Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of self-publishing a debut novel, is brought to you by Annie Ireson.
Self-Publishing – The Cuckoo in the Publisher’s Nest
First of all I should like to thank Morgen for inviting me to be a guest on her blog today to talk about my experiences of self-publishing my novel The White Cuckoo.
I had never intended to self-publish and it happened by accident. My grand plan, formulated in 2008, was to seek a traditional publishing deal for my novels until such time as I retired from the day job. I can retire in 2016, so I had plenty of time. I knew publication wouldn’t be easy and would take a long time if I was lucky and had enough talent, or wouldn’t happen at all if not.
At the beginning of 2012, I had written a short story for a charity anthology. The publishers of the anthology contacted me to ask if I had any full-length novels. With my first three novels (a trilogy) clamped protectively to my chest, I tentatively sent off the first three chapters of my fourth novel. A short time later, it was accepted and I was offered a contract for publication.
I was cautious about the publishers. They admitted I would be their debut novelist, but assured me they would shortly be signing contracts with other authors, too. It was their plan, they said, to publish six books in the first year of operation. I asked for a copy of their business plan, to which their reply was that it was being prepared and they would send me a copy when it was complete. I never did see a business plan.
Authors – beware!
At this point I should have considered my position with more care. I didn’t exactly sign on the dotted line straight away and go out and drink champagne, but I was euphoric, and although I am quite a careful person by nature, I did let the words ‘publishing deal’ go to my head. I didn’t think things through.
If you are offered a deal by a small, independent publisher, take some time to consider all the ramifications before you sign the contract. At the very least you should:-
- Seek professional advice to check your contract. Alternatively, join The Society of Authors, which allows membership to authors who have been offered a publishing contract. One of the Society’s legal team will check over the legalities for you and make sure you are not signing away rights you should reserve. Membership costs £90 for a year, but the advice I received on the contract was well worth it. Without it I would have signed away all my foreign rights.
- Actually meet the publisher – don’t rely on a website, phone calls and e-mails.
- Check out the publisher’s credentials. Do they have a background in the industry or an associated profession? Have they successfully published other work? Can anyone else give a testimony?
- Ask to see a marketing plan. My contract stated that a marketing plan for my novel would be agreed prior to publication, but it was never forthcoming, despite me asking many times to see it.
I signed the contract on 31st March with a planned publication date for the e-book of 31st October. The contract did not require any expenditure up-front – had it done so, I wouldn’t have signed.
In the past year I have learned there are increasing numbers of companies seeking new writers, having identified a market in authors nervous about self-publishing. If someone had told me I would end up self-publishing, I wouldn’t have believed them, because I was so sniffy about it – not to mention convinced I wouldn’t know where to start!
The summer passed by in blur, and as the weather got worse by the day I worked hard on edits, some of which I wasn’t entirely happy about, not to mention the mind-numbing tedium (at the publisher’s request) of changing all my single speech marks to double (see postscript).
Saturday, 22nd September was a strange day. With just five weeks to go before publication day, I was sitting in a barber’s shop, having taken my grandson for a haircut. My mobile phone beeped with an email. The publishing company had ceased to trade.
I wanted to cry, but whether it was with acute disappointment or with relief, I still don’t know. I took my grandson back home and broke down in tears in my daughter’s living room. That afternoon, my family came to my rescue. ‘The White Cuckoo’ was going to be published, come hell or high water, they said, and I was just going to have to swallow my pride about self-publishing and do the very thing I said I would never do.
The following week all rights were returned to me and, with my agreement, the contract was rescinded. I was grateful for the time and effort invested by the publishers, but didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t want to let people down who were looking forward to reading my novel, but on the other hand I didn’t want to discredit myself as an author in any way by self-publishing.
I had some important decisions to make:
- Did I self-publish or abandon publication altogether?
- If I went ahead, there was the book cover design to produce. How? Who? Cost?
- Which e-book platform would I use? Kindle Direct Publishing or other formats, too?
- A Marketing Plan – I had pestered the publishers for one, now I needed to draw up my own.
- Paperback copies – would I be able to recoup costs? How many was I likely to sell? Should I see how the e-book sold first before making a decision? But then again, would this reduce potential sales on publication of a more lucrative paperback edition?
- Final editing – who?
- Could I meet the original deadline of 31st October for the e-book?
- How soon could I produce paperbacks, if I went for this option?
- Where should I hold a book launch, if I produced paperbacks?
The first thing that surprised me was that it costs NOTHING to self-publish a book on Amazon. You can even design your own book cover using free software available on the internet.
The second thing to amaze me was the disparity between POD (print-on-demand) unit costs. Lulu and Smashwords are undoubtedly the easiest route for an author to produce paperback copies, but would people really be bothered to order a print book at a high cost, pay postage and – if they wanted it to be signed – seek me out to sign it?
I realised I must set a budget somewhere between zero and a figure I could afford to lose if my venture into self-publication failed. I knew I wouldn’t be happy with anything that was in any way sub-standard, and vowed that I wouldn’t cut corners or compromise on quality.
It was then I experienced a curious stroke of luck.
My daughter and son-in-law quite by chance bumped into a couple of graphic designers they knew from school who were planning to expand into new markets. They were looking for their first book cover commission, which they would do extremely cheaply provided they could use the book for their own promotional material. Within just two days I managed to secure myself an agreement for them to produce a bespoke book cover for ‘The White Cuckoo’ at a cost of £verylittle. The talented guys at Fat Zombie (www.fatzombie.co.uk) did me proud. Lots of people have commented on the book cover, which in one glance, complements the genre of the book perfectly.
Fat Zombie is now offering a full book cover design service, including photography, graphics and original artwork if required.
Print On Demand Worldwide, based in Peterborough, has an online calculator for printing costs. It isn’t the cheapest company available, but it has free, downloadable guides, written in plain English, which answer a multitude of questions about things such as fonts, font sizes and different levels of support available to authors. You can opt for a very basic print-only service, or you can buy various packages to support publication, such as an e-book package, proof-reading and editing packages, book cover design or a very basic package which will sort out the legalities for £75.
I looked at other websites offering print-on-demand, but kept coming back to www.printondemand-worldwide.com. Eventually I plucked up the courage to ring them and was put through to Pauline, a friendly lady who explained all the various options to me, but with no ‘hard-sell’ for the most expensive ones. Instinctively, I knew this company was professional and placed great pride in its reputation. It was the type of company I wanted to work with – genuinely wanting to work with an author to produce a quality product. It is not a ‘vanity’ publisher and does not seek submissions. It also respectfully points out to authors that there is no guarantee of recouping the costs of its services through eventual sales.
You can order as few or as many paperback copies from Print on Demand Worldwide as you think you can sell. Of course, the unit cost goes down as the number of copies ordered increases. Pauline assured me there was enough time available to meet a planned paperback launch day of 23rd November and gave me her direct dial number if I had any queries. I don’t know how many times I rang the poor woman with questions, but by the time I eventually placed my order we knew all about each other’s families, where we had been on holiday and the books we had recently read and enjoyed.
I set myself a total budget of £1,000. It was an amount I could afford to lose, but enough to ensure I wouldn’t be complacent about marketing and publicity. I vowed I wouldn’t go over this figure and it must cover everything – the book launch at a local venue; the printing costs; the book cover costs and even the cost of buying a nice pink, Parker pen with which to sign the paperbacks. I set up an income and expenditure spreadsheet with the £90 I had spent on the Society of Authors membership as the first entry and wrote a modest short-term marketing plan, based on a local publicity campaign.
I decided that I would purchase the Basic publishing package for £75, which included an ISBN number and deposit of the required number of copies with the British Library, amongst other services (click here for details http://www.fast-print.net). You don’t need to do this – you can opt to organise the ISBN number and legal deposits yourself if you so wish. You can also design your own package so you don’t pay for services you don’t need.
I ordered 200 copies at a cost of £716 – the most I could afford to stay within my budget. The company had generated a suggested cover price of £9.99 for my book. This price allows a profit margin for bookshops. I worked out that to recoup the costs of printing, I would need to sell 89 copies at £7.99. I could have sold at £9.99 but I wanted to offer my readers a discount.
After a frantic final editing session, I sent off my PDF file and Fat Zombie took care of the book cover. I then turned my attention to the e-book, which I thought would be much easier to produce.
Kindle Direct Publishing
The amount of information about Kindle Direct Publishing you are expected to absorb is mind-boggling. No wonder people think it is difficult. Initially I downloaded everything I could get my hands on, but the free guide to KDP from Amazon is the most useful. It gives step-by-step instructions on how to upload your work.
I admit I did need some help in the form of advice on HTML from the guys in the IT department at the day job. I tore my hair out by the roots at the gremlins that appeared in the uploaded file. These gremlins were not apparent in the original manuscript. A three-quarters symbol kept appearing everywhere, as well as wingdings, extra spaces, and a very annoying problem with paragraph spacing.
Uploading the Kindle Previewer to your PC is an absolute must. It took me 29 uploads before I was happy with the final look of my book with paragraph spacing being the main problem, and even then there is a section on the legal page at the front that came out in a huge font, when on the Previewer it looked fine.
Also, another thing to watch for is that it might look okay in Kindle Fire, but for the I-phone version it will put in huge great spaces. You need to check all the various Kindle formats before pressing the final button to upload.
A good tip is to upload your documents to KDP well before your publication day. This gives time for your friends and family to download copies in various formats to check for readability and any gremlins, which you can then fix before the big day.
Overall Experience of Self-Publishing
I have a mental block when it comes to checking my sales on Amazon – a bit like not wanting to check your bank statement when you know you are overdrawn! However, at the last peep I had sold just over 130 ebooks on Amazon.co.uk at a price of £3.08 and a few more on Amazon.com. You can opt for 70% royalties or 35%, which at first glance seems an easy decision to make, but look at the terms and conditions first – you need to make a considered choice depending on how you want to market your e-book and whether you want to have the option of free promotions.
I lost sleep worrying about not breaking even and had nightmares about the eight big boxes of books in my hallway. In the event I sold approximately 170 copies at the launch. I was pleased with how well the launch went and can recommend organising one if you decide to order print copies of your book. I then approached a local garden centre http://www.seasonsgardencentre.co.uk/garden-centre which has a tiny, quirky book department and they agreed to stock my novel. They are selling like the proverbial hot cakes at the cover price of £9.99. Staff keep ringing me for more (signed) copies, so I have had to place another order with Print On Demand Worldwide.
I have contacted the local branch of Waterstones about stocking ‘The White Cuckoo’ and they have agreed in principle, pending me taking in a copy for them to see. I can’t do this at the time of writing because I have completely sold out and am awaiting another print order to be delivered. I am in no hurry though, sales are trickling through nicely and I need to now think about my medium-term strategy for promotion and marketing, which will include a free promotion on Amazon very shortly, so keep a watch on my Facebook Page (www.facebook.com/Annieeye) for details.
Reflecting back over the past year, I can see that self-publishing is not the dirty word I once thought it was. I have recouped my initial outlay and made some money, which I wasn’t expecting to do and this has been a nice surprise. Had my novel been published traditionally, I would have had to pay 60% of my modest little profit over to the publishers. By self-publishing I get to keep it all for myself, and that can’t be bad!
If you are an author thinking of self-publishing your work, and would like to have a chat about the process, then please do send me an e-mail. We can then either meet up or speak on the phone. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Postscript: When the publisher asked me to change single quotes to double, I was a little bit annoyed and couldn’t see why it mattered. Single quotes are the industry standard for British publishers, but the international market prefers double quotes. Some people also say they look better on an e-reader and are easier on the eye in electronic formats.
Thank you, Annie. Re. quotes; I always use double (speech marks) for speech and single for titles or references – as long as you use one for one and the other for the other, it doesn’t really matter, although I do think speech marks are called that for a reason.
Annie and I met online because of the charity anthology (mine’s a second person version of one of my Serial Dater’s chapters). We subsequently met at her book launch (which was amazingly successful). We also take part regularly in Jane Wenham-Jones’ chat-room. I’m also an Associate Member of The Society of Authors who gave me some great advice when offered contracts by two publishers (both of whom I declined but am still on good terms with).
Annie Ireson lives in Kettering, Northamptonshire and works full-time at the local council offices. For many years she harboured what her husband and three children always referred to as a dirty little secret. In her spare time she was as likely to be found tapping away on a keyboard as she was with her head buried deep within the pages of a book, but even some members of her family never knew she was a secret writer.
In 2008, after writing a 200k word family saga, she poked her head out of the writing closet. With what can only be described as pure terror, she submitted her manuscript to agents. After being advised to split the saga into a trilogy, Annie almost secured a publishing deal in 2009. A literary agent advised her to “go and write another book”. Annie is still seeking a traditional route to publication for the trilogy.
Since writing ‘The White Cuckoo’, her fourth novel, Annie has completed the first draft of a fifth and started writing her sixth – a political drama entitled ‘The Fourteenth Traitor’.
Annie has also written a number of short stories, one of which won a gold award in a national competition in 2008, and another that was included in a charity anthology in 2012. She has also had a short story accepted for publication by a women’s magazine.
Short synopsis for The White Cuckoo
When twenty-seven year old Tamasyn Hargreaves travels to the heart of Northamptonshire to fulfill a deathbed promise to her mother, she soon begins to sense that something surreal and supernatural has drawn her there.
Who are the strange children she keeps bumping into? What secrets are concealed within the contents of a box of memorabilia she is given? Why does she look uncannily like a photograph of Jessie Smith, who gave birth prematurely in 1910 after being raped by a nobleman?
As Tammy reveals shocking secrets about her own family, she soon realises she must resolve the mysteries of the past before she can keep her promise to her mother.
The White Cuckoo is a story of two women whose lives connect through time. Is destiny just the past, rewritten?
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.
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