The ‘Unbound’ contract is signed, so what now?

How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?

I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.

Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.

In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.

‘Viral marketing’and local success

Last night at a local Women’s Institute meeting I heard a young man talk about how he and his wife have developed a plant nursery over the past seven years or so. Dull? It was rivetting, a saga of enthusiasm, aspiration, challenge, set-backs, perseverance, commitment, hard work, adverse weather and current growth – both commercial and horticultural. What kind of promotion and marketing has worked for you, he was asked. ‘Word of mouth’ he said. ‘If two people find us, a mile off the main highway and on the road to nowhere, and if those two people have a good time and each tell two, or three or ten people about it, then the business grows, and it costs us nothing that we wouldn’t be doing anyway, ie giving our customers a good experience.’My words, perhaps, not his, but that was the inference.

These people are BUSY, running a seven day a week outfit, developing the site, growing and selling their own plants and raising two young children. They won’t have time for sitting at the laptop, doing all the internet-based social media marketing stuff that we are told is the only way forward for a new business. And they are successful, doing what they love and are good at.

So what did I gather from all this, as someone trying to write and publish one novel a year, which is also pretty time-consuming? Tom Attwood’s story about the Halecat Nursery confirmed what I’ve been learning myself about the relative ‘efficiency’ of different forms of ‘promotion and marketing. We’ve learned that meeting people matters, and that nothing spreads sales faster than word of mouth. The most successful bookshop for sales of my book is the one where the person who owns and runs it tells each customer how popular my books are, that they are set in places they know, and that I live just minutes away and bring in the books myself. The single largest income stream in my book sales is the thousands of pounds I make every year through direct sales. I’ll do a talk somewhere, explain about how I write my books, the research, the stories, the challenges, and then I sell copies to people who are interested in them. It’s ‘book signing plus’, and it works.

In rural areas like ours there are many opportunities for people to come together and listen to a speaker, and an author like myself can gain an audience by simply making yourself available, and being prepared to plan as far ahead as these organisations do. Numbers may not be great, but there were forty or so people listening to Tom last night and he did a really good job. He brought lots of plants with him, made a fair amount of money from sales, garnered a small fee, and – more importantly – encouraged everyone there to come and visit the nursery, tell their friends, check the website. I’ve no doubt that the impact of his personal presence was far more effective than seeing a Tweet or an advertisement somewhere. People love plants grown locally for local conditions. People love books written locally with local stories and locations. If that’s the niche in this crowded market, then it pays both of us to address it.

That’s not to say that a writer like me can ignore all the internet-driven routes to market, but it’s clear to me that ‘viral marketing’ inspired by personal contact works really well, and it’s much more enjoyable than sitting at a keyboard.

 

 

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.

‘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.

Hopeful anticipation or more self-doubt?

I veer between positive and fearful anticipation from hour to hour in this final run-up to the publication of ‘Cruel Tide’. Very occasionally I imagine what it would be like for it to be a runaway success, with sales off the scale and a rushed reprint. But most of the time I know I’m probably not doing enough to overcome the self-published author’s biggest challenge – getting people to read what you’ve written and created when there are so many other books out there competing for attention.

I’m actually going to get a review for this one in Lancashire Life, the offer of which was unexpected, but what if they don’t like it? Perhaps the value of getting any kind of review is greater than the downside of a bad one. I’ve put out so many feelers, and so few of these get any kind of response that it can be very disheartening. I wonder if those who don’t respond understand the impact they have. Maybe they do, and just shrug. I wish I understood that world better and could handle it with more equilibrium.

This general anxiety wasn’t helped this afternoon when I took an advance copy of ‘Cruel Tide’ to show to one of my strongest local supporters in her shop where she’s sold heaps of my books over the past few years. ‘Do you want to see it?’ I asked, preparing to pull my advanced copy of the book out of the envelope for the big reveal. She grimaced. ‘I’ve seen the poster, but I can’t look at it because I can’t bear hands.’ For a moment my heart sank. ‘I’ll sell it,’ she added, ‘and I’m sure the cover won’t bother anyone else, but I won’t be able to have it on the counter.’ What??? That’s a strong reaction: I know the cover image is striking, but it was meant to spark curiosity not revulsion. Surely someone would have advised against using the cover if it was that bad?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

Front and back covers, with the offending hand.

Anyway, it’s too late now. The books are printed and the full shipment will arrive on Monday. I’m taking a copy through to Waterstones in Barrow on Tuesday and will see what a professional bookseller thinks. I hope she doesn’t have a hand phobia. There must be a special word for that condition, and I hope that it’s extremely rare.

Beyond that the dates and events for presenting the book multiply, in libraries and bookshops all around the area. I’m grateful for all of them, and will enjoy them all too, but I wish I could break out into the wide sales uplands of Manchester or London. What would that take?  Maybe I should just rock up to the huge Waterstones on Manchester’s Deansgate, book in hand, and tell them how lucky they are. That’s what I need – more chutzpah.

It’s show time!

Last weekend I went to Gosforth Show, my first and possibly my only local show of the season. The summer months here in Cumbria are stuffed with shows: from July to September there’s one every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes mid-week as well. Some are small, some massive. The biggest ones are generally in the more populous and popular areas of the Lake District, taking advantage of the influx of visitors at this time of the year. The formula is always much the same: local farmers and gardeners present their offerings in a large number of ‘classes’. It could be ‘best Herdwick tup’ (ram), or best calf, or leeks, or sweet peas, or even strawberry jam or Victoria sponge cake. Competition is fierce and the winners are impressive. And of course there are ‘attractions’ such as the ‘monster trucks’ at Gosforth Show this year, which apparently cost a fortune but may have contributed to the biggest numbers ever attending the show. I managed not to see them, but from my spot in the Local History tent the noise was deafening. During the display women of my age came to visit me, asking ‘Why does anyone want to watch those ghastly things?’, to which I had no adequate response.

Despite the noisy mysteries of the monster trucks, I had a great time, so good in fact that I didn’t have a chance to see the rest of the show beyond the Local History tent until I carried my stuff to the car at the end of the day, just as the Grand Parade of all the animal winners was processing round the ring. What did I do all day, you might ask. Well, I stood in front of the home-made display explaining and illustrating my novels, talked to people who passed by, and sold a heap of books as well. There were some great conversations, about the settings of my trilogy, which book readers preferred, and why, and the local events that form the background of the plots. A couple stopped by, and the man stared at the cover of the third book ‘Fallout’, which depicts some of the men who went to fight the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in 1957, wearing their protective suits and helmets. He pointed at one of the men in the line. ‘That’s my Dad,’ he said. I was thrilled to have found such a close connection to this iconic event in Cumbria’s history. He was thrilled to see his Dad on the front cover of a book, albeit unrecognisable in his anti-contamination gear. The man was so thrilled he bought the whole trilogy. I did assiduous research for the Windscale details, and I hope this reader finds the result interesting at a personal level.

I can’t remember how many people came by to tell me that they’d read and enjoyed my books and to enquire about the next one. And there was the usual number of people who told me how many others they had lent their copies to. Sometimes books lent out don’t come back, and there’s good business in replacing them, which is fine.

There’s a special reason why I enjoy the Gosforth Show in particular. In the second book of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ a key scene is set at this show, in 1947, which marks another backward step in the relationship between my flawed and sometimes thoughtless heroine Jessie and her daughter-in-law Maggie. Writing it made me wince and smile simultaneously. As one of my readers has told me, ‘That Jessie, sometimes I could slap her.’

By the end of the day I’d sold more books than I would sell through other outlets in a month or more. It meant standing on damp grass in a draughty tent for five hours, but so what. When you self-publish that’s part of what you sign up for, and I’m lucky that I enjoy it so much. On Saturday September 3rd I’m doing a workshop at the Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. It’s called ‘Successful Self-Publishing’ which might be on the optimistic side, but it’s a better title than ‘How to try really hard to self publish without losing money’. I’m learning all the time and it’ll be fun to share, and to find out how other people are managing too. If you Google ‘Borderlines Carlisle’ you’ll find the details among the workshops at Tullie House, on Sept. 5th at 2-5pm.

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.

Selling books is harder than writing them!

A group asked me to talk about publishing my own books, and I heard myself saying to them ‘Publishing is the easy part, selling is much harder’. For me, that’s true, because getting my work into the hands of readers is part of what motivates me to write in the first place. I’ve been struck recently by the number of people who claim to be writing just for the amusement of family and friends, and don’t appear to be interested in reaching readers beyond that group. That’s not enough for me. Maybe because I’m older, I want something to leave behind me, in the memories and on the bookshelves of as many people as possible.

So how do you sell, and how many is enough? As I write this, James Rebanks ‘The Shepherd’s life’ has been in the best seller charts for weeks and must have sold many thousands. It’s a great book, and I’m not begrudging him that success, but he seems to have had some things going for him that the rest of us might not have. Even before the book was published, for example, he had 40,000 Twitter followers, which has since risen to 60,000. If only 10% of those followers bought a book, that’s still a lot of sales! And either through Twitter or his publishers or agent he’s had massive media coverage, which must have helped too. 

So how do we lesser mortals sell our books? One way that works for me is to sell directly, usually after doing a presentation or visiting a book club group. People like to buy from the author they’ve just heard from. Fortunately, I really enjoy that side of the business. As a professional presenter in education for decades, I’ve had plenty of practice in marshalling ideas and facts quite fluently without notes and love the stimulus of responding to whatever questions people may have. I can also offer ‘deals’ as I think fit, which makes buying the full trilogy an attractive prospect. I love selling the full set, as it means they may read all three books in the right order and get the reading experience as it was designed to be.

Another route to market for me has been through a local wholesale distributor, Hills of Workington. They take a 50% discount, but they service almost every book retailer and tourist outlet in Cumbria, apart from the south-east corner, and selling to them by the carton is more efficient than trying to reach each outlet myself. The first orders were on sale or return, but that’s not really necessary any more as the three books in my trilogy, all set in Cumbria, sell steadily, and do well in the tourist season. The beauty of historical fiction is that it has an almost infinite shelf-life. The books will have the same appeal to visitors in ten years time as they have now.

Listing the books in both paperback and ebook formats on Amazon and Kindle brings in a steady trickle of orders, and the big national and international distributors Bertrams and Neilsen contact me for books too, but it’s a cumbersome business. I’ve done the workshops about how to increase your ebook sales with promotions, manipulating the ‘best seller’ lists and reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee, but I’m not thrilled about that. If writers like me produce something of worth, it demeans the process if we sell our work for peanuts. And I can’t be bothered obsessing about selling as much as possible if it takes too much of the time I want to spend writing. Some of my time obviously must be devoted to marketing and promotion, but not too much.

So I totter along, wishing I could sell more, longing for the feedback from readers that so rarely comes, thinking about how, where and when to organise my own promotions. Most of the time I enjoy it. I dream of being ‘discovered’ and selling the TV and film rights, not to make a fortune but just to see my stuff reach more people. That would be fun. I need to invest in new ways of doing things, using video on my website for example, or making this blog more entertaining, but that would use creative energy that seems to be constantly diverted into the next book. What I really need is a savvy publicist who’s prepared to work for nothing. Dream on.

How many sales is enough? If I cover the costs of self-publishing to my own high standard, involving proper professional help, that’s enough. My accountant reckoned I should aim to make as much profit over five years as I would done if the money had stayed in my current account, and with interest rates at rock bottom that’s not much. ‘Back yourself’, he said, and I liked the sound of that, so I did.

Selling books on Amazon: what’s going on?

I got a phone call: ‘Do you know someone is charging £50 for one of your novels on Amazon?’ I didn’t know whether to be flattered or horrified, so I settled for being confused. I checked on my Mac, and the information was what I expected: the Kindle versions of my books were there, front and centre, but the paperback version took another few clicks to access. I also noted that Hoad Press – that’s my own imprint – was only one of a list of sellers, some of whom were charging very odd prices. I guess that’s just Amazon punishing us small sellers for not giving them the fulfillment role which makes them lots more money than hosting other sellers.

But then I went onto the Amazon books site using my ipad and completely different windows came up. A friend who tried on her ipad got different information again. ‘Try ABEBooks’, she said. ‘They’re owned by Amazon, so they should carry your books too.’ No such luck. Hoad Press don’t exist according to them, and an odd collection of my education books appeared, some of them seriously dated. As we talked and checked these anomalies, I realised that I could spend all my time trying to sort it all out. I also understood why the number of Amazon paperback orders which was only ever a trickle has recently dried up completely. Not for the first time I reflected on the fact that I can sell ten books in ten minutes at a book group or library talk, of which I do quite a few in the Cumbria area, and make as much money as I would earn through Amazon ‘real book’ sales in several months. With my time precious, how would I rather spend it, sending off plaintive emails to Amazon and receiving stock responses back, or meeting the people who want to hand over their money to the author herself? No contest, which probably demonstrates only what an amateur I am.

When the big breakthrough comes, when Richard and Judy are singing my praises, when agents are beating a path to my door and the film rights are up for grabs, maybe then I’ll trust Amazon with ‘fulfillment’ and not even think about it. But for now, I’ll keep plugging away at selling through my website and Paypal, and doing what I enjoy – writing, talking about writing and selling to my readers direct whenever I can.

Are authors real people?

The lady in the local bookshop was impressed. ‘You wrote this?’ she said, as I showed her a poster about my new book. ‘So, you’re an author,’ she continued. ‘I know lots of sheep farmers, but I’ve never met an author. Except you.’ She turned to another customer who was waiting to be served. ‘This lady’s an author,’ she said. I felt as if I had two heads, but I smiled and agreed that I should sign all the books of mine that she had on the shelf.

People certainly seem to like to have a book signed by the author, which is why booksellers are keen for you to do so. Without the signature a book can feel like an artefact, produced far away by someone you can’t envisage. It may have a function and even bring pleasure in an impersonal disembodied way. Perhaps the signature makes the author seem more like a real person.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, first at school when I was taught to make marks on paper, then copy words and finally to think of the words in my own head before I wrote them down. Then for the next fifty years or so my writing was about my work, dictated by experience and reality, but all that time what I really wanted to do was write fiction – stories, dialogue, descriptions of people and places and events that I made up. It took all that time to carve out the time and energy and stop worrying about not making any money out of it. Non-fiction writing was part of the job, but fiction would be part of me.

It was much harder than I anticipated.  You don’t just write sentences, then paragraphs, then a scene or a chapter. You have to have an idea of where you’re going, and why. It took me a long time to figure that out, which is why the first novel took four years and was frequently dropped – or hurled – into the ‘too hard’ basket. Once I found out what I needed to do, then it became a process to follow, with countless hours spent tapping away, staring at the screen, thinking, changing things that seemed false or unnecessary. At some point the changes begin to feel like sliding back down the hill you’ve just climbed, and then it’s time to stop.

Being an author doesn’t feel like a mystical process, worthy of the awe of the lady in the bookshop. I couldn’t call writing a job for me, more of a hobby, like growing sweet peas or knitting. And when you self-publish as I do, writing is the easy part. After the writing is done the book has to be produced, and people persuaded to part with their money in exchange for it, which is much harder. But still they want you to sign on the author page, and when the new book comes out in a couple of weeks I’ll sign away until my hand aches, because it’s the scribbled name that makes the author seem like a real person.

(If you buy a book via my website, by the way, I’ll try to sign it before it’s sent out, if that’s OK with you.)