A writer’s dilemma: what’s the priority?

Social_media_fear writing-cycle

After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.

Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.

After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.

 

The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.

Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.

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Crowd-funding – what’s it all about?

Last year I heard about  Unbound publishing for the first time. At first it sounded like a scam, reminding me of when someone I know went to work for an iUnbound photonsurance company and pestered all her friends relentlessly to buy a policy so she got the commission. Crowd-funding a book? I couldn’t understand why someone would pay money for an unfinished product and get nothing in return.

Recently, I’ve learned more about Unbound, and the picture is getting clearer. Firstly, Unbound have to be convinced about the quality of an author’s writing: it’s not in their interests to be promoting and publishing poor books. Secondly, people don’t just send money, they ‘pledge’ an amount of their choosing, depending on the ‘level’ of return they want. They can pledge for an ebook, or a special edition hard back, possibly with their name in it as a ‘subscriber’, or even an invitation to the launch party It’s the way commercial publishing was managed in its infancy, more like a ‘pre-order’ process with bells and whistles. If the necessary level of funding isn’t reached, subscribers can ask for their money to be returned, or transferred to another ‘project’. While the writing is in process the author will keep subscribers in touch with how they’re going, probably through a blog like this one – ‘writing about writing’.

So much for the subscribers’ reward, what does the author get out of it? For a start, they get 50% royalties, which is a vastly better deal than the norm, and could be seen as payment for the effort the author undoubtedly will put into the raising of the initial money. They get more of a partnership with the publishers, and a really well-produced edition of their work which their readers will look forward and value. They also get – as far as I understand – a ‘trade’ edition of the book, published in paperback some months after the hardback, and distributed through Penguin Random House. Yes, Penguin Random House – doesn’t get much bigger than that.

There’s the upside. What’s the downside? Well, if you want to go down this road as an author you’ve got to be happy to promote the funding campaign by any and all means short of pestering and alienating your friends. You do the video explaining your writing life and your hopes for the new book, you talk to people directly and through social media, you invite people to feel part of the project you are undertaking. If this sounds tacky, or scary, or beneath your dignity, then don’t sign up for crowd-funding.

You may have gathered that I’m interested in Unbound. If I get the chance to work with them, I’ll take it. It’s not for everyone, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. It would also give me the chance to reach a much wider readership than I have been able to reach so far, without sacrificing my hard-won self-publishing independence. I would relish the sense of involvement and partnership and appreciate the help with the technical aspects of book production. Wouldn’t you?

‘It’s been a long time’ – again!

I wrote a good post this afternoon, illustrated with the cover of my new book, ‘Fatal Reckoning’ – due out end of November.

fatal_reck-front-cover-1The post was full of wise words about the need for visual images, that I learned in a workshop on blogging at the Killer Women event in London. I edited my new post carefully, previewed, then hit ‘Publish’, and it disappeared. Part of the now invisible post referred to my technical inadequacies – ‘quod est demonstrandum’.

So I’m having to do it again. How embarrassing. But I’ve managed to insert the images, which is something. The Killer Women event was really good, by the way. Check their website. More next week when I’ve recovered from the frustrations involved in putting this together.
images

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.

‘Proactive promotion’:investing time, not money

I’ve just done an interview with Paul Teague for his forthcoming podcast series about self-publishing and it got me thinking about the challenge which faces all self-published authors – how to get people to notice your book when you haven’t got the budget for promotions that traditional publishers have.

Let’s assume that you have no money to spend on promotion: what can you do at no cost? First, there’s the local newspapers in your area. Every day, or every week, they have papers to fill with local news. They don’t have the staff or the time to sniff out stories of interest to their readers, and you can help by taking your story to them, in a form that they can use with minimum effort. If you have a tame PR person among your acquaintance, get them to show you how to write a press release, and then do one to send out. Alternatively, look at the newspapers and magazines that people who might be interested in your book would be most likely to read, and analyse the articles in there. How long are they, what kind of headline, and content, and style? Write something like this about your book, thinking of a ‘hook’ that might attract the interest first of the editor and then of their readers. Visual stuff helps too. Do you have a picture of yourself holding the book, or talking to a group about it? Is it of good enough quality to go straight into the paper alongside the article you’ve written? If so, send both the piece (with the word count in brackets at the end) and the picture to the features editor with a note explaining who you are, and ask if they could use it. In my experience, they will, and you now have a few hundred words and a picture in your local newspaper for nothing.

What about your local library? They often have readers’ groups, or do special author events. If you write or see the person responsible locally for organising these groups, tell them about your book and what you might enjoy talking about, and see if they’re interested. Don’t expect to be paid for the talk or your travel. This is a ‘loss leader’, but they will promote the event, again with a blurb and a picture around the area and probably online as well, and if you ask they will invite a photographer from the local paper to come and take the picture for publication with a short caption explaining what you were doing, what the book is about. That’s two promotion strategies in one shot, and again it costs you nothing but your time and travel.

Local radio? They need to find newsworthy local stories for hours of air time every day. Check out the presenters online, listen to what they do and then decide which of them and their listeners might be interested in your book. Write, email or call them and be persistent if needs be, without being a pain. Send your chosen person a copy of the book and a summary of its content, and some ideas about what you might talk about. The presenters often have a journalism background, so a well-presented press release would be familiar to them too. Radio is far easier to get access to than television. They might be wary of whether you will come across well on radio, so if you’ve had any prior experience in this field they would find that reassuring. They won’t pay, and might suggest that you go to the nearest studio and have your interview from there. My suggestion would be that you go to where the programmes is being made and have a face to face conversation with the presenter, which comes across far better, and you have then you have actually met the presenter, which will help if you want to go on the programme again with your later books.

All these approaches take time, but without them you may have a great book and no buyers. Doing any of these for the first time may seem difficult or nerve-wracking, but so it is with anything new, and your confidence grows with practice and experience. The second step is so much easier than the first. There’s lots more you can do: this is just a start.

Fear of Failure

Last Saturday I led my first ever workshop on self-publishing, at the Borderlines book festival in Carlisle. Considering I’ve been running workshops for twenty five years, and had been thinking about this one for weeks – I blogged about it at the end of July – I was surprisingly nervous. Could I cover in three hours the range of wants and needs that my participants might bring with them? Did I have enough experience? Would they want the technical guidance that is only really possible if you have a laptop and internet access available for each person, and did I have the skills for that anyway?

As I anticipated, each person in the group came with a unique set of prior experience, interests and questions, as was obvious as soon as they introduced themselves and began to talk about what they’d done so far. Predictably, one or two really needed the technical guidance through the maze of WordPress or Createspace or Lulu that we weren’t really geared up for, although there was another workshop the following day with that focus. Others came with a notion of how they wanted to proceed if they couldn’t find a ‘proper’ publisher. Some were optimistic about their chances of success, others less so, and each defined success differently, all as I anticipated. Some were quite reticent: why I wondered.

What was very striking was the number of people, and not the oldest, who were still coming to terms with the digital and online world. A few appeared to be very uncertain about how to use the internet as a resource to learn from, and were reliant on external guidance – from me in this case – about matters that they could have discovered for themselves with just a few clicks and a short tutorial on Youtube. Others had heard of Twitter or WordPress but the idea of an ‘author platform’ was new and nerve-wracking. I know it’s a truism that the under 30s are naturally more internet savvy than us oldies, but some of the over-30s seem to have forced themselves to catch up while others are still fearful, or dismissive, or both.

I’ve been wondering since then how I managed to learn some of this stuff myself over the past few years, despite my relatively extreme old age. I suppose it needs some spare cash to invest in ‘courses’ of various kinds, but it also needs a belief in eventual success, and a willingness to overcome the fear of failure. Faltering first steps don’t always feel good, but they are a pre-requisite if you want to learn anything.

Many years ago I was visiting a small primary school in Northland, New Zealand and noticed a poster on the staff room door, the inside of the door to be read by the staff not the outside to be read by the children. It said:

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure.

It is a powerful obstacle to growth.

It assures the progressive narrowing of the

personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.

There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling.

If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on

risking failure – all your life.

It’s as simple as that.

I kept a copy and brought it home, and still have it twenty years later. Much of what we discussed and shared last weekend involved exactly this type of learning – full of ‘difficulty and fumbling’. Once that expectation was established, people were able to ask the ‘simple’ questions that had been confusing them and getting in the way. Different people had learned different things and were able to share them. No one had a monopoly of expertise, and three hours passed very quickly. Before we left I asked everyone to think about their next steps, write them down and then share them with one other person. I learned a long time ago that I feel more committed if I’ve spoken it, not just thought about or written it, so that’s what we did. The feedback was positive, but the real feedback if I could get it would be what each person managed to do later, on their own, with some of the difficulties eased a little as a result of our time together. ‘Fear of failure’ is a habit of mind that needs continual practice to be overcome. Practice may not make perfect, but It’s pretty important in self-publishing. The 4th self-publishing project I’m on now feels a lot less scary than the first one. Maybe it’s time to find the next challenge.