The Myths of Publishing

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 13735790_873470892758672_4699674544226635043_opromotional 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.
12339449_755681737870922_2320413221731760214_o 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…
dollarphotoclub_92155465-676x451You 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. 
hoes_six-cylinder_pressYou 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.
vader-litreactorSome 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?

literary-agent-commission-contractNot 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.
how-to-use-the-internet-to-make-moneyThis 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.
 

 

The Importance of Branding

I’m on my fourth set of book covers!

Life Story of a bookWhen 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.

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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.

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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.
Silver RainOf 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.
Silver Rain Cover MEDIUM WEBBecause 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.

Jan Facebook Banner

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.

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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

My Rejection Letters

Hand is holding a bunch of shredded paper

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!

DSCN6551The 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…’   

2013-03-12 02.55.16I 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.

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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.

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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.

DSCN6560Pan 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… 

1970653_503555133083585_89336388_nI 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…

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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!

 

 

 

B is for Beatrix, Barista, and Banana

After the angular acrimonious ramblings of letter A, I thought a more optimistic post was in order and letter B is altogether a softer, more rounded individual. A week of bumbling across Cumbria under bright blue skies and lurching from pub to pub was a rare tonic.

DSCN6390I do love the Lake District. We stayed at The Plough in the luxurious Redman Room, not too far from a village called Nook so I’m not sure the week worked as an escape from books. In fact, I could easily set a series in Cumbria, although if I were to believe something a publisher said to me about locations, I’d never write anything set in my native Snowdonia again, let alone anywhere so inconsequential as the Lake District. I wonder what Wordsworth would have thought about that, or Arthur Ransome?

In terms of books, the area is a wonderful literary blend of Wordsworth, Ransome, and Potter. It even boasts Wainwright for the non-fiction section. Apparently though the top British settings in fiction are Cornwall and Scotland. Clearly, I need to get Jack Redman out of that spa bath and into a kilt.

B is also for Bullshit, and Birthday!

April 2016 coincided with the Queen’s 90th, Shakespeare’s 400th and most appropriately for Cumbria, the 150th birthday anniversary of Beatrix Potter. Her legacy of 23 children’s books lives on.

e5ddac6377fc8aa4692eabc4baa4c630Interesting to read that Potter originally self-published the famous Peter Rabbit story after a host of rejection letters from publishers. In 1901 she printed 250 copies herself. It was so successful that within a year she was approached with a deal from one of the original publishers who had turned her down. But in 1903 she took matters into her own hands again when she failed to reach an agreement with Frederick Warne and self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. Potter was reportedly dogmatic about what she wanted the book to look like. Warne wanted cuts (that old chestnut) and she didn’t; so she self-published 500 private copies. In the end, Warne gave in and their subsequent partnership – both commercially and romantically – saved his publishing house from bankruptcy and revolutionised the way children’s books were marketed and sold.

Has anything changed in the industry? Other than Kindle, no!

13001210_1182904868420469_1182541687761248515_nPrior to my Cumbrian bumblings I met with Gillian Hamer of Triskele Books to discuss our next bookshop event at Hinton’s of Conwy. Thanks to Storm Desmond on December 5th our previous event was literally a whirlwind, but we aim to do bigger and better the next time around. We chose a coffee shop in Conwy in which to discuss the finer points – such as which wine to serve – but I admit to being heavily distracted. I think it must be a writer thing, people watching and dog watching. Where else can you buy Welsh tea bread from the same rack as a selection of dog chews? It was a busy venue with an eclectic queue of customers, obviously, some of them canine and suitably attired for the occasion with designer neckerchiefs. When it came to my turn, the barista charged us a hefty price for fancy drinks. Gone in fifteen minutes and with no real lasting impression, this had us somewhat downhearted when we compared the inflated cost of a cup of coffee to a novel which had taken maybe 12 months to write and produce. Should readers expect to pay more than 99p for a novel? I’d like to think so but reality dictates otherwise.

Royalties or any kind of profit are especially poor with regard to paperback sales (a retail price of £8-£10 can still mean less than £2 for the author). The bulk of the retail price is of course dictated by the printing and production costs of the physical book.

12339449_755681737870922_2320413221731760214_oAnd yet, from a satisfaction point of view, book signings allow a one-to-one audience with the reader and sometimes, this is priceless. Have we devalued material by publishing on Kindle? Probably. Without that physical copy in their hands, it’s not immediately apparent to the reader where the cost of producing electronic material comes from, and I think there’s a high expectation now for free or 99p novels.

Although Beatrix Potter did well from her royalties, including the purchase of Hill Top – her beloved farmhouse at Sawrey – would she believe that today, an original copy of Peter Rabbit attracts a price tag of £35,000?

John Ruskin, a Victorian artist known for his Cumbrian landscapes and a prominent social thinker from Potter’s era, gets this into perspective: When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort. There is no wealth but life…

Okay, press on… B is for brewery, Border Collie, beef and ale pie…

DSCN6386Wandering lonely as a cloud and looking at spent daffodils is no great hardship in Cumbria when the sun shines, although there was still clear evidence of Storm Desmond. It may have hampered our book signing in Snowdonia, but Cumbria got the full force. Many foot bridges were either washed away or partially collapsed in the National Park, and it was pretty incomprehensible to see roads closed because of huge sinkholes and massive subsidence on such tranquil, sun-filled days. The trees bordering the River Lune – those still standing – were extensively decorated with debris from the riverbed, like dirty lace. The volume of water surging along the Lune had virtually carved out new banks, taking down huge trees, stiles, and miles of fencing. It was the stuff of fiction, faintly unbelievable and morbidly fascinating to see how high the water level had reached. In various places around Cumbria we had to find an alternate path, and found ourselves walking miles off the original route.

DSCN6399We did find Ruskin’s steps though and climbed to the famous viewpoint in Kirby Lonsdale, hot and exhausted and tempted to bring out the emergency food supply, but not quite. Who needs a black banana when there’s beef and ale pie just a bit further on? The bar at The Watermill Brewery is mostly for dogs, children rather less so. The ales are straight out of someone’s active imagination: Collie Wobbles, Shih Tzu Faced and Wruff Night. Our dog used to love visiting because there was always some sort of canine action and plenty of tidbits on the floor.

Inspired by Potter, I should really write a book based on our dog’s adventures, illustrated with abstract line drawings. There’s nothing like the body language and facial expressions of a Labrador to raise a smile. And Pringle had a lot to say. There was that time he dragged a full picnic table across the camp-shop entrance and everyone was trapped inside. My husband yelling, ‘Pick up your balls!’ on a Cornish beach in August. The seven popped beach balls we had to pay for…

A couple of trips to Scotland and we’ve got the location covered. 

The Dead Dog Diaries: Adventures of a Spooky Bounder. I wonder what Beatrix would have made of a paranormal dog? Ruskin would be ashamed of my commercial plotting but just think, in 150 years’ time it might be worth a few quid.

A is for Alphabet, Author, and Alpaca.

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.

11256845_1010782965672680_7187820645503081881_oIt’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. 

DSC_0005I 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!

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Publishing: A lot of Smoke and Mirrors?

In which I’m made to eat my words as I come full circle through the maze of publishing to discover that the grass isn’t necessarily greener over there; it’s still mostly desert scrub from every direction…

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Last year I wrote a general post about the publishing industry which resonated with a lot of independent authors: https://janruthblog.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/my-affair-with-john-hudspith-and-why-i-had-to-leave-self-publishing/

It came about through sheer frustration at the lack of visibility and the cost of producing books. A turning point came when a small press offered a contract for Silver Rain. This is it, I thought. This is the change of direction I need… but be careful what you wish for! Don’t get me wrong in that I had huge delusional ideas at this stage. I was simply seeking greater visibility and some respite from the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.

And all the outward signs were good: they took five back-catalogue titles and one new title, to make six contracts.

This material represented several years of my life, several thousand pounds’ worth of investment in terms of editorial advisory, editing, proofreading, designing, formatting for ebooks and paperbacks, advertising… I could go on. Producing a quality product and promoting it to its best advantage doesn’t happen by accident. If you don’t have these skills yourself, then one needs to employ freelance professionals, as I’ve reiterated many times. Of course, we know there are a lot of ‘home-made’ books out there which don’t quite cut it, but this is certainly not the case for all self-produced work. What is slightly disconcerting is that I discovered this isn’t necessarily the case for traditionally produced work, either!

If this is you and you are maybe considering that contract from a small press, think carefully. This is of course my specific experience over 12 months but my advice would be to submit one, stand-alone title before you make a decision to move completely to traditional publishing. I’d been used to working on a one-to-one basis with professional freelancers who knew my material well. But the change of pace and method of working may come as a shock. Your book becomes a commercial product held in a queue, maybe dropped down the enormous cliffside of titles waiting for attention if a more promising book or a more glamorous author comes along in the meantime. This is a hopeless situation when the previously hard-working self-published author has a substantial back-list waiting to be dealt with.

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The process of trade publishing has less to do with the quality of material than you might presume, but it has a lot to do with what is or isn’t marketable at any one time. This isn’t bad business, it’s about making money to stay afloat. Small publishers are in exactly the same boat as the independents, but with far more overheads and problems with staff. Some of these staff may be inexperienced or learning ‘on the job.’ These small companies are up against the same fast-moving on-line industry as any independent but perhaps without the resources to manage it effectively, let alone build a lively following on Twitter; a following which has the power to engage. Traditional publishing, by its very nature, is painfully slow and this produces a massive clash with the shifting sands of on-line business. 3413411700_1de8699dbdWe perhaps don’t realise how fine-tuned independents have become in this respect. We all know marketing is a full-time job. Looking after the detail which includes fine tuning those book descriptions and keywords, sustaining an active presence on social media sites, writing articles and taking advantage of the best days to run a promo deal for that new political saga set in Scotland… it’s not going to happen. Imagine trying to handle the marketing at this level for 500 authors with several titles each… Impossible. And publishers have no magic formulas or special concessions when it comes to on-line sales. A high degree of luck is still perceived as par for the course. So, no specific sales strategy, then…

And while we’re wading through these muddy waters of what defines a self-published book from a traditionally produced book, let me mention yet again two common misconceptions that seem to linger on despite the glaring facts: that traditionally published books are somehow superior, and that those high-ranking, best-selling books on the virtual shelves must be better somehow than those books bumping along the bottom of the Amazon rankings, or boxed up for a rainy day in the back of someone’s office. Wrong! 

self-publish-cartoonOver the course of a year, my sales dropped lower than they’d ever been. My branding was confused and I was losing the tiny amount of traction I’d managed to gain in the market. Overall, I was left feeling enormously let-down and misinformed. Despite this, the experience was invaluable as a means to recognise exactly who I was and where I needed to be. Needless to say, I parted company with my publisher and I’m relieved to be back as an independent. My sales have increased, where previously they’d been depressed. This includes both ebooks and paperbacks (in a local shop). The overriding conclusion has to be that whatever I was doing before, was in fact more successful than I’d presumed!

Authors who’ve started their journey with a small publisher may know very little about the huge network of independent authors out there, let alone the complexities of social networking. ‘Oh, I’d rather leave all that to my publisher,’ is a common cry but maybe a mistake to ignore the bigger picture.

Orna Ross: The Alliance of Independent authors:

http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/opinion-every-author-should-self-publish-at-least-once/

The independent network of freelance writers remains a growing industry. Many traditionally produced authors are making the move to publish themselves and cross to the dark side – although there are still problems with visibility, the overriding comfort is that there is never a compromise with the work you’ve produced and personal satisfaction cannot be left out of the argument. I’ve heard nightmare stories where authors with agents or publishers have been asked to re-write their books to a different genre or incorporate a different setting, because ‘Cornwall is trending right now.’ Bland covers, hit and miss advertising and the general lack of cohesion is not uncommon. The industry is flawed, floundering, and fluctuating. This is because there are real choices open to writers to maintain their individuality and creativity, and boats have been rocked.

uk-author-earnings-4I also think independent authors tend to be tremendously supportive and understand the value of teamwork. I’m not sure this carries over into the trade arena where a lot of authors there are happy to let their publishers assume the responsibility, in whatever capacity. Lots of first-time authors who’ve landed that coveted contract for a first book are struggling with the on-line media. i18n-bestsellers-uk-top-100000-correctedTrade publishing, no matter its size is still something of a closed-shop and this is where the vast majority of authors are unaware of the basics because they’ve come in at a level where the opportunities to learn, are restricted. The days of hiding in a garret and leaving it all to the agent or publisher ceased to exist when the Internet happened. Now, readers, customers, clients or whoever, seek out that social interaction which goes beyond selling the product. There’s only one person who can sell your personality and that is you. There might only be one person who can sell your material on-line, and guess who it is… the good news is that you get to keep all the royalties!

http://authorearnings.com/report/november-2015-the-uk-report-author-earnings-on-amazon-co-uk/

So, before you sign on the dotted line, ask exactly what the publisher can specifically do for you which can’t be accessed in any other way. And above all, be careful what you wish for.

Jan Ruth. Dec 2015.

My Affair with John Hudspith (And why I had to leave self-publishing)

I don’t regret a minute of being with John. Our imaginations have been virtually married for two years now. We’ve shared a lot of words and he knows more about my literary fantasies than my husband ever did. And people talk, don’t they? Not only about how good we were together but how would this relationship end? Would there be tears or jubilations? Well, as is usually the case, a little of both.

imageSo, poised on the brink of something new to begin in March 2015, this is an overview of my publishing journey so far, from its shaky start to its exciting, bitter-sweet finish. It’s also a final testimonial to my editor, John Hudspith.

Snakes and Ladders.

My self-publishing journey has been up and down, round the houses and back again. It’s a different experience for each and every author. Any perceived failure or success is dependent on a lot of individual criteria, how you measure it and what you learn from it.

Throw into this mix, hundreds of online experts clamouring for your attention and offering advice – most of it speculative and out of date in less than a week – from how to market your book, how to design its cover, why you need a click-through Contents page, why you don’t need a click-through Contents page and why a dark blue fancy font with pink dots says hysterical, not historical.

imageHello, I’m the answer to all your problems. Please send money now. 

Waiting somewhere along the line is a Comma Buff; offering to proofread your material at £1.50 per 1,000 words. For a joining fee you can be a member of his gang, appear on an incredibly popular site or be included in a brand-new advertising strategy called the Pay-it-Forward-Tweet-Team. Not sure? You can bet your last dangling participle that someone, somewhere, has written a blog-post about it. You may be swayed by several writerly pieces about publishing, but I’m not sure I was ever convinced that anyone has that top-secret information about the Amazing-Amazon-Algorithms, or the reason one book sells dozens of copies on every third Friday in October on Nook, but never on Kindle although occasionally on the Spanish version of Scribd, if the wind is blowing from the east. And as soon as you’ve got to grips with those new sub-genre keywords – juggling the dice all the way to IndieBooksIndia – that hot new site –  the goalposts change again, and oops… everyone’s been pirated on IndieBooksIndia. There’s no time to work on your new novel, you need to dash-off an angry email, or two, or three, or four and have a good rant in each and every one of the 42 groups you’re in on Facebook – and a tweet for good measure. Confused and  utterly exhausted yet? Take a deep breath, there’s more…

imageFor varied fees, you can enter your books to win badges: the coveted Golden Cuckoo, a Silver Songbird maybe or – oh, the shame of it – just scraping a Bronze Blackbird. Will it help sales? Will it help readers find you? Writers are always seeking validation, and awards and reviews are a major emotional player in the game. To put these awards and maybe more than that, into some perspective, consider the journey of Book One:

He was born a humble paper copy 15 years ago and adopted by a London agent. He was praised and patted on the head by Pan Macmillan and other notables throughout nursery school. He was a trier, re-inventing himself many times in order to please but eventually, he was declared non-commercial and almost destroyed.

Then King Kindle came to Slush-pile City.

Smoothed out and loaded-up, he became self-published, where he suffered an abused spell as a badly behaved electronic copy, running with the wrong crowd. He was rescued just in time and re-educated in his late teens by John Hudspith. Loved and reviewed positively after this by many readers, he even rode high in the Amazon rankings with BookBub. Despite all of this, he was rejected outright by Blah Blah Award, but he soldiered on. Finally, his fate was sealed, he was signed with Accent Press and the book lived happily ever after. True story.

imageSo, maybe you’d be better investing in 50 reviews? You’ve heard that the magic number is 40 and then huge sales and mass visibility happens of its own accord. Maybe you should give that nice friendly author a five-star review and then maybe… Oh, hold on that’s unethical, isn’t it? Well, yes… to some authors, but not to others. And if I upset said author on a later date with my political views on Facebook, he might change it to a two-star review.

The problem – and rather conversely the joy too – is that there are no rules, but self-publishing is sometimes more difficult to navigate than a re-write of War and Peace. Ask a simple question and you will get fifty different answers.

It’s certainly a game of hissing snakes and slippery ladders.

There is money to be made in self publishing, but not always by the authors. 

Who are you?

Camp One. You write full-length fiction, which can take anything up to 12 months to produce in its polished form. You write because you have something unique to say and hopefully to not only entertain but to inspire and inform. You may have been traditionally published before. You write because you are inspired, and challenged by the craft of writing, and strive to improve and develop. Your only keyword is quality. You struggle to sell, but your reviews are numerous and positive. Your audience tend to be mature and still enjoy paperbacks and bookshops. You might be seeking an editor to work with, who has the skills to teach where necessary, and nurture your positive traits. You dislike self-promotion and trying to run with the crowd. You’ve likely learnt the craft over many years but struggled to get published or agented because your work fell between traditional genres, or didn’t quite cut it. You’d love to attract a publisher.

imageI’m not a celebrity, get me in there… please?

Camp Two. You enjoy writing but you wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t pay for itself. You approach self-publishing as a commercial venture. You are prolific, you write popular serials, novellas and novelettes; often across several genres with a specific market in mind, keep up to date with the latest promotional sites, know how to play the system with keywords, and buy all the ‘how to’ books. You tend to make your own book covers, format everything yourself, and your books are available on every obscure platform you can find. You write ‘how to’ books. Your audience are young, read stuff on their iPhones and probably enjoy whatever is current, like American steampunk fantasy, or fetish erotica. It doesn’t bother you that the camp is set on moving sand, you are quick-thinking and adaptable. Your books sell well. You’re not seeking a publisher and you don’t need an editor.

These are wild extremes in self-publishing. Of course, it depends who you are, the adaptability of your camping equipment and how well you can handle a variety of cooking pots and pans when the chips are down, rain is pouring through the canvas roof and wait, there are enemies on the horizon… a huge semi-colon with a machete!

Who is John Hudspith?

If you are poised on the brink of self-publishing your first book, or if you already have a row of these beauties on your virtual shelf but maybe harbour a niggling doubt they could be better… please consider talking to John Hudspith first and listen to one, clear opinion. If you spend on nothing else or have limited funds available, editing and proofreading is King and Story-is-everything-else. I’ve worked with well established literary agencies and respected agents in my distant past and in my opinion, John’s advice and editing is on a par with London prices, at a fraction of the cost. I could have saved myself heaps of time, dead-ends and cash.

Who am I?

I’m Jan Ruth, I’m a self-published author and I’m in camp one. I’m glad I self-published, although I may not sound as if I enjoyed the experience. Publishing my own work was a steep learning curve but it’s now at an end for me. Visibility is increasingly difficult over in camp one and there’s only so much one can do before some sort of burn-out happens. But one man’s burn-out is another man’s fuel… it rather depends on which camp you thrive in.

I’ve had forays into camp two but without lasting, or consistent success. This is why I have made the decision to leave self-publishing and I’m very happy to announce that I have signed a 5-book deal with a small publisher. After my family, I have to give massive thanks to my editor John Hudspith, because without his support, both professionally and as a friend and mentor, I would not have arrived at this point. I’d have given up, Once Upon a Long Time Ago. So, on to new beginnings for 2015. And keep the camp fires burning.

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