A writing colleague recently hosted a zoom discussion with several self-published authors which they then wrote up for their newsletter. (You can read it here.) It was a fun and interesting chat about the pros and cons of self-publishing and discovering how similar our experiences have been. The interview got me thinking about my own long journey to reach this point of being a – well I won’t say accomplished, but perhaps a reasonably confident – indie author.
Every person’s story is unique and I am not, by any means, saying indie is the best way to go for all. For me, however, at my stage of writing and time of life, the switch from querying to self-publishing has been the right decision. I’m having fun at last!
As for many, I’d always wanted to write a book. The years slipped by with work, family, international moves and so on, until I was able to retire early and move to the rural Forest of Dean in the UK. I worked in my garden, learned to grow potatoes, garlic, raspberries, kale and so on, walked the dog for miles (he and I wrote a book about that which does very well, thank you), joined the local history society and met the neighbours. Then, in 2010, the government thought it might sell the forest off to the highest bidder and I became an active, ardent protester for the first time in my life. We won, of course, and it was this battle which gave me the germ of an idea and the motivation to finally write that book.
I typed away at the dining room table, fast and furious, and gave the end result to a dear friend, who of course declared it the best thing she’d ever read and I should publish it forthwith. I knew nothing about the publishing industry except that I needed an agent. I’d heard of Curtis Brown so I sent the book to them. This was in March, so I confidently expected to have my book available for Christmas sales.
They responded – bless them, as I now realise – with a thank you and a polite ‘not right for my list’ standard (as I now know) response.
As that hadn’t worked, I threw the book up on Amazon, folded my arms, and waited for the royalties to flow in.
It might have ended there with a disillusioned shrug, except a very different project fell into my lap. The details of that are on my website under Historical Fiction (The Shanty Keeper’s Wife), so all I will say here is that the manuscript is co-authored and my co-author is keen to have the book ‘traditionally published’. Sadly, soon after we finished writing, editing, beta reading etc, she was in a place where it was difficult for her to do much in the way of reaching out to agents. The process, and the learning experience, therefore fell largely to me.
And what a learning experience! For over three years I waded through the murky, ever- slippery innards of ‘querying’. I researched relevant agencies, small presses, and larger publishing houses which took direct submissions. I read and memorised thousands of words on how not to write query letters and wrote and re-wrote them according to different agents’ apparent needs. I wrote and re-wrote one page, single-spaced synopses, 750 word, 500 word, 300 word and 250 word synopses. I wracked my brain and Amazon for ‘comps’, with limited success I have to say. I was meticulous about meeting agents’ detailed requirements in terms of font size, line spacing, page numbering, attach to an email or upload to their site, and the list goes on. I kept a spreadsheet to track submissions, by year, and ticked them off one by one, by year. I took part in #pitchwars (aptly named) and had several likes, so off the manuscript went to Canada and the US where it disappeared into oblivion. Searching the lines of rejection letters (when received) for helpful feedback became a talent akin to panning for gold, but with much less substantive results. We had a few ‘fulls’ (more jargon), we had more silences, and once or twice some brilliant, encouraging feedback. But no deal. Was it a bad book? Betas hadn’t thought so. Some agents hadn’t thought so, and the opening chapter was shortlisted in a major UK competition. Who knows? Nobody was telling.
Over time, I lost the excitement of anticipation which used to come with sending off a submission to another likely agent or small press. Like water dripping on stone, each no-response, each rejection, deepened the rut of uncertainty. Twitter’s #writingcommunity provided huge moral and practical support for which I am eternally grateful. But at the same time I was undergoing another steep learning curve through my self-published author friends.
While these talented writers left me under no illusions about the ease of the path they had chosen, what struck me was this:
They had books out there, which people could buy and read. They hadn’t locked their stories away in their computers.
While my co-author remained reluctant to send our book naked into the wild, I had my own books to experiment with. I re-wrote, re-titled and gave new covers to the initial one (a trilogy), and together with my women’s fiction novel, Keepers, I hauled myself from the querying trenches into the frightening no-man’s land of self-publishing. Quite a culture shock.
The (possible) end
I haven’t submitted to an agent for nearly a year (sounds like giving up smoking). Instead, I’ve used the time I used to spend writing query letters and varying lengths synopses on learning basic indie tools of trade – a website, understanding different publishing platforms and retail interfaces (as finicky as any agent’s specifications), setting up a newsletter, the good and the bad of covers, optimal length for ‘blurbs’, how to find ‘betas’ and ‘ARCs’ (more jargon), making attractive images with the likes of BookBrush and so on and so forth. Not to mention that hardest thing of all – struggling with marketing and promotion.
I’m not the most technologically minded but in pushing myself to learn I’ve discovered that the satisfaction of achieving something new, a new skill to boast about to the kids, far outweighs the times I’ve wanted to throw the computer through the window. And, as in the querying mode, I’ve had the brilliant support of friends in the #writingcommunity, all of us going through the same thing, learning from and encouraging each other. Would never have made it without them.
The most important thing for me, however, is this:
I’m a writer and I have books out there people can (and do) read, enjoy and leave great reviews for. For me, that’s affirmation enough.
Take-aways for you to think about
While this has been the right decision for me, it won’t be for everyone. Here are some things to ponder if you are thinking of moving into self-publishing.
What are your writing ambitions?
If you’ve set your cap at the Booker Prize, then I suspect you’re best off sticking with the traditional route.
How much time are you able/willing to invest in the self-publishing process?
While querying takes time and energy, being self-published means learning about and being fully responsible for editing (a big job which needs to be taken very seriously), covers, formatting, and uploading to publishing platforms. There’s no experienced team behind you, you’re a one man band. Of course, you can hire people to do any or all of these things, so it depends how deep your pocket is as well.
Does technology scare you/you hate it to the point of hiding under the bed?
If so, then self-publishing might not be fun for you at all. And that’s really important, to be (by and large) enjoying yourself.
How willing are you to push your book?
You might be happy to have your friends and family read your novel and then let it take care of itself in the big wide world. But if you’d like a wider audience, there’s the whole marketing and promotion thing, from launch and forever! Hard launch or soft launch? Blog tour or not? Pay for ads or not? And which platforms? There are a lot of people willing to take your money to show you the ‘best’ way to do any and all of the above which adds to the noise! Time and experience – and I’m still well and truly learning here.
Finally, will you have time and energy left to write that next book?
‘They’ say the best way to sell a book is to write another one, so you need to factor that in as well. With querying, you can be getting on with writing while waiting for agents to make their decisions. Your main focus can be to write, not worry about next month’s newsletter.
Now for me it’s back to editing my next project while working on promoting my current books. Life is never dull! And all the best for whichever writing journey you choose for yourself.
Originally from Australia, Cheryl Burman arrived in the Forest of Dean, UK, via a few years in Switzerland. The Forest inspired her to write, as it has inspired many before her, including Tolkien. She is the author of the fantasy trilogy, ‘Guardians of the Forest’, of ‘Keepers’, an historical women’s fiction novel set in Australia post WW2 and of a slim collection of flash/short stories, ‘Dragon Gift’. Her flash fiction, short stories and bits of her novels have won various prizes and long/shortlistings.
Her latest project is set against the backdrop of the Forest and the River Severn, and is a magical realism novel about a young farm girl who talks to the river, which she knows as Sabrina, goddess. Cheryl is married with two grown children and a border collie, Sammy (who is also an author). Follow Cheryl on Twitter @cr_burman or join her monthly newsletter email list for writing updates, bits of news and the occasional giveaway.