Winds of change are blowing through the publishing industry, as digital technology enables authors to reach their readers directly, without using a publisher. Opinions about this change and what it means for readers and writers, and for publishing and literature, abound. Many of them conflict, sometimes heatedly. Often, myths and misconceptions are accepted as fact. Any author considering self-publishing will quickly get pulled into this ferment of opinion, but the viewpoints, vested and otherwise, that swirl so intensely around this topic provide a poor guide to what’s best for an individual writer.
There are a hundred different ways to publish and a thousand different motivations for doing it. Each publishing experience is unique. The only way to know what self-publishing means for you and your writing is to do it.
Self-Publishing: Good or Evil?
If you’re serious about writing, interested in publishing more than a one-off book, and keen to make a life in letters, then there are many other good reasons to self-publish. It’s a tool of the trade you can no longer ignore.
Skeptical? I know I was when I began. It was late in 2011 when I first gave it a go, very much in that spirit, as an experiment.
I’d been trading in words for three decades by then, having begun my writing life as a freelance features journalist in my late 20s and in my 40s graduated to running a writing school and literary agency. This immersion in the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing and teaching creative writing had taught me how bad we writers are at recognizing when our work is ready for other eyes, especially at the beginning of our careers. Wasn’t there a clear danger that self-publishers would publish their books before they were ready?
On completing a draft manuscript, we writers go through a weird kind of postnatal euphoria. We’re convinced our draft is actually a finished book. It’s self-deception, complete and immovable. Having half-killed ourselves putting a decent draft together, we cannot contemplate in that moment that there might be more work to do.
“It’s done!” we tell ourselves. Hurrah!
Later, after this has happened to us again… and again… we get to know the syndrome. We still think we’re finito completo, but will now admit to a sliver of possibility that it might need another quick pass, so we go do something else for a while, and come back to it. At the beginning of our writing lives, though, we bang off our first (second and third) draft to an agent or publisher.
Back it bounces.
If we are sincere, we then roll up our sleeves and get to it again.
I went through 64 rejections this way before I got my first novel published. Each time it came back, I did some more work on it before sending it out again. This is the time-honored way in which writers have honed their craft since the dawn of commercial publishing.
“The effort to get published, the resilience needed to deal with rejection, separates the men from the boys, the women from the wusses,” a publishing friend said to me recently. And though I wouldn’t put it that way myself, and though we now have more creative and less painful ways to become a better writer, I know what she means. This was one of the major factors that gave me pause back in 2011, when I was first considering self-publishing.
I also worried about editing and design, production and distribution, marketing and promotion. Would this network of creative collaboration work properly with the author at the helm? Wasn’t a third party necessary to mediate between the writing and the business matters?
In 2011, as today, opinions on these questions ran the full range, from “Self-publishing is the best thing to happen to our industry since Gutenberg” to “Self-publishing is devaluing books and drowning us all in a tsunami of crap”.
I felt the only way I could cut through the hyperbole was to try it, to see for myself.
I set out with caution. An ebook poetry pamphlet was the thing to try, I decided. It was the shortest, easiest possible publication, and as so few people read poetry, if I made a mess of things, fewer would know.
To my surprise, I immediately loved the process. Previously, I’d handed my manuscripts to my publisher as soon as the writing was done. Somebody else had made all the decisions about edits and proofing, page layouts and title fonts, cover colors and back blurbs and, crucially, how the book would be pitched to the reading public. That—the marketing—hadn’t gone too well
My first novel, After The Rising, was a multilayered family murder mystery based on a real-life killing that happened in my family, forty years before I was born. At that time, Ireland was riven asunder, divided over a peace treaty just signed with Great Britain, a treaty that gave only partial independence. As so often happens after an independence war, the freedom fighters took up arms against each other, on one side of the treaty or the other.
During this short, squalid civil war, my father’s uncle was shot dead by a close friend. Growing up, I was fascinated by what I knew of this story, and even more by what I didn’t know, by the silence and whispers surrounding it.
In Ireland, nobody ever talked about the civil war, though 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, friendship and family loyalties. Our schoolbooks might have skipped right over the war but two generations on, half of our village was still uneasy with the other half.
From this soil, a multigenerational, three-volume story blossomed. It interweaved the civil war story with later generations’ quests for different kinds of freedom, fighting other kinds of intimate war. The grandchildren and great-grandchild of the 1920s characters struggle for sexual and emotional liberation in 1980s San Francisco, 1990s Ireland, and post-9/11 New York.
This, then, was my precious first book, close to my heart in so many ways, not least for the many years it had taken me to fictionalize what, to me, were super-sensitive, complex questions. My aim had been to create a story that would sweep readers away to another world but would also make them think. I saw my book as a page-turning drama that shattered silences and explored the struggle we all experience between the contrary urges for freedom and belonging.
Alas, Penguin (and Tesco, which was the customer they most wanted to crack at that time) saw it as chick lit. My title was changed, the cover was given a neon-pink treatment—when everyone who knows me knows I am The Anti-Pink—and the jacket blurb made no mention of war, focusing solely on the contemporary love story.
For my publishers, the strategy worked: it took the book to the top of the bestseller charts. Never mind that for the author it was a bruising experience. Never mind that the book was overlooked by its natural audience. (The comment I received most often from readers who’d enjoyed the book was, “I didn’t think it was my kind of book but my friend told me I’d love it.”). Never mind that those who judged the book by its cover, and chose it hoping for chick lit, were no doubt disappointed.
It was a short-sighted strategy that didn’t bode well for the next book and, yes, next time out, it was even worse. A book featuring the story of the poet WB Yeats and his muse Maud Gonne didn’t mention either character on the jacket.
This experience of trade-publishing played a large part in attracting me to the possibility of self-publishing. And so I gave it a go. I prepared my little book of poems until one day it was ready and I pressed the “Publish” button. Yes, it was a heady moment.
Even more so when, much to my astonishment, a purchase soon came in. Somebody, some dearly beloved stranger, had parted with good money for a pamphlet of my poetry. Poetry.
Then came another. Then another, on another platform.
I started to get excited. If this could happen with poems, what might a novel do? Could I remarket my books as I had originally planned them? Sell them to those I believed to be their true readers? Build a following that would grow from one book to the next? I believed, now, that I could.
I was beginning to see how self-publishing could be a much more creative way to get my books to readers. No more pitching to editors. No more hoping and chasing. No more rejection. No more marketing differences. Think of all the creative energy that would save.
It was time to talk to my publisher.
Taking Back My Rights
Luckily, I had worked as a literary agent and so I had an excellent reversion clause in my contract. I wrote and explained my position and before long, after a little toing and froing, I had my publishing rights back.
By now I couldn’t wait to reissue my novels with the covers and titles I had envisaged when writing them. “I believe the new technologies afford writers an array of opportunities,” I wrote in an article for Mslexia magazine at that time. “I’m staking a lot on that call, as I reckon it will take at least a year to make a decent living from this and I am using my own money to fund myself in between.”
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait that long. The books were instant bestsellers. At one point in 2013, I had three books in Amazon’s top five literary fiction titles.
I tell you this not to brag but to show you what is possible. Though this was much more easily done in 2013 than it is today, self-publishing is still a very viable route to readers. Today more than half of Amazon’s daily bestseller lists are self-published, and corporate publishers and agents now scour self-publishing sites, hoping to woo writers away from the indie option.
For me, knowing that nothing but hard work and creative inspiration stands between me and any book I might want to publish has been immensely freeing for me, creatively. It has changed what I write, and how I write, and how I think about what I might write in future.
I write more, in more formats and genres, and engage more closely with my readers. To date, I’ve published four novels, five pamphlets, and one collection of poetry, plus two series of nonfiction guides, one for authors (of which this book is one volume), and another for creatives and creativists (eight books set to launch autumn 2017/spring 2018). That’s not counting two blogs, the Selfpublishing Advice blog and my own author blog, which highlights my novels and poems and offers advice to other creatives and creativists. And then there’s the short nonfiction publications: how-tos, white papers, and downloadable PDFs.
I love everything about self-publishing—especially the connection with readers—and agree with those who say it is the most significant thing to have happened to our world since Gutenberg. And that now is the very best time in human history to be an author.
Throughout this book, I will share my reasons for these beliefs, as well as the steps I’ve taken to success in self-publishing. Those steps have sometimes faltered, sometimes gone striding ahead: I’ll share how it felt and what my motivations were, both ways. I’ll cover the challenges of each stage on the pathway to publication—writing, editing, design, production, distribution, marketing, and promotion—explaining why I made the decisions I did and why I’ve settled on the methods I now employ.
I’ll also reveal my bottom line—how many copies shifted, how I feel about the finances—and my future plans. My motive is not to bang on about myself, and certainly not to say “Do it my way”, but to take you deeply into my writing and publishing motivations, so you can contrast and compare. I believe nothing is more helpful in the learning-by-doing environment of self-publishing than really understanding another writer’s intentions, motivations, and results.
And that understanding what has worked for others who are further ahead, or have approached things in a different way, is the best way to unearth our own motivations and tactics. Each chapter ends with questions for you to answer for yourself.
And throughout, questionnaires and checklists aid the process of adapting the ideas and information offered to make the choices that are right for you.
The Alliance of Independent Authors
The book also draws on my experiences as Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and the expertise of its members. When I started self-publishing seriously, I looked around for a professional self-publishing association to join. When I couldn’t find one doing the job the way I thought it should be done, I got that tingling sensation I always get when I have a good creative idea.
Should I—could I—start an association myself?
It seemed an audacious thing to even think, but I had the qualifications, having by now successfully self-published, and having run a literary agency and writing school in the past. It would have been impossible before, but again digital technology seemed to make such a thing manageable. A stretch, for sure, but possible.
I had a long night of soul-searching. Did I really want to take on this mammoth task? Wasn’t writing more books and publishing them well going to be enough of a job for me? The more I thought, the more I realized I did want to do it. Self-publishing had changed everything for me as a writer, and so quickly. I wanted to spread the good news.
And if I ever had grandchildren, and if they were ever to ask me where I was during this revolutionary time in my industry, I wanted to be able to say: right at the heart of it, beating the drum for writers.
I sent off some emails to people I admired in the self-publishing world. Mark Coker, the Smashwords founder. Jane Friedman, media professor specializing in book publishing. Joanna Penn, an enterprising young indie, making waves with her excellent publishing advice. Joel Friedlander, a book designer who was very alert to the opportunities for authors. If I did start such an association, would they come on board as advisors?
All were enthusiastic, generous with their time, and very encouraging.
Though I was trepidatious, I’m a creative and a creativist. I know that kind of fear. It’s creative anxiety and you don’t give into it. You forge ahead. So I did and, at the London Book Fair 2012, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) was born.
ALLi members want to make a living from their writing and publishing and they work together to help each other achieve creative and commercial goals. We have many members who have sold books in their millions and many who are producing work of outstanding literary merit. Wherever they are on their publishing pathway they are—or are learning to be—hardworking, enterprising, intelligent, creative, and collaborative.
Their generous collaboration with each other is the foundation of ALLi’s success. As Director, I’m lucky enough to witness it in action every day and to be able to share its fruits with you in this book.
Self-publishing is not for every author, no. There are those who would find their writing process derailed by having to consider business matters; but for the majority, this is only an excuse. Really, they’re afraid. Of the exposure or of the hard work. Or both.
Which is why I come back round to saying every writer should self-publish at least once. It’s the only way to know whether it works for you… and how.
Every writer is different and that’s what’s so wonderful about the indie way. We can carve out our own completely individual way to do this. We don’t have to do what other people are doing. We don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done by trade-publishing. Once we have the creative confidence, we can strike off in any direction that makes sense to us.
The Indie Author Mindset
And with creative confidence in place, the offer of a trade-publishing deal or an assisted publishing deal becomes a different prospect. Our attitude changes from “Please publish me, please, please, please” to “What are you, the publishing service, bringing to the table? What do I have to give up? What do I gain?”
Developing such a mindset is becoming essential in the contemporary publishing landscape. The last chapter of this book looks at further technological changes that are marching down the track towards authors and publishers, changes that have the potential to be even more democratizing than the first digital publishing revolution.
And this time round, authors—a smart bunch of people—have a chance to understand what’s happening in advance.
But whatever opportunities emerge in future, it’s clear that the authors who will benefit from those opportunities are those who have developed an independent, creative, and empowered mindset. That mindset is best developed not by thinking, but by doing.
By collaborating with other creative professionals to self-publish your book, your way.