Posts Tagged publishers

Solo self-publish, seek a book deal, something in the middle? Advice for the 2016 writer

2016Last year I wrote a round-up of the advice I’d give on publishing options. A year on, would I say the same? In some cases yes, in some no…

The sales problem

This time last year a main concern was how indies were feeling the pinch with dwindling sales. Did we think it could get worse?

Oh but it has. There are even more books for sale. Subscription services like Kindle Unlimited are changing the way readers perceive value. Authors who don’t enrol their books seem to get less exposure in the magic Amazon algorithms.

Does that mean it might be better to hold out for a book deal? Well, there are pros and cons, and the points I wrote last year still stand.

So what of traditional publishing?

Were we hoping that traditional publishing might enter a new era of enlightenment, with transparent, fair deals and true author-publisher partnership? Well it hasn’t happened yet. Publishers are feeling the squeeze too much to be generous and forward looking, or to embrace new methods of working. Authors still have to scrabble hard to avoid the contract traps of rights grabs, reversion clauses that never revert and discount sales that don’t qualify for a proper royalty.

A traditional deal might get you kudos or help with marketing, but this is often shortlived. Unless you strike lucky, it may not be as good as you could drum up yourself. I have a traditionally published author friend whose first book series won awards. His second series launched recently, and the only publicity was a tiny mention in the Sunday Times.

With a traditional deal, you’ll get editorial services (of course). But a lot of corners are being cut. Publishers are slimming their departments and farming the work out to freelances. Or maybe they’re not even doing that. Over Christmas I was talking to an editor friend who this year proof-read a batch of books for paperback release. They were already out in hardback, so this was supposed to be a just-in-case read. In book after book, she found appalling errors – inane grammar, impenetrable sentences, stupid inaccuracies and plot improbabilities. These weren’t unpublished manuscripts, remember; they were books that had been through the process.

I do, of course, know several authors who are happy with their publishers. All of them have one thing in common; without exception, they never tried self-publishing.

I’ve only just realised this as I write and it’s quite startling.

Let’s examine the comparison from other angles. I also know several authors who self-published first, then got book deals – and felt they were much better off as indies. Some of them halted the process, gave back the advance, and reassembled their indie publishing team. That’s still not looking good for traditional publishing. Let’s try to give it a better crack: I know several traditionally published authors who ventured into self-publishing … and decided they were happier without the extra burden.

Let’s examine that.

Ultimately: what do you want?

‘I want an old-style publishing deal because I just want to write…’
It’s probably unfashionable to say this, but many authors still hope for the old-style deal. There is undeniable satisfaction in having a book accepted. Also, you don’t have to learn the mysterious processes necessary to produce a book. And as for marketing…..

Hold it there. Whether you get a book deal or not, you will have to be your book’s ambassador. Always. Indeed, if your book is a serious contender for a publisher’s list, one of the things you’ll be judged on is your online reach. If you haven’t built one, you’ll be urged to start. The publishing deal will not let you ‘just write in peace’. You have to be a marketer as well as a writer, no matter which path you choose. The part that you can offload, if you wish, is the book production. Does this illuminate where the traditional publisher’s guaranteed contribution is?

Nail Your Novel how to spot scam publishing offers‘I want top production values, with as much or as little control as I choose…’
It’s never been so easy to hire top production skills. And if you haven’t gathered your own team of professionals, assisted self-publishing is now a good option. In the past, many operators have been rogues, taking advantage of the inexperienced and starry eyed with overpriced and substandard services, sneaky rights grabs and unsuitable marketing efforts. (See here for a post about spotting unscrupulous publishing ‘deal’s and other scams. ) Some of them are still stinkers. But in 2015 I began to notice genuine contenders. These are like plugging your book into a well-run production department, with sales teams who’ll give you a fair crack in the bookshops. Some of them have a quality bar, so they’re halfway between a curated imprint and a self-publishing service. Qualifying for their list means you get that stamp of approval. (I’m building a list of assisted self-publishers I’d recommend, so contact me and I’ll introduce you to some good folks.)

Nail Your Novel - should literary agents publishGetting noticed

But producing the book is just the start. The problem is getting noticed and building a readership. This is why it’s such a gamble to make a business out of an art, because no one can predict what will be successful. Thought of like that, it’s not surprising that traditional publishers try to keep so much and spend so little. It’s not evil; it’s survival. Perhaps the new, sustainable way to publish will be assisted self-publishing outfits who are choosy about the books they accept, who will build a reputation for their taste and let the writer take the financial risk. Endorsement may prove to be the magic dust that money can’t buy – even if authors foot the bill. Agent-assisted self-publishing looks attractive for that reason too, even though it makes industry purists blanch. (Just so I can say ‘I told you so’, here’s a post I wrote about agent-assisted self-publishing in 2011 )

Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell, and the handshake pic Liquene,

As ever, I throw the floor open to you. What are your publishing plans for 2016? Have your views changed from last year? Are you a self-publisher who’s had a traditional deal and what are your experiences comparing the two? If it’s not too late for resolutions, dare I ask if there are any you’d like to share?

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Ghostwriting FAQs: should you get a ghostwriter, do you want to become one?

‘Can I ask you about ghostwriting….?’ As you may know, this is how I first got published, writing novels that were released under the names of other people. I was the secret hand that wrote these (and others…)


I get asked about ghostwriting all the time, from people curious about it as a career path, or thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, or the plain curious. So here’s the dirt. Or as much as I can safely reveal.

Which books are ghostwritten?

Celebrity biographies and novels If someone has an interesting life story or is popular, a ghostwriter might be engaged to help them write a memoir. If that sells they might be asked if they fancy doing novels.

Megabrand genre novels It’s well known that James Patterson uses ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And that publishers hire writers to keep popular authors feeding the market after they die – eg Robert Ludlum. There are also plenty of other big-name authors in commercial fiction who are still alive and use ghostwriters, unacknowledged. (Knowing wink. You would be scandalised.)

So there’s plenty of work.

The Ghost + Robert HarrisHow do you find ghostwriting gigs?

It’s all about who you know.

Editors and agents If you have a literary agent, let them know you’re up for ghosting. Also it’s worth mentioning to book editors you’ve worked with.

Journalism Journalism is another way to break in, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their patch of expertise (but see below).

Author services companies I get frequent approaches from author services companies, who want reliable ghostwriters they can recommend to clients. I don’t know what the terms are, but, in general, I worry about working for services companies. Judging by other areas of publishing, one party gets a bad deal – either the client pays over the odds, or the freelance gets a lot less than market rate.

Pros and cons Cons first. You’re caught between two masters – which you realise when the ‘author’ wants one thing and the editor wants another. You will be amazed at the issues that blow up into diplomatic incidents and you’re left trying to please both. (Knowing wink. You’ll earn every dime.) Commercial ghostwriting is satisfying because the book will be published, and because of the cost of hiring you, it will probably be well marketed. Depending on your deal, should be a worthwhile addition to your CV and earnings stream. If you ghostwrite for an author services company, you may find there’s no long tail because the book is far less likely to earn in money or reputation.

What will you be paid? Deals vary, obviously. But to generalise, you get much better terms if you have representation. My agent is horrified at the contracts I have from my ghosting days.

My personal beware list2009experimentcrop

Don’t do any ghosting work for individuals unless you’re very sure they’ll get a publishing deal. Even if they’re a celebrity you know personally.

Don’t do any work on spec for agents. In more naive days I spent four months rewriting a thriller for a phenomenally well-connected gentleman, persuaded by an agent to do it for a future profits share. The book never sold and I never saw any payment.

Be even more careful of the situation that might land you in court – or worse. I get a lot of approaches from people who want me to help them write a book about their murder trial. Such a book couldn’t be published without cast-iron legal backing, which only a major publisher has the chops for. And as for the chap who wanted me to write the book about how he was manipulated into assassinating … No I can’t tell you. (Knowing wink with a nervous twitch. You might be dead.)

Can I hire a ghostwriter myself?

Question. Can you afford to pay six to nine months’ salary for a writer to do a proper job of your book? This is why, in commercial publishing, ghostwriters are generally funded by the publisher, not the writer (although they don’t always get a fair fee – see above). But if you have a strong concept for a book and a writer who is a good match, you could seek a deal together.

What about royalty-split deals? See the caveats above, but these are frontier-busting times. Indies are leading the way with new ways to fund books, as we’re seeing with ACX for audiobooks and translation deals.

How can I break in?

Aside from personal contacts, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Book packagers are companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they pitch to publishers. Some of these become phenomenally successful. They need writers.

They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One – the pay is rubbish. Two –they demand rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds. But it is a way to get experience, and you might make useful friends. Find them in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the US equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for a live project.

Have you any questions about ghostwriting? Or wisdom to add? Your turn!

ghostwriter red smlInterested in learning more? Professional course in ghostwriting



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Is that really a publishing offer?

3949414617_722d21eb98_zI’ve had this question:

I’d love a traditional publishing deal. I’ve submitted my manuscript to two agents, and while waiting to hear from them I have been offered three ebook contracts – but I’m not sure which way to go. Also, could you quote me a price for professional editing?

I answered the email at length in private, but some interesting issues emerged that I feel might make a useful post.

Wow, three offers!

Three ebook contracts already. Way to go! Some publishers are offering ebook-only deals to authors, and considering print if sales are good. But in the nicest possible way, I was worried about my friend here – because in this market, it seemed unlikely to get that many serious offers and not have secured an agent.

My correspondent sent me the details of the publishers and I checked their sites. I’m not going to reveal their names here as I haven’t contacted them or asked for statements, as you should do in a proper investigative piece. Also, they weren’t attempting to scam or con anyone. They certainly could publish her book. But she didn’t realise they weren’t publishers of the kind she was hoping to get offers from.

One site had several pages about selling tuition and support to authors. There was a mission statement page that included a point about ‘fees’. The others stated they offered services to authors. Publishers – of the kind that my friend here was seeking – don’t use those terms. These people are pitching for business, not offering a publishing contract.

If I were her, I’d wait to hear what the agents say!

But if you do want to use self-publishing services, here are a few pointers.

bewareBeware rogue clauses

Some publishing services providers can try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere. Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. (I know regular readers of this blog who’ve been caught in these situations.) Some charge way over the market rate as well.

To get acquainted with the kinds of scams and horrors that are perpetrated on unsuspecting authors, make a regular appointment with Victoria Strauss’s blog Writer Beware.

Check the quality

Assuming no nasty clauses, you also need to know if the services are good enough. I’ve seen some pretty dreadful print books from self-publishing services companies. Before committing, buy one of their titles and check it out, or send it to a publishing-savvy friend who can help you make a sensible judgement.

Your best defence? The Alliance of Independent Authors Choosing a Self-Publishing Service will tell you the ins and outs.

Readers and communities

Obviously traditional imprints score here because they have kudos and reputation.

And the publishing services companies on my friend’s list were attempting to address this. They emphasised that they were attached to reader communities, or wrote persuasively about how they were in the process of building them.

This sounds good, and let’s assume they are genuinely putting resources in. But communities take years to establish, plus a number of these publishers seemed to be relying on their writers to spread the word. We all learn pretty quickly that we need to reach readers, not other bunches of writers. And if a community is in its infancy, you might be better buying advert spots on email lists such as Bookbub or The Fussy Librarian, depending on your genre.

selfpubservSome of these companies may give you no advantage over doing it yourself. You might be in exactly the same position as if you put your book on Createspace and KDP and write a description that will take best advantage of Amazon search algorithms.

As a novice author, you might not realise how unmysterious these basics are. So don’t make any decisions without reading this post of mine – before you spend money on self-publishing services….     And try this from author collective Triskele Books: The Triskele Trail.

Wait for the agent… part 2

Basically, if you get a proper publishing offer, you don’t pay for any of the book preparation – that includes editing, formatting, cover etc. Which leads me to my correspondent’s final question about editing. This is one of the things a publisher should do! You only need the likes of me if a) an agent says you need to work with an editor to hone your manuscript or craft or b) if you intend to self-publish!

Thanks for the main pic liquene on flickr 

Do you have any advice to add about assessing offers from publishers or publishing service providers? Or cautionary tales? Please don’t name any names or give identifiable details as it may get legally tricky …

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How to ignore an editor’s suggestions and still fix your novel

3500507_8a3ccc0c1eWhen my agent took my second novel Life Form 3 he mostly adored it – but felt the main threat took too long to develop.

A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.

They were right

At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.

They were wrong

But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.

So how did I fix the book?

jan2 12 002What was I thinking?

As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.

I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.

I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.

Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.

Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.

Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.

Editorial suggestions

Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.

But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.

Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.

Thanks for the camel pic Loufi

In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss –

Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?

Nail-that-Novel-TEENYYou can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.  A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.

And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print?🙂

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From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford

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.

I am forced into the Kindle age

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.

Launch. How do you launch?

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.

Thank goodness I eventually listened to my readers. (It’s now also on Kobo and Smashwords.)

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.

The unthinkable – I self-publish my novel

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.

I told my readers what I was doing, created another blog for the novel and a breakaway twitter ID dedicated to the kind of fiction and ideas that interest me.

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.

What I did – the episodes

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.

Message 1 for publishers – the new breed of author

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.

Thanks for the umbrellas pic Philip Morton, the author in the arch pic marinalwang, the megaphone pic Neate photos, the launch pic beerandnoodles, the Oxford pic GlobeTrotteur

The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?

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Why do authors get treated so badly?

‘One person has been forgotten in this unholy publishing maelstrom: the author.’  That’s London literary agent Jonny Geller, from Curtis Brown, writing today in The Bookseller.

In a piece he titles ‘An agent’s manifesto’ he says: ‘The author is not an object a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication.’ Someone needed to say this and thank goodness he has.

Any author who has knocked around the publishing industry has hair-raising stories of bad treatment. Everything is usually fine if we keep their heads down and do as we’re told. But if we get out of our boxes, we suddenly meet unreasonable amounts of disrespect.

Battle lines

Typically this happens if we want changes to a cover or a blurb. Or we object to a title change. Or we make suggestions about the ebook release or the marketing plan. Suddenly we are treated dismissively, told we’re ‘only the author’, told to put up and shut up.

Publishers cannot change anything without the author’s say-so, but they don’t want us to know this. (Even though it’s probably in the contract.) And if we raise it, the standard tactic is not to discuss, but to bully the writer into agreeing by telling them publication will be delayed by a year or two, possibly indefinitely.

Now, having worked in publishers I know how important deadlines are. I know everything needs to run like clockwork. I know that publishers have not just one book to deal with, but twenty at least, plus all the other stuff that comes with working in a company. But they wouldn’t treat any other supplier or professional that way. Just authors.

Jonny Geller again: ‘If an author has a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right.’

It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.

The real work

They seem to think that because they do some editing and proofing they’ve done all the proper work, and the author was a slapdash child who spewed up a half-baked mess. That’s because the author had just spent months or even years locked in a silo with the book. We had to invent it, from nothing but ideas. The manuscript the publisher sees has another nine-tenths of work and tears below the waterline. If we put it aside and saw it with fresh eyes, we’d see a lot of those problems too (not all of them, but a lot). So no, the publisher didn’t do all the work.

Is it because they think they could write too, if only they had the time? Everybody says that. We’re used to it.

All the glory

Is it because writers seem to get all the glory? Most of us don’t get within a light year of glory. And if we do, we’ve earned it. Publishers get paid a salary, reliably every month. Writers work for several years on an idea and all we can guarantee from it is a lottery ticket that probably won’t pay back. In almost any other business environment, the one who puts in most risk gets the most reward. Try asking a venture capitalist for seed capital and see how much of your company they want for it.

Thumb-twiddling creatives

Is it because we’re uncontrollable creatives? That’s what brings publishers new, wonderful things to sell.  Jonny Geller again: ‘Remember, we don’t have a job without authors … Authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like adults will experience a phenomenon called Trust. Trust breeds loyalty; loyalty means longevity; longevity means sales.’

Heavens, we want our books to be a success. We want to work with professionals who will help that to happen. We are grateful for good guidance and support. But we want to work in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Thanks for the pic, Lydiashiningbrightly

Agree, disagree, add your experiences? The floor is yours…


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Why playing safe in publishing is riskier than ever

I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste‘. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’

Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.

I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.

Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.

The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.

It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.

One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.

Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.

But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.

(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)

Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…

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I self-published – should you too?

‘Are you glad you self-published your novel?’ said Stacy Green to me, in the secret passages of Twitter.

‘Totally,’ I replied. Although I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Stacy replied: ‘I’m in the early query process and wondering if I’m making a mistake.’

‘Stacy, I think you should carry on querying.’

An answer that might sound like I’m being disloyal to the indie cause. But here’s my reasoning.

But why????

It’s early days yet for Stacy. Yes, querying is wearying, but it’s the way to tell if your novel is up to professional standard. Yes, it may take a ridiculous while before you get a reply – publishing turnaround is like sending messages to the distant reaches of the solar system.

I still believe everyone should try to get representation first, if they’ve never been published before or don’t have a ready-made audience.

Never forget, writing is a self-taught art. There is so much to get right in a novel and so many ways we can be blind to our book’s faults. This is entirely understandable. You remember when your novel was a scrap of paper with just one idea. You remember learning, from the bootsoles up, how to make it into a novel. You’ve quarried for depth, trampled the rough spots and polished over and over. You’ve developed brilliant and stylish marks of your individuality as well. Compared with when you started, you now feel like an expert – everyone does. Now, you need outside, experienced input.

You can of course hire an editor, and an editor who is a good fit for you can certainly give you a lot of help and guidance. You can trade with beta readers. But the final book is down to you. If you want to cut it in the marketplace, you have to try in the marketplace. And that generally means seeking representation – or publication via the smaller presses. (Although why would you aim small to start with?)


Yes, you may be rejected because your book is unusual, or an unfashionable genre. But if you made the grade, the rejection will tell you this – even if it’s just a few short lines. They always do. If you’re getting form rejections or never hear back, you probably still need to do some work. And that tells you you shouldn’t self-publish. Of course it does.

Waiting for this feedback takes a long time. But while you’re waiting, get started on another book. You’ll need it sooner or later. And aren’t you itching to put all you learned into practice?

Me, me, me

I didn’t self-publish until my novel had wooed an agent. (I didn’t have an agent for my ghosting). She took my novel around the publishers, who said ‘it’s fascinating but we don’t know how to sell it’. At that stage, I could have left it locked behind the gatekeepers’ portcullis, or changed it into a conventional thriller (some of the feedback I got). I wasn’t having that.

Am I glad I self-published? More than I ever imagined. Every word of feedback from readers brings my novel to life and gives it a place in the world. For which, thank you.

But going it alone means doing all the selling. That’s no bed of roses. It is much harder for me to prove the book’s worth. If you have an audience amassed, no problem. Few of us do, so we rely on reviews to spread the word to new readers. Ideally we want to be reviewed alongside traditionally published novels that would be next to us in a shop. But it’s not a level bookshelf. Indies are still regarded sniffily in most quarters. (One review I did get, on For Books’ Sake, said My Memories of a Future Life was ‘so original and odd it’s in a class of its own’. I’m going to put that on a T-shirt, of course – but artistic pride aside, how does anyone sell a book like that? No wonder publishers wanted it tamed. Still, that’s my problem now.)

New authors, I urge you to test your book in the market first. If you get an offer and you don’t like it, you can always turn it down.

Indie publishing isn’t for people who couldn’t get published or represented. It’s for people who could.

(Thanks for the pic, Muckster)

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Catch up on the first seminar and sign up for the rest.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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It’s a cover! My Memories Of A Future Life – and how to find your novel’s theme

A crucial part of introducing your novel to agents or directly to readers is identifying your novel’s central theme. But that can be mighty hard to do. Here’s how I did it

Final tweaks are being twaught. Kindle hell beckons. Blurb hell too. But cover hell is over, at least the front.

And what theme is this pretty book scratching away at, you may ask? What questions are burning out of the red piano and the blue sky?

Answering that has caused me considerable grief. The journey in the book takes 100,000 words. How do I find one sentence – just one – that captures the heart of it?

It took me a while. Much pacing up and down.

My first thought was, it feels like it’s about the whole of life itself. Everything. The universe.

As a theme, ‘everything’ was a bit, well, vague. And it’s the very least you’d expect of a self-respecting well-rounded novel.

Then I made lists of common themes in fiction, as if I was doing an essay for A-level English. It was no help at all.

Everything seemed to fit. Love, loss, friendship, fate. Cheating, lying, haunting, being haunted. Nature, confinement, superstition, the weather. It was easier to find themes that weren’t in the book than themes that were.

I had to pull away from ‘subjects’, because every multi-layered novel will have plenty of them. So I asked myself: what are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive flavour?

It had to come down to the MC. Her relationships. Her central problem. The patterns that repeat again and again with everyone she meets. The things she reacts to that show what she’s searching for. Her peculiar situation and what she needs to understand.

After quarrying down that seam, I had it. This is what My Memories of a Future Life is about.

How do you find where you belong?

Red piano: Bonnie Schupp Photography at iStockPhoto

Have you found your novel’s theme yet? If so, how did you do it? And if you have, share it in the comments

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