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.
I don’t claim to be an expert on ebook sales, neither do I sell many thousands of copies; but I do receive a variety of emails relating to the subject, and I often spot frequently missed opportunities for sales and some rather more obvious reasons why books don’t sell.
EDITING. The single most important process of publishing a book is structural editing and proofreading. The lack of consistent, industry standard editing will kill sales in record time. Readers can forgive a smattering of minor mistakes throughout an 80,000 word novel, but if the first thing they see when they look inside the book sample are glaring grammatical errors – then there’s little chance they will buy. It’s a false economy to skip the editing process simply because your sister said it was ‘ok’. Or someone you met in a Facebook group said they’d edit the entire manuscript for £100. Only employ a recommended editor with a good track record and be aware there are many, many plausible fakes out there. Be super critical and don’t publish too soon.
COVER. The cover can and should work in a number of ways to help sell your book. Mostly it needs to match the content and the expectations of the genre – ie: not a photograph which you happen to like and may be related to the material in some vague way, but means absolutely nothing to a prospective reader on the other side of the world. Do some research and look at other books in your genre. Unless you have an eye for design, understand book marketing, and own the relevant software to be original and creative; pay someone who does. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to make your own cover with free software through Amazon’s publishing platform or something like Canva, but if the end result looks homemade – and you want to reach beyond friends and family – then consider the commercial impact.
FONT. Often overlooked, but the font is a vital bit of selling kit. Nothing screams homemade more than a bog-standard font scrawled across a third-rate cover image. If the cover and the font look third-rate, then the reader is fully entitled to presume that the content is much the same. Do the research: you will not find a loopy font on a cold-blooded thriller. Consider the impact of this and apply accordingly.
FORMATTING. If you can’t handle the formatting, then please pay someone who can. It might be the best story ever and perfectly well edited but if there are blank pages, irregular indents, or oversized margins, then after a while it just becomes too irritating to read. Your text needs to look consistent on a variety of screen sizes.
BRANDING. If you’ve got all the above in order then do also consider branding. If you write across different genres this can be difficult but covers which are easily recognisable as one of yours, do help follow-on sales – so at least consider keeping the font of your author name consistent. Four or five cross-genre books with variable cover styles are notoriously difficult to sell. Same applies to using more than one author or pen name. This is why traditional publishers like material which is easily branded to match their current list. It’s easier to market and sell, and the reader knows what to expect. More on branding here: https://janruth.com/2016/06/24/the-importance-of-branding/
SHORT LINKS. Every time you talk about your book across social media add the buy link! Potential readers will not go searching, and if you also use a pen name which is different to your social media persona, this can be an impossible task. Why make it so difficult and confusing? The social media audience has a very short attention span at the best of times. Make a short universal link – it’s so easy – and use it. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve tried to find a book and given up because the author didn’t use a buy link and I couldn’t remember the exact pen name or the specific use of initials.
PRICE. Study the market and take note how much is free or priced at 99p. How much do you spend on ebooks? Personally, I’m cautious at anything over £1.99 if the author is unknown to me. It makes more sense to sell 10 books at 99p than one book at £2.99. Free books have lost their impact in raising visibility. Still useful if you’re offering the first in a series as a free download – which hopefully will attract readers to buy the next, and the next. But always price the first book in the series less than the sequel – as a loss-leader – not the other way about!
KINDLE SELECT, CATEGORIES & KEYWORDS. The Kindle Select programme (staying exclusive to Amazon) is worth considering, rather than spreading yourself too thin and being available on every other sales platform. Amazon Kindle remains the most popular so why not use this to your advantage – at least initially – and use the free promotional tools available. Select also means you can enroll in other programmes such as Kindle Unlimited. This allows readers unlimited access to books in the Select programme and for the author, pages read can earn as much – if not more – than those elusive sales. Experiment with categories on Amazon, the smaller ones are more likely to get your book noticed. Likewise the keywords – it’s worth doing some research, there are plenty of articles about keywords and which are trending and are currently effective
SOCIAL MEDIA & WEBSITES. Build a social media platform before you launch the book, not as an afterthought a few months later because ‘you really don’t do promoting, advertising, Twitter, or all that stuff…’ Your ebook is an internet-based product which is targeted at an internet-based audience who own an e-reader and therefore browse the internet for their next read. A commercial page – use your author name for this, not your book title – on Facebook and a website are both worth having because they are public sites and allow readers to discover you. They will not discover you via a personal Facebook profile. A website is more static – a ‘go to’ place to locate the books and hit that universal buy-link. Keep it clean and simple. Get rid of the dancing cats, change the white text on a black background to the other way about, and fix the links that don’t work.
REVIEWS. Reviews do help to sell books in that they increase customer confidence in the product. Approach book bloggers and reviewers who are interested in your material and whose opinions carry some weight; they will also have a good presence across social media. Don’t approach other authors or send multiple requests through Messenger to all your friends begging for reviews. And the other biggie: don’t respond to negative reviews in public. Nothing looks worse to a prospective reader than to witness an angry response to someone who didn’t enjoy your book. They are entitled to their opinion and if it’s malicious then interacting in any way will add fuel to the fire. There are plenty of people who will enjoy a good to-and-fro at your expense. Not only does it look desperately unprofessional to join in, but it’s wise to remember that reviews are not directed towards the author. Neither are they an easy, cheap critique service – they are there to help other prospective readers decide if they might enjoy the book. Only take them to heart if there are several reviews flagging the same issue. And then… get it fixed.
BLOGGING & NEWSLETTERS. The clue is in the title… these are not meant to be hard-sell sales platforms. Blogs are a good way to build a slow but sure fanbase, but your blog needs original and interesting content. Write articles you can share across social media and build followers. I’ve written some equitation-based fiction so blogging about horses brings me into contact with the right audience. And if you cannot produce engaging, interesting, and informative content on a regular basis, don’t start a newsletter. Sending advertising copy through email disguised as a newsletter is SPAM.
MARKET TRENDS. Are you writing fiction the public are looking to read? If it’s a complicated contemporary romance set in Newcastle and your main female character is aged 45, it won’t sell as well as a formula romance set in Cornwall with a heroine aged 25; even if your book is more original and better executed. Sadly, this is the way commercial sales and marketing works for the big guys, and the independent publisher can either try and swim with the mass-market tide, or accept that writing to their own agenda and enjoying creative freedom will always produce books which are more of a struggle to sell.
Do you know your Saxifrage from your Stitchwort, your Harebells from your Bluebells? No, me neither. Each May the hedgerows of North Wales, and more specifically the Conwy Valley where I live, are bursting with wild flowers, herbs and grasses, so prolific they are impossible to ignore. Each year I vow to learn to identify some of them. As with most aspects of the Welsh countryside there are strong connections to history. The 15th and 16th Centuries are considered to be the prime time of the herbalists. It was a time of great belief in mystery, magic and superstitions, which naturally gave rise to curiosity and often wildly incorrect conclusions about the properties and values of certain plants.
The ancient woodlands and green lanes here in the Conwy Valley nurture anything that likes a good bog, but then the land climbs towards Tal Y Fan and I find sub species – I think – which have perhaps adapted to a drier soil. It was only when I came to identify the plants on the web that I realised just how vast the subject is, and why this post is mostly pictorial. I know the Latin names are considerably more accurate but I’d never get to grips with that, nor would it evoke much interest if one of my characters were to say Aquilegia spp instead of Granny’s Bonnet.
Time spent gathering this kind of information is never wasted, especially since my fiction is set in this part of the world. Researching is all part of the day job for a writer and, oh … how much richer the story becomes when these snippets are threaded into the narrative. I’m not talking about blocks of description better suited to a Flora and Fauna encyclopedia, it’s the subtle details which underpin that suspension of belief, the transportation into another, possibly alien location for the reader, and hopefully without them realising how you’ve done it.
The absorption of any scene or landscape is not restricted to what we can see, either; smell, touch and sound are also powerful mediums in fiction. Take Wild Garlic. Incredibly pungent and pretty prolific in this area. When the leaves are crushed the perfume wafts a considerable distance and the leaves are indeed edible, but they also happen to look exactly like the poisonous leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley so perhaps edible foraging is best left to the experts. There are in fact many deadly, innocent looking flowers out there which could form the basis of a dastardly plot … so although these pretty hedgerows might be considered pure romance fodder, there’s no love lost when it comes to ingesting some of them.
But I did discover a rather fine recipe for Elderflower champagne. My character, Anna Williams (Wild Water Series) tells me this is the foolproof recipe she always follows, so I think this is possibly a good place to halt my inspection of the hedgerows and start boiling some water!
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…
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…
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.
I was about to stuff a bundle of correspondence through the shredder when I thought these ancient yellowing letters might make an interesting blog post. I know they’re hopelessly out of date but fellow authors might find them amusing, enlightening, or in some aspects still relevant and relatable. Reading through them for a final time, I see nothing much has changed in the world of traditional publishing. It’s still frustrating and mostly baffling!
My journey started way back in 1986, 30 years ago. I was pregnant and bored, so I thought I’d write a book. I called it Summer in October and it happily consumed me for many months. When I thought it was finished, I sent it to the first agent I saw in the Writers & Artists Yearbook: Andrew Mann. Well, no point starting at the bottom was there? I had no idea how large and influential Andrew Mann were but when I received an offer within a couple of weeks I actually thought this was all I needed to do!
The offer wasn’t exactly from Andrew Mann, but from Anne Dewe, who wore two distinct hats. A senior editor for Mann, Dewe was also trying to operate as an independent publisher under the name of Love Stories. She wanted the kind of romance which consistently fell through the commercial net. In 1986 there was plenty of chick-lit and formulaic light fiction, but anything outside of that parameter had no clear label. Sound familiar?
15th September 1986: ‘I like your style and the way you tell the story very much, but it would need a lot of editing in minor matters, occasional misuse of words, spelling and so on, but that is usual and nothing much. I have a few more major criticisms… (listed) do they seem outrageous to you or might you agree that the book would be improved by some changes? If you felt prepared to revise, I would be prepared to take an option. The advance would be £650 against a 10% royalty…’
I applied the changes Dewe suggested – newborn on one arm – but several months later, she didn’t feel the revision was extensive enough. So my son had his first taste of a play-pen and I reworked the entire manuscript over the course of six months on yet another secondhand typewriter.
16th November 1987: ‘Congratulations! You’ve done the most fantastic job on the book. It’s really good, develops well, is hilariously funny in places and most convincing. Now, here comes the embarrassing part… I would very much like it for Love Stories but unless something comes from my selling efforts at Frankfurt book fair, we may have to stop publishing next year, but my main career is as a literary agent and I would very much like to take you on as a writer for this and other books. You clearly have talent and most important of all, determination…’
Sadly, Love Stories never really got off the ground and as a result my manuscript was taken on for Andrew Mann, with Dewe wearing her agents’ hat. The rejections from established publishers were disappointing but given her initial reservations about genre restrictions, not entirely unexpected.
Piatkus: Very readable. I’d be interested to see anything this author writes in the future. Michael Joseph: This isn’t quite suited to our current list. I think this is more suited to paperback publication? Headline: She writes with charm but I’m afraid that despite the background, the animals and the humour, this just wasn’t for us. Malvern: We regret we cannot offer to publish this as it is too similar to Applehurst Displayed, which we published two years ago. Severn House: I don’t think this is for us. I can’t see where we would have any luck in selling subsidiary rights.
So it all ground to a halt and the process was, for me, relegated to the back-burner as family life took over – including divorce – and my third typewriter fell to pieces. Dewe even tried – unsuccessfully – to place the manuscript as a young adult read as she thought this market was going to be big. She was right, but it wasn’t to be for Summer in October. It wasn’t until 2001, during my second marriage, and after a house move to North Wales, that I began to write again, this time using a modern word-processor. I hadn’t forgotten all the points Dewe had raised and the comments from some of the publishers. I’d since enjoyed a career in property, and the result was a novel called Under Offer. I did find it interesting that Dewe didn’t like this book at all and wasn’t interested but she was honest: It’s lively and very readable, but this one’s not for us. I am afraid you’ll just have to trawl the book. This business is so subjective one can’t really suggest other agents…
The result of this was that I stuck a pin in the Writers & Artists Yearbook again and sent the manuscript to Jane Judd. Once again, I received an offer to be represented. I knew what was coming this time, and braced myself for a re-write but Judd suggested I send the MS to an editorial company called Cornerstones.
This was a real turning point for me where I learnt about structure, plotting, and characterisation in specific detail and how it related to my work. The entire MS was line edited by a professional so I could see where and why she’d made changes and suggestions, including the title. So… I rewrote sections of the novel and Wild Water was born as a huge printed document which cost a fortune to send through the post! Fortunately, Judd was very happy with the result, and I signed a contract with her in January of the following year.
Pan Macmillan: A good combination of humour and poignancy. The author delves shrewdly into her characters, gradually allowing their traits to become evident and appreciated. However, I regret I can’t see a place on our lists for Wild Water. Headline: Read with interest, but no. Piatkus: I do like this author’s writing and it was interesting to read this kind of story from a male perspective. However, I didn’t feel any of the characters were sympathetic enough and I didn’t warm to Jack as the hero of the story. Simon & Schuster: She does write well but this is a tough, competitive and crowded area of the market. Selina Walker: I really like this. It’s well written and it has an unusual twist in that you very much sympathise with the wronged husband but in the end I thought it lacked Trollope’s take on personal relationships. Hodder & Stoughton: I’m going to say no. Time Warner Books: I very much enjoyed reading this. I was absorbed immediately. However, we’ve brought a number of authors writing in this area with two-book contracts and I can’t see a slot in our schedule for this one. It’s a shame and I do hope that you can find a good home for this promising author…
I can’t say my agents didn’t try and I appreciate the faith they had in the material, and the editors I worked with at Cornerstones were nothing short of revolutionary to a new writer. And none of it put me off – I did write another novel and in keeping with the suggested branding by Cornerstones titled it Midnight Sky. (In fact the characters of James and Laura in this story were pinched from the first book, Summer in October. The plot line from Summer in October went into Silver Rain… but that’s another story). I even sent Midnight Sky to Judd at her request, but she disliked it. Over the course of 2004 I consulted the Writers & Artists yearbook many times and sent out both Wild Water and Midnight Sky to several small publishers, thinking that a two-book deal with tentative branding was a stronger pitch; but with no success.
I think this final letter from Amanda Stewart of Severn House is a perfect summing-up of the years I’d tried to break in to publishing both with the backing of two prominent agents, and as a solo effort: Whilst I know Jane Judd well and respect her editorial judgement, I’m afraid we would not be able to publish these books. Severn House only takes on authors with a long-standing track record. We almost never publish ‘new’ writers simply because we do not have the funds to take risks on untried authors…
What didn’t fail was the knowledge I’d gained from the constant rejection. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Amazon introduced Kindle I found myself scanning in those huge typewritten manuscripts of both Wild Water and Midnight Sky to a laptop to produce an electronic file. Createspace allowed even more freedom and my books made it into libraries and a single independent bookshop by my own efforts. Wild Water won Cornerstones ‘most popular book’ in 2011. Both Wild Water and Silver Rain made the finalist list on The Wishing Shelf Awards and six of my titles were subsequently signed with another publisher in 2014/15. But wait… there’s a sting in the tail because the irony of this particular story is that I eventually ditched the publisher and returned to independent publishing…
Now… please excuse me as I have some shredding to do!
The alpaca is a glamorous member of the camel family and anything with a triple A in it has to be good at something. And I happened to meet a fellow author within days of coming across the alpaca, but I’ll start with the alphabet.
I’ve been in a shady place with all 26 letters for a good while. It all stems from that nonsense called Publishing One’s Book and entrusting it to an actual publisher. Well, that didn’t work, did it? Neither did the two name-worthy agents back in the old traditional days. Both agents said those immortal words: I’d love to represent you.
And the publisher said those other immortal words: I want to publish you.
It’s been a week of lows for a few of my author pals too. The reasons are all valid and as writers we’ve all been there at some point. Sometimes a random, scathing comment can be the straw that broke the alpaca’s back. Unjust reviews, reviews of the editing or formatting of the book rather than the story, editors who’ve charged a lot of money and not completed the job, paying out for marketing and not selling a single copy, people who expect books for free… no sales. It’s a tough industry and sometimes those who should be supporting independent authors, let them down in ways we find hard to swallow on a permanent basis.
Someone told me that the only technically perfect book she’d ever read was edited and proofread by someone who charged £2,000 for the job. When royalties come in at 35p per 99p Kindle book and maybe a quid for a paperback which has cost several hundreds of pounds to produce to a readable standard, then I think we can all work out an appropriate response to that!
This is not misguided moaning, an excuse for sloppy work or a mass wringing of hands. It may be more serious: I may have reached a stage of indifference. I started this venture for fun. Now, I’m unsure if I want to write novels anymore, and not only because sales and visibility are phenomenally difficult – with or without a publisher – but because funding the process is exhaustive, and not just in monetary terms, but emotionally and mentally too. Maybe – and this is the killer of all things creative – I’m just plain bored with it all?
I used to write for pleasure. Is it right to write for pain? Not for me. I publish myself through choice and this is perhaps the epitome of freedom for an author or any artist, but it’s a double-edged sword because I now know that none of the routes are golden. So many authors still presume the interest of an agent or a publisher is the mark of excellence or the end goal. It may work out for some, but there is still a hard line of prejudice in the commercial world as to what will sell or what is currently trending. The sad part about this is that the quality of writing seems to be the least important ingredient.
I write complex, multi-layered character family-drama. I write my stories because they are the kind of books I like to read myself. There’s a piece of me in each and every one, and I think this is what makes the process so enjoyable.
I guess I’ve hit rock bottom a few times over the previous six years and I managed it again in spectacular form a few days ago when I managed to propel myself down a full flight of iron steps. The close proximity of the Llangollen canal and the fear of breaking bones was especially unpleasant. My backpack, stuffed with miscellaneous rubbish, saved me from serious injury. Apparently, I’m not the first person to pitch down those steps and I guess as a metaphor we’re on the right track here because I did manage to walk away mostly unscathed, apart from a large bruising around the saddle area. I hobbled on, fortified by the lure of meeting Shani Struthers in a wine bar…
Sometimes, when the chips are down a curveball comes rushing in and we have to listen to what the universe is trying to say to us as individuals. There was something whispering in my ear that day. Could something as simple as removing the pressure to perform, bring its own reward? I used to really, really love writing. This was before I began the process of commercial publishing, sales, marketing and all that jazz that seems to be expected of us. If we remove these stumbling blocks is it enough to engage with a smattering of genuine readers who deeply connect to your material? If you can honestly answer yes, then I think I can promise amazing results and instant satisfaction by writing exactly what you want to write whilst spending the majority of your money on food and drink!
Alphabetti Spaghetti might be the answer… Bottoms up!
Just when you think you know everything about a subject, along comes someone to blow apart a lifetime of assumptions.
Monty Roberts’ father was virtually destroyed by his son’s belief in ‘horse-whispering’, as a far more humane and less exhausting method of breaking and training horses. It’s no secret that Monty took a severe beating for it. A remarkable man, Roberts went on to foster disadvantaged children, using much the same wisdom and insight he’d learnt through studying horses and their social groups in the wild. It’s too easy – and often misguided – to bestow animals with human emotion, but maybe trust is rooted in the same place in humans as in horses, and observation and interpretation is all that’s required to make a valuable connection, regardless of language. And isn’t whispering usually far more effective than shouting? Much the same as writing good fiction; and if we’re talking analogies there’s nothing worse than clunky dialogue. Is Natural Horsemanship simply natural dialogue?
Guido Louis Leidelmeyer: “In the words of the horse: ‘Listen’ by observing me, and communication between us will come naturally and silently. In my words: Can I help you do that?”
As with most things that work well, it’s based on a simple concept of alignment with nature. Horses like to hang in a crowd (herd), follow the leaders – usually the older mares – and be out in the open simply because if there’s a predator, they’re more likely to bolt, than stand and fight. That’s about it. If a horse is singled out he is more likely to turn to us without fear or aggression once he comes to realise that we are not predatory, and as a surrogate leader can offer the ultimate protection. And that’s where the ‘following’ or ‘joining-up’ comes in.
This principle works with wild/un-handled horses as well as re-training by reiterating the relationship of horse and leader for equines who have formed bad habits, or those with anxiety issues. Actually, most bad habits stem from anxiety and a lack of leadership. It’s a little like your pet dog – and dare I say children, too? – needing to know their safe and secure place in the family pack, although the body language between dogs and horses is rather different. Flattened ears in a dog is more likely to mean subservient greetings whereas a horse … well, watch out!
Not everyone agrees that these principles are quite so cut and dried, and as is often the case with a lot of unquantified skills, there is perhaps some sixth-sense at work gleaned from years of experience. There are many equine behavourists who claim the ‘following’ principle is flawed. But the proof is in the pudding. I’ve watched Guido use these techniques on a couple of riding-school horses – both of whom he’d never ‘met’ – with amazingly fast results: 20 minutes to resolve a problem with electric clippers on a mare which had for some 12 years, aggressively avoided the issue. The owner was quite rightly, open-mouthed. But the problem isn’t solved in its entirety, as Guido explained: Tilly’s owner needed to learn and understand the process for herself, and as is the case with most success stories, a certain measure of self-belief is required. It’s this psychological leadership which is perhaps where the sixth-sense bridges that gap between human and equine.
I think we can also safely assume that nothing much in life is achieved through bullying or force, certainly cooperation would be bottom of the list so far as horses are concerned; and there’s no way we’d win any kind of fight with an animal quite so strong and fleet of foot as a Lusitano stallion. Yes, Guido’s horses are compliant, but they are also as naturally spirited as they are trusting. Once that bond of trust is formed, the sky’s the limit; demonstrated in perhaps more extreme style by Guido’s stunt riding – swinging beneath galloping horses and leaping fire is pretty spectacular to watch. Some of these moves were developed from Cossack riding, which in turn originated from wartime ploys to fool the enemy.
Guido has an interesting, somewhat unconventional history too. From humble beginnings in a circus, he’s achieved worldwide acclaim in a number of disciplines: Cossack riding in Germany, the formation of Rockin’ Horse Productions, top trainer for the Royal Cavalry in Oman… I’m sure there’s a novel in there! Horses have been a lifetime’s passion for me. No surprise that they feature in most of my novels, more so in MIDNIGHT SKY and PALOMINO SKY. Both books draw on the principles of horse-whispering and the power of self-belief – but I take on this theme in a fictional sense rather than a technical sense. It’s so easy to swamp the narrative with too much unwanted detail. And yet, it’s the minutiae of life which underpins the storyline in PALOMINO SKY. As with horse-whispering, it’s the observation of perhaps something seemingly inconsequential which can change an entire situation. If you’re not horse savvy or enjoy only a passing interest, I’ve tried to portray the equine aspect as secondary to the storyline in these books. On the other hand, horse enthusiasts will hopefully embrace the setting.
I talk to my editor, John Hudspith, about X-Factor Fiction, Halloween, Hugging Dermot O’ Leary and Saving the World!
John: It’s that time of year again, when writers send an avalanche to the ebook shelves hoping for a festive bestseller; when big-boobed slebs offer up their latest ghost-written shenanigans; when agents and publishers hire staff to handle the increased numbers of rejection notes. Had any good rejections lately? Jan: Rejection is a tough lesson. I grew up with plenty of it. (I’m talking creatively; as in, go away and do this again it’s not good enough). At primary school I was told it’s vital to experience rejection in order to improve. Character-building, even. John: did you sob, like an X-Factor reject? Jan: I don’t remember sobbing or clinging on to Dermot when my first manuscript thudded back through the letterbox for the umpteenth time; it had morphed into a hefty wedge of dog-eared paper with mostly derogatory scribble in the margins by then – but I guess if Leery had been available, I might have been tempted into a bit of clinging. John: Is that because you fancy him? Did you know he’s only 3 foot in his underpants? Jan: He is quite short, isn’t he? That’s suits the midget that is me; I’d still look up to him. I’d have fallen into his arms but only because he’s cuddly, not because I thought my life was over. John: Was it that bad? Jan: ‘This work has promise but it is overwritten and the scene where the shop blows up is ridiculous.’ It was, actually. Those times draw a fair comparison with past X-Factor winners who’ve taken the prize initially but then sunk without trace. And yet, those who’ve come in third or second have scooped the best prize of all: by going away to think, then coming back with quality material. In my case, I went away for several years and did it again, and again and again. In fact, I kept on re-writing until I was sick to death of it. John: And then they snapped you up? Jan: No chance, I really could have wept: ‘Congratulations on producing a novel that is fully engaging, the narrative is sharp and the dialogue excellent. However, we cannot see where we would place this book in terms of marketing.’
John: Ah, yes, the worried publisher… talent doesn’t matter, simplicity does. Jan: Right. I learnt that I wasn’t actually sick to death of it, more puzzled by these powerful gatekeepers, the agents and publishers who could make or break your day – your life! But this was traditional publishing BK. (Before Kindle, and before X-Factor) John: I do like X-Factor, and it’s a good comparison; the machinations of voracity versus real quality – the psychology of it all. Jan: We need the same show format for fiction, imagine the panel! Simon would be thrillers and crime with a strong leaning towards mafia bosses with lapdogs. And Louis Walsh – ‘I t’ink you should give her a chance, Simon. I t’ink it’s got something’ – he always ends up with the groups and oddballs, so, anthologies and something daft? John: Yep, the requisite annoyance. Remember Jedward? Maybe Louis could have sex with dinosaurs. The books, I mean. Big sellers, apparently. ‘I love, love, love, your book “T-rex on Top”… it looks good, it’s freaky, it’s got everything, it’s what this show’s all about!’ Jan: You know, I was amazed those dino-sex books actually exist. Who the hell reads dino porn? John: Louis Walsh, probably. What about Cheryl? I do like Cheryl, she’s a canny Geordie like me. Jan: Crybaby Cole? – ‘A was blown away by ye’ – sob – ‘but a have to turn ye doon cos o’ the typos, like’ – romance and true-life stories. John: She’s not Cole anymore though, is she? Some weird-sounding long name. When Dermot announces it, he sounds like he’s casting a spell, ‘Cheryl Fazhawazzfini’ or something like that. Jan: She should have gone back to Tweedy for her stage name, shouldn’t she? Simon and the panel get a far bigger intro than any of the wannabe artists. The judges – or let’s say, the book bloggers and reviewers and the big promotional sites – are set to become more important than the author, much like disc-jockeys did in the seventies. They just played the records but their endorsement and their inane chatter made them into far bigger celebrities than the actual artists. John: DJs from the seventies have a creepy image these days, though. Creepier than clowns, even. Jan: True story. Let’s not go there. John: So, for the initial auditions, they have to read a blurb? Then, at boot camp they’d get to read one page, then whine, `There’s better to come` when they’re told the narrative voice is out of tune, repetitive and boring. Oh, and at the `take a seat` stage, they’d read a longer, random section and provide evidence of social marketing skills before submitting the entire book to get to judges’ houses.
Jan: Where Simon isn’t happy with the lineup… Simon: ‘Hold on, you’ve all picked books that are well-written, we need a couple of dumbed down ones to get the bookworms annoyed, so they’ll hit the phones and vote. Remember guys, it’s a pound per phone call, so I’m going to swap The Extraordinary Life of a Turtle for She likes it with Next Door’s Dog by Crystal Balls. Louis: No one wants to read badly-written erotica, Simon! Simon: Fifty Shades of Grey would disagree with you. Louis, you’re out of touch. Louis: *blinks, grins, does the orangutan clap* John: Yeah, Simon likes his quota of weirdoes. Jan: Talking of weird, what about Sinitta? Where would she fit in? John: She’d appear at Simon’s house wearing three strategically placed bookmarks. Then she’d judge the books by their covers. Jan: And people do, don’t they? Although, as in the real show, they’d be looking for raw talent they could manipulate… I mean mould. So maybe all the books in X-Factor Fiction should start with brown paper covers. On the live shows the backstory footage would include the authors getting professionally designed covers. John: But some would want to use their own ideas… Simon: ‘What – the bloody hell – is that?’ (looking at an image of yet another ripped torso). Louis: ‘It’s all the rage, Simon.’ Cheryl: ‘Divint worry, pet. Simon’s just jealous.’ Mel B: ‘Phwoaaaaaaar, let me hug that boowk.’
Jan: Okay, here’s goes, it’s the Halloween show and we have to read a chilling paragraph to the panel. ‘He carried her to his bed. Clothing was removed, some of it snatched and torn in the process as if their connection had disturbed something feral. A hundred different thoughts, a hundred different reasons not to sleep with a man she’d only just met, a hundred different voices shouting in her head and yet, she slid beneath him, her underwear in disarray. They both seemed in perfect tune, one moment caught in the delicious intensity of anticipation, and then suddenly laughing at the craziness of it, laughing at the red freckles sprayed across his hands and face. He kissed every inch of her face, she kissed every inch of his face… Maybe it was then when she knew; that moment when she tasted that unmistakable metallic tang.’ APPLAUSE…
Louis: ‘You looked amazing, you sounded amazing, it was amazing.’ Simon: ‘You need a new script, Louis.’ John: Wise words from Simon. So many books, so many writers, but not enough depth, originality or imagination. Jan: Stop being grumpy. Readers will always determine what writers write, right? John: Very true. Teaching the next generation how to read is a must, not only for the future of decent storytelling, but, you know, that old save-the-world from humanity thing. Jan: Yes, there’s a long way to go with that. John: And it starts with the written word. Jan: Once upon a time…
I’m in the pub with my editor, John Hudspith, talking about school puddings and prose, Snowdonia, & the science of story-telling: *Setting: In a darkened bar on the edge of Snowdonia, where the wild buzzards roam. *Characters: Jan Ruth, Snowdonian Author, and John Hudspith, writer, editor and Magical Wordmaster.*Plot: alcohol-fuelled ramblings. (Pantser) *Dialogue: read on…