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Posts Tagged self-publishing
So I find a lovely-looking review blog. The posts are thoughtful, fair and seriously considered. I look up the review policy and … it says ‘no self-published books’.
Today I want to open a dialogue with reviewers. If you have that policy, might you be persuaded to change it? Or to approach the problem in a different way?
I used the word ‘problem’. Because I appreciate – very well – that in making this policy you are trying to tackle a major problem. Your time as a reviewer is precious – and let me say your efforts are enormously appreciated by readers and authors alike. You get pitches for many more books than you can read and you need a way to fillet out the ones that are seriously worth your reading hours. A blanket ban is a way to fend off a lot of substandard material and save you many unpleasant conversations. And traditional publishing implies a certain benchmark of competence.
Competence. That’s probably the heart of the matter. There are good self-published books, of course, but how can I help you sort them from the bad and the fug-ugly?
Most people would probably tell you to look at the presentation – whether the cover and interior look professional, and the blurb looks authoritative and slick. But to be blunt, pigs can be well disguised by the right kind of lipstick. Still thinking in pig, a good sausage and a bad sausage look mostly the same on the outside.
No, instead, I urge you to do this. Look at the author.
Consider the following:
- What experience do they have of publishing? Do they know how much meticulous polishing a book should have? Have they already been traditionally published, and learned what it takes?
- Do they give the impression that they are wise and competent enough to make responsible publishing decisions?
- Look at their online persona – do you think they’d act on professional feedback, and would they have the self-discipline and pride to give the book another revision if a pro told them it wasn’t yet ready?
Yes, it has to be admitted that some books are published too early. A release date is decided, and sometimes there is no time for the author to do a rewrite, even if the manuscript badly needs it. The editorial people do the best they can in the time available, tidying up the typos and inconsistencies – or sometimes they don’t even have time for that. I’ve been involved with books like this – and industry friends have too.
Sounds like a ghastly compromise, doesn’t it? And do you know, the examples I have in mind are not self-published books. They’re books produced by traditional publishing houses. I promise on my honour, this happens and it’s not even uncommon.
Manuscripts that have already been published in hardback often get another proof-read before they release in paperback – and all manner of unholy errors come to light. Not just the odd typo, but fundamental goofs with credibility and consistency. And major craft issues like head-hopping. I can’t count the number of published books – yea, even those from trad houses – where the author hasn’t grasped point of view. When characters start talking about things they can’t possibly know, it can slap a reader right out of the story.
So it’s not safe to assume that a trad published book has superior quality control.
But, you might ask, who is doing the quality control on an indie author’s book? Well, the trad houses use freelances – freelances who are also now working with indie authors. It’s the editors who guide the book, line by line, into a publishable shape – so indie authors who use them are getting exactly the same degree of professional stewardship as authors who are published by an established imprint. And, if they’ve been sensible with their schedules, these authors might be able to use the editor’s contribution more fully. (Here’s a post where I give advice on how to build in time to use your editorial experts properly.)
But all the good authors get book deals, don’t they?
No. They don’t. A book deal isn’t like an academic qualification – you hit the standard, you get the badge. That’s one of publishing’s biggest myths. Here’s the reality – a book deal is awarded to writers whose work fits current marketing needs. Big, big difference. Here’s a unicorn.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate what it’s really like. I have a friend who’s a senior editor at one of the Big 5. A decade ago she published a set of novels that were well reviewed, got a five-figure advance – the full fanfare. She’s now come out with a new novel, which has seriously impressed an agent. But.
What’s the but? The market has moved on and isn’t looking for books like hers. On its own terms – as a reading experience – the book is her best ever. Her old fans would probably love it too. Her original books are still finding a steady trickle of new readers. She’s made the grade, dammit, but that book does not fit today’s market.
And what’s she doing? She’s seeking my advice on self-publishing. As is another friend who got his original publishing deal by winning a national award, and then went on to publish 10 highly acclaimed novels.
These are some of the people who are self-publishing. Senior figures in the industry. Prizewinning authors. People of solid publishing pedigree. And they’re probably even better authors than when they started because they’ve grown as writers and people. Other kinds of people who self-publish responsibly include authors who’ve begun under contract and then continued as self-publishers; authors who have released their books once they went out of print; authors who’ve published in very commercial areas but would like to publish with more creative control – me, for instance, but I’m not alone. Purely as an example, here’s my story.
Some book deals are unacceptable to authors
Even if an author ticks the marketing boxes, they might prefer not to accept a deal. Not just because of money or royalty rates, but because of other clauses that have long-term consequences. Two that particularly deserve attention are rights grabs and reversion clauses. Here’s a shark.
Two technical terms
What’s a rights grab? A book contract is a grant of the right to publish in a particular format. A book could be published in many formats or ‘products’ – an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie script, a TV adaptation, an interactive app, a workbook. And it could be all these, multiple times, in all languages (translation rights) and other English speaking territories (England, US, Australia etc). A rights grab usually tries to get as many of these in one deal without paying extra for them. If the author sold them separately elsewhere, they would usually get a better deal. Publishers are usually not keen on this.
What’s a reversion clause? A book doesn’t have to ‘belong’ to a publisher for life. Indeed, a book often goes out of print, which means the author could then take it back and find a new publisher for it, or publish it themselves. So contracts should have a reversion clause – but if the terms of this aren’t fair, that book might completely disappear. For many authors who are building a body of work, that’s simply not acceptable.
Sometimes, a publishing deal doesn’t make business sense to the author, even with the kudos.
Dealing directly with authors
Now this is tricky. If you review traditionally published books, you might deal with third parties – publicity departments or services such as NetGalley. If you don’t like a book or choose not to review it, you don’t have to explain or justify anything to the sensitive person who wrote it. But indie authors might contact you directly, and it could get difficult.
So here’s a plea to authors. If a reviewer has agreed to look at your book, send it and then … forget about it. Don’t hassle to see whether it’s being read or when the review will be published. In the publishing ecosystem, far more copies get sent out than are reviewed. They slip through the net for all sorts of reasons, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Don’t hound a reviewer to give you feedback. Fire, forget and move on.
The author as creative director
We are in an age where more authors will be their own creative directors – for artistic reasons and financial ones (we haven’t even mentioned creative control, but that’s another factor for committed authors with their eye on the long game). A lot of the new, important voices will come up through self-publishing because traditional publishing will have to play safer and safer. And a lot more of your favourite authors will be continuing their body of work by self-publishing.
So if an author can prove they have the necessary maturity and wisdom, would you give them a try?
A few more things to chew over.
Here’s a post about highly commercial publishing and creative control.
Just to confuse matters even more, here’s how the boundaries between traditional publishing and self-publishing are blurring.
And here’s a post about how we’ve – thankfully – moved on from the bad old days of ‘vanity publishing’.
I’d like to take this debate forward in a helpful way. Book bloggers and reviewers, you set your policies for thoroughly sound reasons. Would you share them here? If you accept indies, how do you make this work? And if you don’t, what are your concerns? I’d like to understand them. What would you need to know about a self-published author to consider one of their books?
What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter
attitudes to self-publishing, book blogs, book deals, book reviews, how to approach reviewers, indie authors, reversion clauses, reversion rights, reviews, rights grabs, self-publishing, selfpublishing
Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit
Self-publishing and traditional publishing. What are the differences? Today I’ve been on a panel at the New Generation Publishing summit, and it’s clear there is no longer an absolute divide between the publishing approaches. These days, we have a spectrum.
So that sounds abstract – let’s have concrete examples. This is how the discussion went at the event today – plus some more thoughts I wanted to elaborate on. (Yes, being a typical author, I muster my best lines several hours after the conversation.)
The question: What do you see as the main differences between self and traditional publishing?
My answer was :
- The solo artist – and who’s in charge
- Who pays
And here’s where we find ourselves in grey areas.
1 The solo artist – and who’s in charge
When you self-publish there are no gatekeepers. You don’t have to be accepted by anyone. Also, you have the final say about the text, the cover, the way the book looks. When you traditionally publish, you have to be chosen, and your book is filling a publisher’s need to fit a certain market. They will make many of the decisions – including the cover and the title. They might direct certain rewrites. They’re usually unwilling to let you lobby for changes; they don’t regard it as your territory. Some writers are happy with this; after all, they are writers, not publishers. Sometimes it turns out well for all. But plenty of authors end up feeling railroaded or compromised, or with covers that attract the wrong kind of reader (who then respond with negative reviews).
Indie authors shoulder all this responsibility themselves – but that doesn’t mean they’re one-man bands. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. Although they might know how to write, that doesn’t mean they also have the other skills needed to publish well. In the early days of indie, many had a go anyway, and the Kindle shelves were stuffed with unedited, unproofed horrors with unsuitable covers. But indies have wised up, and a well-turned indie book will have creative input from editors, cover designers – and even blurb writers. There’s no change in who the final boss is, but an indie book is now more of a team effort – and editors might even steer the book significantly.
2 Who pays for production!
Here’s where the boundaries start to blur. In traditional self-publishing, you pay all the editorial work, cover and launch. And in traditional traditional publishing, the imprint pays. Plus they pay you an advance or a fee to acquire the book.
Here’s how that’s changing.
Crowdfunding If you’re self-publishing you might be able to crowdfund. There are authors who use Kickstarter or Indigogo, to name just two. Ben Galley has a post about it here.
On the trad side of the fence, there’s Unbound – an imprint with traditional gatekeeping and commissioning editors, who ask authors to raise the money for the first print run (here’s an interview with several successful Unbounders plus a Q&A with an Unbound editor). You might wonder what the upside is? Prestige – Unbound is developing a reputation for books that are more innovative than the safe-bet choices of purely traditional publishers.
So you might think that if you’re offered a traditional-traditional contract, you don’t pay any of the costs. But here are two ways that trad-trad authors might help fund their book’s journey.
Developmental editing The market is so competitive now that it’s not unusual for first-time authors to work with an editor to give their manuscript the wow factor. Sometimes literary agents will nudge a promising author to seek an editor to iron out some craft problems.
Promotion and marketing A lot of trad-trad releases have a limited budget for promotion and marketing. It’s not unusual now for authors to top up the launch package by hiring a book marketing company or funding a signing tour. (But beware of self-publishing services companies that upsell marketing packages of dubious value. You’re better going to a specialist consultancy that handles traditionally published authors as well as indie authors.)
Who pays? The authors in both camps are edging closer together.
Another ‘beware’. There are companies that contact authors, apparently offering a publishing contract, but really they’re just touting for business. See here for a post on how to spot them. If you get an approach like that, you’re often better shopping around properly. Check what value you’re getting.
By the same token, keep your head if you’re offered a traditional deal. A significant number of indie authors are turning these down because the offers aren’t worth their while – here’s a post that expands on that.
Speed is one of the great advantages of self-publishing. It’s as instant as you like. You can, if you like, pull a Word doc off your computer, whack it up on KDP and voila – instant ebook. An hour or so of tinkering and you can be making a print version on CreateSpace. You shouldn’t, of course, but there are no barriers to stop you. The tools are available.
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, means entering a slow-moving machine. Your contract might be inked in January but the book might not releases until October – or even later.
Some of that delay is corporation inertia. But actually, indie publishing, if done properly, should also have a long gestation. It might take you many drafts to finalise your manuscript, and after that, you need other processes. The developmental edit (especially if you’re new to publishing). The copy edit. The proof-read. The cover design. The marketing plan (which shouldn’t be left until the book is about to hit the shelves). (Here’s a post on who to hire and when.)
Some of these checking and polishing stages take a necessary amount of time … And good editors and cover designers might need to be booked several months in advance. Many indies then go straight to press once the book is ready, but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages. And bookshops place their orders three to six months before publication – so if you’re selling into shops, you need finalised copies by that time.
All this means that more indies are setting long-term schedules for their publishing plans –in some cases, the same amount of time that a traditional imprint would take.
The artist working solo. Funding the production. Speed to market. These used to be the defining characteristics of indie versus traditional publishing. Now, we’re discovering how to get the best of both worlds – and I find that encouraging. Which other distinct divisions might disappear? What do you think? What have you noticed already? Let’s chat in the comments.
Forgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.
There’s been quite a fuss about self-publishing on internet channels recently. Brit author Ros Barber swore in The Guardian that she’d never self-publish her fiction, which prompted a lot of us to reassert why we did. This post by me appears to join the general howl, but in fact it was commissioned several months ago.
It’s at the blog of Helena Halme (and in case you’re counting the nationalities, she’s Finnish). Topical or not, I wanted to make the case for self-publishing as a serious option for authors of independent mind and spirit, who can be their own creative directors. Do come over. It’s just a click. You don’t have to go all the way to Finland.
guest posts, Helena Halme, interview, interviews, literary authors self-publish, Ros Barber, self-publishing, the publishing world, why bestselling authors self-publish, why good authors self-publish, why I write
Editing seminar snapshots: How much should you budget for editing your book? And how should you choose an editor?
This very good question came up when I spoke at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing summit a few months ago. And my answer… deserves a post.
First, there seem to be two modes for charging: by the hour and by the wordcount or page. With the wordcount, writers can be quoted a fixed price, so everyone knows where they stand. With an hourly rate, it’s much more difficult for the writer to know how much they’ll be spending.
The convention seems to be that developmental editing is quoted by the wordcount or page, and other phases are priced by hour. Here’s a post that describes the different editing processes and the order to use them in.
Second, editors set their own fees. Does a low price indicate good value? It might if the editor is starting out and doesn’t yet have a reputation. But might they also be lacking in experience? Indeed, might they be a complete amateur?
Conversely, if an editor’s charges are high, does that mean they’re good?
I think everyone can see it’s a buyer beware situation.
How do you tell? Here’s how to navigate the maze and spend your ££$$ wisely.
Establish that the editor is right for you.
For developmental edits, you need a specialist in your field. I would be useless to a fantasy author because I don’t read fantasy. But I can edit its close cousin, magic realism. I can’t edit genre romance of the Mills and Boon variety, but I can edit any number of stories that feature a romantic relationship. So find out what if their tastes are in tune with yours.
Find out where they got their experience.
There are a lot of people setting themselves up as editors. Are they just someone on the internet who’s been to a few critique groups and thinks they can edit? Are they writers whose only experience is helping out their friends? They might be great – everyone has to start somewhere – but they might not at all.
The best editors will have done the job for publishing houses or literary consultancies. Even if they mainly work with indie authors or authors who haven’t yet published, they’ll have that background.
Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction?
This may seem obvious, but make sure your editor has developmentally edited your kind of book. If they’ve chiefly worked with non-fiction, or even scientific and technical books, they might be too pedantic to allow for the artistry in a more narrative manuscript.
The fussy quotient: will the editor’s approach suit you?
Do you want an editor who’ll be good at explaining how to fix problems? This is where an edit from an experienced professional is far more useful than a critique group. Your beta readers might say ‘the characters are thin’. A good editor will identify why and offer suggestions for fixing it. They’ll spot other potentials in your book too – which you may be surprised about.
Why do charges vary so much?
There are various industry recommended rates (see Writer’s Market, as quoted by Writer’s Digest here), but developmental editors have to set their fees according to how long a project takes them. I spot a lot in a manuscript, so the work takes me more time than it takes a less pernickety editor – because I find there are a lot of points I need to raise. Some authors are eager for this, and some aren’t. Do you want an editor who will approach your work in that depth? You might not. But you’ll pay according to the depth of the work.
Should you ask for a test edit of a small portion of your book?
Opinion is divided. Personally, I’ve never had to do a test edit. All my clients have hired me after an email conversation. But they’re not acting on blind faith because I can demonstrate my approach and degree of thoroughness from the posts on this blog, my books and my video interviews. Some editors might offer a test edit, or they might have a pre-prepared sample that illustrates the kind of comments they make. Be worried, though, if they send a report they wrote about someone else’s book; that should stay confidential.
Copy editing and proof reading
These are less specialised, and tend to be charged for by the hour. How long will it take to edit or proof your book? It depends what shape the manuscript is in. The copy editor has to take charge of consistency and clarity. So if your use of language is imprecise, the copy editor will have more to do. If your plot is complex, and especially has a lot of time shifts or locations, they’ll have more checking to do. If you’ve been woolly about any of these details, you’ll multiply their workload.
Should you ask for a sample copy edit or proof read?
Unfortunately, a sample is no gauge of how long it will take to do the work because the second half of your book might fall apart, and the copy editor will have to hammer it together. I recently copy-edited one 50,000-word book that took 50 hours, and one that took more than twice that time. What I tend to do is to charge in blocks of 20 hours, then keep the author informed of progress so they at least have a warning of the cost.
So… how much?
But I still haven’t answered that question: how much will editorial services cost you? For a 50,000-word novel, budget GBP£1000-2500 for the developmental edit, the same for the copy-edit and the same for the proof-read. Minimum probably £2000 if your manuscript is really clean. Maximum (depending on the quality of the editor and the manuscript) £7500.
Phew, that looks like a lot, doesn’t it? If you were traditionally published, you wouldn’t see these costs, but this is part of the publisher’s investment in your manuscript. And yes, there are people who manage to produce good books on a much smaller budget (I have tips here on low-cost options for getting good help ). The sums can be a bit of a shock when the rest of our writing activity seems so cheap and free, unlike, say, skiing or learning to fly. But I hope this post has helped you to see how to get good value.
POSTSCRIPT I’ve had a few emails since I published this post, so a clarification might be helpful.
One reader remarked that copy editing and proofreading don’t usually cost as much as developmental editing. Generally, that’s right. The costs all hinge on how much time the editor has to spend, and that’s related to how much has been done to the manuscript after each stage. But in real life, if a developmental edit leads to a lot of rewriting, that might leave a lot of tidying for the copy editor. Once we get to proof-reading, it should be a fast and final read with minimal changes … but again if a lot has been altered this will slow things down. I’ve had manuscripts where so much had changed after the copy edit, that the proof read was in fact another copy edit. Which is why I made the point that everything hinges on the cleanness of the manuscript.
Thanks for the money pic, Pixabay and soccerlime for the scrumpled page
Any questions? Fire away!
BTW, my Nail Your Novel books are distilled from the issues I most commonly find in manuscripts. Much much cheaper than getting me in person!
avoid bad editors, avoid publishing scams, editing seminar, how much for an editor, how to choose an editor, how to find a good editor, how to improve your writing, self-publishing, what does an editor cost, why does an editor cost so much, Writers & Artists
In my last post I talked about publishing options in a changing world. Well, this year I’m reversing a couple of my own fervently held policies. So today I confess. (I’m an indie. I reserve the right to change my mind.)
Change #1 Putting print editions on IngramSpark
If you’re self-publishing, one of the main debates is which print on demand company to use. CreateSpace is free and has the most seamless interface with Amazon, which is where you’ll get the bulk of your sales because most of your marketing is online. But Ingram Spark has better distribution links with other outlets. And bookshops balk at ordering CreateSpace titles because the delivery time is slow and returns aren’t possible. So current wisdom is to buy ISBNs, print for Amazon only on CreateSpace, and print for other needs on Ingram Spark. (A lot more about this here. )
Why I didn’t put my books on IngramSpark
The Ingram Spark route isn’t free. You have to buy ISBNs (if you haven’t already). You also pay a fee for each book you set up. Revisions cost you more again. (However, if you’re a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors you get a discount and the revisions fee is waived. ) You’ll also have to modify the book’s print files. (The paper is thinner than CS, so your cover’s spine will be narrower. You might also need to tweak the title page with a new ISBN. None of this is difficult, but you might need expert intervention.)
The cost in itself isn’t that offputting – and it’s certainly not much compared with the cost of the book’s production. But it’s dumb to spend any time or £££s unless you’ll see a return – and that’s what made me dubious.
Although my book would be more easily available, how would it get seen? Just putting it in a catalogue won’t get it noticed by bookshop buyers. That’s like a tree falling over in a wood with no one to hear it. Shops don’t know about a book unless reps visit or the press makes hoopla. The bookshops I’ve been successful in are the ones I visit personally. All the rest of my marketing is online, and the sales funnel to Amazon. So, while I acknowledge that Ingram Spark offers better infrastructure, it’s for a market where I’m invisible.
What changed my mind
At the end of last year, I read this piece in The Bookseller. Ingram have acquired a network called Aer.io, which allows users to build storefronts and add ‘buy’ buttons for books in the Ingram catalogue.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of online bookselling portals, but usually you have to upload your book details yourself (or a publisher does it). Then, within a year, the venture goes the way of most start-ups, and vanishes. But Aer.io has a catalogue already – all the books already on Ingram, including IngramSpark. So every time anyone builds a bookstore with Aer.io, a reader could amble in from the internet and they could order my books. (BTW, I was directed to the Aer.io piece by the Hot Sheet, a publishing industry newsletter for authors from Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson.) Holy distribution, Batman! I’m making my Ingram editions as we speak.
Change #2 – a free book!
As you know, I have strong opinions about free books. Here they are.
Why I didn’t
See above. I didn’t think a free book would do much for me. My catalogue isn’t big enough to give a book away – although I have five titles, they’re for two distinct audiences. I can’t dash off a new one quickly – either the Nail Your Novels or a piece of fiction.
What changed my mind
It started with an email. Just before Christmas I was contacted by Goodriter, a daily deals site for everything authorly – books, courses, services for self-publishing, book marketing, copywriting, blogging, tutoring etc. It’s like Bookbub, but exclusively for writers (give or take a ‘w’). Goodriter invited me to contribute to a bundle of writer freebies.
I could see it was a great way to meet more readers, but did I want to give away a ‘proper’ book? Then I suddenly realised I could make an ebook shortie about characters as an introduction to my Nail Your Novels, which would be useful in its own right and an aide-memoir if you’ve read the big book. Anyway .. voila.
Once I’d sent the freebie to the giveaway, I had coffee with another author friend, who pointed out something I’d never realised about free books. They’re now such an established part of reading life that they find their way into retailers’ recommendation algorithms all by themselves, and get you visibility on lists where you wouldn’t otherwise be seen. ‘Put that book on Amazon, Smashwords et al,’ she said. As I was already half-way there, I did.
I admit I still have misgivings. I deplore the trend that pressures authors to give away their work. But the acid test is whether it pays me back in sales. That won’t become apparent for many months and I shall report. Watch this space.
And grab that free book before I change my mind.
Over to you. Are you breaking any of your own rules this year? We are among friends. Come and tell me.
advice for writers, Aer.io, authors, book distribution for indie authors, book marketing, buying ISBNs, CreateSpace, free books, free giveaway, Ingram Spark, Porter Anderson, print on demand, publishing, publishing advice, self-publishing, selling books, The Bookseller, The Hot Sheet
Recently there has been much ado about gender inequality in publishing. In The Bookseller, Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote about two literary prizes whose shortlists were dominated by male authors, and argued this as the tip of a deeper rooted problem, which then became the subject of Porter Anderson’s Futurechat on Twitter.
Ms Rentzenbrink particularly drew attention to the fact that the Goldsmith competition aimed to celebrate fiction that is, in the words of its press release, ‘audacious and original’. As she said:
‘So that’s 18 books singled out for praise in the space of a week only one of which was written by a woman. Why is this? Are women incapable of writing audacious and original fiction? Not much cop at sharing their experience of the world?’
But something seems to have been missed as everyone joined the uproar. There it was in the Goldsmith prize rules, bold as brass. Self-published novels are not eligible. Check it for yourself.
(I can’t find a list of rules for the Samuel Johnson prize, which Ms Rentzenbrink also cited and accounts for her total of 18. Update: an enterprising commenter found a cached version. The Johnsons do not exclude self-published books, so no argument there. UPDATE April 2016: a Twitter friend tells me she talked to the Samuels Johnson, who told her they do exclude self-published books.)
Now, we’d probably all argue that the gender line-up in the final shortlist is most likely a matter of chance, not conspiracy. Ms Rentzenbrink felt it was a symptom of a wider attitude problem.
And I contend that this exclusion of self-published books is another.
Especially from a prize whose goal was to find ‘audacious and original’ fiction. Because they are more likely to find it from indie authors than from the output of traditional publishing.
But the crap, Roz
Now yes, some indie fiction is unripened. Inept. Hobby work. Personal therapy. All possible literary sins can be seen in self-publishing – but self-publishing is also where you find original, finely honed work that should have been on a publisher’s list if market economics allowed. (NB: anyone quoting this line had better include its full context or I will smite them with my hairdresser’s zombie homage to Ulysses.)
Ms Rentzenbrink’s discussion of gender is a call for equality and fair chances, to judge a book and a writer on merit and nothing else. So while the industry beats its breast about the gender thingy, it should also address the exclusion of independently published fiction. Double standards are rather unattractive, aren’t they?
Indeed, like Ms Rentzenbrink, I can show that this prejudice against self-published authors goes further than just a few competitions. Some quarters of the publishing world still dismiss it as vanity press. I’ve written in a recent blogpost about how the Royal Literary Fund dismisses applications from authors who are not ‘commercially published’, as they put it. (You might wonder about their imprecise use of the word ‘commercial’ here. I certainly did.)
I thoroughly support the upholding of standards. Crikey, that’s how we pull ourselves up from our first amateur efforts. But we need to ask how quality should be judged.
A spectrum view
This question will become increasingly significant in coming years. There will be many more authors releasing their books in new ways. ‘Totally self-published’ and ‘totally published’ will simply be opposite ends of a long spectrum. Indeed they already are.
There follows a brief diversion into details that may be familiar if you’ve known me for a while. I shall render it in brackets so that you may skip if you wish.
(Some of us authors are publishing professionals as well as writers. In my case, I ran an editorial department for three years and trained other editorial staff. I teach writers how to bring their novels up to publishable standard, and I’m rigorous about it. Ask any of my editing clients. Ask The Guardian. I am every bit as qualified to make good publishing decisions as, well, a traditional publisher. I treat my own work just as ruthlessly, as a matter of pride in my art and respect to the reader. Rant ends.)
In which I invent two new buzzwords
In the coming years, increasing numbers of significant books will be produced with these new models. This is an age of options.
So far, most of the discussions about successful self-publishers have concentrated on business. But fiction is an art too. Just as film has writer-directors and auteurs, and music has singer-songwriter-producers, we will see the self-published author who is characterised by a strong creative vision and artistic proficiency. Just as we’ve seen the rise of the author-entrepreneur, we will also see the rise of the author-director, the author-auteur.
Phew, I didn’t know I was going to write that. I might have invented a new monster.
Back to the Goldsmiths competition exclusion. We should be as committed to seriously tackling this issue, this blindspot, as we are to scrutinising gender prejudice. It has just as much potential to unfairly disadvantage authors whose work deserves critical recognition.
So what are the objections to including indie authors ?
There seems to be only one, really.
But the crap, Roz
Yes, there are so very many books.
Clearly there has to be a sensible method of triage for competitions, professional bodies etc. But here’s a suggestion. Judges and gatekeepers, you don’t have to read all of every book. You do as any sensible reader would – read the opening. Do the page 99 test. If that’s not good enough, no reader would continue. Throw it out. Pick up the next book. Then read the real contenders properly.
There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Or is there? What might I have missed? Let’s discuss.
author-auteur, author-director, authorpreneur, Cathy Rentzenbrink, equality in publishing, Futurebook, Futurechat, Goldsmith prize, Open Up to Indies, Porter Anderson, Samuel Johnson prize, self-publishing, The Bookseller, UK literary prizes
‘There’s never been a better time to be a writer.’ I’ve seen this mantra frequently over the past few years in blogposts, conference reports and news items. And I don’t disagree there’s been a lot to celebrate.
But from what I see right now, this time is also tougher for authors than ever.
Indie authors feel it in their book sales. Hands up who is in a forum where the chief discussion is ‘what can I do about my dwindling sales?’ ‘Anybody else had a dismal month?’ ‘Should I drop my book’s price, put it on Kindle Unlimited, write something more popular, send out more emails, spend $$$ on a marketing course?’
The traditionally published authors I know are faring little better, with shrinking advances, ill-supported launches – even the authors who have awards to prove their worth.
Last week I was having an email conversation with a wise author friend. As we confided our worries and frustrations, I felt we were describing the state of the author 2015, and were probably echoing many other conversations going on behind closed doors.
So I thought I would open those doors. Come in. Come and see how authors are thinking about their careers right now. And see why, in spite of the rotten state of the book market, we keep the faith and stay true to our standards.
I have permission to quote my friend’s words, but he wanted to remain anonymous. So we’ll call him Oscar, in honour of the internet tradition of attributing everything to Mr Wilde.
Oscar: I’m looking forward to Ever Rest.
RM: It will be a while before Ever Rest is fit to show. When it is, I’m going to look for a new agent. It’s so desperately hard to get fiction noticed, especially if you write odd-lit like me. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing by publishing literary fiction as an indie. Even my own husband says it. And they’re right. I need a way to prove myself to the serious reviewers and opinion formers.
An example. I recently applied to the Royal Literary Fund for a grant. I’d been assured by another sponsored author that they would consider a writer who had published two literary novels, but when I checked their rules I found they excluded self-publishing. Nevertheless, I wrote explaining my background, teaching credentials, why I’m indie (more about that here ). Their reply was ‘you haven’t commercially published sufficient work’ and they refused any further discussions. This is the hole we find ourselves in, trying to get indie-published work recognised.
Oscar: You’re a smart lady to be looking for an agent. I’m beginning to think the biggest part of the indie movement is to smack the big machines into better behaviour. They have the money and power to do what we cannot do.
The tides will turn. I watched it happen in photography. Just please keep doing what you’re doing. It’s needed. Without people like you, we could lose literary writing in this mess. And it is a mess. I can’t believe some of the things I’m reading from authors who make big money.
RM: Speaking of which, you’ve no idea how many people who say to me ‘can’t you just toss off a series to get some bestsellers’?
Oscar: I tossed off a series – and then I pulled the books. I felt dirty.
I have an agent friend. In 2014 he was flying high, making sales, getting high-profile assignments, negotiating foreign rights. He said all of that is over now. It’s hard to sell *anything* to a trad house because we’ve lost our attention span for long form. Everybody is on Twitter. No one has the time to read. He has always been a force of nature, enormously talented, confident that he can take on the world. This throws me for a loop.
I check in on Kindleboards now and again. Yesterday I saw an author who started out making $13,000 a MONTH on four poorly written books say she’s now ghosting for other indies to make ends meet. Another author posted about the publication of his new ‘novel’, which is 117 pages long with lots of white space (probably 15K words) and selling for $2.99. Everyone was fawning over him and his swift production.
I saw Joanna Penn remark that we aren’t in competition with each other, but with so many other forms of entertainment. People do *not* sit still for long, unless they’re binging on Netflix for hours on end. How are we to compete with that?
Some authors are doing exceptionally well. They crank out a book a month and direct it at a very young audience that does not yet know the value of a dollar. I know scads of young adults, and they read copious amounts of books, but they’ve got to be free. I nearly blow an artery when I hear them say how poorly written the books are, how many grammar and style errors there are – but they don’t care.
As for craft and quality, in one forum I saw people asking others to stop putting out junk. The remarks degraded, as they always do, to people defending the ‘raw’ writing their fans demanded. Many admitted to using no editors at all, claiming it took the edge off.
RM: [Unprintable. Gentle reader, don’t ask.]
Oscar: My agent said there are precious few of us left with the attention span and appreciation of finely crafted work, and we need to hold on to each other dearly. That’s all fine and well, but how much longer can we continue buying each other’s books?
But it’s not all doom. My partner and I are deeply involved with theatre and have watched that die a slow death, and even Masterpiece Theater removed ‘Theater’ from its name so people won’t get turned off by it. We hang on because it is an eternal artform waiting to be re-born. I believe the same is true for longform, literary novels. It’s a cycle, and the cycles are moving faster.
RM: Right. Who would have thought, five years ago, that Hilary Mantel would be a household name? Listen, while publishing sorts itself out, we write. Have a look at this interview where the musician Sarah Kirkland Snider is talking to Porter Anderson about the sense of connection and completeness we have when we create good work. That’s what it’s about.
Oscar: There is a passage from Nevada to Utah called The Virgin River Gorge. It’s at least a thousand feet deep and so beautiful it makes one’s heart stop. It was carved by a small body of soft water that moved slowly and peacefully because it was the only thing it knew how to do, the only path it could take. With time, it created the impossible and a majestic beauty and monument to the power of unyielding persistence.
Be the water.
Do you have days like this? How has this year been for you in your writing and publishing career? My door is open.
author standards, friends, Hilary Mantel, literary author, low book sales, mainstream publishing, Netflix, Oscar, publishing, quality in self-publishing, Royal Literary Fund, self-belief as an author, self-publishing, self-publishing literary fiction, The Virgin River Gorge, tough times as an author, writers' forums
You know my bookseller friend Peter Snell, of Barton’s in Leatherhead? (He’s the co-host of our Surrey Hills Radio show So You Want To be A Writer.) Peter is a staunch supporter of indie authors, and he mentioned to me that he’d been talking to an indie writer I know who wanted advice on revamping her novel cover.
Oh you mean Alison Ripley Cubitt, I said. Her science fiction novel?
It’s not science fiction, said Peter. It’s a contemporary eco-thriller.
And therein lay Alison’s biggest problem.
So how did she end up with a cover that sent the wrong message? How was she persuaded to change it – because she’d made that choice for a good reason. And what did she change it to?
I thought this would make a useful case study. Publishers often rebrand covers if they keep a title in print a long time, and I’ve known other indie authors who’ve rejuvenated their books with new covers, aiming to catch the eye of different readers (here’s the post). And as we’re making our own decisions about everything, it’s inevitable that we’ll take some wrong turns – I’ve nearly chosen a disastrously misleading cover myself when I was releasing Lifeform Three. (Here’s the confession. You will howl.)
So thank you, Alison, for agreeing to share your process. (Alison writes with her husband under the name Lambert Nagle @LambertNagle.)
RM: How did the original cover design come about, and why did it seem like the right choice?
ARC: The photograph we used showed the terrible drought in the Australian outback and came from our extensive research. Although I knew it hadn’t been digitally manipulated, to potential customers it looked like the opening shot in a Mad Max film. We were naïve enough to think we could do the design job ourselves.
RM: I’ve found this is a classic indie mistake – to use a picture because it’s significant to the author. The reader doesn’t know your reasons and may get the wrong message.
Also, note the difference in typography between Alison’s covers. Her designer has used colours, contrasting fonts, different sizes, which all add up to a polished result.
RM: What made you decide to change your cover? Was there any feedback that made you consider it?
ARC: As I stood in a room with indie authors in Foyle’s bookshop at an author event earlier this year, I looked at their covers and realised that I’d been far too complacent. Luckily our stand was next to that of the delightful CJ Lyons (@CJLyonswriter). I asked CJ what she thought of the book and her response was, ‘it looks like sci-fi!’ I loved her honesty. With another book on the way, we decided it was time to look at the design.
RM: Peter Snell mentioned he’d given you advice. Tell me more.
Peter Snell is a real champion of indie authors. On my visit to Barton’s bookshop, I was able to compare our current cover with the thrillers on Peter’s shelves. This underscored that our cover wasn’t working.
RM: I’ve had the incredibly useful Peter cover-brainstorming tour. When I was figuring out what to do about Lifeform Three, he took me round the shelves and pulled out titles with similar themes and atmosphere to show me how this could be communicated by the cover. If you don’t have a friendly bookseller to hand, you could research the comparison titles online.
Peter had a further point about the trim size of Alison’s book. She told me she’d chosen 6 x 9 because it was the most economical in price, but …. (here’s Peter):
PS: The trim size was too big for the pagecount so the book looked too thin, which made it look self-published. In a smaller format the spine would be thicker, making it better balanced in terms of look, weight and feel. It would also fit better on bookshop shelves. Also, the design needed to be repeated on the spine so that customers could find it if the spine was the only thing visible.
RM again: Alison, how did you find the new cover designer? How many ideas did you try?
ARC: I liked Eliza Green’s cover for Becoming Human, by Design for Writers. I filled in a detailed design brief, with information about the genre, target market and tone. I told them which book covers from competitors I liked and those that I thought were clichéd. They sent me a design that I loved. They got it right first time.
RM: How much did the new cover cost? And the interior redesign (for the new smaller size)?
ARC: We were given a 10% Alliance of Independent Authors member discount which brought the cost of the cover redesign to under £200. I have allowed a budget of £100 for the reformatting of the interior, So far, we haven’t had to spend that money, as we’ve done much of the work ourselves.
RM: How are you publicising the change to ensure your fans don’t get confused?
ARC: I am stressing to readers that the print version is a relaunch and not a new book so that they don’t inadvertently buy the same book twice. It’s easier with an ebook as a potential purchaser gets a message stating that they have already purchased it. We are kicking off the publicity campaign at a book signing at Barton’s in Leatherhead on July 11th.
RM: On the new cover you have a lot more supporting text – the series tagline, the review stars. This makes it look more ‘dressed’.
ARC: In the original cover, there was no supporting text. That’s because we did it ourselves! I was pleased that we were able to fit both the pull quote and the stars from one of our reviews on the cover. The series tagline was important as it tells readers that Stephen Connor is a character they’re going to see again in the next book.
RM: It’s a challenge to get a lot of elements onto a cover and make them look good. If you don’t know about typography, you can end up with an unholy mess. But notice how Design For Writers makes it all work.
ARC: We lengthened the synopsis on the back cover too.
RM: Many indie authors don’t pay enough attention to the look of the back cover. But it’s a chance to hook readers with an intriguing teaser, and quotes from reviews. Don’t waste this space.
RM: What about badges? The indie world is bristling with awards and rosettes. Alison mentioned to me that she had a Brag medallion and an Awesome Indies seal, but they’re not on the front cover. Alison?
ARC: We’re thrilled to have the badges but we didn’t include them on the cover as readers might miss some of the lovely design details.
RM: I’m in agreement here. I’m very grateful for my various awards, but they clash with my cover designs. But if you’d like to inc lude an endorsement, a good solution is to write it as a line of text.
To return to the start, Peter and I recorded an episode where we toured the bookshop, discussing covers and why they worked. Cover art on the radio? We are fearless. Listen to it here (slide the cursor onwards a little – the file includes the songs that were playing before our slot).
RM: I’ll leave the last word to Alison:
ARC: I would love to get feedback from writers who have had new covers made and to find out how it worked for them.
RM: The floor is yours – discuss!
Alison Ripley Cubitt, authorship, back cover copy, back covers, Barton's Bookshop, bookshops, CJ Lyons, cover design mistakes, cover design tips, covers, Designs for Writers, how to design a book cover, indie authors, Peter Snell, self-publishing, what size should your book be, wrong book cover
I’d completely forgotten I’d written this interview until it popped up on Twitter today. Whitefox publishing services wanted to quiz me about ghostwriting, my first writing gig and any tips I’d give to writers who were thinking of self-publishing. If you’ve known me for a while the answers will be old hat, but if you’re one of the recent subscribers (thank you!) and are still curious, here it is. If you’re wondering about your publishing options, you’ll find some useful tips here. And if you want advice on weighing up publishing services companies, these posts should help you make sensible decisions. And thank you, Whitefox, for inviting me to your blog.
PS Interested in becoming a ghostwriter? Take my professional course
advice on self-publishing, advice to new writers, are you ready to self-publish, Fix and Finish With Confidence, ghostwriting, Girl Online, indie authors, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, publishing services providers, self-publishing, Whitefox, Zoe Sugg
How do you organise seven time-strapped authors to collaborate on a project? Who does what, especially the tedious jobs like proof reading? How do you decide on an image, a price, a name, a thrust for the publicity campaign, how much to spend on advertising?
Indeed, how do you get seven individuals to agree on anything?
How do you get the attention of the press – and is that worthwhile? What’s the difference between a proper promotion strategy and flinging the book into the market to fend for itself?
As you know, I’ve been taking part in a box set release with six other authors. We started work, in secret, back in November. Now, Jane Friedman has grilled us about the lessons learned in making a nice notion into an actual live product. Do come over.
author collaborations, box set, collaborating, contemporary fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, guest post, guest posts, how to release a box set, interview, interviews, Jane Friedman, literary fiction, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, proof reading, publicity campaign, Roz Morris, self-publishing, writing
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- ‘A dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian Scotland, and painful family memories’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Philip Miller May 13, 2017
- A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books? April 23, 2017
- Writing the perfect love triangle – guest post at Writers Helping Writers April 11, 2017
- Before Arrival: appreciating Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang April 9, 2017
- ‘The unrelenting passage of time’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Theresa Milstein April 2, 2017