Pining to get into print? Try DIY
PUBLISHING:Ebooks and ereaders mean it's easier than ever for writers to self-publish, writes FIONA REDDAN
FOR DAVID GAUGHRAN, getting published had always been a dream. But after 18 months spent trying to get an agent in the US, the UK and Ireland – a process that brought in about 300 rejections – he was starting to lose heart. Eventually, at the end of last year, he was contacted by an agent in New York. “He told me he loved my novel and wanted to represent me. He said all sorts of lovely things about the book and said we’d talk again in a week. But that was the last I ever heard of him.”
Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual in Gaughran’s story. But while the experience may have left Gaughran “quite crushed”, like many others he has gone on to publish his work himself. The advent of the ereader, and ebooks, has made self-publishing more feasible than ever before. If you found a Kindle in your stocking this Christmas, for example, it’s likely that, along with the latest James Patterson or Julian Barnes, you might find yourself downloading some books by self-published authors in the days to come.
In the US, self-published authors such as John Locke and Amanda Hocking have become ebook bestsellers: Locke has sold more than a million books. And now Irish writers are hoping to cash in on the trend.
This approach has some big advantages – in particular, the opportunity to make more money. In a typical publishing deal an author can expect to net about 10 per cent of the book’s purchase price after the agent, publisher and distributor take their cuts. With self-publishing, however, writers can keep as much as 95 per cent, if they sell through their own websites, or 70 per cent if they sell through Amazon.
Another reason to self-publish is if you don’t want to restrict yourself to a particular style of book. “An agent or publisher will try and make you stick with one genre, as they find it easier to build your audience that way,” says Gaughran, who has self-published works ranging from literary fiction to science fiction.
But going it alone does bring challenges – even if you have an established audience for your work. Earlier this year Aisli and Kate Madden, who are sisters, were prompted to self-publish by a caller to Ryan Tubridy, on RTÉ radio, who was looking for a copy of a textbook that their late mother, Deirdre Madden, wrote in the early 1980s. They first approached Folens, the original publisher of their mother’s book, All About Home Economics, then tried Gill Macmillan.
But publishers weren’t biting. So, spurred by the success of the poetry textbook Soundings, which sold almost 40,000 copies when it was reissued last year, they decided to publish the book themselves. Aided by an experienced friend, they soon learned the tricks – and the difficulties – of the trade.
“We were very, very lucky that we had a demand already. We knew the book had a certain amount of guaranteed sales,” says Aisli, who concedes that it has nonetheless been a “really big learning curve”.
The sisters published the traditional way, by releasing a physical book, which meant striking a deal with distributors. This means that for every book they sell at the retail price of €16.99, the distributor will keep 51 per cent; the remaining 49 per cent has to cover all the delivery, storage, production and related costs. Added to this is distributors’ sale-or-return system: 12 months from now, the sisters could be forced to pay for unsold books. “We’re very cautious on the figures, because we don’t know how many returns we’re going to get at the end of the year,” says Aisli. Ten per cent of the profits will be donated to the Irish Cancer Society.
Publishing your own book means you won’t have an experienced publisher behind you to support and promote it. For Gaughran, who has managed to sell 1,500 books himself, this is no different whether you publish traditionally or not. “The whole idea that any writer can live in seclusion and spend all their time writing is a myth: every writer has to promote,” he says.
For those looking at publishing physical books, Eason is open to suggestions from self-published authors. “Normally authors approach us with a finished copy of their work, and ideally some plans about how they intend to market or publicise it,” says Maria Dickenson, head of book purchasing at the chain. “At that stage our buying team makes a decision on whether to stock it, either at a national or local level. Those that we do, we then distribute to our store network.”
Self-published authors also miss out on an advance, and have to fund book design and editing costs themselves. But Gaughran is finding a way around this. Using Fundit.ie, an Irish crowd-funding initiative, he has managed to raise €1,600 by taking advance orders for his new book, A Storm Hits Valparaiso. “I’ve already broken even before I’ve even released it. Everything after that is pure profit,” he says.
Gaughran, who has now self-published three ebooks, says his “default position” would be to reject any approach he might now receive from a traditional publisher. “I’m still at the beginning of my career, and I’d like to see what I can achieve on my own first. I think that if I signed any deal I would only undervalue myself, because, at this stage, I don’t know what my books are worth, but I know they are worth a lot more than the average advance.”
Catherine Ryan Howard, who has sold 10,000 books herself, most of them ebooks, still hankers after a deal, however. “I would never choose to self-publish over a traditional publishing deal,” she says. “A lot of the time people don’t understand. They ask: ‘Where can I get your book?’ And you have to tell them to go on Amazon. Most books are still sold in a bookstore, so epublishing puts you at a huge disadvantage.”
But this is changing. Already ebooks are starting to outsell paperbacks in the US, and where the US goes Ireland often follows. Ebooks are expected to account for 10 per cent of the Irish market this year.
Perhaps the true motive for self-publishing is akin to the motive for writing: it’s about much more than the money. “For us, the opportunity to reprint Mum’s book is the motivation,” says Aisli Madden. “Self-
publishing is not for the faint-hearted. Without the background of Mum, I don’t know if I would do it. You’d want to be really passionate about it, as you might not make money from it.”
After the “profoundly negative experience” of trying to find an agent, Gaughran has his own reasons for self-publishing. “Since I started, the joy has returned – and my productivity has soared. I’m a much happier person, and that’s worth more than any advance or any number of sales.”
Out of the traps: One author's experience
Catherine Ryan Howard always wanted to be a writer. “I was the girl running home to do an English essay at the expense of my other homework,” she says of her childhood in Cork. But after spending several years “obsessed with writing a novel”, attending workshops and talking to literary agents during her 20s, she realised she didn’t have a workable idea.
Instead, she worked at Walt Disney World, in Florida. Her experiences there inspired her first nonfiction book, Mousetrapped: A Year and a Bit in Orlando, Florida. When she got back to Ireland she sent it to nine agents – but the book was turned down, leaving Ryan Howard “beyond dejected”.
She decided to turn her attention back to writing a novel but in the meantime was convinced to consider self-publishing her first book. “At first I thought it was only for those deluded losers who couldn’t deal with the fact that they weren’t good enough to be published,” she says.
She decided to take a chance, opting to upload her book to CreateSpace, which formatted her book to be sold as both a paperback and an ebook. She spent €800-€1,000 on having it edited, proofread and formatted, with professional artwork for the cover. Before long, Mousetrappedwas for sale on Amazon.com.
A frequent tweeter, she got great support from the online community, and Ryan Howard soon found her sales adding up. She decided to capitalise on the success of Mousetrappedby publishing a book about her time as a backpacker. She also approached publishers once more with her novel about an evil weight-loss company, Results Not Typical. Once more, she was turned down.
She now has four books for sale, including a guide to self-publishing. She has sold more than 10,000 books, 90 per cent of them as ebooks, making her one of the most successful self-published Irish authors.
Despite being able to give up her day job, Ryan Howard still longs for the validation of a publisher. “I don’t feel I’ll be a professional writer until a publisher says I am.”