on ‘How I Went Indie… and Why’
I was an award-winning, mid-list author of contemporary women’s fiction when three years ago I was dropped by my publisher. (“Disappointing sales” was the reason given.) After two years my agent still hadn’t found a publisher for my fourth and fifth novels. Editors liked the books, but said they’d be hard to market as they belonged to no clear genre.
While looking for a new publisher, I kept myself in the public eye by chatting on book forums, writing guest blogs and setting up an author page on Facebook. I was preparing for a miracle. Then it came. The e-book revolution.
I indy-published my fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE on Kindle. I hoped to sell 10 copies a month, maybe 10 a week if the book really took off, but I sold 10,000 downloads in less than four months. I’ve since published 3 more novels and have sold 28,000 copies in my first year as an indy author.
Amazon acknowledged my success at the end of last year when they selected HOUSE OF SILENCE as a Top Ten Editor’s Pick Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.
I believe I can earn more for myself in the long term than a publisher can earn for me, but the main issues for me are creative freedom and artistic control.
Two out of three of my pbooks were sunk by unappealing covers. I had a title foisted on me which I hated. I was asked to simplify storylines and make characters more likeable. For years when I was traditionally published (and when I wasn’t) I was told by editors that my books didn’t belong to any genre and were therefore hard to market. No one seemed to realise that readers like mixed-genre books, that genre isn’t a problem for readers, just retailers.
So now I market directly to readers. I know how they think because I’m in touch with them every day online and because I’m a reader too.
I won’t be going back to traditional publishing. It was just getting in the way of my books finding their readers.
Self-publishing was a very simple choice for me to take. Back in 2007 I decided I wanted to give writing for a wider audience a proper chance. Like most writers, I’ve always written and I have my share of drawers full of emo poetry and really angsty teenage novels, but at 35 it felt like the right time to give it a proper bash.
I churned out a thriller set in Oxford, and set about fine tuning it with a view to getting an agent and then a publisher. To this end, I joined the writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy in 2008, where I soon discovered I preferred writing literary fiction to writing thrillers, and by mid 2008 I had churned out a second book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a literary work set in post-communist Hungary about a girl growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nothing is constant. I set about finding an agent for it, still rather wet behind the ears and not really knowing anything other than that “this was what you did.”
I had a lovely letter from the only agency I really wanted to work with (one that focused on international fiction) saying how excited they were by the book but they couldn’t sell it in the current climate.
At about the same time I was learning more and more about the vibrant literary world that existed online, and I started to wonder why I’d ever looked for a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t interested in making “a big splash” as the agent had put it. I wrote because I had something I needed to say, in whatever form it needed saying – whereas publishers wanted to tell you how you should be saying it in order to get sales. I didn’t want sales. I didn’t even want readers overly much. I wanted to get what was in my head out of there in the form it wanted.
And I wanted to play with what was and wasn’t literature. I’ve always loved art since a school trip to the Tate introduced me to Rothko. I’d spent hours at the infamous Turner Prize exhibition of 1999 and fallen head over heels in love with Tracey Emin’s work (and, it’s probably true to say, with her). Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is set largely in the art world, and references Emin’s works throughout. Art was very, very exciting. …heady, dangerous, talked about, argued about. It incited passion. And whilst I was aware of the storm over Satanic Verses, that was hardly the same as the reaction to Sensation, to Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.
Yes, YBA was full of marketing and slick and surface and phoneyism. But it was also dangerous, challenged the way people thought about art, about the world, about themselves and reality. Literary culture just wasn’t like that. And aspiring writers just talked about how to get published. That wasn’t a conversation I was interested in.
I wanted people to talk about literature like they did about art – I wanted to work with people who were doing wild things that would have people shaking their head and asking “but is it a book?” The whole world of getting published was, quite simply, a different conversation from the one I wanted to have.
Of course that was simplistic. But it remains the case that the most exciting discussions of words take place “in another place” and not in the world of publishing.
I had managed to sell my short stories for publication in literary magazines and paperback anthologies, with over a dozen of them published by PICADOR, VINTAGE, EDINBURGH REVIEW and in anthologies edited by A L Kennedy, John Fowles and Ali Smith.
With novels though, it was another matter. I had a literary agent in Edinburgh represent two novels which did not sell to any publisher. I then wrote a third novel, and a fourth, and could not get an agent to represent either of them. I wrote a fifth novel, THE SURVIVAL OF THOMAS FORD which attracted a literary agent in London. Two agents at that agency, and the film consultant there (who had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript), gave The Survival of Thomas Ford their full support for over a year.
I was told they viewed the novel as a certainty to sell, one of the best novels they had represented. Editors at the major UK publishing houses said how powerful and compelling the book was, they remarked on the unusually high quality of the writing and how much they enjoyed it. The senior commissioning editor at one publishing house said “I think John A. A. Logan is a hugely talented writer. The character Jimmy is a brilliant creation. I love books like this, that have the pace and excitement of a thriller, but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”.
But still, no sale.
After over a year of this, I took The Survival of Thomas Ford back into my own hands and on December 2011 I published it as a Kindle ebook. It is in its fourth month now of steady sales.
In the past 7 days alone, The Survival of Thomas Ford has been downloaded 700 times at a price of £1.94, achieving an income of £1000 in a week. It has gone to number 4 bestselling paid literary fiction ebook on Amazon UK; and to number 19 ranked UK thriller ebook. The Survival of Thomas Ford has also been the number 4 literary fiction book on Amazon UK, which includes not only the ebooks but the paperbacks also, ranking higher in the bestseller chart than Martin Amis, Maeve Binchy, or We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.
So The Survival of Thomas Ford has ranked higher for a substantial part of 2012 than the paperbacks published by the London publishers who rejected The Survival of Thomas Ford!
In 2000, when HarperCollins took on my memoir about my cancer experience, there was some chatter about Lifetime optioning it for a movie. My long-term survival was still a bit of a question, however, so my husband and I worried a movie wouldn’t be good for our young children if I died. As much as it killed us to give up the money, I reserved my electronic rights.
Much to my surprise, ten years later, I was still alive, the ebook revolution was in full swing, and I had an opportunity to launch my own digital imprint, Stella Link, with this successful title.
I figured I’d make more money on my own and could use it to springboard the rest of my backlist and pave the way for a new novel, THE HURRICANE LOVER. Having done three novels, a memoir and a number of ghostwriting projects with mainstream corporate publishers, I’ve “been to the puppet show and seen the strings.” I knew exactly what I was giving up and what I was gaining by going indie. I’d invested years in this soul project, and I wanted to maintain creative control.
It was a risk, and it hasn’t been easy, but the creative freedom is addictive. I plan to continue working with corporate publishers, but I’ll never go back to the old status quo.
Notes: These are excerpts from author speeches made at the launch of The Alliance of Independent Authors at London Book Fair yesterday (Wed 18th April).
Linda Gillard’s House of Silence will be the Alliance’s Book of The Month Choice in May 2012.