Self-publishing with pride and integrity

Last week someone whose name I’ve already forgotten wrote a piece about all the reasons why she couldn’t possibly self-publish her ‘literary’ fiction. I read it expecting to find the usual catalogue of poor information and ill-disguised intellectual snobbery, and there it all was, again. Not sure why anyone gave the piece an airing, except that they probably knew it would cause a stir, and here I am responding to it like a fish to bait.

Whenever I read or hear these well-worn points I wonder who the writer has been talking to. It’s obviously someone who doesn’t care much about the quality of their writing, can’t be bothered with a proper editor, goes straight to ebook and spends much energy manipulating the publication figures to make their stuff appear to be a best-seller. Granted, living as I do in beautiful West Cumbria, I don’t know many writers, but I don’t recognise this person at all.

Here’s an alternative view of self-publishing, from my own experience.

My naive expectation that any agent would be interested in the early draft of my first novel was quickly dispelled. I could have spent more time trying repeatedly to find an agent – far more time incidentally than I have ever spent on promoting my books – but preferred to write the novel rather than begging letters. I’ve never had much patience, and like to manage my own affairs, and both of those propelled me towards self-publishing, along with a little money to invest with which to ‘back myself’ as my accountant put it. ‘If you cover your costs,’ he said, ‘you’ve succeeded.’

From the very start I wanted to produce a book to the highest standard I could manage. It had to be the best writing I was capable of at the time, well-edited, well-designed and look good on the shelf. This would be my legacy and I had to feel happy about it. Self-respect matters in self-publishing.

Among my oldest friends are two people who edit and design books, mostly non-fiction, but I trust and respect them for their passion and their skills. We have worked closely together on each of the four novels I have written so far, with the fifth due out in November 2016. After the first one took three years to write, it’s been one book each year, and hard work. Most of that time is spent on research and planning, the writing and editing will take around five months, and I’ll fit any promotion activities around the core business. All the books are on Kindle, and in paperback. My sales come from local shops, a Cumbria-based distributor, the usual national distributors, Amazon and my website as well as ebooks, which tick along at about 30 each month with very little push from me. Last year I also made over £2000 selling direct to people I met while doing talks to groups around Cumbria, almost all of which were in the evenings when I wouldn’t be writing, and were also very enjoyable. I’m on Twitter and half-heartedly on FB, have my own website and write a weekly blog post. My limited social media activity is mainly about keeping up with family news and promoting my beloved Cumbria.

Each book costs about £5000 to produce and print, and various running costs include a small amount for storage and help with fulfilling orders and keeping track of the finances, neither of which I want to do myself. It’s hard to quantify precisely, but I just about break even. The first book ‘A Good Liar’ has already been reprinted, and the second is down to the last few dozen copies and will be re-printed shortly, with a new cover incidentally as I’m not convinced about my original choice. Reprinting is much cheaper than the first run, while the selling price remains the same. ‘You do the math’. Each new book stimulates sales of the previous ones and increases my ‘shelf-presence’ as an author. I make all my own decisions about the content and production of my novels: they may not be the best choices in commercial terms but they are consistent with my own values and notion of quality, and I’m happy about that.

Do I make much money? No. Do I feel proud of what I’m doing, after a life-time of longing to write fiction? Yes. Do I recognise the self-publishing writer portrayed in the post I read last week. No. That’s not me.

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What’s wrong with ‘trends’ in publishing, or anything else?

Sometimes a thought arrives by a very circuitous route: this one started with reading ‘Lancashire Life’, one of those glossy mags that abound in England and mirror the lives of that tiny fraction of the population that can afford what lies within. As I am not one of that tiny fraction, I bought a copy last month because they were running a review of my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ and I was chuffed and curious. The book page was at the back and what struck me as I leafed through to find it was the number of advertisements for wedding venues, bridal shops, ‘mother-of-the bride’ shops and so on. This in turn prompted memories of some recent family weddings where the purpose of the exercise seemed to have been lost in a morass of unnecessary and costly rituals, mostly imported from the US. That experience, reinforced by the countless wedding industry adverts made me wonder, yet again, about what drives people to want what others have, and to do what others do, rather than stick to what they feel comfortable with. Why do we ape others rather than represent our true selves?

The more I see of the publishing industry, the more of a ‘business’ and less of a creative enterprise it seems to be, at least currently. My impression is that the current obsession with ‘fads’ is relatively recent, probably since the acquisition of money to stay afloat in troubled times became the main imperative. Editors and publishers are no longer the gatekeepers of quality in this enterprise. Their role has been replaced by the agent, a mediator between the writer and her means of public expression, who lives by taking a percentage of the writer’s earnings. If your livelihood depends on the certainty of financial success, and the people you are selling to are also risk-averse, all of you are intensely concerned with finding books that will sell big and sell fast, creating and then riding a public wave which is powerful but transient, a wave to be surfed not a long-distance ocean swell.

This is the breeding ground of trends, fads, fashion, whatever term you choose. Everyone in the book business is now on the look out for sure things, and the only evidence they have to use is the last sure thing. If we analyse what made the last successful book popular and replicate it, then we might catch the wave before it fades and make some money. The problem for books is that they cannot, or should not, be written fast. If you want to catch the wave, you haven’t got time for a book to be written. Instead you go yet again through the pile of stuff you already have, looking for the desired combination of criteria. Speed is of the essence. No time to read more than a chapter or two, if that. Agents talk constantly about ‘falling in love’ with a book as their only criterion for choosing one book over another. This has to be a ‘coup de foudre’ not a long, measured appreciation. Quick flick: does it have the necessary genre features that the last best-seller had? Does it fit the bill? Is the author photogenic and have a good story? Can we sell this big and fast? If so, let’s go. If not, throw it back onto the ever-mounting slush pile.

I know it’s not as simple as this, but to someone on the outside of the conventional book business looking in, this is how it feels. Writing and publishing a book, like planning a wedding, can be an expression of your approach to life and your individual values. Or it can be a way of demonstrating how fashion conscious and competitive you are. The big fashionable wedding will get into the glossy magazines, where the wedding planners’ choices and expenses will be scrutinised by others. And the publishers’ choice of a handful of manuscripts, which are then lavished with expensive editorial and promotional support, will get noticed by the book business cogniscenti, which then adds to the hype and presumably increases sales. Fads and fashions create a barrier between the ‘in-crowd’ and the ‘out-crowd’: the in-crowd are necessarily and frenetically peer conscious and competitive, while self-publishing outsiders like myself are free to follow our own paths with some chance of staying true to ourselves.

 

 

Fact, fiction, and genre expectations

At the Words by the Water festival in Keswick last week, we were able to witness two versions of the same real events and thereby to compare them. The events in question concerned the life and work of  Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose work enabled the German ‘enigma’ code to be cracked during World War 2. The first presentation came from Turing’s nephew Dermot Turing who gave us five ‘myths’ about his uncle and proceeded to use his detailed knowledge of the family and the history to replace these myths with something closer to the truth. His talk was followed by a showing of ‘The Imitation Game’ a 2014 film ostensibly about Turing’s life and war work, and the events leading up to Turing’s death by suicide in 1954.

At the end of his talk, Dermot Turing urged us to enjoy the film we were about to see, but warned us that the Alan Turing we were going to see portrayed was not, perhaps, the real man, but a filmic construct. He didn’t use those words: in fact he was very polite about a film that demonstrated each of the five myths that he had previously been at pains to deconstruct. No point in railing against it, I suppose, although I doubt whether my reaction would have been so measured.

The film was much heralded when it was released. I can’t recall all the fulsome epithets used by the critics, but some of them at least thought it was very good. But did it actually tell the story accurately? No. In some crucial respects, the needs of the film, the demands of the genre and the presumed expectations of the audience clearly over-rode any semblance of historical accuracy. One example: Turing was already working on the German code before the war began and had cracked it by 1941, but in the film the breakthrough is beset by technical and political difficulties and wasn’t achieved until much later in the war, as the need for it became ever more urgent, creating a false tension that never actually happened.

The script – in my view – was dire, cliche-ridden and sentimentalised. I checked later: the scriptwriter was American and born in 1981. To what extent, I wondered, were both the script and the unfolding of the story affected by the demands of the 3 act structure so beloved of film-makers: – the ersatz crises, the bullying army officer, the cynical MI6 man, the fresh-faced young man who had by some fluke turned up in the code-breaking team. And then there was Keira Knightley as the only woman on the team. Words fail me. Why her, again? I assume I was expected to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story, but instead I was increasingly  irritated by the whole sorry mess.

On the way out I began thinking about my own attempts to weave real events into a fictional setting, and whether I too should be castigated for sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of a good tale. The issue is most pronounced in the third book of my West Cumbrian trilogy ‘Fallout’, which is set against the backdrop of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale in October 1957. I had 90,000 words rather than an two hour film script to play with, but still the responsibility to portray the real events as accurately as I could weighed heavily on me, for two reasons. First, it was a point of pride that I got my facts right. And second, Windscale is just a few miles up the coast from where I live and the fire happened not that long ago, within my memory and those of many people who live around me in this area. You can’t, and shouldn’t, muck about with the known facts when many of them are known by so many. My research was careful and meticulous. Even if it made a better story I couldn’t make the fire last longer, or less long, or do more damage, or require intervention beyond the means of the local men who managed to get it under control. So why did the makers of ‘The Imitation Game’ claim to use a real story, take such liberties with it, and get away with it? I can be very critical of my own attempt to blend fact and fiction but at least I tried to respect the events rather than abuse them.

Historical fiction that purports to represent real events raises particular challenges when those events are within living memory. It’s something I’d like to think more about as a writer, and try not to imitate ‘The Imitation Game’.

 

 

 

 

Can you make money self-publishing?

There was some very interesting discussion of this question at a workshop on self-publishing I led recently. Sixteen or so people round the table all had different goals, starting points, skills, strategies and experiences. Some did everything themselves, and used time and perseverance rather than money for the project. Others – me included -needed professional help with all or part of the process, and were able and prepared to pay for it. Others spent all their money on producing the book, but then found themselves with nothing left over to use for promotion, without which their beautiful books were still in their boxes cluttering up the house. Some just about covered their costs; some were nowhere near doing so; one or two had lost more than they could afford. I’d expected at least some stories of financial success, but heard none. Maybe the quiet ones at the table were doing better than they wanted to share.

There’s no question that almost all self-publishing projects will cost you something, either money or time, and probably both. There’s also no doubt that producing an ebook is much easier and cheaper than any other format, and you can sell heaps if you put a ludicrously low price on it, but the effect on sales is ephemeral. Publishing a paperback is a more difficult, but carries with it many more opportunities for promotion and direct sales.

I’m often surprised that many aspiring self-publishers don’t appear to have thought the process through, although that’s understandable given its complexity. If you truly understood the whole process it might be so daunting that you would never even start. One of the more unfortunate of the workshop participants regretted that she hadn’t attended a workshop like this two years before, and we realised why when she recounted – very bravely I thought – the series of mistakes she had made and the loss she’d incurred.

I may have had some advantage in this ‘business project’ game having been self-employed for many years, and having some idea of how to think ahead financially. Before I took the decision to self-publish I knew enough to calculate how many books I would need to sell, at what price, to retrieve the money I had shelled out at the start on the costs of ensuring a high quality paperback. The costs were for critique, editing, design and printing, and came to around £5000 for a 1500 print run. I also knew that bulk printing is cheaper than ‘print on demand’ (POD), and that unit costs are a function of quantity. How did I know that? I did enough initial research to think through some of the details and their implications. I was then able to work out how long it might take to recoup the money, and an approximate ‘rate of sale’. I reckoned it might take two years to recoup the outlay on the 1500 print run, and that turned out to be about right, although the necessary promotion strategy developed very slowly. I should have thought longer and harder about ‘How will people know about your book and why should they want to buy it?’

Once printed, and before sale, the books have to be stored somewhere. I ended up paying for dry secure storage, although I could at a pinch have saved that money by persuading friends and family to store a few boxes each for me. When the first print run was all sold, at a profit of about £4 per book, and I could reprint, then the the unit production cost would go down by about 50% while the price would remain the same, which makes for more profit. I priced the ebooks so that they too would generate about £3-4 each, as the up front costs are minimal. I have used Kindle Direct Publishing, which seemed very complicated to start with and required patience to reach any level of confidence. It’s paying off though: ebooks sales are steadily increasing, and £80-£100 per month is quite a healthy return, in my terms at least. The more books you have to sell, the better, but the outlay of time and investment to produce one book each year, as I currently do, is very demanding for someone with a job or a family, or both.

None of this is rocket science. But listening to people’s experiences the other day I realised what a struggle some self-publishers have. One person had sent off their precious manuscript to an outfit who promised to publish and make her rich. She has not seen any money, as the company she’d trusted went bankrupt, having sold her work on to another bunch of charlatans who also went down. What a mess. Now she has no money left to find out what she may be entitled to, and is lost the commercial maze that she tried unsuccessfully to avoid in the first place.

There’s lots more to say about the financial aspects of self-publishing, and I’ll hold some of it for future posts. I hope my recent two-hour workshop was helpful, although it could have been longer, and pressure of time didn’t enable me to get detailed feedback. There are so many writers out there considering self-publishing, and so many unscrupulous people keen to exploit that interest, that I find myself wanting to help with the basic practical details. Will running workshops on self-publishing generate greater sales of my books? I doubt it, but it feels like something that needs doing.