This week I was invited to give a talk on my self-publishing adventures to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. Inevitably they also got a few opinions (at the end) on how I now see my role as a writer
I’ve since had requests to publish it here, so…. here goes.
I wasn’t new to publishing when I self-published. More than two decades ago my first job was in the editorial office of a small publisher where I handled every kind of non-fiction title – books, directories, partworks, magazines, a newspaper – and even, once, a novel. From there I moved to magazine editing. In parallel I developed a career as a writer – I’ve ghosted 11 novels and 8 of them have been bestsellers. I also mentor other writers – originally for a literary consultancy and now freelance.
I’m fully armed with literary agents – two of them, actually. In spite of this, I ended up self-publishing. Here’s the story.
I self-publish a writing book
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence was the book I published first. I wrote it as a natural extension of the writing blog I’d just started. It’s my writing process distilled into 10 steps – how to take an idea, flesh it out, draft it and revise it thoroughly. It’s 40,000 words, which proved too dinky for the market. But that was deliberate. I knew from the online community that writers wanted a book that wouldn’t snaffle their precious writing time but told them only what they needed.
No one would publish it, so I thought it had better not sit around. I set it up on Lulu – the most straightforward print platform at the time – and told my blog and Twitter followers. I also gave away free PDFs. This was three years ago, so the giveaway packed a punch. NYN got good reviews, sold about 20 print copies a month and became quite widely known – at any rate, strangers would email me telling me how useful it was.
So NYN ticked over on Lulu as a nice accessory to my blog, but I still wanted a deal for my fiction. It wasn’t respectable to self-publish fiction – especially if you’d secured an agent.
Most people self-pub with ebooks first, especially now. I didn’t. Three years ago when I brought out NYN I’d never seen an ebook. I had a house full of print. I’d worked with print and I wasn’t convinced that making an ebook was worth the fuss.
No doubt this reasoning has been repeated in publishers up and down the land.
I was even getting requests for a Kindle NYN but it took a catastrophe to boot me over. One day Lulu deleted a bunch of Amazon listings and then bickered with Amazon – and its authors – about whose fault this was. My book, which was generating a buzz, vanished from sale for several weeks – and so did my reviews. The links from bloggers who’d written about it went to dead ends.
Clearly I had to find out about sales avenues, instead of just being a writer. I read my most trusted bloggers, filled a few information gaps, formatted NYN and wrote a how-I-did-it post for my readers.
Woot, I’d launched an ebook. I say launch, but that ‘how-to’ post, a Facebook event and a few tweets was the only launch I did.
Again, I was thinking with my writer head. I had no idea how books should be introduced to the market. When I worked for the small publisher, the marketing manager handled it. When ghostwriting, I was never the focus – the celebrity authors had an army organising bus stop posters and appearances on Breakfast TV.
But, probably only by the grace of bloggers, my tiny launch sold five times as many copies in one month as I’d sold in print. There must have been quite a few people waiting for a Kindle NYN because it spent a long time in the Kindle top 10 for books on writing and it’s still in the top 50.
I revamped the print edition and put it on Amazon’s CreateSpace (because I’d got fed up of middlemen). NYN immediately got offered on a 4 for the price of 3 deal and is always on a bundle deal of some sort. Now it’s catching up with e-sales.
Does blogging and social media sell books? Yes, but I did it by accident
So, I had a book out but my goodness I needed to learn more about promotion. Off to my bloggers again. It turned out my blog got top marks for being a good platform -
- I stuck to a subject I could blog about until the end of the world
- I could demonstrate with my background that I knew what I was talking about
- my posts were useful and accessible
- I was happy to answer commenters and develop posts into a conversation.
All of this I did entirely by accident. The tight focus on writing came from my background in magazines – where you give readers useful advice and don’t dilute your value with off-topic material. The rest happened because I was having fun.
I was relieved to find I didn’t have to do a hard sell – because I’d seen some pretty grotesque campaigns around Twitter and Facebook.
As with blogging, social media marketing seems to work by a gentlemanly process of relationships – people get to know you, enjoy your company in an interview or a blog post. It’s the way books have always sold on in traditional publishing – by generating curiosity so that one day the reader stops and picks up the book. It is, to quote one of my guru bloggers Joanna Penn, hand-selling on a global scale.
By mid-2011, NYN was doing well. My agent had given up trying to sell my own novel. The typical feedback was: ‘we really enjoyed it but it’s too unconventional’.
Meanwhile, in traditional publishing, a number of novelists were daring the unthinkable – they were going indie. They were writing articles explaining why, many describing exactly my predicament – too unusual for the market.
I decided it was time to publish My Memories of a Future Life. I put it through a rigorous round of edits and got an editor friend to scourge it as well, and it was ready to go.
The promotion problem
Publishing my novel was very liberating, but how would I launch it? People who wanted writing advice wouldn’t necessarily like my fiction. I couldn’t change my blog into a hybrid of writing advice and marketing for my novel – that would annoy the readership I’d built up.
That took care of its online home, but where should I promote it? So far I’d learned how to sell a book that was helpful to people – which was easy and unembarrassing. But a novel isn’t helpful and nobody needs it. All I could do was try to drum up curiosity. But where?
All the advice I’d found was about marketing genre fiction – where you create a buzz on forums, Goodreads groups and books blogs. But my novel is contemporary fiction with literary sensibilities. Its tag line is ‘what if your life was somebody’s past’, so it seems to be a reincarnation story, but is no more about reincarnation than We Need To Talk About Kevin is about a crime. Publishers said it was too much like a thriller for literary readers and too psychological and poetic for thriller readers. And the narrator isn’t regressing to a past life, but looking to an incarnation in the future – so that might add a label of speculative fiction – or not, depending on your take on the story.
I began to see why publishers passed in favour of something easier.
(You might be wondering if such a duck-billed platypus of a novel would ever work, but it’s got a respectable clutch of high-starred reviews, none of them paid for and none of them calling in favours.)
Some writers hire publicists but that wasn’t an option for me:
- I wouldn’t know how to assess whether a publicist was any good
- I didn’t know anyone else who’d marketed an equivalent book so couldn’t use them as a template or find suitable publicists through them
- I didn’t have any budget anyway.
I weighed up my novel’s biggest asset – a thought-provoking distinctive idea – split the book into four parts and released it as a Kindle serial over four weeks. Then I followed with the complete novel on Kindle and in print.
I called each instalment an ‘episode’ to echo the freshness of serials like Lost and also to suggest how to approach it – as a modern, multi-level thought-provoking story.
This meant I was handling an exhausting 4 launches instead of one – but it created an event, and people around Twitter, blogs and Facebook helped to build the anticipation – and even wrote reviews for the individual episodes.
My lovely readers
Here I found I’d underestimated my lovely followers – they were curious to see, at long last, the kind of novel I’d written. Also, subscriptions to my blog doubled – suggesting I’d passed some kind of test. Perhaps I’d proved, after all this talk, that I also walked the walk.
I was careful never to abuse this generosity. I wrote posts about the novel on my main blog only if they were useful to writers. For instance, I discovered that splitting the novel in four was an excellent way to test the story structure. I also wrote about how to produce a print edition and another post about how to write back cover copy – with examples of my laughably rotten versions.
Another accident – the novel’s blog gets a new life
Once the releases were out, I was going to leave the novel’s blog as a static site. Then I wrote a post called The Undercover Soundtrack – about how I used music as inspiration to create characters and crucial story developments. It fitted nicely as the novel is about a musician.
I suddenly thought I’d like other authors to tackle this, rather like Desert Island Discs, so I turned it into a series. It’s building a following from readers who like the concept and it also allows me to showcase other authors – karmic payback for all the advice and support they’ve given me.
I now get emails from publishers and publicists asking if their authors can take part – which is nice for a site that started as a way to launch a self-published novel (and by the way, you’re welcome to email me too). The boundaries are blurring.
My changed outlook
So I became a self-publisher by necessity. It wasn’t initially as a positive choice, just the only way to get my work to an audience who were increasingly curious about it. But my experiences and the recent shifts in the industry have changed the way I think about my role as a writer.
In my conventional publishing experiences, the author is a cog and a lot of decisions are left to others: blurbs, covers, style questions – sometimes even editorial direction. The book becomes the ‘property’ of the publishing team. Now, though, I’m used to being in charge.
The genie’s out of the bottle. Authors are learning what’s possible and that they can have far more control. And that’s before we even think about royalties, especially with ebooks.
But before you worry this will become a strident call to arms, let me say this – the ‘empowerment’ of writers works both ways. Level-headed, professional authors are also learning what we want help with.
To take me as an example: I’m writing NYN 2 and I’ll self-publish because I have the resources to do a good job and to find readers. (Indeed I’ve had 5 small-press offers to republish book 1, but I didn’t need editorial services and they didn’t have a wider reach into relevant markets.) So I can write, produce and sell books on writing.
But that’s non-fiction.
With my fiction, I can take editorial charge, I can find a compatible developmental editor – but I’d be just as happy to build a relationship with an editor in a publishing house. Also, I need help to find an audience. My novel does pick up new fans, but I have to work non-stop to get it to new readers and I’m doing it very inefficiently because I’m guessing. And I certainly can’t get the notice of influential reviewers.
Writers will weigh up these options, and savvy publishers could too. Some writers can lead the process and produce top-notch books. Others will gladly leave many jobs to the publisher. For every writer that equation will be different. Probably for every book it will be different.
To take an example – my husband, Dave Morris, recently had a critically acclaimed hit with an interactive app of Frankenstein. He’s a game designer as well as a writer and could have programmed the app himself and put it in the app store, but he preferred to partner with a publisher. He found a home for it with Profile Books – which gave Frankenstein a prestigious launch.
Message 2 for publishers – don’t throw away your competitive advantage
One of the problems is that marketing strategies are steering editorial decisions. I know Big Six editors who don’t read submissions from unknowns and instead trawl the indie bestsellers on Amazon. My own agent tells me he’s had plenty of phenomenal novels from first-time writers that reached the editorial board and were rejected because they didn’t fit with what sells.
Obviously there’s no simple answer, but this pressure is squeezing out the original, unusual books written by people who dared to be different, the game-changing novels that will be the classics of the future.
This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original writers, who 10 years ago would have had a chance to build a career.
It’s especially worrying when you consider that a lot of self-publishing bestsellers are not the most original work but derived from what’s already successful. So if publishers copy the copies, where does everyone end up?
Publishers need to take a longer-term view. They need to have confidence in innovation.
Innovation is where the big hits arise. Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t like anything that was already successful. The competitive advantage of publishers is their experienced editors who can take a nurturing view.
There can’t be a publisher – or indeed an agent – who doesn’t have a stack of outstanding manuscripts they couldn’t get commercial backing for. I’ve suggested before that agents should help them self-publish under a special imprint, but it’s not what they’re geared up for. But publishers are.
Publishers should start ‘Discovery’ imprints on print-on-demand and ebook, perhaps produced as a flexible partnership with the author but released under the publisher’s banner. They should showcase a handful of titles every few months that they passionately believe in. The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would come with the seal of approval of an editorial department. Those authors are going to self-publish anyway, so why not get involved?
This partnership approach is where the real publishing industry of the future will be formed.
The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?