Posts Tagged Writer Beware

The way we were – self-publishing 2005 and now

Look what we found in the attic.

It’s a self-publishing supplement from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in New Year 2005.

When this was circulated, I was ghostwriting for Big Six publishers (when they were a Big Six) and hoping to get an agent for my own novel. My writer friends were on the same trajectory.

A book deal was the way – the only way – to get your work into the world. For posterity, for a career.

Self-publishing was a mysterious parallel universe. A few authors had used it to start good careers, but mainly because they got lucky. Maybe with influential reviewers. Maybe an agent bought a copy, as if they didn’t already have enough to read. If you didn’t get that luck, what happened? We never knew.

I think I had an early glimpse of a self-published book that didn’t get lucky. Our local second-hand bookshop had multiple copies of a mysterious grey novel that looked like no novel I’d ever seen before. It had a blank cover with only a title, which was curly, heavily shadowed and unreadable. I now realise it must have been an indie book that someone was desperate to get rid of, but at the time I was intrigued by its oddness. What was it trying to be? There were at least 20 copies and somehow this quantity, and the austere appearance, made the novel look like it knew something I didn’t. I believed that treasure came in odd disguises and I tried reading the first page. Oh dear, the prose was a droning info-dump and impossible to understand. But every time I went into the shop, those copies were still there, grey slabs of print that commanded a look because they were so wrong. Several times, I opened a copy and tried to like it. I wanted it to be a work of wonder and meaning. It wasn’t.

That seemed a shame. And the book seemed to embody so many of the things that could – and still can – go wrong with self-publishing. The general message at the time was: don’t do it.

Don’t do it. No, do

So when I found this self-publishing guide from 2005, I was curious. How did they make the case?

In the introduction, Tom Green notes how the publishing landscape has changed. It sounds familiar: ‘More people are chasing less space on the lists of traditional publishers and agents. Even established writers find themselves dropped without warning if they are not the flavour of the month and don’t have the required celebrity status to get coverage in the media.’

That could be today. But the reasons to self-publish in 2005 weren’t all negative. Tom also points out two clear advantages – control over the product, and control over other rights. Today, those are massive cornerstones of independent publishing – we decide how the book will be, we get maximum value out of other forms such as audiobooks, translations etc.

And with those freedoms came a warning. Again, a familiar one – the great potential to make mistakes. Not just mistakes of quality, like our friend with the unedited, mispresented grey doorstop, but financial mistakes. Then, as now, writers had to avoid overpriced services of dubious value, and contracts that strip you of your rights.

If only they knew

As I read, I thought how they couldn’t have known how much easier their path was about to become. Just a few years later, much of the expense and difficulty of self-publishing was swept away by two developments – ebooks and the miracle of the online world.

First, ebooks. All self-publishing in 2005 was print. It wasn’t that ebooks hadn’t been invented – Project Gutenberg made the first one in 1971 – but we hadn’t yet got devices for reading them comfortably. Who wants to read a book on a desktop or laptop?

And second, our online infrastructure – we hadn’t yet got the internet plumbing that allows us to sell books worldwide, via huge online stores that might be on a different landmass from the country we write in. That same internet plumbing also brought massive opportunities to share our learning so we can self-publish well.

So in 2005, books were paper chunks. Moreover, you had to guess how many to make (in the hundreds), then store and ship them or pay someone for that. Print on demand (POD) did exist, but not in the sense we know it. Although it was possible to produce one copy at a time, POD was more normally used by trade publishers for short runs of backlist titles.

Let us give hearty thanks for our highly evolved POD and ebook sales systems. Whenever I teach a course in self-publishing (yes, I do that), it’s the first thing I explain.

One interesting attitude in 2005 is that self-publishing was seen as a stepping stone. Joanna Anthony, who at the time was marketing director of hybrid publisher Pen Press, writes: ‘I believe there will be a time when all unknown authors self-publish to test the market and mainstream publishers will pick them up once they have proved they have a market’. Although that does happen now, many self-publishers are happy to stay indie.

Small world

So self-publishers of the 2020s can reach readers more easily, and with good-looking books – but that freedom has come at a price. The books world of 2005 was much, much smaller. Thousands of titles were published in the UK each month (about 8,000 a month according to the wholesaler Gardners), and that might sound like a lot, but they went out of print. Now, nothing goes out of print, and there are more new releases than ever because it’s easy. Soon we’ll have more books than there are atoms in the sea. Authors have powerful tools to market and promote their books, but it’s competitive and expensive – for some of us, prohibitively so.   

In the simpler days of 2005, marketing was still a big issue, and authors were advised they needed to take it as seriously as the writing.  

But they were also reminded that it could be an extension of their natural talents. Dick Sharples had a lot of cheeky fun with his book, A Year In Muswell Hill. It was a spoof of Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence, penned under the name Pierre LaPoste. As Dick built awareness for the book, he says, ‘angry letters by apprehensive local residents began appearing in the local press demanding that the book be banned, especially as LaPoste had promised his book would “do for Muswell Hill what Peter Mayle did for Provence”, in other words, bugger it up.’ The national papers got wind of the story (nice one, Dick), and turned up in Muswell Hill, hoping to interview LaPoste. Dick pretended LaPoste had fled to Provence and the book sold out several print runs.  

As I read the guide’s advice on marketing and other services, I reflected how lucky we are now. Authors of the 2020s can get advice and protection from several high-profile organisations – the Alliance of Independent Authors and Victoria Strauss’s site Writer Beware.

I turned the page and there was Victoria Strauss herself, sharing her knowledge and experience, helping writers avoid bad choices, already a strong voice to make the indie world a better place.

There were many surprises in this little publication, but that was the nicest.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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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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