The new world of self-publishing

Book publishing (as the recent Penguin Random House merger indicates) may be in crisis, but more and more authors are taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by new technologies to go it alone.

This month my blog guest Ruth Pickvance shares her experience of self-publishing her novel Tranquilino, and asks whether we are on the cusp of a new writing renaissance.

Ruth Pickvance:

Writing a novel is always hard. Writing your first novel is very hard.

Believing in the work is hard, turning up for the work is hard and keeping going is hard.

Getting it published is even harder.

I had finished the third re-draft of my first novel.

I had used input from friends and writers, some useful harsh constructive criticism and given the manuscript two severe proof readings. I found that I was left with a manuscript that I didn’t know what to do with next: 90,000 words that had taken me three years to complete.

I had the sense of all dressed up and nowhere to go.

I asked a couple of questions to published writers about what to do next.

I did not feel confident. I don’t think you ever can do so at this stage.

It’s difficult not to feel as if you are imposing by asking other published writers for advice  – a ‘newbie on the block’ asking for help, knowing that they too have their own work, time constraints, barrage of emails to deal with usually amidst the day job too.

Part of me wanted to slink away and part of me wanted advice.

Two published writers were very supportive and one was not. The two kindly told me that I was in for a hard road.

It was good advice – I was.

It seemed that buying the Writer and Artist’s Yearbook was the route to take.

I was either looking for an agent or a publisher.

What quickly became apparent was that wading through this tome of a book was extremely time consuming and submitting anything to agents and publishers was extraordinarily time consuming.

Everyone seemed to have different submission requirements – different spacing of lines, different number of pages to be submitted, different length of synopses.

I recall one publisher requiring: a one page synopsis, a three page synopsis, a five line synopsis, the first 50 pages double spaced and not back to back, a full author biography, a shortened biography and the ending of the book.

I was breathless just reading the submission requirements.

I posted the package recorded delivery.

I then received a rejection letter from them, which wasn’t even photocopied straight on the page or signed by hand.

Each time it was like a full-scale job application.

I submitted to about 8 publishers I suppose. Some I did not hear from, some sent sloppy rejections, some sent nice rejection letters and some sent rejections 12 months down the line.

What also became apparent was that I could not approach most publishers as ‘Ms Joe Public’, particularly the ‘big’ ones, without an agent: they would only accept submissions from agents.

Like most people I work full time and researching and submitting to the publishing houses that I could find taking open submissions was more time than I had … and so I decided that I was probably better off trying to get an agent. Agents don’t cost anything – but getting one is very hard – possibly harder than finding a publisher.

I sent the first 50 pages of the manuscript to four agents whom I chose carefully and researched according to the type of fiction that they represent. Two replied asking for the full manuscript.

About two months later I received a phone call from Judith Murray at Greene and Heaton saying she loved the book and wanted to represent me. Greene and Heaton are top literary agents and represent some big names. I was over the moon and falling off my chair and dancing round the room at the same time … although I knew that it didn’t automatically mean publication.

It did however mean that someone ‘out there’ with potential clout had believed in my book – and this is important for a first novel. This point was instrumental in consolidating a belief for me in the book too – if someone of this stature had believed in the book then it was worth something in the eyes of the outside world. I personally needed this ‘endorsement’, particularly as a first time writer. The belief and confidence in the work takes a long time to come – it did for me – and even then you still live on that knife edge of ‘head above the parapet’ and dodging the potential bullets, some of which are your own which ricochet back at you. It’s a balance – we all need a healthy sense of being self-critical and when to use the delete key – but we also need to get to a point where we know, feel and believe in the work. It’s not easy to learn. It’s never easy to ‘finish’ if you ever indeed do such a thing.

Most people that you ask to read a manuscript proof (and it’s a big ask) will be kind and simply say ‘it’s really good’; most people don’t pick holes and aren’t constructively critical. Many people don’t know how to be. Kindness wasn’t what I needed. I needed someone to say ‘You think you’ve finished – well you haven’t. Go back to the book now. You haven’t finished’ which luckily for me was what one writer friend said.

I have a naturally exacting attitude. I’d been an international runner and knew that it took work and discipline to get somewhere. I needed hard truths, productive and constructive criticism which I could weigh. I got it from a couple of people.

And finally I got the ‘endorsement’ I needed from Judith at Greene and Heaton.

I mention these aspects because I doubt that without these I wouldn’t have gone on to get the book to publication or to even consider self-publication.

Judith sent Tranquilino out to her ‘top 10 publishers’. I realized of course that even the agent has to make money and so dealing with the smaller presses didn’t interest her.

Two big publishing houses came within a hair’s breadth of taking it. One sat on it for two weeks deciding.

As the publishing responses trickled in, what totally surprised me was that economics seemed to be the order of the day and the question on everyone’s lips wasn’t about the quality, it was whether everyone was going to make enough money from sales.

They said ‘Lovely book – tender – fascinating – quality writing – nothing wrong with this novel – but we feel the marketing department might have trouble getting a handle on it.’

One said ‘we published one rather similar this year and don’t perhaps feel that the market can handle two on similar topics’.

So – Welcome to the INDUSTRY that is publishing.

Welcome to the world of ECONOMICS.

I’d passed the ‘quality’ test – but that didn’t mean that a book would automatically be published.

I suddenly realized that bookshops (the non-independent ones that are left in existence) were not actually full of eclectic, quality, interesting, niche fiction – but were full of what publishers wanted you to buy and the books that they thought would sell… and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks. I learned that publishers pay to go in the three for two offers and on tables at the entrance to bookshops. I learned that publishers pay to submit works for the Booker Prize.

I learned that money makes this world go round.

The whole process seemed such a long way from creativity and writing.

It was months and months since I had written anything and it started to feel as if the whole act of getting a book to publication was depressingly overly bureaucratic, tarred by marketing targeted at the consumer and incredibly subjective by those with the reigns of economic power.

This sounds as if one thing happened after another.

It didn’t.

There were months even years between events.

In 2011 I started a major house-building project in Abergavenny.

It consumed me: I knocked out chimneys from the rooms, took down ceilings, became lost in lighting web sites, sizing, door handles, measurements, calculations, skip filling, planning processes, trip and trips to the tip … a bad back …

The book went onto the ‘back burner’ if there is such a thing.

Judith told me that she’d come to the end of her submissions – it had been a near miss but that was the name of the game.

She advised me to try some of the smaller presses on my own.


Time passed.

The manuscript stayed on the desktop of my computer: TranquilinoFinal Draft.

I had never even considered self-publishing.

And then, something happened: the old man who had been the framework from which I built the novel died. He had no immediate family and I decided that the publication of the book would be a fitting tribute to him.

I felt an imperative to get the book out.

I realized that this wouldn’t happen unless I made it happen and that I could do it without some publisher deciding whether I measured up to their ‘economic criteria’.

I can’t honestly say that I did masses of research beforehand on self-publishing. There are plenty of blogs, forums and Q&A sites about the process. There is a mass of material written about self-publishing. I haven’t read most of it.

I am, by nature, a great ‘learning by doing’ advocate.

I chose CreateSpace which is Amazon’s publishing arm – mainly because I believe that Amazon is the biggest portal for book sales and the place that most people are familiar with.

If I wanted to launch a book then I felt that it would be good to have Amazon on my side.

CreateSpace are based in the USA and the process on the net was very straightforward and clear. It had evidently been well thought through and trialed. I don’t consider myself to be especially  ‘computer techie’ at all and I found it straightforward.

There is good support both from your own personally assigned Publishing Consultant and

telephone support is available. However, U.S. EST time differences made it hard for me to schedule calls – especially within their working hours – and I used the email contact more. There is also a support team for various areas of the book – and these people always responded via email within 24 hours. Most of this support was good – occasionally I had to ask the same question twice as I didn’t get the response I needed but I always got there in the end. In fact, they seem to be very concerned about their customer service and whether queries were being answered. This is probably the American approach to business and service – but nevertheless my experience was positive.

You can opt to ‘buy’ help with various stages of production – or you can do this yourself. Because my book contained two fonts I had to pay for the ‘Interior set-up’ service because the ‘DIY option’ on offer didn’t support two fonts.

Although the ‘package’ that I bought actually offered the cover design as well I chose to work with my own graphic designer whom I paid. I had very strong ideas about how I wanted the cover to look and I wanted to work and talk with someone face to face on this aspect of the book. It was an interesting and creative process and I enjoyed working with the graphic designer.

I found that the submission guidelines from CreateSpace for the cover were clear, as did the graphic designer.

In fact, nowhere along the line did CreateSpace keep any information to themselves or make it difficult for the author to pursue their own approach if they preferred.

You were never allowed to progress to the next stage of your book’s production until ‘action required’ had been fully addressed.

CreateSpace will even assign your book an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for free.

I also paid for the Kindle conversion ($69) – again – you can do this ‘conversion process’ of the manuscript yourself but working through the whole MSS and inserting paragraphs and page breaks is very time consuming and I thought good value at the price.

The total amount of money that I ended up paying/outlaying was £500; £225 of this was to my own graphic designer. I could have produced the book more cheaply but I think the decisions I took were good. I wouldn’t do anything differently with CreateSpace if I did it again.

I am very pleased with the printed, published product – the paper is of good quality and the text is well presented.

You will be sent a hard-copy proof version and are allowed a number of changes and alterations before the book goes to publication. This is very good – you get the chance to handle, see and read through your real book before full publication and before approving it.

You get the chance to pitch the price wherever you want.

The royalties on Kindle sales are much higher (70%) and so this allows you to sell your book as a Kindle version for less.

I don’t make much on each sale – about £1.50 per hard-copy on Amazon and about £2.50 per hard-copy when I sell myself.

Incredibly, the books are print on demand and are in Amazon Prime and can be delivered the next day. I find this very impressive.

Author copies (which are cheaper for the author to purchase) have to be shipped from the States and so if you are not in the US you will end up paying shipping costs. I still don’t understand why the print on demand Amazon copies are distributed from Europe and the bulk author copies from the US – it must be to do with printing costs. I did query this and Amazon responded that it is something that they are working on. I wouldn’t be surprised if they open a UK/European arm of CreateSpace in the next few years. However, I’d make significantly more money on my own sales if I didn’t have to pay these shipping costs.

Obviously, this is just a brief overview and I could write about the process in more detail but if I managed it ‘feet first’ then I think anyone can.

The advice I would give to anyone considering self-publishing is:

  • Don’t begin the process until your book is COMPLETELY finished.
  • Prepare everything ahead – Biography, acknowledgements, cover blurb and so on – these things take a lot of time and are important to get right – writing these under pressure isn’t good for your health or the book.
  • Do not accept the first proof copy. It’s very very tempting to press submit – I almost did. Make yourself read through the book a final time and record the errors – it’s very frustrating but worthwhile. I had 60 changes to the proof copy – some of these were tiny changes – a semi-colon to a comma to change the pace of a sentence – and I probably still haven’t found all errors despite the fact that the manuscript has been proofed twice. After doing it, I rather wondered whether a professional copy editor would have been able to do it with the same sensibility anyway – one of the changes was a date change in the text and so on. Aim to be professional if you are serious about your book.  Do take the cover seriously.
  • Kindle and CreateSpace are separate companies under the same umbrella – be prepared for the left arm not talking to the right arm. Kindle were harder to deal with. For example – it took them weeks to display the Kindle copy alongside the hard copy on my Amazon page for the novel despite the fact that the Kindle version was up for sale on (the US site).
  • If it is your first novel try to get as much external endorsement and feedback as you can. Don’t rush.

I liked the way that I retained complete control of the book and I like the way that I was involved in the publishing process. Of course, I now have to push the book and ‘get it out there’ but friends who have been conventionally published have had to do the same. Less than 1% of all books which are conventionally published get any press coverage and bookshops are closing. It’s a battle for everyone and actually getting published doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll sell lots of books – particularly if it’s with a smaller press. We are living in changing times: people’s reading habits are changing and the way that they buy books is changing. I believe that we are living in new and exciting times where the writer can take back control and give the reader once again that eclectic, exciting, adventurous mix of books that once upon a time any good bookshop would have stocked.

Tranquilino is set in the northern Italian Apennines.

The novel focuses on a central character of Tranquilino who is a peasant farmer, and the way that the land and landscape have shaped, patterned and contained his life.

The book weaves between the past and the present detailing his love for Lucia and the friendship he finds as an old man with an English woman who is making her life on the mountain that he knows intimately.

She has new eyes and he has old vision. The land unites them.

His competitive obsession with the lore of mushroom hunting is a compulsion in his blood, which runs throughout the whole narrative. He discovers here the knife-edge between gold and poison and the fine line between secrets and friendship.

“The Italian Apennines is a character in its own right in this charming, poignant story of an Italian peasant’s life and love for his land. The book is beautifully written with a poetic strength and a wisdom and warmth that befits its hero, Tranquilino. It made me laugh and made me cry, and at the end I didn’t want to leave Tranquilino and his world.” Judith Murray, Literary Agent, Greene and Heaton.

To buy a copy of Tranquilino, click here

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