Reflecting on a decade of self-publishing
It used to be called Vanity Publishing. My sister warned me against it way back in the 1970s when someone tried to charge me £20 to have a poem included in an anthology. She worked at Sweetens bookshop and persuaded a senior colleague to write me a note that essentially said don’t do it! If your writing is worth publishing, he wrote, other people will pay you. He was correct, of course, and I heeded his advice; until ten years ago this month.
With the coming of digital technology vanity publishing was rebranded as self-publishing, and more recently, independent publishing. Does vanity still play a part? Yes, but all creatives need a spark of vanity or they’d never share their creations.
I used to teach drama. You might think my classes we full of extroverts, but in fact they were always very much in the minority. Furthermore, the more introverted often produced the most astonishing work.
The hardest part of training them was getting them over the feelings of unworthiness in order to donate their gifts to the public. A tiny fuse of vanity had to be lit.
In pre-digital times vanity published novels were expensive to make. Everything had to be type-written then type-set by a commercial printer before being reproduced, bound, and distributed. Authors rarely recovered their costs. Today you can self-publish your novel at no cost at all – if we discount the acquisition of a device on which to write it, the expense of an internet connection, and the time you spend working on it. Easy, isn’t it?
Yes and no.
Is it worth doing?
If you are considering publishing your own work, here are a few things I’ve gleaned over the last decade that might help:
Let’s clarify what traditional publishing entails. First you write your book. Then you send it (or part of it, or a synopsis of it) to a publisher who doesn’t want to receive it and will reject it.
They might not reject it if you are a famous person.
There is a chance – a very, very slim chance – that they will read it, like it and publish it. There is also a chance that you could win the national lottery. The odds are not dissimilar.
Why are most books rejected?
There are several answers to this. The first is a matter of numbers. Writing is usually a solitary occupation and that generates a sense that you are the only person doing it. That thought, however, is shared by hundreds of thousands of others. Publishers are, and always have been, deluged by submissions. They can’t publish them all. They can’t even read them all. Their way of dealing with the pile of unsolicited manuscripts is simply not to look at them. Many traditional publishers will only accept submissions from literary agents.
The second reason is that most of the submissions are simply not ready for the market. Like it or not a book is a product, and the person who buys it hopes that it will do certain things and not do others. Essentially, they hope that it will entertain or inform without being annoying. It’s a tricky balance to get right and a lot of submissions don’t achieve enough of the former or do too much of the latter.
Thirdly, the book has to be both the same and different. It has to meet the reader’s expectations but also usurp them. There are already plenty of tried and tested volumes out there and unless your manuscript offers something special, it’s not worth investing time and money in creating it.
Publishing is very expensive. People have to be paid: editors, proof readers, cover and content designers, publicists, reviewers (yes reviewers –those quotes on the cover don’t appear by magic) distributors, printers and a host of administrators, not to mention the author. To recoup all that will need a lot of sales, and even more if the book is going to realise a meaningful profit.
That’s why it is so hard to get published.
Publishers use agents as a kind of filter. A publisher knows that if an agent thinks the book worth spending time promoting it then it might be worth considering.
Getting a literary agent to represent you is as difficult as getting a major publisher to publish you. Unless, of course, you are a famous person. This all may sound a bit cynical. It’s not. It’s just that’s the way things work. Publishers want to make a profit. Agents want to make a living. They only have time for you if your work looks very likely to make them money. Not just likely – very likely.
So what’s the alternative?
Doing it yourself
Self-publishing is what it sounds like. You do what the publisher does yourself. You don’t have to do it all, but you do the equivalent of most of it.
The basic process is simple. You upload the content and the cover to a digital platform, press ‘publish’ and wait for the pennies to tumble in. The wait can be long and the pennies few, but perhaps, like me, that’s not why you want to do it. More on this later.
The publishing platform will have a few quality control requirements, but these are technical rather than artistically intrinsic, and are not usually very problematic. The artistic worth of the content and the cover are down to you, and this is where doing the publisher’s jobs becomes really important. The book won’t sell itself. It has to pass the potential purchaser’s scrutiny. If it does that but then displeases them, they won’t come back for more and they won’t recommend your work to others.
The public are not attracted by books, they are attracted by covers. You need a quality cover. If you can’t do a good one, find someone who can.
Having picked up a book, a reader will reject or select it based on the blurb and a few paragraphs from within. They will almost certainly try the first page. That sample plus the cover will make up their mind. The blub and the first page are vital.
The blurb is an elevator pitch. It’s seduction. It has to make the reader want to know more. This is also true of page one, and of paragraph one and sentence one.
Writing a book is easy, getting the writing right is difficult. There are acres of help available these days for creating original writing and it is well worth absorbing some whilst you are in the process of writing your first draft. Have a hunt online and maybe pick up – or download – a book about it.
Re-writing is more important than writing, and cutting is most important of all. You should complete several drafts before arriving at your penultimate version. Then get other people to look at that.
I strongly recommend recruiting, or paying, several proof readers. It is so hard to see all the flaws and errors in your own work, especially if you are writing fiction, because you know what you meant to say, and it is so easy to become engrossed in the story and as a consequence you fail to notice mistakes.
It is not just a question of typos, grammatical slips and spelling mistakes of which there will be many, it is also a question of clarity, ease of reading and consistency. You need help.
Have the humility to use editors who are better than you at things such as grammar. They also need to be really honest. They don’t have to like the book, but they do have to be able to understand it, and be blatantly honest about the places where their understanding is compromised.
Writing a novel will probably prove both easier and harder than you imagine. Thinking up the story is easy – we all do that when we daydream. It’s persistence that can prove to be the problem. Can you stick at it until it is finished? You might have ended the story but it is not really finished until you’ve done all of the pre-publication tasks, and even then, a publisher does not stop when the book is published.
Promoting your book
Pop into a book store or visit an online one and start counting the titles. That’s the competition. There are numerous marketing strategies open to you, and all I will say at this point is, be cautious. You can easily spend a great deal of money and get zero return. The strongest advice I can offer may be disappointing, but not in the long term. My advice is: lower your expectations.
You will sell some books, but probably far fewer than you hope.
There are lots of drawbacks to publishing your own work, but there are benefits too. No one tells you what to write. Traditionally published writers are often confined to a specific genre – their ‘brand’.
My stock includes four novels: two sci-fi , one historical, and one set during the Cold War (1950s). I also offer four collections of shorts stories all themed differently: strange nature, quirky human, speculative popular culture and Christmas ghosts. In addition I sell four play scripts, two crime (one Sherlock Holmes and the other factual) and two prize-winners, one a domestic revenge drama and the other about education.
Fifty shades diminishing
Some independent authors sell thousands, even tens of thousands of books, but there are also tens of thousands of authors who sell very, very few books. There are some notorious self-published successes, perhaps most famously, Fifty Shades of Grey which E.L. James independently launched before its rapidly increasing sales caught the eye of a traditional publisher. Believe it or not, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was initially self-published. These facts can be very seductive, and very misleading. The experience of 99.9% of self-published authors is somewhat different.
Over two million titles are published every year. This may not embrace all publications and may exclude a great deal of e-books which do not require an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and hence are harder to count. The US accounts for a quarter of a million titles and the UK something in the region of 180,000. That’s a lot of choice for the reader.
Indie authors are diluted to homeopathic proportions by each other.Ed Ryder, Independent Author
If you self-publish your book you will sell some, but it’s wise to wait awhile before putting a deposit on a yacht. Initially, most of your buyers will be people who know you. That’s why agents and publishers like famous people.
The family and friends effect was evident when I used to stage theatre. Irrespective of whether it was a college show or a private venture, the core audience always consisted of people who knew someone in the production. There were times when, happily, that source was overridden – for example when we were part of something that had its own promotional machine, such as an historic venue, or when we hit upon a popular topic. A play about the serial killer Myra Hindley attracted sell-out crowds with a cast of just three. It is also my best selling publication, responsible for a third of all my sales.
Fame and fortune
If either of these is your main motivation, there are much more reliable ways of attaining them. Robbing a bank might work, at least in the short term. For truly vocational writers the drive is more intrinsic. In common with other artists, it’s not a question of writing as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Why then should you publish?
The artisan author
There is immense satisfaction in completing a pleasing oil painting. That satisfaction is somewhat amplified if another person admires it. If they like it so much they want to own it I imagine the satisfaction enters a new dimension. I can’t be sure. I’ve never sold a painting, but painter friends tell me that’s how it feels. The same is true for writers.
I don’t write because I have to, I write because I can’t not do it. (That’s why I’m writing this!) I know when I’ve written something I like, but I like it so much more when someone else is entertained by it. That was why I enjoyed making theatre.
The first piece of writing that I sold was in 1976 when I was paid £3.15 by Lancashire Life magazine for a poem about a place on the River Ribble: Edisford Bridge.
About the same time I began writing pantomimes for the parish drama group. Once I heard the audience laugh at the lines I’d written a life-long addiction was ignited within me.
A few years after that I was a winner in a BBC Radio playwriting competition. Mitigating Circumstances was recorded in Manchester at the studios on Oxford Road (now demolished) and broadcast on regional radio.
About the same time I won the Cheshire Community Council One Act Playwriting Competition with a play called One Bad Apple, which was subsequently produced by a small professional company (Pan Communications) and staged as lunchtime theatre in Sackville Street in Manchester at the Thompson’s Arms (now demolished). They also submitted it to the Arts Council who awarded it a very welcome royalty supplement of £200.
This play was then published by New Playwrights’ Network who, a few years later also published The Sherlock Holmes Solution, a title I would subsequently republish myself. Minor successes such as these gave me the confidence to keep writing.
The first version of this play is being offered at nearly twenty times its original price of £3.50. The self-published revised edition is available at £3.49. Fanatical collectors of Sherlock Holmes should acquire both.
It was lucky that some of my earliest successes were with plays. A playwright is always an artisan author. Note the spelling of playwright. It categorises the creator of plays alongside those who create wheels (wheelwrights) or ships (shipwrights) or anything else that is hand-crafted. Historically ‘wright’ became synonymous with ‘carpenter’ and is the 15th most common English surname. Scripting for the stage is much more of a craft than an art because you are making something that has to physically exist and work. Furthermore, it has not only to work for the audience but for the performers. That is how I became an artisan, and started ‘publishing’ (staging) my own work.
When I became a drama teacher and fringe theatre producer, creating my own scripts solved several key problems. First of all I could make the scripts match the available cast by shaping the parts to suit the performers’ particular skills. I could make plays fit the demands of specific venues, target certain audiences, and to be affordable within tight budgets.
Audiences do not lie, and I learned how to entertain them at least as effectively as much more renowned playwrights. Both performers and playgoers expressed their appreciation and that was key to giving me the confidence to publish my own material in print once it became viable to do so.
Into the ether
When self-publishing became not only very much simpler but very much cheaper I was intensely drawn towards it as a means of being able to reach more readers. I was nearing the completion of my first ‘proper’ novel Ice & Lemon, (I’d previously written three improper novels) but decided to first of all try a smaller volume. I compiled a collection of Christmas ghost stories.
Four of the stories had been published by Lancashire Life magazine and one had been broadcast by the BBC, and hence I felt they had a certain legitimacy. I wrote two more to flesh out the volume and uploaded the package. That gave me the confidence to do the same with Ice & Lemon. The reaction was gratifying.
The process in 2011 was a little more complicated than it is now. You had to build your file into a specific digital format, and it wasn’t possible to do a paperback print-on-demand version, and hence I published the first hard copy edition of Ice & Lemon the old-fashioned ‘vanity’ way.
These days the setting up the paperback option online is as straightforward as the e-book procedure.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I had the guts to spread out my wares on a pub table and try selling them to people uninhibited by alcohol. I enjoyed it, and people did buy some, and consequently I began attending craft fairs.
I feel really comfortable alongside people who make jewellery, or ceramics, or carpentry items or paintings and the like. We are all making things that please us and hopefully please others. It is a good way to reach more readers. I thought I might encounter resistance from the organisers who may not see my work as a craft, but so far that has not been the case.
In an non-pandemic month my ‘live’ sales can match my online sales. I’ve put a deposit on a rope for a yacht.
So, back to the key question:
Is it worth it?
My rather nerdy spreadsheet indicates that I have churned out some 211 pieces of original writing that I deemed to be finished. These range from poems and short stories to full-length plays. 38% have been published or produced by people other than myself but that rises to 65% when I include those that I have self-published or produced.
Since I began self-publishing I have not sold thousands of books, but I have sold hundreds. This means I have reached hundreds of readers. I have no way of knowing how many of them read, finished or liked my work, but I know some of them did because they told me so, and yes, that makes it worth it.
More posts on this topic:
Making a play and then a novel about the teenage William Shakespeare: Where there was a Will and Finders Keepers, and Sigh no more.
How the play about the Moors Murders came about: Making Making Myra
Creating stage works: Top Rank Groovy and Swinging with the Singing Butler and Kije and me
Art and literature: Words, pictures and surgical scars and Untitled (Novel) Chapter One and trailer
Dancing fantasies: Strictly speaking
or come to the stall and save the postage:
4 thoughts on “The Artisan Author”
Spot on, Pete. I echo all of this – the self-published fiction, anyway. Very well done.
Thank you, Michael. Your echo is much appreciated.
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Hi Pete. Since my professor introduces me one of your blog articles, I gradually find that I like your articles! You are a great writer and please keep writing. Because you and your articles are a hidden gem, only the audience with a special taste can find you. Honestly, your articles have reached people (me) from the other side of the world. I will find opportunities to read your books!
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