I am an advocate for creative self-publishing, authors publishing their own books their own way and consciously applying the creative process to the art and craft of publishing.
In 2011, I decided to strike out on my own as a self-publishing independent author. It has been the best move of my writing life.
Back then, all my author and publishing friends were talking about how new technologies were giving writers unprecedented opportunities to publish our own work. For me, this was an exhilarating thought.
I’d worked in media and publishing for almost twenty years, published with a small press (Attic) and the largest of them all (Penguin Random House) and had even self-published a book some years before, in the days when selfpub meant a consignment print run, that gave you a spare room full of print books and a distribution challenge.
While that book had actually succeeded, selling widely among the women it was written for and their friends, and also through Easons, Ireland’s largest book chain, it was a very particular situation. Self-publishing, I knew, wasn’t a viable option for most books, and almost never for fiction.
Except suddenly, thanks to technology–ebooks and print-on-demand and online book-selling–it was.
With the necessary safeguards built in to stop yourself pressing “publish” too soon, and with good editorial and design support, self-publishing was beginning to look like the most creative choice a writer could make.
It would involve me in exciting editorial and design decisions and most importantly to me, given my recent experience of corporate publishing (see below), I would be able to make my own decisions about how my books would be marketed and reach the right readers.
As someone who blogged about creativitism and conscious creation, I felt I had to give it a try.
My Creative Self-Publishing Story
I started small, uncertain whether I might be defeated by the technology or practicalities, with a poetry chapbook in ebook format. My expectations were low. Received wisdom was that nobody reads,never mind actually buys, poetry.
Using Scrivener software for writing and formatting, and Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords for distribution made the process cheap, swift and easy.
Break-even and then profit seemed distinctly possible, especially as the book would be there forever. With ebooks and print-on-demand, there was no such thing as out of print.
I decided to go wider and, on the same principles (short book, straightforward to format, limited readership if I make a hash of it), I next produced a meditation guide. Again, it was an easy, fun and rewarding experience.
And surprisingly, sales were actually happening. In popped my first cheque. Two figures only, but these were meditation and poetry books and already I could see that, as I got better at publishing, the next cheque would be bigger, and the one after bigger again.
What might a novel do? Could I pull together the skills to publish my fiction myself?
I could see that the costs were low – a few hundred pounds for design and editing plus the 30% commission that the distributors took on each sale – but the payment to me, the author, per book would be much higher.
It looked like it was time to talk to Penguin about getting my rights back.
Back in 2003, when I’d signed a two-book contract with Penguin in exchange for a generous advance on royalties, it was the culmination of years of work. Years of writing and editing, dreaming and hoping, and submission and rejection. Fifty-four proposals and rejections, to be precise, before this 55th one turned in a yes.
My first novel, AFTER THE RISING is a multi-layered family murder mystery based on a real-life killing that happened in the small village where I grew up, in the south-east corner of Ireland, forty years before I was born.
It happened in a year (1922/3) when all Ireland – families, communities, even husbands and wives – were riven apart, divided over the “peace” treaty that had just been signed with Great Britain — a treaty that gave only partial independence to our country and treated shoddily those who had worked hardest to bring the British to the negotiating table.
The Irish took up arms against each other, using the guerrilla tactics that had just “succeeded” against the British. During this short, squalid, civil war, my father’s uncle was shot dead by a close friend from the other side.
As a child, I was fascinated by what I knew of this story, not just by the question of how a young man could kill his friend over a peace treaty but even more by the silence and whispers surrounding it. Nobody talked about the civil war, our schoolbooks skipped right over it, yet half of our village was still uneasy with the other half.
Which side parents or grandparents had taken in “The War of The Brothers” still affected voting patterns and – of more interest to an emerging novelist – friend and family loyalties.
I always knew I’d write about this, about the shame I could smell beneath the silence and eventually a 200,000-word, multi-generational, three-volume story that took great liberties with the facts emerged. As it emerged, it turned out to be more than a historical story. The story of 1920s Ireland came interwoven with other kinds of intimate war and quests for freedom, as the grandchildren of the 1920s characters struggle for sexual and emotional liberation in 1980s San Francisco and 1990s Ireland.
This then, was my precious first book, close to my heart in so many ways, not least for the many years it had taken for me to fictionalise these sensitive and complex questions, while creating a story world that would both make readers think and sweep them away to another world.
But where I saw a page-turning drama that shattered silences and explored questions of freedom and belonging, Penguin saw chick lit. Marketing it as such would open the door to Tescos, the giant supermarket that I learned was now the biggest outlet for books in the UK. Their opinion counted for everything with Penguin. They were our best chance of making this book a bestseller.
The title was changed to Lovers’ Hollow, the jacket blurb made no mention of war, and the cover was given a neon-pink treatment, with a faceless woman in a chiffon dress.
In their terms, it worked. It took the book to the top of the bestseller charts. I don’t mean to be ungrateful when I say that for me, it was a horrible experience. I never felt the book reached the right readers.
The comment I received most often from readers who enjoyed the book was, “I never would have chosen it based on that cover but my friend told me I’d love it.” And surely many of those who did buy, judging the book by its cover, must have let down by what they found inside.
For my second novel, which was about WB Yeats and Maud Gonne, Penguin refused to put their names on the cover, as again this didn’t align with the supermarket readers they wanted to reach. Again my title was changed, and again it was given a cover that belied its content, a headless woman this time, pictured from behind.
Creative Self-Publishing: Empowerment
Self-publishing was giving me a chance to undo all that. It took a while but yes, I succeeded in getting my rights back and AFTER THE RISING was reborn, with the title and treatment I had envisaged while writing it. Soon afterwards came its sequel BEFORE THE FALL. Both have been Amazon bestsellers and still sell steadily on a variety of online platforms and through my own website, in ebook and print.
Republished with Yeats and Maud Gonne not only mentioned but with their pictures on the cover, my second novel has also hit bestsller charts and won prizes and so far sold in 28 countries across the world (and counting)
I created an imprint, Font Publications, that stated my values differed from those of corporate publishing. I would employ creative self-publishing techniques. I would consciously apply an independent mindset and a creative approach to the art and craft of publishing.
“Font Publications is the publishing imprint for Orna Ross, the Creativist Club and the Alliance of Independent Authors. All Font books—fiction, non-fiction and poetry—have the same intention: to
guide the reader towards creative independence through intellectual freedom and imaginative connection. “To go creative return to the font.”
I loved self-publishing from the start. It has changed everything for me: what I write and how I write it. Mostly it has changed my sense of what’s possible. In 2015, for WB Yeats centenary, with the help of a crowdfunder I created a special edition gift book Secret Rose that brought together his book of short stories, The Secret Rose and my novel Her Secret Rose about his life with Maud Gonne at the time of writing those stories. I wanted to create a beautiful print book and it’s a hardcover replica of the iconic 1898 edition, with Yeats specially commissioned occult symbology on the cover.
I made just 500 (numbered) copies of this unique collector’s edition and each copy sold is signed and dedicated, lovingly wrapped, and dispatched directly by me. It brought Yeats’ thought and theories of the time alive for a new generation. My son took one of the symbols from the book cover as a tattoo.
When I’m busy, I stop promoting these books for a while. I want each one to be wrapped and brought to the post office sent in the right spirit, not resented in the middle of a busy schedule. for me, that’s creative self-publishing.
This year, for example, I am publishing the Go Creative! series I’ve long been working on. I’m bringing out eight books over eight months, using Amazon pre-orders to set my deadlines. No trade publisher would even contemplate such a thing.
Creative self-publishing allows it.
I feel blessed beyond belief to have been here for this moment in publishing history. Not just because I’m having more fun, garnering more readers and making more consistent money than at any time since I started to publish fiction, but because it has restored for me something I was in danger of losing when corporate structures were my only choice: creative freedom.
Creative Self-Publishing: Advocacy
I am proud of my self-publishing status, which I now carry into all my ventures and collaborations.
And while I don’t believe self-publishing is right for everyone, I encourage all writers to try it at least once. There is so much misinformation out there that the only way to know if it’s right for you is to try it and see.
I’ve seen self-publishing nourish the writing community so widely, infusing a community that had been beaten down by rejection and unfair contracts with confidence and a sense of self-empowerment. That’s why I do what I can to help further the indie-author movement through my work for the Alliance of Independent Authors.
But that’s another story for another page.