Self-publishing: what does it really entail?

On Saturday September 5th, at the Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle, I’ll be running my first workshop on self-publishing. I’m delighted that they asked me to do something at this event. I went last year and did a very short session on writing local fiction. It was too short to do any justice to such a complex topic, but I enjoyed it, and the rest of the festival was really good too, so I was glad to be part of it.

This time I have a little longer, and the topic is quite specific, or so I thought when I said I would do it. But the more I think about self-publishing, the more complicated and multi-dimensional it seems to become. I’m trying to create some kind of sequence of sub-topics as the basic structure of what I offer, but it’s looking more like a flow chart, with binary choices to be made a various points. The people who present themselves, assuming that some will sign up for it, will all be very different in their motivation, confidence, prior knowledge and aspirations, and I’m struggling to create something that will have a chance of meeting such disparate needs.

The first stage in the flow chart has to be the existence of a ‘product’ – novel, short-story, poem, whatever it may be, – that will actually be worth publishing. Without a well written and crafted ‘thing’ any kind of publishing is premature. We’ll have to address the issue of quality, and the importance of professional editing, although I know right from the off that some people want to self-publish with as little financial outlay as they can possibly manage. How do you persuade someone that getting their well-meaning but amateur friend to edit their work is not a good start?

Given a quality ‘product’, the next step is to consider whether self-publishing is the best choice, rather than putting more energy into finding an agent and thence to ‘traditional’ publication, with most of the decisions taken out of the author’s hands. We will need to look at the pros and cons of self-publishing in some detail, to make sure that anyone choosing that road understands what they’re doing, and why.

If self-publishing is the best option, then another host of variable and choices present themselves, which is where the diversity of the people in the group will probably be most manifest. Some want to publish just for family and friends, others only as ebook, others again – myself included – prefer the paperback as well as ebook option, aware of the costs that can be incurred, including storage if you don’t want to be falling over boxes of books in your home. Keeping precious books in a damp garage isn’t a great idea, and mice love paper.

Whichever self-publishing choice the author makes, books don’t sell themselves. Unless you’re extremely fortunate and well-connected, reviews will be hard to come by, and the mainstream booksellers may not want to put an unknown writer’s self-published stuff on their shelves. So how do you get people to buy your book, once you’ve run through those who know your name and want to support you? At this stage, under the heading of ‘promotion and marketing’, off we go into the development of the ‘author platform’, the very idea of which will make some wince and others lose heart. If you’re starting from scratch, the work involved in developing and connecting the various components of a ‘platform’ – website, blog, Facebook and Twitter presence, and much more – looks daunting, and it takes time.

And after all that effort on the laptop, the digital presence will need to be supplemented with personal appearances, anywhere and everywhere. I sold more books last year at meetings, events and so on than by any other means. and really enjoyed doing so, but I know what a nightmare they might be to others with less experience and practice.

Does self-publishing pay for itself, or even generate some real money? It can, certainly, but that takes a great deal of work and time that could – or should? – be spent on the real business of the writer – writing!

See what I mean? It’s not easy. My challenge is to plan three hours or so of pertinent activity and discussion that will raise these issues and give the participants a chance to work on a plan to take away. If you read this far and fancy joining us, hit the website link at the top of this post and follow the stages to book your place. There’ll be other great sessions to sign up for too, if last year’s successful Borderlines event is anything to go by. I heard Rory Stewart there last year, and Alan Johnson, both talking very impressively about their new ‘conventionally’ published books. For those of us with less clout, the road to publication is more difficult but offers far more control and more income per book too. If self-publication appeals to you, come and work with us on September 5th and we’ll learn together.

Self-doubt: necessary or a waste of energy?

One of the many things that made Margaret Thatcher anathema to me – even now after all these years – was her apparent complete absence of self-doubt. It’s a ‘fundamentalist’ trait, I suppose, which manifests itself in similar ways whatever the beliefs of the believer. I have a reputation – undeserved, surely – for expressing myself quite forcefully at times, about Margaret Thatcher for example, but underneath it all I am frequently assailed by self-doubt and one of those times seems to be upon me now.

The ms of Cruel Tide is with my editor Charlotte and I’ll get it back for approval in a week or so. We’ve corresponded and talked at length about several previous drafts, but even so waiting for her editing suggestions feels like waiting for an exam result. Did I do a good job? Is it really crime fiction or just another character-driven story with ‘events’ like the trilogy that went before it? Was it a good idea to link it to the trilogy, or was that choice driven by commercial considerations? Is Cruel Tide as well-written as it should be? Does the dialogue work? On and on the questions go. I could lay some of them to rest perhaps by re-reading the text yet again, but I daren’t, and anyway it may be too late. Once the production machine begins to hum along there are few opportunities for major changes. Tweaking only from now on, and I do want the book to be ready for the shops well before Christmas. Now I’m thinking like a publisher rather than a writer, but when you self-publish you have to be both.

I was hoping that sales would be quite brisk as the summer moves on and more visitors arrive in the lake District, but things seem to be slow. Ebook sales go up and down without any explanation, and I can’t tell whether any of my promotional activities have any impact on anything except direct sales, which are always good when I’m ‘performing’ somewhere. Fortunately I so enjoy the ‘performing’ element of this work that I will continue to do it regardless of whether it sells books or not. Sometimes I yearn for a larger audience and somewhere other than a village hall or church rooms to do my work, but it’s the same old problem of breaking in to the ‘festivals’ circuit that many self-published authors like me face. What does it take to get enough recognition to be asked to do things that will build a reputation for quality? I know I can engage and entertain larger audiences as I’ve done it for decades in my previous life as an education presenter, but no one in the book business would take any notice of that. On paper I’m another elderly unagented northerner who writes and publishes old-fashioned stories, and I’m popular on the Cumbrian WI circuit. Nothing wrong with that, but it may not get you noticed by people wanting to sell tickets for ‘Words on the Water’ in Keswick or the Hay Festival. I look on Twitter at fellow-writers  enjoying their contributions to book festivals and I think ‘I could do that!’

Nothing like a good moan. My partner thinks I should have more faith in myself. ‘Keep going’ he says. ‘The books are good, and eventually someone who matters in the book business will notice them.’ Maybe he’s right, but I’m not certain: the doubt is not enough to stop me thinking about the next book, however, and the current mood will probably pass. In the meantime I wonder if all this introspection is just unnecessary and a waste of energy. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to live the life I have and afford the luxury of high-quality self-publishing. I’ve been writing fiction for less than five years and hopefully getting better with practice. Self-doubt is probably appropriate and realistic and OK. Get over it.


Making audio books: a sensible investment?

For a while now I’ve been thinking about doing an audio book, but only recently began to gather all the relevant information about how much it would cost, to decide whether I can afford it, and whether I would ever get a reasonable return. The basic sums are relatively simple: at a commercial recording studio the going rate seems to be around £190 per hour of recording, and I’m told that at 90,000 word book would take around 9 hours. So it’s a lot of money to invest up front, and that’s before the costs of actually getting to the studio. The studios I’ve checked so far are in London, Oxford and Manchester, many hours from my home and I’d have to stay somewhere too. All the studios in Cumbria seem to be devoted to music rather than the spoken word.

The next factor in the equation would be to research the market for the price of downloads and/or CDs, to see how many I would have to sell to get the investment back, or at least not lose an unreasonable amount. Preliminary enquiries confirm that download and CDs cost a good deal more than other formats, but even so I’d have to sell a lot to recover the outlay. I’ve already concluded that self-publishing for me is an enjoyable hobby that just about pays for itself, but only just, and it’s always a risk for those of us who are not prepared to go exclusively to ebooks. If you want to produce a ‘real’ book of commercial quality, there are costs that you cannot guarantee to recoup, and the same goes for audio books.

I’m not planning to pay for an actor to read the story: that would no doubt put the project financially beyond my reach, but also I really want to read it myself. I have a northern but not specifically Cumbrian accent, but I could probably get away with it. More than that, I don’t really trust anyone else to capture the sense of some of the text. I’ve listened to many audio books, usually on long car journeys, and been very struck by how inappropriate and ill-considered some of the reading has been. Too ‘actorly’, if that’s an intelligible word. If I’m choosing an audio book to listen to I always go for the author’s own reading if I can get it, and feel I could do a better job reading my own words. Alice Walker reading ‘Jazz’, or Vikram Seth reading ‘A Suitable Boy’: both have wonderful voices and listening to them was a joy.

There’s more research to do before I make a final decision about whether to do it. Apart from the money, there’s the time to consider. Reading thirty or so chapters to the right standard would require rehearsal and practice that would take far more time than the actual recording. I have a tendency to be impatient and look for shortcuts, but if you want quality there aren’t any shortcuts. What else might I do with the time that this project would take? Start thinking about the next book? Spend more energy seeking out promotional opportunities for my existing books and the new one ‘Cruel Tide’ which is due out in November? Sort out all the images from our trip to Antarctica and Patagonia that I promised to show to my friends and neighbours? We got back from there in March and it’s July already. And I also have hundreds of slides from a solo trip around China in 1986 that I really want to digitise and share, and that task alone would take hours of rather tedious work. Maybe it’s my age, but I feel the passage of time very acutely: it’s a very precious commodity for me and I always want to spend it wisely. Of all the things I could be doing, is making an audio book the best choice? I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done it, to pick their brains and experience.