Somewhere Out There

I’ve just made my return to the world of (paid, grown-up) work by teaching some courses on creative writing at Quad cinema in Derby. As part of these courses, I always talk a little bit about the eternal question of How to Get Published (short answer: with difficulty). Many aspiring writers want to know more about self-publishing, although it’s not a path I find I can recommend whole-heartedly.

Why not? Aren’t there authors who’ve done well out of self-publishing? There are indeed – the most prominent in the SFF genre probably being Hugh Howey, Becky Chambers, and Andy Weir. But self-published writers are the opposite of aeroplanes – you only hear about the successful ones. There are many more authors whose books get lost in the depths of the Amazonian jungle, never to be seen again.

I often hear it said that self-publishing is a way to get your book ‘out there’. This is true – if you leave your manuscript tucked away on your hard drive or in your desk drawer, it’s never going to get any attention, whereas if you make it available, it just might. However, from what I can gather from talking to people who’ve tried self-publishing, books seldom gather much attention on their own – you have to put a lot of effort into marketing if you want to see results. And there don’t seem to be any easy shortcuts. On my most recent course, I had a student who had entrusted her book to a ‘hybrid’ publishing company. She was not happy with the level of publicity the firm had provided, and I suspect this is a common experience with people using such companies. Another student on the same course had self-published and done everything himself – he said he appreciated the level of control this gave him over the whole process, but that he’d found it very time-consuming.

Meanwhile, at my local writing group we had a visit from debut author Jo Jakeman (who was lovely). She has written a domestic noir thriller called Sticks & Stones which will be (traditionally) published later this year, although she told us that she had previously self-published a couple of historical novels. She said she’d sold around 4,000 copies of her first book, but commented she’d had to work almost full-time on promotion in order to achieve those sales. While she didn’t speak negatively about the experience, I think it’s telling that she eagerly took the chance to sign a traditional publishing deal.

Self-publishing: it’s a lot of effort. And I can’t help wondering if, especially if you’re only just setting out, that effort would be better spent on honing your craft, and then trying for a traditional deal with a more polished book. Because, let’s be honest, while I’ve met many people who are enthusiastic about self-publishing from the writer’s point of view, from the readers’ perspective… not so much. Indeed, I’ve heard several people say they avoid reading self-pubbed books because most of them are simply not very professionally edited and put together.

So my general advice for other aspiring writers is: if you really want to self-publish, by all means go for it, and be prepared to put in the work. But try not to be too impatient: putting your book ‘out there’ before it’s really ready won’t achieve much. For myself, I’m continuing to try to make myself the best writer I can be.

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Rough diamonds and random penguins

Last year, I ‘came out’ as a writer to the wider world. Ever since then, a lot of people have asked me questions like ‘so when can buy your book in Waterstone’s?’ On the one hand, it’s great being able to talk about my passion. On the other hand, I sometimes get a bit concerned that I have accidentally created an expectation of imminent best-sellerdom which I am vanishingly unlikely to meet. Most people – including, until very recently, me – have very little idea of how the publishing industry works, and what a long time it takes to get your book out. Even if, as my colleague in project management put it, you pass every gate review first time. So, for the benefit of everyone who has asked me when my book is going to be released in Kindle and trade paperback, here’s my brief overview of the process.

The first stage, stage 0 if you will, is to write the damn book. See previous blog post for details.

The next stage, where I am now, is to find an agent. This involves several rounds of submissions, discussions, rewrites… it could be as quick as 3 months, but it’ll likely take a fair bit longer.

At stage 2, you can relax (hah!) while the agent takes it round some publishers and tries to get you a deal. This stage can actually be quite quick, if the publishers like what they see. If not, well, back to the previous stage to re-re-edit the manuscript. Or start over at stage 0 with a new book.

Once someone’s agreed to publish the book, it’s another 12-18 months before it will actually appear in the shops. What takes so long? Well, a final edit, proof-reading, type-setting, cover design, marketing, and probably quite a lot of waiting around while the publisher spends time on other, more important books.

What does this mean for my humble manuscript, The Heartland of the Winter? Well, IF all goes to plan, then the earliest I could expect a deal would be late this year or early next, which would lead to publication in late 2014 at the very earliest, more likely 2015. And of course, I may fail at any point after stage 0. So I’m not planning the launch party just yet (well, okay, I am, in the way some single women plan their own weddings).

Now, if you’re thinking ‘gosh, that sounds like an awful lot of time and effort, isn’t there a quicker way?’ well, yes there is. What I’ve described is the ‘traditional’ route, what you need to do if you want to be published by Random Penguin or one of the other big boys and get paid an advance. But there are alternatives: smaller publishing houses who will accept unagented authors and get the book out quicker, but don’t offer such a good financial deal; ‘vanity’ publishers who’ll charge you to see your name in print; and the increasingly-popular DIY option.

My book could be available right now if I’d chosen to self-publish. Why didn’t I? Well, the great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. And the bad thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. It’s very difficult to get your work to stand out from the dung-heap, especially as you have no professional support for things like editing, marketing, and design.

A book is a bit like a diamond: it comes out of the ground rough and dirty, and then needs careful cutting and endless rounds of polishing. All that long process described above not only selects the best stones in the first place, it polishes them until they sparkle, and it puts them in a setting which shows them off to best effect and makes them likelier to catch the eye. So I’m prepared to wait, and keep trying, and wait some more, and keep trying, to give my work the best chance of success.