it would be to have some faith in yourself (I don’t mean blind arrogance, mind you) and things tend to flow from there.
I’m off to get some writing done! Can’t sit around gabbing all day 😉