Self-Publishing is a Last Resort.
No. To self-publish or operate as an Individual Publisher or an Indie, is often the best creative choice. Without the shackles of commercial pressure, genre-blending or your own personal genre, is the new kid on the block! The author retains global selling rights across all platforms and retains the majority share of any royalties. Most importantly, the author is in complete control of the entire process, from designing the cover to organising events, to advertising and pacing the release of new material. The more you invest of yourself the greater the opportunity for growth, development, and experience, not only as a writer through valuable on-line networking but in all aspects of the publishing world.
Depending on your technical skills, it’s quite possible to design your own covers and promotional material using a range of high quality software, some of which is accessible for free. Learning to format for ebooks and paperbacks cost nothing more than your time. If you make a mistake, fix it, learn from it, and move on. There are many publishing platforms out there now – to produce both ebooks and paperbacks – all of which are user-friendly and free. Print-on-demand allows an individual to invest in small quantities of paperbacks which are easily manageable from a financial point of view, and allow the author to either produce copies simply for their own use or order in sizeable quantities for shops and events.
However, not every author has the skill nor the inclination to want to deal with every aspect of publishing. Some authors find it enjoyable, some find it stressful. And it’s fair to point out that if you don’t have the necessary technical skills then of course, not every aspect of self-publishing is free. The material needs to be professionally edited, proofread, formatted and designed to a recognisable industry standard if you wish to compete with the traditional market and produce something to be proud of. There are many excellent, experienced freelance professionals working in the self-publishing sector to enable you to achieve this. The quality (both in terms of the writing and the book itself) of self-produced work can vary from mediocre, to a standard which is actually way above that of some small press publishers because quite often the editing and designing of your book is a bespoke, individual process. After this, it’s perfectly possible to approach libraries and independent book shops.
Beware of: Experts. There are plenty of swish looking websites and unscrupulous folk willing to take your money for advice and services offered, from editing to advertising, from special award badges for your book, endorsements, amazing reviews, to everything in-between. Don’t pay for anything – unless the service offered comes from a reputable source and you are happy with their examples. Ask around on the many forums available and choose carefully.
Self-Publishing is the same as Vanity Publishing.
No. Vanity Publishers have no selection criteria. Vanity publishing is a complete service to authors who have no wish to become involved with the nuts and bolts of producing a book as an independent, or perhaps they don’t possess the knowledge or inclination to send out endless applications to agents and traditional publishers. Maybe they’ve simply become worn down by rejection letters, and we all know how that can feel. Some flattery from an editor is all it needs to get you to sign on the dotted line…
You will more often than not relinquish all rights to the material. The author is expected to cover all costs out of their own pocket, usually upfront, and the publisher will collect the majority of the royalties on the book. It’s an expensive, often disappointing route – because quite simply the publisher has been paid for his trouble and has no further interest in the material as they’ve already made their profit – from the author! Vanity Publishers have no relationship with bookshops or suppliers.
Beware of: Huge costs (running into several thousands of pounds) and vague promises. Quite often these types of publisher come across as the real thing through cunning advertising (sometimes they refer to themselves as self-publishers).
A Good Book will be Published by a ‘Real’ Publisher.
Not necessarily. There is still the belief that agents and publishers secure the best material out there, and you may wish to try this route first. Lots of smaller publishers can be approached directly without the need for an agent to represent the author. This is where signing a contract can be confusing and in some cases, detrimental. However, a genuine publisher will never ask for a financial contribution towards producing your book. If they do, you could be dealing with a vanity press.
Traditional publishers are mostly interested in commercial fiction which fits neatly into a genre they are familiar with. This makes the job easier for them and less of a financial risk.
You will of course relinquish all rights to the material and the majority of the royalty payments will go first and foremost to your publisher. This is not necessarily a bad deal if the publisher is knowledgeable about the current market, is selling lots of books and is proactive in maintaining those sales. In a lot of cases though, this simply doesn’t happen. Publishers rarely promote consistently and effectively. The risk of taking on books that don’t sell isn’t much of a deal breaker to them because ebooks are remarkably easy to produce and who knows, your book just might take off without too much effort or investment from them. They can also control expenses by only publishing print versions on demand; exactly as per the self-publishing route, and many of them use the exact same platforms. The alternative to this is that you’ve negotiated a traditional ‘print-run’, in which case the publisher may be keener to recover those costs and work harder on your behalf to shift the copies. The finished product may well look exactly the same as a self-published book but will retail at a much higher cost because of course, the publisher needs to factor in his cut. In some cases, the print book may even be of inferior quality. You will probably be expected to pay for copies of your own book or to buy any stock at trade price, around 40% of the retail cover price.
Beware of: High expectations, grey hybrids and contracts which tie you in to several works, or years of commitment at a low rate of royalty. You won’t necessarily see your book in a major retailer on the high street for example, or in libraries. You may be expected to produce a novel every 3-6 months if the publisher is mostly concerned with commercial ebook sales in a current popular genre. They’ll want to catch the market trends and a steady stream of material will (hopefully) make money.
Some small presses are blending traditional methods with services approaching those required by the self-publisher. It’s perhaps a way of capturing everything which is going on in a fast moving, constantly changing market. The material may be better treated from an editorial point of view and usually the author will retain all selling rights, but at the end of the day it’s the author who is footing the bill and choices can be limited. Additional services such as offering an author a Facebook page is an example of how new and confused authors could be attracted to a ‘gold package’ when everything seems scary and complicated. Making a Facebook page for example, is simple and free, and yet in some cases, this is listed as a service. This hybrid type of publishing is often the sister arm of a reputable publishing company, encouraging authors to submit under the impression that the experience of the genuine publishing house will spill over into the self-financed version. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t… grey area?
Do I Need An Agent?
Not necessarily. You only need an agent if you intend to approach publishing companies who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and/or you wish someone to act on your behalf to wade through the legal jargon of a complicated contract. Bear in mind that around only 1% of manuscripts are selected in this way. An agent may be able to secure a good contract for you, but remember they take around 15% of whatever they negotiate. This could be well worth it if the agent has great connections and you have a great manuscript which everyone wants…
How Much Money Do You Make?
If you are looking to make money from your writing, then you may be shocked to discover that the profit on a paperback can be as low as £1. This is without factoring in the time spent writing the novel, paying for an editor, a cover designer and a formatter. This is based simply on the printing costs of a physical book. Nothing beats seeing your work in print, regardless of how you arrived at that point, but unless you’ve written a commercial best-seller and it’s handled by one of the ‘big six’ in publishing, then it’s unlikely you’ll make any cash from selling paperbacks.
This is why the ebook market is so lucrative and why lots of small presses have popped-up offering contracts for material. Some of them are pretty good, but an awful lot of them are best avoided. If you self-publish an ebook and it starts to sell, then you can make a reasonable return, especially if you have the technical know-how to produce the book file to a good standard and you’ve studied the market for trends. While some authors fail to break even, some make a reasonable living from writing, usually supplementing their income with author services or non-fiction publications. There is a multitude of levels in-between, depending on how much time and effort you are willing to invest, but there are no guarantees.
Self-Publishing. If I could go back and start again, would I do anything differently? Yes, all of it! You see, I never read the instructions for anything. Half the programs on the new washing machine will never be used because I don’t have the patience to read the manual. I learnt about self-publishing the hard way, but maybe that’s not necessarily a negative. Sometimes, if you make horrible mistakes along the way, you’re not likely to forget them, or repeat them. Now, where’s that powder, the one that doesn’t foam? The one I was told not to use under any circumstances, the one that clogged the entire cycle…
Editing & proofreading.
Cover design & formatting.
Website & social marketing platforms.
Editing & Proofreading.
There are many, many books out there which are badly in need of a good soak and a pre-wash. I confess to having a head-start with regard to the actual business of writing fiction. Thirty years ago I went along the traditional route of trying to find agents and publishers. I had a modicum of success, but the most it taught me was how to write (and re-write, and re-write) and construct a novel, how to build character and how to observe the basic principles such as ‘show and not tell’.
Editing covers a broad spectrum of skills, from advising on all of the above to merely checking punctuation, or that names and timescales are consistent throughout. Your product needs to be as near perfect as you can make it if you want to be taken seriously, and sell books to the reading public with confidence. It is not a good idea to wait until the reader-review stage to get your work critiqued publicly on Amazon by the very reader you wish to please!
Anyway, to cut a long story down a bit, I decided to self-publish my languishing semi-edited manuscripts. I made mistakes, I chose the wrong people to work with. I was on the wrong spin cycle and foaming at the mouth in no time.
Then I met John Hudspith.
Some say he has the eyes of an owl and the body of a crow. (He’s already admitted to the droppings). He can edit any genre. He’s not only comfortable with freaky – such as double-jointed women in gingham – but he also has a handle on quite ordinary things like school puddings and little dogs. What I like about Mr Hudspith is that he personally hand-washes everything; there’s none of this short-cut business with pre-programmed software. He can cope with any kind of material, just check that care label out. He actually enjoys shrinking swathes of narrative such as short stories and blurbs. Hey, he shrunk my shorts but they’re a much better fit. Not only this, but his personal machine can vigorously rid a manuscript of the most stubborn stains, or it can tumble the softest silk into an even smoother ream. As for fluff, he openly admits to being especially obsessed with cleaning that particular filter till it’s sparkling.
Cover design & Formatting.
Formatting the interior of the book is something which is more readily learnt if you have good basic computing skills. The cover, on the other hand can be a challenge. Homemade covers are fine if you have the right skills. The attention span of most people browsing for something to read is actually only a matter of seconds. Ideally, the book’s cover needs to sum up what the reader can expect to find on the inside. Trying to sell a book with the wrong cover is like working in a dry cleaners wearing dirty clothes. Image is everything. There may be a brilliant book inside that plain brown cover but we’ll never know because no one, not least your target audience, can be bothered to open it.
Do consider that your cover needs to work hard as a tiny thumbnail around the Internet. I didn’t. Anything dark or difficult to read will not do the job. If it looks poor and ill-thought out, readers will assume the same will apply to the writing inside.
I made mistakes with all of mine, they were far too subtle. Virtually everyone would say ‘Yes… very nice, but what’s it about?’
Then I met Jane Dixon-Smith.
Working with someone who knows exactly what independent authors are faced with, makes the process so much easier. Many self-published authors write books which cross genres, and although my novels are often labelled as romance, I was anxious not to portray the softer side of this genre, that meant no pastel colours or smiling happy people. In fact, I didn’t really want faces or figures at all, but I studied the market with a more critical eye and put personal feelings to one side. In collaboration with Jane, we went for a more commercial look which not only increased the readership but started to form a brand as well. Another important plus: my books were more readily accepted for promotions on advertising sites.
Your cover is part of your story, and deserves the same thought and effort. That old idiom, about not judging a book by it’s cover, is wrong.
Read more about the process here:
Websites & Social Marketing Platforms.
A good-looking simple website with easy access to the books you want to sell is the single, most important piece of advertising you can do. It is your hub, your shop window to the world. If someone wants to find you or one of your books, the first thing they do is hit Google. Links to your blog, Facebook- Author page, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ and so on, all those social networking sites are worth adding, and it pays to use all of them.
Simple, clean and fresh always works. I can’t imagine anyone searching for your books will be interested in cats dancing round the edge or fish swimming up and down the sides, but maybe that’s just me. If someone really hates cats, they might, just might… look elsewhere. Are you selling your books or telling everyone you like cats? I’m always turned off by those sites that look hugely complicated, books revolving at a rate of knots, tiny writing, too many badges, too much everything!
Hanging Out to Dry.
So, assuming you don’t have any of these editing and design skills, all of this is going to cost. Of course it will! You’re asking someone with professional credentials to spend time working on your product; those jobs which used to be down to the agent and the publisher.
‘Oh no!’ I hear you cry, ‘It’s free to publish. All you do, is upload a file from your computer, it’s really easy! If you have a problem along the way with any of this process, there are plenty of experts to help you on Facebook and Twitter.’
All true, of course, but if you want a fully functioning product, please read the instruction manual first.
‘You’re giving away your latest title? That’s crazy!’
However, the indie industry is still relatively new and as with all things Internet, the goal-posts are forever changing. Even in the ancient days of traditional publishing, books were gifted in an effort to raise profile, so paying for promotion and offering free material is not going to go away. My experiment was more about the quest for visibility.
Giving away books remains a controversial argument. I admit, I find it hugely discouraging that, as indie authors, we are expected (quite rightly) to present carefully edited books with professional formatting and covers… but for free.
I’ve never done it, not with a full-length novel which has taken me a year to produce. I have a set of short stories long-term free, but I’m not convinced it directs readers to seek out my other titles, no matter how much they enjoyed the material. Why should they? All readers need to do is wait for the next email from Bookbub or Book Blast and choose accordingly; they don’t even have to wade through Amazon’s list of free books, because their preferences are catered for and sized down to a couple of choices a day. Two clicks, and their reading material is sorted for the following week.
My Approach to Free
From the author’s standpoint, this is a double-edged sword. I’ve had good results with both these promotional tools, but constantly relying on paid promotions is not really a viable long-term strategy. There has to be a bigger picture!
I chose to promote my latest title in this way partly as an experiment, because this time I wanted to split the performance between my own efforts through Twitter and my Facebook Author Page, and Book Blast. I did it this way because I wanted to achieve something long-term, I wanted to attract readers who would hopefully stay engaged and add to my slowly growing audience, my personal readership.
Over the three years I’ve been self-published, I’ve heard various reports about Facebook and Twitter being no good for authors. I’ve never quite believed this because these two mediums are immensely powerful in the commercial world. Companies with far more sales awareness sink considerable funds into Facebook and Twitter. I suspect the real truth is that they are either under-used, or misunderstood and not used properly. Yes, I fell into these categories!
Facebook Author Pages
I was most certainly under-using my author page. It had some 500 likes on it – peanuts, and mostly other authors. I was talking to myself. Thousands of readers who may be interested in my book didn’t know I was there, so I began by building the audience on my page by Promoting the Page. Facebook gives the option of targeting to subscribers who have expressed an interest in various subjects, so I chose keywords such as Kindle, reading, fiction, Snowdonia, and so on. Then I targeted the age and gender.
This cost something like £25, but I’m hoping this will be a long-term investment, reaching beyond the promotion of a single book. While the likes were building, I concentrated on garnering well-penned reviews from bloggers and beta-readers and posting these on the page, along with chat and photographs relating to the locations of the book – a soft sell approach. I created a pinned post about the upcoming free book. I was careful not to share items or books that were unrelated.
I did something similar over on Twitter, increasing the quality of tweets and the regularity of the flow, with Feed 140.
Selling My Brand
It’s very easy to get lazy with all this stuff and turn it to spam, so I gave it some thought. I wanted to sell me: my books, my brand. This is an important point. I’ve spent considerable time (and money!) on creating my look, my branding and who I am. I wanted to key into this, to make my products work harder. It was labour intensive, but I actually enjoyed it, because it felt like a real investment.
I promoted the book in two phases.
I set up Book Blast to mail out Silver Rain on Valentine’s Day only, which means in the UK the promotion didn’t go live until 5pm. To cover all bases with different time zones, and to be able to split the experiment with Facebook and Book Blast, I used 3 free days in KDP Select(13th-15th).
Day One: Facebook Promotion.
On the 13th, I stopped promoting the page and instead drew direct attention to the pinned post advertising Silver Rain as being free. This meant selecting Boost Post. This is the direct promotion of the free book via the pinned post, to all those people who have liked the page PLUS their friends. The estimated reach was something like 11,000. I was er… sceptical! There is a lot of data collected by Facebook during these types of promotions (see insights) and it was interesting to cross-reference the information with the use of Bitly. I could see the sales links clicks were telling the same story.
Silver Rain, at a price of £2.50 and a ranking of 250,000, was well down in the charts. I wanted to see if my efforts with Facebook (and a tentative dabble with Twitter) could bring the book out of obscurity before the paid promotion took over.
The results were astonishing.
From my Author Page alone: (and some Twitter)
US downloads 2,848: ranking at 44 free in store, 17 in Contemporary romance and 1 in Family Life
UK downloads 1,027: ranking at 27 free in store, 10 in Contemporary romance
Day Two: Book Blast Promotion
Book Blast increased these figures to:
US downloads: 5,500 ranking at 53 free in store
UK downloads: 2,500 ranking at 11 free in store and 5 in Contemporary romance
Facebook and Twitter can equal the power of Book Blast.
8,000 is a lot of downloads, and let’s be honest, half of those people may never read the book, BUT they helped push it under the noses of thousands of readers who didn’t know I even existed. I’m currently selling at normal price, with the book ranked in the top 3,000 overall and a small take-up of the other titles. I don’t think it made any difference whether the free book was my first, third or hot off the press. Those new readers will not be aware of any publication dates. All they see is the price, and then the cover.
What is interesting is that my sales in the UK have doubled, and I know this isn’t down to Book Blast.
Did I devalue myself? In a way, yes. It’s almost smelling like vanity publishing, and I’ve made more money from paperbacks purely because people will pay for a tangible item.
But this isn’t traditional publishing, and I think it pointless to compare with old methods. Experimentation with the tools we have available is vital. The only danger is to maybe exploit the reader or even ourselves, and this is where constantly offering free and heavily discounted IS under-selling and devaluing, but I can see how that black hole is ever-present and very easy to fall into.
Quality remains as my keyword, not only in what I produce, but in the way I promote too, and if used sparingly, I believe that free can be included under that umbrella.
What’s killing the indie author? Writers are sensitive souls often plagued by despondency, worn down by mindless promotion, and the inability to find a reason to not write. So I wrote this…
Do we really need any more books? The enormous volume of material available to download to Kindle alone renders the vast majority of new books coming onto the market, as more or less invisible. The number of books being published has exploded. According to the Bowker Report in September 2016 more than 700,000 books were self-published in the US alone, which is an increase of 375% since 2010. This doesn’t account for commercial publishing, or those 13 million previously published books recently made available to Kindle. Surely, the market cannot absorb this amount of reading matter? The market is completely saturated. https://www.bkconnection.com/the-10-awful-truths-about-book-publishing
The cost of visibility is increasing Readers and new authors might be shocked by the cost of advertising – BookBub is the current most effective site which offers amazing results to authors and publishers – but it comes at a price. It’s not unusual to pay in the region of £1,000 to advertise a single title. Lots of smaller sites have sprung up and they charge considerably less, but of course they don’t command anywhere near the same number of subscribers. Submit to a handful of these sites at £30 to £50 and you can soon be out of pocket. This leaves many authors at the mercy of social media, and at the risk of annoying their followers with mindless promotion. Even the commercial Facebook ‘Page’ has changed to one of pay-as-you-go. Visibility of posts has been severely restricted unless you hit that promo button and start entering your card details.
Free books. Publishers have always used the loss-leader approach with free copies, usually in exchange for a review, but not always. Where does this leave the individual publisher? I don’t know any indie author who willingly gifts paperbacks on a regular basis – they cost in the region of £5-£8 to print, depending on where you get them printed, and the exchange rate. This is without factoring in the shipping costs, and not forgetting those small background invisibles such as editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design. And this is without factoring in the time you’ve taken to actually write the book. The profit from selling a paperback can be as little as £1. Unfortunately, readers are used to browsing a huge selection of free material for Kindle and although print costs can be waived in respect of electronic formats; writing, editing, formatting, cover design, and advertising, is exactly the same as for a print book.
Poor Production Homemade covers and un-edited books, give all indies a bad name. They do, but a word of caution. Authors should strive for excellence, not perfection. There is no such thing as a perfectly produced book. This is partly because a lot of the time perfection is subjective to any one individual. Even traditional publishers get things wrong and mistakes slip through. Some bloggers are quick to judge a book purely by the amount of typos, incorrect punctuation or too much padding and waffle. It’s easy to say there’s no excuse for this – and a lot of the time, there isn’t – but I do take a slightly kinder approach, albeit only slightly and I do feel some of the internet Grammar Police out there need taking to task on this and on the errors of their own scribblings. Tut-tut I spotted a run-on sentence once on a blog post written by a particularly over-zealous reviewer. This person ripped a perfectly good book to shreds with their painfully acidic views on punctuation and vocabulary. Let’s get this into some perspective.The overwhelming reason to read a book is to enjoy the story. If the story holds up, i.e. no serious, consistent issues, and I’m entertained, then I can overlook the occasional blooper, that something which takes me out of the story. Story is everything. A missing comma is just that… However, there’s another side to this woolly coin. The vast quantity of poor, unedited material out there gives the conscientious author a bad name the minute he declares himself self-published. Editing at any level attracts a cost, likewise with proofreading; but it’s a vital part of publishing a book for public consumption, and the competition to sell and be seen is at an all-time high, so, why wouldn’t you?
Reviews. Another reason to develop a second skin or buy a mouth guard to prevent nightly grinding of the molars. The current product review system employed by Amazon is clearly open to error: One star: totally loved it! Three stars: not read it yet, won’t download. And abuse, on various levels: Doesn’t make any sense, completely unreadable, don’t bother. Reviews which have the power to connect with other readers do help visibility and authors can use them to some effect through social media, but not all readers review books, even if they enjoyed their free or 99p book and would have no hesitation in recommending it to others. The frustration of garnering reader-reviews is real, but then authors can be their own worst enemy. I’ve seen some writers attack readers on social media for posting a low-starred review and going on to label said reader as a troll. (Could it be that they just didn’t like the book? Consider that other potential readers will perhaps read this and back-off reviewing for fear of reprisal or getting it ‘wrong’) And if the review does have a whiff of vindictiveness about it, then surely the most sensible thing to do is to stop drawing attention to it, since this is usually the intent. And then there’s always the option to pay through sites such as Net Galley – the big book giveaway for bloggers and book reviewers in exchange for reviews, although the publisher/author has to pay a handsome sum to be listed. I do think some sites and reviewers have become a bit too powerful, but some authors are desperate enough to pay for a handful of (glowing) reviews – from any source. Amazon have a problem controlling the unethical ones, and their sister site, Goodreads, actively encourages ‘readers’ to simply rate books with no purchase required, or even a simple acknowledgement that they’ve read the book in order to validate the rating. Why not get rid of all the star ratings? If a reader has an opinion about a book, have them write a review using prompts such as characters/plot/setting/ etc. Or, is it time to do away with book reviews completely? After all, we don’t rely on this system in a real bookshop. The sample and the book description should be enough to have us decide if we want to spend our precious 99p (That’s 35p to the author).
Success. Written a best-seller? Great! Now your agent/publisher/annoying little man in your head strongly advises you to write at least two more before the end of the year, otherwise no one will remember who you are and all those knock-on sales will be lost…
When someone says shorts what does it mean to you? I always used to prefer those continental jobs that the tennis players favour. But are they short trousers, or long shorts? These days, now that I am back to writing ‘shorts’ mean something totally different.
I’ve always written novel length stories, and I’m thinking now that my penchant for long trousers may have a subjective effect on all of this. I hate my legs in shorts! Does it explain why I find writing short stories so difficult? They are time capsules, a brief but intense insight into someones world. They still have to carry all the same criteria as a novel, but all the principles have to be honed to within an inch of their life, or hems, if you want to stay with the theme. The length can vary from ankle grazing continental style (almost a novella, but not quite?) to an old fashioned pair of budgie smugglers… flash fiction?
I think mine are the discreet kind, just on the knee or maybe slightly above. Is all this the first signs of madness? Oh, very probably, and yet I found someone from the same sewing box. John Hudspith is a man with pins in his mouth and a pair of pinking shears in his hand. I send the big roll of material to him and it comes back all cut out into smaller, more pleasing shapes. He can turn any billowing sheet of raw silk into a pleasing pair of shorts. A silk purse from a pig’s ear. This is my editor’s comfort zone without a doubt, he devours the over-worded paragraph with the tenacity of a royal dress maker. When I’m writing I see him in my minds eye with a machete, bearing down on the over-grown narrative until I give in and hit delete.
Let’s be serious for a moment now. I have a small but tortured history of working with editors, agents and publishers and one develops a ‘nose’ for the real thing, like the fragrance of fresh washed cotton… Oops sorry about that, lapsed into analogy again. When I was introduced to John Hudspith I don’t mind admitting I was on the verge of despair. I’d had dealings with a big editorial company from London some thirty years ago, so I know how editing and proofreading should work but of course with self publishing we don’t have the cash advances and the backing, and we have to make all of these decisions for ourselves. I wanted to find someone with those same skills who didn’t charge the London prices. I struggled. I was let down, and disappointed. The internet is a very messy sewing box and not everyone puts the needles and pins in a safe place.
I’m on my fourth set of book covers!
When I first began self-publishing some five years ago, I uploaded three titles onto Kindle sporting the obligatory homemade covers. Actually, looking back – they weren’t too bad! But over time, it occurred to me that Kindle was not only a mostly American market but I was going to have to try much harder for visibility as the number of available titles seemed to increase on a daily basis. I set about finding a good designer to produce a bold, professional-looking brand. And as most authors are aware, unless you have a famous pen name, then your covers are going to have to do the majority of the marketing for you. I knew this, even then, but I wasn’t looking objectively at my potential reader base. I was too close to the material, and too inexperienced with market trends.
At this stage, I still had just three titles and no plans of writing sequels to any of them, but despite the simplicity of this, I struggled to reflect my material. Romance is one of the biggest selling genres in fiction – according to Amazon. And yet if you admit to writing about relationships, it attracts an element of disdain. As with most styles, the extremes are always easy to identify. If it’s a Fifty Shades book, then it will be a ripped torso and some handcuffs. Chick lit? Easy… shoes, handbags, cakes and cartoons. Happy smiling couples? That’s Christian Romance, or Mills and Boon. But what about the rest of it? There are literally thousands of romance titles out there which these successful, albeit cliched images, don’t reflect.
More on this current trend here: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/choc-lit-335396
What I did get right, in principle, was the human element as I think the reader needs to identify with the protagonist in character-driven fiction as opposed to plot-driven fiction such as crime. The problems began when I started to write more books, some of them sequels, some of them with a slightly different feel. The essential genre of the books became fuzzy, as did the concept of the original designs, and it became increasingly difficult to work with as a form of branding.
Then along came the traditional publishing deal and I fell into the trap of thinking that they’d have more experience in this department then me. I’d had communications with agents and publishers in the dark and distant past as followers of this blog know all too well, and one of the major stumbling blocks had always been the in-between genre problem – which probably represents a huge majority of independent authors. I think it still has the traditional publishing industry throwing up their hands in despair. “We’ll never sell this, it’s time-slip-historical-paranormal. What would we put on the cover?” I used to scoff that they lacked imagination. They probably do… but that’s not the whole picture, they lack time, money and inclination more.
Of all the marketing I’d tried, the move to a small publisher had to be the worst decision ever, for me. And I’m partly to blame when I stated initially that maybe I didn’t want characters on the cover anymore. The result was something so bland and plain that any indication of content and what to expect – was non-existent. I was rather hoping they’d know exactly what they were doing but I guess if it isn’t chick lit or erotica, we’re back to the same puzzle. What do they put on the cover of these books? There are romantic elements but the characters are way, way too old for chick lit and there’s not always a neat, happy ending. These novels are peppered with manslaughter, arson, domestic abuse, judicial use of a swear word or two, and here’s the quirky bit which throws everyone: a lot of British humour. They’re not ‘easy’ reads but they’re not especially literary or demanding either. I’ve always sought to entertain and engage rather than try and dazzle readers with the use of long words.
Because I feared the chick lit syndrome, I opted for Family Saga and Women’s Fiction as a means of general description. Neither of these woolly titles did me any favours. The worst element – according to my Welsh publisher was that they’re set in Wales! Books set in Wales don’t sell, they said… you need to set them in Cornwall, or have the men in kilts. I did spit feathers over this, but wait… this isn’t as nonsensical as you might think. The reason their mainstream genre books sell well is that they are clearly signposted by their cover design, and most importantly, the reader understands exactly what they’re getting. They don’t have to wade through the entire sample or spend precious time trying to decide if it’s for them. Simple, standard genre motivated cover art means a lot less work for the publisher too…
Leaving the traditional publishers behind due to a chronic lack of sales also meant I had to forfeit my US rights on three titles, but this went to reinforce what I should have done from the outset with regard to my images. I needed to make a definite shift into a specific genre. Maybe I had to grit my teeth and start calling them Contemporary Romance and embrace the fact that they’re so British. Whilst ruminating the errors of my ways I spotted a book on Amazon with a new cover –a book I knew well – a book which I’d read and loved some years ago, and I knew it was pretty close to my own material in terms of genre, age, location, and content. My decision to re-brand was formed there and then. I set about sharing my ideas with J.D. Smith Design and the process began in earnest.
We concentrated on two vital elements. My Welsh landscapes are a fundamental part of the stories and almost a character in their own right, so this needed to be a clear statement on the cover: stone walls, wild ponies, mountains, heather, tumbledown farms… all of these elements underpin the books, and the romance genre after all, is about escapism. This background creates a romantic aspect in the blink of an eye – and sometimes, this is the exact amount of time we get to impress a reader. In the next second, the reader needs to identify with the story and the protagonist; so the characters needed to be modern against those sometimes historical looking backgrounds – and finally, they needed to appeal to readers generally above the age of 35.
Working with J.D. Smith Design again I was able to give my work the bespoke service it deserved. Everything was carefully considered and time taken to make sure all the elements were correct, true to the material, inviting and engaging. The clever use of different fonts meant that my series sat together as they should. An interesting upward trend has developed with my equine series Midnight Sky, and Palomino Sky. Clear branding on these two books (horses, realistic characters and yes let’s be honest, a rugged outdoor guy is eye-catching. He doesn’t have to be cheesy or bare-chested!) have significantly increased sales in the US and Australia, where before they didn’t get a look in. This is interesting because back in the old days I had an agent who told me to ‘back-off with the horse stuff, it puts people off.’
If this exercise has taught me anything it’s to be true to the material. Not only have I given my books the very best in cover design with clear definitions, the overall re-branding has increased sales by at least 60%.
The importance of book cover design and careful branding cannot be underestimated!
More on design and branding here: https://goo.gl/VVx3du
Where do ideas come from? Even if I tell myself I’m done with writing for a while – and I do, frequently – something will eventually worm its way out of my subconscious. This mutation of daydreaming is often coupled with observations of other people and happenings in their lives, as well as my own, until eventually all of these considerations are pulled together and mulled over, like some sort of fictional tombola. And for me, it’s those personal stories which add an extra layer of reality to a work of fiction. Write what you know is all about understanding your subject thoroughly, and preferably having experienced some of it first-hand.
I’ve been working with disabled people through my local RDA (Riding for the Disabled) for some eighteen months. Then earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to train as an assistant to a therapist working for WITH (Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship). This is all about people with mental health problems, and the astonishing success of equine therapy relies purely upon the interactions between people and horses. I hope my modest experience adds a touch of reality and richness to the story of Gift Horse.
Of course, I’ve touched on horse-whispering techniques, therapies, and mental health issues in the Midnight Sky series, and part of Gift Horse is a natural continuation of that theme, one which this time connects more directly to my main character. Caroline is a product of her sheltered upbringing. In direct contrast her flat-mate, Niamh, is part of a loud, sprawling Irish family – including the gorgeous but licentious Rory O’Connor; Caroline’s nemesis. Unfortunately, Caroline is intent on pleasing everyone except herself, and there’s a price to pay…
Gift Horse is a contemporary time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the devastating consequences of human error.
I tend not to plan too much, other than factual things like dates, and timelines. And I don’t have a messy desk with endless notes stuck to my screen or big notebooks overflowing with complicated scribblings. What I do have is a good instinct for the order of things. I think this comes from reading a lot of good fiction and learning why and how something works; what to hold back, when to reveal, how much to tell, what to show, which scene works best as dialogue, or narrative. This balance will be slightly different for every writer, the literary stamp of personal style?
If there’s a parallel to be drawn between trying to break into commercial publishing and staying true to myself as a writer, then for me it’s the creative freedom to write the books I want to write. So many mainstream books are all following the same trend, and some of them feel like different versions of the same book! This might sound a bit like sour grapes, but I prefer to let a story grow and mature until it’s ready to be picked from the vine, and there’s a tremendous satisfaction in penning a story which is unique to me.
‘Ruth digs up the bones of what really matters to the human psyche and Gift Horse is no exception.’ John Hudspith, Independent Editor.
Imagine living eighteen years of your life around a mistake…
Caroline Walker’s daughter suffers a horrific riding accident. Her distraught parents wonder if she’ll ever walk again, let alone ride. And when Mollie’s blood group is discovered as rare, her husband offers to donate blood. Except Ian is not a match. In fact, it’s unlikely he’s Mollie’s father. Eighteen years previously, Caroline had a one-night stand with Irish rock star, Rory O’Connor. Caroline fell pregnant. Deeply flawed boyfriend, Ian, was overjoyed. And Caroline’s parents were simply grateful that their daughter was to marry into the rich, influential Walker family.
Caroline turns to Rory’s friend Connor; and although his almost spiritual connection with his horses appears to be the balm she needs, Caroline cannot forget Rory, or her youth – both lost to a man she never loved. Eighteen years on and after surviving cancer Rory lives as a virtual recluse in the Welsh mountains. Through his well-meaning but interfering sister, he is shocked to discover he has a teenage daughter. Or does he?
Someone has made a terrible mistake… someone is going to get hurt…
Christmas already seems a long time ago but it’s a fairly big contender for a C word so only fair to mention it early on; especially since I’m currently writing a Christmas themed novella. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is something cosy (come on, you know me better than that) It’s about an accountant who writes a novel in company time and how his subsequent literary journey with a small publisher impacts on his life. Obviously, it’s mostly satire.
This year, I was given a Cannon camera for Christmas. I also received another type of camera entirely – thankfully much smaller – in the form of a colonoscopy. I’m rarely ill but when I am I tend to do it in grand style. On this occasion, it was deemed by my doctor that since I was creeping up to one of those birthdays with a zero on the end, I should take advantage of the screening on offer and get checked out.
‘You’ll forgive me,’ she said. ‘Eventually.’
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear the week before Christmas. I’m well versed in the use of the colon: although I don’t always get it right. Semi; or full? Thank goodness for my wonderful editor. An empty colon is something else entirely. The preparation for such an investigation is pretty miserable. No solid food for 36 hours and awash with two litres of unspeakably vile liquid flavoured with artificial lemon, is arguably the NHS version of the Beverly Hills detox. And the Colonoscopy Clinic must be one of the most miserable waiting rooms – down to the fact that everyone in there is famished and not only dreading the procedure, but not especially looking forward to the distribution of those fetching paper shorts. Maybe it’s because I’m generally an upbeat sort, but I always find my writer’s observational slant is a good antidote for such times. Take my consultant; impossibly tall with unruly hair, booming voice, broken English. He laughed a lot too as he led my feeble body onto an operating table. I can’t recall his name but I still think of him as Herman Munster. The student nurse couldn’t find any veins in my arm in order to insert a cannula (something I’d happily gone along with as it promised mild sedation). Herman’s expertise with the needle in this respect was at least reassuring. And then we were off. I could even watch the whole thing on an overhead monitor.
Er, no thanks.
They never did find anything wrong with me, despite several biopsies. I worried I’d be sent for again; for another, more intensive examination, but several weeks later I received a letter to say I was discharged. Possible gluten sensitivity, it said in the notes. I reckon one is either intolerant, or not. I know stress is blamed for pretty much everything without a specific medical name, but I’m more inclined towards this than any other explanation. Do upbeat personalities become more prone to physical distress; are we guilty of putting on a brave face once too often? I think there may be some truth in this. I’ve taken the suggested course of action in reducing all stress on my digestive system. This comes down to reducing gluten heavy foods, cutting out caffeine and further reducing my moderate consumption of Chardonnay.
So far, so good…
But what of less visible stress? My brother and I have recently had to make the awful decision to place Mum into a dementia care home. It’s clean, safe, caring. But her quality of life is pretty dismal. Are we compromising quality for longevity? Without a doubt. Hidden, disguised stress is evident for all the family, especially Mum, who is trapped in an alien world in every sense of the word. Of course, any fiction writer knows that worlds are not required to be physical to exert considerable power. Authors often exist in an online bubble too. And this generally contrived world can be creepily competitive: Look at my amazing sales rank! Look at my gut-busting daily word count! Writing and publishing at speed is counter-productive to what was once, for me, an enjoyable experience. Or maybe I’ve simply exhausted my current genre and my writing brain needs a colonic! This comes down to reducing unnecessary reading matter, cutting out all trash and further reducing my moderate consumption of social media.
So far, so good…
As a result, I’ve spent considerably more time playing with my new camera than I have tapping at the keyboard. Why does this make me feel vaguely guilty? How crazy that the pressure of social media to present a constant stream of material can coerce and control the mind. It’s often an insular place to be on a permanent basis because much of the time, content is not only manipulated but it’s severely watered down. Real stories and information are difficult to find. When the soaps first started on the telly they were broadcast a couple of nights a week for half-an-hour, with ad breaks in-between. From the script-writers point of view this amounted to a manageable window of creativity. Now, of course, they’ve had to up their game, resulting a lot of the time in plot holes, repetitive devices to move the story on (eavesdropping is a big one), implausible character motivation and the worst of all – gratuitous violence. As a precursor to these pleasures we are warned before each episode that viewers may find some scenes upsetting.
I’m not being especially pedantic. A lot of the time I like Coronation Street. I think it’s the northern humour, and I fully understand the concept of wanting to sit and watch something which takes little or no effort. But I still want good content. Light entertainment, in much the same way as books labelled as light fiction, still need to offer a story. I don’t want more books and blog posts to read, I want less! In the case of blog-posts, lots of these amount to barely disguised advertising, and we’re already gagging from an abundance of that. The compromise for quantity is always going to be quality, although I shall strive to discover the pearls amongst the vast quantity of mediocre material out there… So, did you get anything good for Christmas? I got a colonoscopy! And a reminder that producing and absorbing good content paves the way to greater contentment. Now pass me a small and very expensive glass of vino; I want to toast those quieter books.
By Cathy Ryan.
Conwy library recently hosted two local authors, Jan Ruth and Gillian Hamer.
After an introduction by Tracey Mylechraine-Payne, head librarian at Conwy, Jan and Gillian talked about their books, the inspirations and passions which motivate and compel them to write.
Jan and Gillian’s books are set in North Wales and Anglesey but differ in subject matter. Jan’s books are contemporary and very much character driven with family and relationship issues, the landscape featuring vividly, while Gillian’s writing incorporates history, the paranormal and murder mysteries, again with beautiful backdrops.
Jan read passages from her books Silver Rain, a compelling family drama, and Dark Water, the second book in the Wild Water trilogy which features an element of crime and veers into the darker side of human nature.
Gillian also read from her books Crimson Shore, the first story in The Gold Detectives series, and The Charter, a story based on the Royal Charter which was wrecked off the north-east coast of Anglesey in 1859.
Gillian and Jan then discussed their publishing journeys and how the notion that self published books are inferior is still prevalent, unfairly so. After much frustration and disappointment, they both made the decision, with no regrets, to stick with self publishing.
After which there was an informal chat, questions were asked, books discussed and bought and several glasses of wine consumed. All in all a very pleasant and informative afternoon. Thanks to Cheryl Hesketh, head buyer; pictured with Jan and Gillian.