I’ve worked as a fiction editor, senior editor, project manager (for a non-fiction series), and finally as an editorial director, without much of a break, across the last eleven years in traditional publishing. Coinciding with this entire period, and another ten years before I became an editor, I’ve also been a professional writer. My January 2017 novel – UNDER A WATCHFUL EYE – will be my 17th traditionally published novel since 1998, but this October’s collection of horror stories – SOME WILL NOT SLEEP – will be my first self-published book. So I’ve been busy. Books have become my entire professional life. Books have swallowed me alive and whole. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because books have always been my purpose – reading them, collecting them, writing them, and now, making them. If there has been any clear meaning in my life, it’s been finding the right purpose and then sticking with it. A life needs a purpose. Mine has mostly been books.
I could write a long book about my experiences and adventures and mishaps and disappointments and triumphs in publishing, and another one about what I’ve endured as a writer, but I think that leaking out a few details and anecdotes here and there, as in this case, is all that I’ll ever have the time or inclination for. Everything below is culled from my experience. It may not be representative. That’s my disclaimer. But some of it may be useful and my only warning is: I don’t do wishful thinking.
I’ve learned a few key things during my time in publishing, chief amongst them is that books and publishing – in fact anything to do with books, from learning how to write them, to having them published, to publishing them yourself, to what happens after they appear on the world’s virtual and physical shelves – are heartbreakers. At some time, for everyone who meddles with them, books will break your heart. But although we all get dumped that doesn’t mean we have to remain single and celibate.
Given this potential for angst, I do wonder, in the developed world, if as much time and energy and effort and hope has ever been invested by human beings, into any other single occupation or pursuit, as producing books. Maybe sports? Making films? My jury is out. But books have involved such a monumental and single-minded dedication by so many people, for so long, that expressing ourselves imaginatively with written language, or making attempts to process the world and human experience through written language, must be a basic human need. It must be. The end product, reading these books, is one of the greatest and most enduring human pleasures. It may also be that very pleasure and confirmation, and the transportation into other worlds and times and lives, that we have experienced as readers, that begins our addiction to making these damn books as writers and publishers.
Why are they heartbreaking? Well, there can be a considerable personal cost. I always think that making books quickly creates a bipolar mental life; a split in the creator’s mind between euphoria and despair. Making books can devour a writer/publisher’s mental life, asleep or awake, and consume every hour in a day. It instils a seesaw that rises and falls between lunatic joy and the most profound despair. If it goes really badly, making books may contribute to poverty, bankruptcy, divorce, depression, or worse. Making books can also become a mostly futile exercise, because very few people, relatively, will ever read what we produce. The fates of writers, books, booksellers, and publishers is often tragic. Genuinely tragic, as the experience is universal. But still, we do it … So many of us. And we can’t stop. Because all of the traumas and terrible odds stacked against us, pale beside the sheer joy of creation, and the warmth of hope. Life without creativity, imagination and hope? No thanks. Maybe little else makes us come alive in the way that making books does.
But I’m often surprised by how few writers are familiar with how publishing works internally and what actually happens aboard the mother ships. Perhaps it’s better not to know. But I just had to know how it all worked as a business, right from the start of my career as a writer, which was long before eBooks or self-publishing were a feasible option. Learning about publishing is the very reason why I took my first job in late 2004, and in favour of a better, saner opportunity that arose at the same time. I was a writer, eight series fiction novels into a career, but I wanted to better understand publishing. And I loved books.
“Unmanaged expectations” is a phrase that I have subsequently become familiar with, and it often pops into my mind, when I speak to many writers, and some publishers too. And I often think that publishing can only continue as long as it keeps hitting the ‘reset’ button to wipe its hard drive and erase its memory. The same may be advisable for writers too. The only equivalency, in the collective loss of hopes and dreams, that I can find to match making books, is The Great War (though without the actual loss of life).
How does it continue then? Hope and the indefatigable desire to create? And the misleading examples of a handful of books entering the commercial stratosphere each year, amidst the millions that perish on barbed wire and reach for oblivion in unmarked graves?
Publishing at any level is gambling. Almost every single published book is a punt, a flutter.
I’ll provide one combination of the tragedy and comedy of my experience of publishing, which is an example of what publishers are up against in the market and business model that they exist within. I recall a publishing meeting, when the gathered directors of marketing, publicity, sales, editorial, foreign rights, and production – the jury on what we published – all gathered to discuss blowing a six figure sum on a non-fiction book – our big book of the year. I had little faith in the project and suggested that we would be better off spending the entire sum of money on scratch cards, before each taking boxes of the scratch cards back to our desks to begin removing the silver foil from the cards. There were a few suppressed giggles, but the suggestion didn’t do my standing much good at that company. I think another publisher outbid us anyway, but plenty of similar books, that occupied nearly all of our human and material resources, tanked for the company over a couple of years and near bankrupted the business … This was not the only time that such a thing has happened to a publishing company because, as I’ve said before, publishing is gambling. And it’s a very expensive habit, I mean business, to maintain too.
So I tend to use extremes to top and tail a sliding scale of expectation for writers. And the first extreme is the bestseller. From what I have seen, the books that get a lot of readers are mostly published in such a way as to get a lot of readers. If you are one of the lucky few writers who gets a shot at the front list, you might see your traditional publisher sell-in 30K to 200K copies of your novel into several supermarkets nationwide, and you’ll see them stacked beside the tills in Smiths and priced at a pound, and placed in dump bins in Smiths Travel by the door, at a huge discount, with a cover created by a top design agency (“dump bins” are good things – they’re not throwing away your book). For example of scale, a print run of 1500 copies of a midlist book can’t sell one million copies.
Coinciding with some alchemical zeitgeist of public taste, nostalgia, common curiosity, and literary fashion that no reader wants to be left out of, a writer needs to have written a good story, but it also has to be the right story about the right things at the right time for the general reader who might read between one and four books each year (the right kind of story might have already been established by other bestsellers). Few in publishing will know what the first precursor to these trends is until the first big book is published (imitators will quickly turn this book into a sub-genre, or that second wave of writers may even have been writing in the same vein anyway, and affected by the same zeitgeist, and they’re up to bat too in the tail of the precursor’s comet).
The covers of these books have to be seen in supermarkets and billboards on train station platforms, on the side of buses, in social media ads on the hour. But as a writer, you have no control of this. Which book to sell the farm for is a publisher’s decision; though your agent and editor’s stock needs high value to get the ball rolling in the first place, to position your book so it has this market potential (but how do you know the value of their stock?).
The publishing campaign will probably need an author story that a publicist can sell to lifestyle magazines and newspapers to produce features and interviews. Lots of people will need to review it at the same time too and start the chatter, from bloggers, to broadsheets, super-spreaders on goodreads, to Amazon customers, to radio DJs, to TV spots, to augment a book with an already highly visible presence.
This is how a publisher works a book to recoup the enormous advance that your agent extracted from them for your novel, which is so hot right now, and trending, and probably similar to something else that has sold millions of copies, or even just hundreds of thousands of copies … If half of the copies of this book sell, and half are returned to be pulped, you will still have experienced a bestseller, maybe even a big one. If the book sees 80% returns, you may still have sold thousands.
Books published and supported at this level can launch careers, or curtail careers, quickly. These books often don’t work, or “sell to expectations” as they say in the trade. Sometimes a book published at a much lesser level, say with 10K or even fewer copies available, will near magically outsell every book (through reprints) that had a much bigger initial sell-in to the trade. It’s gambling, but it’s still gambling with a marked pack for front list authors, and a foot on the lever beneath the roulette table too.
But being a front list author isn’t easy either; there will probably be book tours, endless public speaking engagements, huge expectations placed upon the next title by readers and publishers, an enormous reinterpretation and scrutiny of their character and life by the many people that they now matter to. The consequences are significant, not least confronting the ten thousand one star reviews on Goodreads that seems inevitable for anything that is read widely. How many writers could actually cut it at that level? I do wonder.
This kind of trajectory probably only happens to a handful of new writers each year, or even just one.
How many writers have a somewhat different experience to this front list gig in publishing? I’d say, nearly all of them, so their experience is far more relevant to publishing and writing. It’s the only one I’m really interested in. But once the average new writer gets past the euphoria of acceptance of a manuscript for publication, and the arrival of a contract, the kudos, that confirmation of the status as a professional writer, and the realisation of a dream, it’s best to move on to the reality of the midlist and series fiction. The first question I ask is: how many copies of this writer’s book will actually be made available in the book trade, on shelves in actual book shops, amongst the thousands of other colourful spines already in those stores?
The physical book trade is shrinking, year by year, with blips, but the long game trend seems to be downwards. Publishers can get far fewer copies into stores now than they could in less than a decade gone. Supermarkets take a heap of books, but only from a handful of established front list writers, or new front list punts in whatever genres are hot right now. Waterstones is the only big High Street bookseller of range left in the UK and it has around 300 stores. If Waterstones loved your midlist book and takes a copy for every store, that’s a sell-in of around 300. If it takes two copies, that’s 600. To my mind, for a book to have a chance of being commercially successful for a trad’ publisher, and to launch a literary career, then enough copies need to be made available for that book to get the requisite presence to achieve the requisite word-of-mouth, or momentum. The fewer copies available, the longer it takes to get word.
As a rule of thumb, I reckon it probably needs to be no less than near 5K copies on the shelves, nationwide, to even be in with a shout of getting to the next level. How many books published at this series and midlist level even get a sell-in of much over 1K these days in the UK? The consequences for their lifetime sales are inevitable. I’ve heard of sell-in as low as 30 copies, with a depressing average of around 300 often being cited now. So adjust expectations accordingly.
For a long time, the prevailing rate of sales and returns on publisher’s profit and loss costings (the forecast for the book) was a hopeful 70% sell-through at the tills, with 30% of the books returned. I’ve seen books with 1% returns that keep getting reprinted, but I’ve seen books with 90% returns. But 70/30 is a good rule of thumb, in that you’re lucky to get it. But a 70% sell-through of 300 books is tiny? So manage your expectations if your book begins in that midlist/series fiction channel. This kind of maths was never welcome in publishing meetings, and yet it was the monthly story for nearly every book I’ve seen published. A few weeks after publication I found colleagues more comfortable with not mentioning most of the books that we put out.
Whenever I talk about this, people shout “Amazon” before I’ve finished the first sentence – meaning, books don’t need bookshops. So yeah, let’s be grateful for the internet, you can put anything on there, but how visible is it? Amongst the other four million books out there, to fight a guerrilla war against discovery hell, are you prepared to employ a consistent long game in the depth of net space? I hope so. Because I believe many writers can find life on another planet, and even of some size, eventually. Though that journey will mostly be conducted alone, with transmissions from a few satellites within a peer group. I think the average writer today also needs to move on to write the next book(s) too, but I think they also have to keep launching the last one(s) at the same time. In some ways, the all important publication date, and the following few weeks, should not be the basket in which a writer places all of their eggs anymore. There are just too many books, and the differences between being trad’ published at midlist level, or indie published and self-published, have narrowed.
And for most of us, our readers have to start recommending a book to others – and this is the holy grail. My career has been, I believe, highly reliant on this one facet: word. And word consistently over many years (not weeks). Readers are regularly discovering my first horror novel, first published in 2004, and then reading the others in my backlist. Others try the more high profile 2010, 2011 books and continue from there. Amidst the million plus books published each year in competition, I think this is the main reason that I still have a career as a midlist author – reader recommendations. Thus, my readers are very important people to me.
Another heartbreaker is mostly invisible to the writer, but this is why sell-in to the book trade is crucial, because There can be a damaging effect that occurs before a book’s birth within publishing. As publishers, in my experience, are often understaffed and overworked, and additionally beset by a transient workforce, and up against major budgetary expectations, if a book’s sell-in to the book trade is low, there can be an awful migration of energy and interest away from that book and onto other titles in the catalogue that stand a better chance of doing well. Publishers prioritize.
My imagination is gruesome, and I liken this to gore-bemired surgeons in a military field hospital. Do you expend your energy on the patients with irreparable abdominal wounds and catastrophic blood loss, or shuffle over to the patient that only needs stitches? But without the hearts and minds, and hands at the pump, of the actual staff, a book’s already poor chances of success can be made much poorer by publisher inattention before birth. The book has already been, in other words, written off. Only the editor might be left standing beside the hospital bed like a chaplain after the other medical staff perform CPR at another operating table. I’ve been that chaplain. A great relationship with an editor does not mean a great publishing experience with the broader company. The chaplain himself might even have taken a round before your book was even brought into the field hospital on a stretcher, to awaken on the operating table …
There are variations and exceptions ¬– in fact books exist in one great amorphous cloud of variables and possibilities – but how useful are the major exceptions to the rules in the general scheme of things, in relation to how many books are published? Not very useful in my opinion, even though I’ve had the variations myself across various publishers. The initial sell-in of one of my novels some time ago was 7K, but in two formats the book went on to sell nigh on 50K copies across several years, and obviously saw reprints. I had another with an 11K sell-in that sold 40K copies and was still being reprinted across ten years. And yet, another with my biggest initial sell-in of 15K saw the publisher take half of them back, unsold. It remains one of my least successful books (in bookshops, but not necessarily libraries – more on that later). The one with the worst sales record, to my knowledge, never even appeared in a bookshop. Had that been a first novel, what would that writer have done next?
It’s snakes and ladders from one book to another, and dependent upon so many factors both within publishing companies, the wider book trade, and the broader field of reader tastes, economic forces, tech-led disruption, and much more. But all of the trade winds have to blow in the right direction and produce a cumulative effect if the average midlist book is to reach a good rate of knots. Expectations have to be managed book-by-book.
But let’s also hear it for the libraries; when I signed up for PLR I was shocked by how many people are actually borrowing my books each year. They’re being read in significant numbers, even if they are no longer for sale in bookshops, and that is why I wrote them: to be read … It was like my writerly constitution and lifespan doubled in one magical PLR statement. Which is another reason not to get too hung up on launch dates and first statement sales figures – there are other bites of the cherry in a very long game. You actually cannot afford to let your head drop about things you have no control over in publishing. Easier said than done, but broken hearts do heal.
What is key, though, is that my better selling books occurred between 1998 and 2012, when sell-ins to the booktrade and online retailers were much, much bigger for midlist and series fiction writers. Back then, this trad’ business model was not just king, but a monopoly.
The enduring problem for me now, is the business model. Trad’ publishing works on a system largely based on a financial forecast for a publishing year, and the key sales of each book will occur at presales and then in the six weeks following publication (I have also seen forecasts just made-up for each book, but that same publisher wishful-thinking was somehow written in stone for the next 12 months on completely unsupported books – so the books became pariahs for not achieving their fantasy sales figures. I once told my boss that the sales forecast for the books I was publishing was “a load of Dungeons and Dragons” and it really was).
Retailers can start returning books after three months, though I have heard that supermarkets, and some retailers with chart promotions, can give a book as little as two weeks before taking the unsold copies down. In one editing job I had, a retailer took large sell-ins of part of my list, but, at one time, was sending 90% of them back. This is very rare and only happened once in 11 years, but we realised that the books weren’t even appearing in stores. They were being bought at 54% discount, warehoused, then returned, automatically, by a chain store – I don’t think there was much human involvement in the entire process; computers and machines and delivery trucks just carried out the process with boxes of unopened books. But those books had all been written by writers who loved them, and who may have invested their entire beings, physically, emotionally and intellectually, into those books.
Such things are brutal and unfair, but thousands of books continue to be published every month and they all try and fit into that narrow aperture that leads to actual physical copies on shelves in fewer and fewer book stores. If anything qualifies as horror, that does. It’s a genuine horror, when weighed against the hopes of the writer, the energy and time invested by the writer just to finish the damn book, get an agent, and get their manuscript through submission piles … all for that? I remember a droll character in management, once telling me, when I worked as an editor, that a book I’d published had “failed to set alight the imagination of readers”. But with 500 copies on sale nationwide and no publicity besides what I and the writer could summon, I wanted to punch his face. How could it possibly catch anything but 300 sales, a few reviews, and an out-of-print status in 18 months? Sadly, I’d hazard a guess that most midlist fiction now falls into this category.
So it’s worth asking your agent to ask your publisher what the sell-in is expected to be, and what the print run is. As a writer, I prefer bad news to no news. If the publicity and marketing amounts to review copies (reviews, in my opinion, do not sell books) being sent to a list of book reviewers and blogs, and the sell-in isn’t disclosed as being in, at least, the thousands, then adjust your expectations accordingly, but don’t hate your book. It’s not its fault. You have no control of the bigger picture, nor the internal business decisions of your publisher – again, don’t confuse your relationship with your editor with the publisher’s publishing strategy. Write the next book and republish the old one in the future, and yourself if you have to. But more than anything, without being annoying or spammy, spend time learning how to increase the book’s presence out there: these are things that you can do yourself (that don’t involve endlessly tagging people on Facebook, or upselling a book in a happy birthday message – I’ve seen it done – or buying 70K Twitter followers).
But back to publishing and let’s spare a thought for the staff at publishers and what they are often up against. I’ve had the best and the worst of times as an editor in publishing. Here’s an example of my working hours for at least half of my career as an editor, and I know that it can be representative in small companies with big lists. I was often tasked with producing between 40 and 80 original works of fiction and non-fiction per year, and most often with tiny budgets for advances and plant costs (that’s the cover artwork, book specs, with zero on marketing). I once produced 40% of a company’s books with one assistant. If I was lucky, I had a great assistant. I arose at 6am, worked out (for my sanity) and hit the office at 8:30. I left work at 8pm, or later, and worked all of either Saturday or Sunday. I could only read submissions in my own time, at night when I got home, or at the weekend. It can be the same for agents.
In one job I spent nearly 2 in 5 days of a working week in meetings. Amongst a myriad disparate tasks, I also read, edited and contracted the books, ran managing editorial with freelancers, and had to find up to seven good covers each month (have you any idea how much picture researching that can require?). With a family, I wouldn’t even attempt it now. In terms of a relationship, it only worked if my partner had the same kind of job. This is also why editors favour track-record writers who deliver consistent work, on time. A problematic author at this level can derail the crazy train with schedule changes. The most difficult personalities, and the biggest flakes, with the most unmanaged expectations for me, were nearly always new authors (some thought the clock stopped when their manuscript arrived; others had trouble accepting that anything else at the publisher was as worthwhile as their book – all writers should check their narcissism with reason at regular intervals). New authors can give editors the fear. I also often worked alongside editors who only published 12 high profile books each year and had two assistants – that’s the front list side of publishing, but the stakes are far greater and an editor is far more visible in that role; the rewards are more substantial, but so is the plummet back to the minors, or the out the door.
As I’ve mentioned, the fate of your authors can also become tied to the value of your own stock as an editor. Stocks rise and fall. When you seem to be making sense with your publishing strategies, or are publishing off the back of a commercially successful book, you have the MDs ear, and your colleagues believe in you, and you can do more for your authors. When the direction of the wind changes in a publishing strategy, or you’ve been taken over, or your books are considered yesterday’s man, and you are a dead man walking, your books suffer. At its worst, I’ve seen publishing become a kind of bloodless, tightlipped Game of Thrones with coups, usurpers, exiles, executions, changes in leadership, regents, knives in backs, bad eggs, burnouts, and life taking over promising professional lives – and this culture became worse with each year I served. There was often a sense of a desperate army in retreat, making sporadic counter attacks.
Also, your editors and all of the other people who work at the coal face in publishing are not machines; they are often poorly maintained, over-used flesh tech’. I’ll admit it, even despite some commercial triumphs, I never felt my own work was acknowledged or recognised by my distant, often spin-doctoring corporate employers. Morale can get very low. Most of you know that you’re expendable. It can be very hierarchical; your face can fit, then suddenly not fit. In one company I counted 70 redundancies and resignations in 5 years in a staff complement of 36. I was number 70. I’d hoped to be 69, but someone in sales caught that bullet first. But that is an extreme example. People get ill and really tired too, they want to have a baby, they have a journey through London twice a day that brings biblical suffering to mind … Consider everything that you say to your editor.
There often seems to be a long game fail too – if a book or an idea for a series didn’t catch straight away it was dropped. You try not to take it all to heart as an editor, and you’re not even the writer; but you care about your authors and their books; you also have to manage their expectations and frustrations and agents. You’re probably earning less than 30K in central London too and working 60 – 70 hours a week. People come and go in the office, but they don’t talk about Michelangelo. Being within the environment itself, can also be distracting and too involving if your role is at the coal face and you need to at your desk with proofs and contracts and manuscripts. As one of the writers, your book can be in a bad place and you don’t know it. Companies like people, can suffer dysfunction, rises and falls in fortune, and can take time to rehabilitate. It’s another variable to consider.
There’s the mandatory amnesia in order to survive too – the next time, on the next book, things will be different. The reset button is depressed. In some places, everyone is often new at the table every few years, besides the two people who have somehow lasted 20 years. I remember being put down in a meeting by a senior executive who chided me for “talking about the past and not the future”. But how do we prevent ourselves from repeating mistakes if we don’t carry out post-mortems? You often don’t have time to, because the next season of books has to be made ready … and on and on and on it goes.
My best and most productive publishing experience was working on a virtual desktop, in a home office, using a huge network of freelancers, who I contacted by phone or email. I took occasional visits to the mother ship. No hierarchy, work without distraction, editorial autonomy. But that can only work if you can out a good team in place and have the experience to pull it off.
Books are a long game, and unless it’s dealing with already famous authors on backlists, or the front list superstars, the business struggles in the long game, as far as writers are concerned, because the business is obsessed with the new and the next punt. That strategy actually is, I think, the long game. But as writers we’re only new once unless we change our names – so this strategy is no good for us unless we win the lottery with the first scratch card. Publishers used to give an author ten books to build and break out and to weather the capricious currents of taste. Ten! One book is more feasible now, unless you signed a two book deal. But authors need to be set up for the long game, and this is important and why for every snake you descend, you need to look for a ladder that you can ascend to get back into the game.
And yet, despite my often half-full glass, traditional publishing made me a much better writer and enabled me to become an all rounder. It’s also my experience to have found many wonderful editors who can develop your writing so much with a structural edit and a line-edit; there are talented marketeers and publicists who know exactly how to place your book and how to present it; there are superb cover designers who make your book cover arresting; sales directors who pitch your book perfectly at the right time to buyers at the stores because, by some miracle, you have written the right thing at the right time, or close to it; there are marvellous, dedicated booksellers who champion and hand-sell your books to their customers (one bookseller in Edinburgh hand-sold over 70 copies of my The Ritual to her customers and I am eternally grateful to her), and if most of these variables all line-up, then the sky is the limit. We have hope … And for the sake of culture and literacy (and even civilisation), I don’t think traditional publishing can be allowed to fail.
The horror stories gather in a multitude in trad’, indie and self publishing worlds, but like with the rest of life, there are still good people who do good things and help us reach our goals; and there are many opportunities we can take and create for ourselves. Despite the odds stacked against us, it can still work out. And even if only 300 people read your book, that’s a lot of people if you imagine them all standing in your garden and smiling at you. You may have given them something meaningful too, or at least entertaining.
It’s really, really hard, but when it comes to our expectations, when we think about the business that our books go into, we need to be objective and somehow extricate those expectations from the human circulatory system and heart that produced the book.
As for eBooks, what I’ve liked the most about the digital age is that it’s never over. By whichever route your book is published, authors can take steps and measures themselves, and multi-skill in all kinds of ways from book creation to digital marketing – in order to be more in control and independent, and to augment what an overstretched publisher is trying to do with its midlist. It’s weird, but in some instances, I can see that publishers are making books available, while the authors and their street teams are selling them. But if that is the case, then the contracts have to change. Because making a book available, in my opinion, is not publishing; it’s half of what publishing should be.
But a book can also now be repackaged, improved, republished by the author; it can bite that cherry again and again, if you have the energy. It never has to be over …
I believe the digital age has become a mutually beneficial eco system for midlist authors and their publishers, albeit an increasingly crowded one. My current publisher built my author platform in the old system, that I just managed to clamber onto after fifteen years of writing, and they have developed me as an author over what’s coming up to eight years and eight books – they made most of this happen. Without them my books wouldn’t have been sold into foreign editions or attracted film production companies, or been put between so many reader’s eyes. But I’ve embellished that platform too, with a website, social media channels, a mailing list, author central at Amazon, events I take under my own steam, competitions I run with third parties, endless pieces I write for other websites without any expectation of payment (140K words and counting at the last count in essays and interviews), and a huge amount of engagement with my actual readers. In tandem, we both do our jobs, and it works out well. Neither side tells the other side to do anything; the process has evolved out of necessity. It helps to have a ‘no one gets left behind’, ‘no stone remains unturned’, temperament as an author too, when looking at your own backlist. Because, unless you are front list, or you accept the evident consequences of only being the writer, if you want a career I don’t think you can afford not to think like a publisher anymore, act like a publisher, or even be a part-time publisher of, at least, some of your own material.
2016 has been the steepest learning curve in my career in books because I’ve been itching to actually have a go at indie publishing; I’ve since started my own imprint for some of my own material that needs collecting, and have produced three books this year, two free eBooks, and one for sale in three formats. It’s been difficult and very frustrating at times just to get here, but I look back at the writer and the publisher that I was in 2015, and I see myself in sepia. A bit baffled and passing from an old status quo into new territory. But I now feel recharged and reinvigorated, and better equipped to deal with the bigger picture and the longer, more diverse game that we’re all in now. It’s also been very exciting – learning new things about books always is for me. I’m a lifer afterall.
But whether you are trad’ published at a low to average level of publisher support, or indie published, or if you self-publish, or do all three or combos of each at different times (which seems common now for writers that want a career), the only process, as an actual writer, I ever endorse, because it’s the only one that I have had any control over, and the only one that eventually helped to get me word of mouth, is this:
At the risk of a massive contradiction (but in my defence, I have to think about publishing because I’ve had dual roles for a long time), if you are starting out, forget about the business and write what is compelling to you. Dig deep and find those strange things (that may even disturb and embarrass you), but that persist in your memory and reform in your imagination into stories. This material might even be unique to you. Pay attention to it rather than creating a pastiche or facsimile of something that is popular. That works for some people, but that’s not why I got into this.
Read the best in the field that you are most attracted to as a reader, and read widely in other fields, and ask yourself why these books are so good. How have they been written? But post-mortem the time of their publication (and when success came to them too), particularly if you are heavily under the influence of a book or writer from the past. When were they published? Was this part of a trend in the 70s? Are books like this even being published now? At what level was it published in the first place? Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Take a good creative writing course. As an editor who read up to 200 novel submissions a month, I would often struggle to fill 12 slots on a series fiction imprint with terribly low advances. Why? The writing wasn’t good enough. No matter how high concept the stories were, there was a paucity of narrative skill, undeveloped language skills, little craft … the list goes on. But, ultimately, most writers didn’t know how to rewrite. And you can only rewrite if you know what to look for in the editing process.
It’s humbling, but the best thing a new writer can find, in my opinion, is a good line editor, or poet-turned-tutor, or an experienced writer-turned-tutor, who examines each sentence, then paragraph, then section, then chapter, or short story, and questions everything from syntax to diction, to arrangement, structure, point-of-view, and on and on. Brace yourself for candour, but learn from it. That’s how you get to the next level with editors. Editors and agents often won’t read more than a page, or even paragraph of a 200K word (or longer) epic. How much time do you think they have? Beta groups etc, where people exchange emotional opinions and gut reactions on not liking characters, for example, far too often falls into the realm of taste, and the individual sophistication of those readers and aspiring writers. And how representative is their take? It’s hard to find consensus. Leave all that for later. But consensus can be found on good writing quickly if you seek experienced eyes, and those who are already masters of language when you are not. I think most of us can only get so far alone. Focus on the actual writing first. Crawl before walking. And there are some great books on writing out there too. See writing as a purpose for life that incrementally improves for you. If nothing else, it might cut down on the number of books being published.
Never stop rewriting until you’ve reached the end of what you can do, with four week breaks, at least, between each draft, or you’ll never see your work with fresh eyes. No matter how excited you are about your book, put it away. Get it out, put it away. Repeat. But make sure you know first what it is that you need to change. Develop the inner reader through reading and instruction. It’s the best editor there is, the one inside you. Listen to it. Don’t kid yourself.
If you are going to go it alone, then make sure the writing is as good as it can be (see above). Then get it professionally copy-edited and proofread. If it’s going into print, get it design proofread too. Make it look as good and as close to a trad’ published book as you can.
Learn about how to position a book with a cover. Study publishing catalogues and listings on Amazon, but always take note of the publication dates to make sure designs are current.
Read the newsfeeds and take the courses and free webinars from the top indie publishers and writers who have made this work, and almost created their own marketplace. Indie publishing has so many evolving and advanced processes now, and some that Trad’ publishing might not even be using. Many successful indie authors have turned their expertise into training courses – you probably won’t attain their 2012 onwards levels of success, but at least you’ll be going about things the right way. From some of the top indie authors, who were pioneers, and from some of the new publishing websites and newsfeeds, I’ve learned more about the new digital era in the last seven months than I learned in the last few years of my time in trad’ publishing. Seek the right knowledge from the right people. Overwhelm is inevitable, but eventually pennies begin to drop.
Long game, long game, long game. Try and aspire to excellence, continuously, on a long game, in the way that you write and publish. But always, always manage your expectations. Measure yourself against what you started with, and against your early work, but not against other writers. That way lies madness.
Unless you’re a heroine in a Gothic novel, heartbreak isn’t terminal either. It passes. Don’t stop falling in love with books.