I’m frequently asked about my experience of self-publishing, so in this blog I’m going to explain how I went about self-publishing my Smuggler’s Town Mysteries. Next year it will be ten years since I began this journey and much has changed so I’ve invited contributions from Eve Bonham, Helen Baggott and Shelagh Mazey, three great writers who have self-published, and in one case has also been traditionally published. I hope you find our experiences interesting and helpful in deciding whether you self-publish your own book and how you might go about it.
So many people dream of writing a book. Then we dream of it hitting the bookshops and being a best seller, maybe made into a film or TV drama – we all dream but the reality is very different. You’ve sweated over your masterpiece and it’s finished. If that’s not been difficult enough, the toughest part is trying to get someone to publish it. This has been the biggest hurdle for every writer and there are classic examples of rejections such as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. My first book, The Thirteenth Box was rejected, mostly with no reason other than ‘not for us’. There was one exception. It’s a long story, so I’ll cut it short. I was lucky that my first three chapters and synopsis were read by a buyer from a major publisher and I had an interview. The interview was glowing. I was told ‘you can certainly write’ and ‘I love the idea of smugglers’. My heart was beating in my chest, I thought I’d finally cracked it, but the killer blow came ‘but no one is buying children’s historical fiction, put it in a drawer until it comes back into fashion.’ This told me two things, firstly it wasn’t my writing at fault and secondly, it’s all about sales. This led me to investigate self-publishing.
It was late 2010. The decision was made, but which direction? My manuscript was ready, it had been independently edited and proofread, it was ready to go. I wasn’t going into this blindly. I was a member of a good writers’ group, a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists and because of this met frequently with published writers and heard their anecdotes. Many told a similar story and what struck me as in particular was that once the first flush of publicity was undertaken by the publisher, they were largely on their own. I must add at this point the fact that I’d been working in PR for over twenty years and latterly in my own consultancy, so publicity held no fears. I decided to go for it, so the next question was ‘how?’
Writing magazines are full of advertisements from companies willing to publish your work – for a price. There were two things to consider here, firstly what was my budget and secondly, which companies had the best reputation. There were horror stories where writers had paid a good deal of money for a poor-quality book and little support. There were also reputable ones, but some people were going the whole hog and setting up an imprint and doing everything themselves. Once I’d decided to go down this latter route, I was determined that my books were to be of equal quality to those by major publishers. The other thing I needed to consider was an illustrator, the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t really apply, a good cover is very important, it’s the shop window, it’s the ‘pick me up and take a look’ of any book. I spoke about this to editor Julie Musk from Roving Press, an independent publisher. Julie introduced me to a very talented young artist, Domini Deane, who agreed to design the cover for my book. In addition, Julie would supervise the typesetting and printing of my book in return for some PR work. It was all coming together. I needed a name for my imprint and in the end, I plumped for my own idea, High Sails Publications, which I’d originally said as a joke, but thought the play on words was fun – and hopefully prophetic!
The other thing to consider was that publishing was a business, separate from the author side of my book and I had to be professional, a real case of head versus heart. I set up a business account, acquired a PO Box and designed a logo. Another call on contacts was to tidy this up and I wrote a press release in barter from a graphic artist friend. Domini’s illustrations arrived and I was blown away by them. Julie Musk had appointed David Exley of Beamreach Printing to undertake the typesetting and printing and things were in motion.
The lowest number of books to be printed that would provide payback of my investment was 1,000. This was something I had thought about, but hadn’t really comprehended, so when a van backed up and unloaded a pallet of over 30 large boxes onto our front lawn the scale of what I’d done hit me – where would they all go? My next job was to work out a launch and publicity drive. Friends were extremely supportive. I chose a date for the launch and location – I even had the Mayor coming along. This was after the books arrived as I needed to visit potential retailers with the product. Several retailers agreed to stock the books. Sadly, Waterstones declined, though one local store agreed to stock them in their ‘local’ collection.
The rest they say is history. My initial investment was paid back in sales within two years, and subsequent titles have been self-financing. Consequently, I also gain income through work in local schools with talks and workshops and talks to local groups. The Thirteenth Box came second in the David St John Thomas and Writing Magazine Self-published Book of the Year Competition (2012). I had to have a reprint after just eight months as I sold out. With the help of David at Beamreach, The Face of Sam followed in 2013 and The Moonrakers of Avon was published in 2017. All titles are still selling, and I’ll soon need another reprint of The Thirteenth Box and The Face of Sam, leading to my biggest problem – storage. I have recently finished a new novel, something completely different and I will seek a traditional publisher for this, however should I not succeed will I self-publish again? Ten years from beginning my journey in self-publishing things have changed dramatically. Here are three other authors and their own self-publishing stories.
Posted in the Past is non-fiction and although it’s primarily about postcards sent more than 100 years ago, the book concludes with one my father sent to his parents in the 1950s – outside of the era covered in the book. Using this card was a deal-breaker and I wasn’t going to compromise. Self-publishing was always going to be my chosen method of publishing the book.
I researched the cards using genealogy and I knew my target readers were viewers of Who Do You Think You Are? and A House Through Time – people interested in social history and genealogy. If I could reach them, I was convinced the book would sell. An email to Family Tree magazine led to a review covering a generous two-thirds of a page and I was invited to write a blog post for their website. The editor of a postcard magazine commissioned an article and I have four more booked for this year. I’ve just sent off a second article for another magazine.
Six months before the book was published I contacted local groups about giving talks. In September 2019 I gave my first and the talks continued until March of this year – when all my spring/summer bookings were cancelled. However, some groups have already rebooked me for 2021. Even if I don’t sell any copies at the talks, I do get paid and that’s important – my book is a business and the talks and articles add to its earning power.
The postcards I researched were sent from around the world to addresses throughout the UK and I’ve found the book in libraries around the country. Those copies have been bought by the regional teams from their wholesaler. I used IngramSpark for all my non-Amazon sales and they supply wholesalers that sell to bookshops and libraries globally (it’s sold well in Australia and the USA). There is a fee to upload a book to IS, but if you are a member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) you receive a discount code that makes it free. ALLi is a great resource for indie authors and I’ve been a partner member (as an editor) for many years. ALLi has a list of recommended partners who can help with all stages of a book’s production.
IS pays a royalty for each copy sold and it works in the same way as Amazon’s KDP system – upload the content and cover and they take care of the printing and delivery. I use Amazon’s keyword advertising – pay-per-click – and 75% of my Amazon sales are via this.
My book has been number 1 in the heraldry chart several times and I recouped my costs (which included buying the postcards) and moved into profit relatively early. The biggest cost was the cover and it was money well spent. The back of the cover is as important as the front and I’m delighted with how it looks.
Knowing my audience has been essential to the book’s success. I included tips on genealogy for the beginner and explained how some of the research was completed – and that’s helped sales by giving it a wider appeal.
I’m now working on the next in the series (there will be three) – Second Delivery and Return to Sender. That last one will include stories about how the descendants of the people I have researched have contacted me and been connected to their pasts.
Self-publishing can be achieved in many ways – using a company or taking control yourself and bringing together a team of editors, designers, etc. Look at the costs, look at your expectations and be realistic. I wanted full control – of the content, production and marketing. It’s a big step – both emotionally and financially – but if you research and plan your project you will reap the rewards.
Posted in the Past is available from Amazon.
My Road to Self-Publishing
The decision to self-publish was not an easy one, but having sent out my manuscript several times without any success, I decided to look into it as another option. Ten years ago, the main-stream publishing companies were difficult to break into, with a catch 22 situation that still exists – It is easier to get a publisher if you have an agent and easier to get an agent if you have the interest of a publisher.
Anyway, I went on-line to look at what options were available. As soon as I showed interest on-line I was contacted by two different companies Xlibris and Author House who wanted to take me on, but the books would be printed in places like Thailand or Fiji and you would have to also pay for shipping. From memory they worked it out that you would get one copy and the ‘print on demand’ price would be £12.99 per book, that seemed too much to ask for an unknown author and I didn’t want POD, I wanted my own stock to distribute locally, as the books are all based around local social history. It was, to my mind, like vanity printing.
There were also companies like Lulu, who were recommended by many, but you needed to format your book yourself and then upload it to them, which is fine for more technological people, but at the time I was more interested in writing and really wanted someone to take all the stress out of it and do it for me. Matador was recommended in the Writers and Artists Yearbook and I found them on-line and uploaded my first manuscript to them. I had actually formatted a table of contents, so that my chapter headings linked to the start of each chapter, which was the most technical I could get!
First they look at your work and decide whether they want to take you on. They do not accept everyone; they actually turn down 25% of submissions. If you are lucky, they send you an initial quotation based on the word count and the specifications. In 2012, when I published Brandy Row, (104,00 words) the Pre-Press charge was £680, POD £4,22 per unit and a choice of printing from 100 copies up to 1,000. I chose to print 1,000 copies and the cost quoted was £2,142. Then there was Copy Edit £380, Proof-read £300, E-book creation £90 and the marketing package I chose cost me £450. Of course, with each novel the price has gone up and these prices do not include VAT. You think to yourself £4,042, means I have spent £4.04 per copy and will charge £7.99, which leaves £3.95, great! But out of that Matador takes 15% and the outlets, like Amazon, Google, Apple and bookstores etc also charge from 35% up to 60%. Not having taken into consideration the VAT, the storage costs for over 300 books, which eats away at your profit and the carriage costs from Leicester.
One of the advantages over mainstream publishing is that you get to decide everything, and I got great pleasure from designing the covers with the expertise of the artist and designers at Matador. My four books are part of an ongoing saga and having chosen Matador I feel, for style and continuity, I have to stick with them. If you are also planning a saga, it might be preferable for you to keep trying the mainstream publishers, so that you at least get an advance for your hard work and maybe even a profit.
Having said that, Matador have always been extremely helpful and professional, and despite having hardly any profit in it for me, I have no regrets. I am pleased to have produced four novels I am proud of and I really enjoy getting positive feedback from my fans. Although I only seem to be breaking even I have always treated it as a business, but I have to admit with no profit, it is really a very enjoyable hobby.
Looking at their up to date website, Matador has been recently ranked as the best self-publishing company by the Independent Publishing Magazine in its Publisher Service Index, above Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Kobo and IngramSpark and 80 other companies evaluated by the magazine.
If you do choose to go down this route, I wish you all the success in the world.
Self-Publishing – my experiences: Eve Bonham
I have had four books of fiction published. With my first book, a collection of short stories published in 2008, I undertook the editing, publishing and marketing myself. I set myself up a trading name and bank account for my own book business: Dryad Books. I learnt a huge amount: the main lessons were that it is essential to have someone help you with proofreading, and that although publishing is fairly straightforward, marketing takes a huge amount of time, energy and commitment. I made mistakes, but learnt a lot and this experience was very useful.
My third book, a long novel entitled The Lost Journey Homeward, was published in 2015 by a small Christian publisher, Onwards and Upwards. This was a traditional contract, which I had checked over by the Society of Authors who offered some helpful advice on amendments. If you are a member it is worth doing this. However, the editor was quite autocratic and insisted on changing things without my permission. Although they produced good hardback and paperback editions, they were lamentable on the marketing and promotional side of things. I had to do most this myself. They were publishers with a heart but few staff, and I did not go back to them with my next book.
With my latest book, Dear Magpies, published November 2019, I went down the assisted self-publishing route. It was published by SilverWood Books in Bristol [email protected] and I was recommended to go to them. They have a friendly efficient team, who provided me with a professional, retail quality book. They undertake other services, from copyediting and proofreading to book cover design, and guided me through marketing, trade distribution and advised me about promotions. They offer a number of self-publishing packages from which you can choose. They did a good job for me and produced my book in both POD (print on demand /Amazon etc) and bulk print run formats (to supply Central Books and other main wholesalers who supply bookshops). But you do have to be careful about the number of extras as these can add up. They were very supportive, but as always, in the end most of the promotion and marketing is done by the author, with whatever help they choose to enlist or pay for. Most importantly, the author makes decisions and is in control of the book. Silverwood Books are highly professional designed me a stunning front and back cover – which is hugely important, and I recommend them.
My top tips for self-publishing
1. Don’t rush to publish because it feels exciting to have finished your book. Make sure your manuscript is ready. Ask someone to read it who will do so critically and not to simply flatter you. Consider a professional edit and proof-reader If you can afford it.
2. Research the different methods and the companies offering services – what have they published? Are those authors happy? Do the books look good? If you decide to go it alone, invest in a brilliant cover.
3. Choose a method and set yourself a budget. Allow for ongoing expenses, such as postage, travel, a launch event, website costs, purchasing your own copies to sell at talks etc.
4. Set up a website, social media pages and start writing blogs! If you can’t create your own website or afford to have someone make one for you, do set up social media pages – they’re free!
5. Create a publicity campaign. In addition to your social media, where else can you publicise your book? Write a short, snappy press release and send it to local magazines and newspapers.
6. What is your USP? (Unique selling point). Helen has been able to target a range of publications with the subject matter of her book leading to articles being published. I offer talks based around local smuggling heritage and workshops.
7. Treat self-publishing as if you are setting up a business, especially If you decide to create your own imprint. Be professional.
8. Think about where you’ll store your books. How will you personally get hold of copies of your books? If you do what I did, where will they be stored – and is there a cost to be considered?
9. Be prepared for hard work, getting your book known takes time and planning.
10. Enjoy yourself – what’s the point if it’s all toil and trouble?