From Traditional to Self Published

I still have my first short story, written in large letters when I was seven years old. From that moment on, I was always writing, first by hand and later on a manual typewriter. The keys would jam as the machine struggled to keep up with my imagination.

When I was seventeen years old, my short story, ‘Dragons Can Only Rust,’ was one of the winners chosen in a competition run by a science fiction radio programme (‘Hour 25’). I was invited to the studio to hear it read out loud, and one of the judges, an agent, invited me to contact him when I’d expanded this first chapter into a novel.

University and marriage held matters up a bit, but in 1995 the novel was split into two (‘Dragons Can Only Rust’ and ‘Dragon Reforged’) and published by TSR (of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ fame). The initial payment wasn’t huge, but when the paperback copies were delivered to my house, I had high hopes that this would be the start of my professional writing career.

The innocence of youth…

There were all sorts of things I didn’t know about the publishing world. That bookstores stock books on ‘sale or return.’ That publishers can go bankrupt (as TSR did a few months later) and bookstores will ship back the books so they can’t be treated as a debtor. That agents can decide you aren’t worth keeping on as a client if your books only sold 10,000 copies, and they decline to look at any else you’ve written.

I wrote a few more novels during that heady year, and then became so discouraged that I actually stopped. I had a career and a faltering marriage to worry about. My agent did ensure that the rights to my books reverted to me, and I kept that piece of paper safely tucked away in my files.

Fast forward nearly twenty years. Career change and divorce transformed my life. And I found that characters were bouncing around in my head, refusing to leave until I wrote their stories. Initially I thought I’d try to find a new agent, since previous one still didn’t want to renew our relationship. But so many agents warn you ‘If you have not heard from us within a month, assume we’re not interested.’ It’s very discouraging to spend so much time on a query letter and a synopsis, only to hear nothing at all.

Then I discovered the world of self-publishing. No longer do you need to pay a vanity press to print hundreds of copies, which then slowly decay in your garage. Many books are now read on ebook devices. If you do want to also offer a paperback copy, Amazon offer Print on Demand, which does what it says on the tin.

I used Amazon Createspace and Kindle on Demand to reissue my earlier books, and some others I’d written along the way. More recently, I’ve been adding to my urban fantasy series ‘Penny White.’

So, having been both professionally and self published, what are my thoughts?

Being professionally published does lessen the strain on you, the writer. The publisher provides the editor who looks at your overall book and offers suggestions. I still have my notes from ‘Dragons Can Only Rust’, and I made additions as suggested by the editor which improved the book. There was also a copyeditor who spotted those nasty little typos which crawl into any work.

The publisher commissions and pays for the cover art. I found this to be a mixed blessing. I liked the first cover, for ‘Dragons Can Only Rust’, but the second cover, for ‘Dragon Reforged’, shows a scene which simply does not exist in the book.

I was perhaps fortunate that the editor didn’t insist on any major changes to my book. Sometimes writers are put under pressure to make alterations which they don’t agree with.

Self publishing gives both responsibility and freedom. I am responsible for the work which a professional publisher would do on my behalf. There are people who will edit for a fee, but I’m fortunate in that I have several fellow writers who look through my book before I publish (I do the same for them).  Some typos and continuity errors still creep through, which are usually spotted and commented upon by reviewers (opps!).

I also have to spend my own money on cover art. After much research, I found an artist whom I could afford and I like the work she’s doing on my ‘Penny White’ series. It is important to have a good cover, as an amateur one is often a warning sign about the quality of the contents inside.

‘But what about the marketing?’ I can hear someone ask. Yes, it’s down to you to somehow make your book stand out in the sea of published work. But it’s not much different for those who are professionally published. Publishers expect writers to do much of their own marketing these days.

Note that I’ve not said anything about money. If you are professionally published, you do get an advance against royalties. If you’re self published, no such advance, but the royalties are much higher as these go directly to you. Either way, don’t expect to get rich quick. Very few writers do. Remember that my two professionally published books ‘only’ sold 10,000 copies, which wasn’t enough for my agent to keep me on.

One final positive regarding self publishing—the people you meet along the way! I’ve become friends with a number of other indie writers, and I enjoy the interactions we have by email and social media. And that’s the best part of being an indie writer. You get to meet some terrific people along the way.