Saturday, 26 March 2016

Week Thirty-Three: On Self-Publishing, Bad Advice, and Being A Hybrid Author

I was so incensed by Ros Barber's recent piece in the Guardian, where she called self-publishers 'fools' and told us why she would never self-publish - but actually already does, she just somehow failed to mention that in her article - that I tweeted my disagreement to her. Nothing rude or clever, just this initial tweet, which more or less summed up my feelings at the time:

Unfortunately I can't represent her reply, as I have now blocked her account. Basically, she tried the back-pedalling approach, saying it was just a personal opinion. (Despite the general tone of the article not being that of an opinion piece.)

By this time, writer Jane Davis had joined in the conversation, asking about her strange use of pronouns for an opinion piece. Ros then claimed she had tried to avoid using 'one' and used 'you' instead, because 'one was stupidly posh', to which I replied, 'If the cap fits.' Heh.

To which Ros then replied, with all the cool professionalism and linguistic skill expected of a Creative Writing university lecturer:

It was at this point that I fell silent on Twitter, and began to seek out other opinions, to see how others had reacted to her piece. I found a few supportive murmurs of approval, almost overwhelmingly from literary writers in a similar position to Ros, and a large number of very angry responses from successful and happy self-publishers, who not unnaturally were aggrieved at having been referred to as fools in a major Guardian article, simply for having chosen a different career path.

Here is a good selection (warning: some of these contain strong language):

Dear Ros (an open letter from Jane Davis)

Roz Morris (Why I Self-Publish)

On Dismissive Snobs

Don't Do This Ever

The Elites versus Self-Publishing

An Open Letter To Ros Barber (TeleRead)

Past and Present Progressive

Rachel Van Dyken

The Passive Voice

The Digital Reader

The Poptart Manifesto

Caverns and Creatures (over 18s only)

If interested in the other articles and comments on Facebook and forums, you may wish to do some Googling yourself.

Suffice it to say, I discovered that I was not alone in my powerful reaction, and that some people felt even more strongly than I did about her 'sneering tone' as one writer put it.

But what happened next was even more amazing. For Ros Barber came out swinging, a day or so later, and happily told the world via her own blog that 'fool' had not been her first choice of descriptor for self-publishers. No, for the word she had originally wanted to use was 'twat', as Ros Barber openly admits under the heading: "You" = "One" = "Me". This between describing a champagne lunch in Paris and how she opened a Patreon account so she can be supported as a writer - presumably by people who do other work for a living - without having to descend to the grubby depths of self-publishing.

I have a screenshot of that section of her post, but feel it isn't appropriate to use it here without her permission. So do please read it for yourself.

Now for my own long history as a writer. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have had five books of poetry out, including one with Bloodaxe Books, received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors back in 1996, been Warwick Poetry Laureate, tutored for the Arvon Foundation and the Poetry School, and have been published multiple times as a novelist by so-called 'Big 5' publishers - Hachette and Penguin Random House, to be precise - since 1999, with nine full-length novels out (mostly historicals) over the past five years alone.

Not exactly inexpert, in other words.

I also turned to self-publishing in 2011 to put out books I felt were worth reading but had not found a home. In fact, I have currently over sixty novels, novellas and short stories self-published under various names on Amazon. I am easily bored, a fast and flexible writer, and like to turn my hand to different genres, often between bigger projects. Self-publishing means I can get a few quid back for my literary efforts rather than waste time trying to foist them onto a publishing world that is only interested in the next big thing.

Have they made serious money though?

Well, I have had some pleasing success in the UK with romcoms as Beth Good, getting most of my novellas in that genre into the Kindle charts at one time or another. Those books have kept us afloat as a family when my traditional contracts have dried up.

But my big breakthrough as a self-publisher came last autumn with Girl Number One. This is a debut thriller I had written on the suggestion of a traditional house editor with whom I had previously worked, who subsequently passed on it. My agent sent it out to multiple houses: all declined, for no worrying reasons, just vague refusals. Not right for us or the market, that kind of thing.

My agent eventually suggested I self-publish it.

I rewrote it, using the few suggestions given by some of those editors - thanks, guys! - and put it out with a self-designed cover in September 2015. A very well-known crime writer friend of mine emailed me soon after, generously suggesting I send it to a trad editor she knew who might like to take it on. The money on offer wasn't great, but it was surely better than self-publishing. I thanked her, but stuck to my guns.


Seven months on, it has sold almost 50,000 copies, hit No. 1 in the UK Kindle chart, and been picked up by Amazon Publishing's Thomas & Mercer crime and thriller imprint as part of a two book contract. A new edition will be published later this year. Given that the book is still selling well, currently priced £1.99 with a 70% royalty, I will leave you to do the maths on how much better it was for me to self-publish than go with a traditional publisher. I even published two bottom-drawer books alongside it at the same price, both of which have been well-received by Amazon reviewers and are also selling nicely, if not quite so meteorically.

To get the book selling, yes, I tweeted about it, though not to the exclusion of everything else. I ran a Thunderclap campaign. I chatted about it on Facebook, and I blogged etc.

All of which makes me a 'twat', according to Ros Barber's view of self-publishers. A twat who, if she had been foolish enough to listen to that kind of naysaying attitude, would still have her novel gathering dust in the fabled bottom drawer, marked 'REJECT'.

I very much want to make two things plain: one, that I love being traditionally published and do not prefer self-publishing, and two, that I strongly believe all writers must make their own choices without being swayed by someone else's opinion.

But, and this is a vital caveat, self-publishing is not a poor second choice for a writer. Sometimes it is a choice made boldly and for profit, and executed moreover with great skill and flair. And sometimes it is the only choice possible, and we must make of it what we can. Maybe a writer who can afford to be picky and hang on for that elusive contract, or who enjoys having to live on the streets or not being able to feed and clothe their children, or who believes someone else should do that for them while they labour over their priceless chef d'oeuvre, will prefer not to self-publish. But that will be their choice, and nothing to do with me, or you, or one, or Ros Barber.

Personally I love self-publishing. I love its freedom, its left-wing libertarianism, its inclusiveness, its fairness in levelling all authors to the same starting point of zero. But despite all that, given a straight choice, I would rather be traditionally published, if only because it means I will not have to put up with the knowing sneer on the faces of the literati when I say, yes, I put that book out myself.

The arguments Barber puts forward for traditional publishing in her Guardian article betray a lack of experience. As a successful hybrid author since 2011, I can tell you now that traditional publishers do not, as Ms Barber seems to believe, do all the marketing for you while you put your feet up and polish your sentences until they shine. Though perhaps literary authors are given carte blanche not to join in the promotional circus. I can't say for sure, because the only book I've published traditionally which might have been considered vaguely literary was with Sceptre back before the days of social media - back when you still got launch parties! (Yes, I'm a dinosaur.)

And if you don't believe me, believe this: I once had a Big 5 publicist who was greatly offended when I asked - finding myself alone on publication day, touting my book in a lonely chorus of one - why she did not have a Twitter account. She made it clear that budgets for marketing have vanished for all but the lead titles, and authors themselves are now the ones who are expected to promote their books, day and night, unless your second name happens to be King or Rowling - in which case you don't really need all those vast posters on the Underground, but will get them anyway.

And woe betide those who don't get on their keyboards and start clacking, 'buy my book,' to the universe, because their publishers will be quietly shoving their next manuscript in the bin. It may feel embarrassing to tell people you've just published a new book, especially if you have to keep repeating it for a few weeks, but it's part of the job of being a professional writer.

And this thing about traditional publishers getting your novel onto High Street book shelves? No, it doesn't work like that, or not for the vast majority of midlist titles. Very, very sadly. It may have worked like that once, but not anymore. Some books get ordered in good numbers. Others - most others, it seems to me - don't. Though you may be lucky and find one copy in the bigger stores. I am not privy to the way these things work, but I have failed to get bookstores to stock even my award-winning YA fiction in the past, which you would imagine must tick all those sales-criteria boxes.

In short, I'm sorry to say Ros Barber's article was muddle-headed, contradictory, insulting, and just plain wrong on a number of very important points. Yes, it's amazing to be in with a chance of a major prize listing. But how many books get that every year? Are you really hanging on because you think you're in with a shout of winning the Booker? (If so, go for it, my friend, and good luck to you.) Yes, it's lovely to have an editor and a design team. But self-publishers can buy in those services if they need them. Yes, it's nice to see your book in the shops. But that is no longer a given with traditional houses, if it ever was.

And finally, yes, it's fabulous to be taken care of by a team of publishing experts and to feel part of a large, well-respected company. But sometimes people don't enjoy that corporate experience, perhaps because the price of that security is adhering to rules and methods laid down from on high, and some writers don't function well in that kind of environment. And when your book doesn't sell well, nearly always for reasons beyond your control, and you get dumped, or your hardback is cancelled, or you are left off the guest list for that select Christmas party, it feels awful. Like you are a talentless hobo who will never again get past front-desk security in those shiny, intimidating, central London offices ...

In other words, traditional publishing is fantastic. It can make you a star, if that's what you are after. But it's not for everyone, and it's not the answer to every problem in an author's life. Neither is self-publishing. But going indie does open up new paths if others have been closed to you, or your temperament is not right for traditional publishing houses. Choose what you want, and what is within your grasp, and don't judge others for the route they have chosen.

So, a word to the wise. Before making any decision about whether to hold out for a traditional publishing deal or self-publish, make sure you check the credentials of the person giving you advice. Sadly, it's not always the ones in the know who write the articles that are supposed to steer your nascent writing career in the right direction.

As for my credentials, I write as Victoria Lamb, Elizabeth Moss, Beth Good, and Jane Holland among other names. Plus, in rather more fun news, a new name - and book, and genre - that will be coming soon! (With a traditional publisher, ahem.)

My latest self-published book is here. Feel free to tear it apart - but please, at least buy it first. It's only 99p.

And an author friend of mine, and creative writing tutor, Cathie Hartigan, has her own story to tell about self-publishing her debut novel SECRET OF THE SONG, and why it turned out to be right for her, here.