I thought I was ready to unleash my masterpiece on an unsuspecting public. I’d written it – had two glasses of Prosecco, one each to celebrate those two magic words, The End – read it again, rewrote parts that had no business being there (what was I thinking?) and turned it over to a professional editor. Being married to one of the best, Jan van Embden, meant it didn’t cost me a cent.
Then I lined up my lovely for the beauty contest that is the round of literary agents. It’s like a fashion model attending a string of “go-sees” and casting days, or an actor going for auditions. And just as the client/casting director is particular about the look or type they want to suit their product or play, so it is with books and literary agents. You may be the hottest thing since Cara Delevingne, but if the client is looking for a Naomi Campbell type, then Cara won’t make the cut. For supermodel read bestseller, but my ambitions were never so lofty. Just to make a living as a fiction writer would be a dream come true. There are 99 jobbing actors and models for every superstar, and just as many great books that don’t top the bestseller lists but are good reads nonetheless. I would be deliriously happy to have my book considered a good read. (That’s not true; I’m not the deliriously happy kind, but it would be very nice indeed).
I researched the requirements of literary agents and found an eclectic list. Some want the first three chapters, some 10,000 words, others 5,000 words, first chapter only, 6,000 words, first chapter and two random others… whatever. One will accept a Word document only, another a PDF file, another won’t read it unless it’s embedded in the body of an email, another via an online form on the agent’s website. It does not bode well to tee an agent off by submitting formats, word counts or anything other than what said agent specified. Which part of ABC do you not understand? It’s okay, I got it. I did exactly as they said. Separate synopsis? Check. Author bio? Check. Page breaks, double spacing, book title and author name in subject line of email… Check, check, check.
The first rejection was so warm, I was elated. The intern had picked it out of the slush pile and brought it to her attention, she said. Oh, my! And she read the first three chapters as requested and guess what? She loved it! Really LOVED it! Be still my beating heart. Here I was, my very first response from an agent and already racing up the bestseller charts. Ah, but it was just my imagination running away with me… I read the next line.
“I just wasn’t IN love with it,” she wrote.
Ouch! She proceeded to explain how an agent has to be so passionate about a project, s/he has to fall completely, hopelessly, utterly in love with the book. And being in love is not the same as loving. They’re completely different things.
There followed a stream of similar messages from agents all explaining to me the merits – nay, the obligation – of being in love as opposed to merely loving, to the point where I sighed with relief when a far more cursory message popped up in my inbox. It’s not the right fit for us. That’s okay. No problem. Next.
And then I heard about ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, and more particularly about its founder, Irish novelist, poet and lecturer in the creative and imaginative process, Orna Ross. This caught my attention, because I once had the pleasure of working with Orna Ross, before she became Orna Ross, before either Orna or Ross was even born. It was in the late ’80s, early ’90s, a period known as Back in the Day, when the then Aine McCarthy wrote articles and features for newspapers and magazines on a variety of subjects, from women’s reproductive rights to choosing the right pet.
I’d lost touch with Aine, as I had with many great journos I knew Back in the Day, for no good reason other than I/we drifted in different directions. So I Googled her and discovered that while I’d spent the intervening years writing brochures and newsletters for commercial clients, Aine had gone on to become a bestselling author as Orna Ross, a pseudonym she adopted after the names of her two children. And not only that, she then bought back her rights from Penguin, fought the good fight against breast cancer and emerged triumphant, founded ALLi in 2012 and went on to become rated by the Bookseller as one of the top 100 most influential people in publishing in the world… How about that!
I had to email her, if only to congratulate her on a stupendous string of successes by any measure. And even if she didn’t remember me, she might advise whether I could or should join her alliance, even though I hadn’t actually been published as an author. Yet. Or maybe she’d point me and my masterpiece in the right direction.
Days later I received a reply that brought me right back to the eloquent, easy-going warmth I remembered of Aine from our days in Smurfland, as we used to call our stint in the magazine stable of Smurfit Publications in Dublin in the ’80s and ’90s. We were the Smurfettes – writers, editors, stylists, freelance contributors and staffers alike putting together Woman’s Way, U Magazine and Irish Tatler on a shoestring. We relied heavily on freelance contributors and when you found good ones, you pounced, as I did when Aine McCarthy came on the scene, a woman destined for far greater things, I’m happy to report. But I digress. Back to the email, the one that made me smile. From Aine:
How absolutely lovely to hear from you… Of course I remember you, you gave me my very first editorial job!”
I did? I clearly was a woman of taste and discernment. She went on to tell me about the alliance and even though most newbies like me knew diddly, she assured me its members were “an amazing group of authors and an incredibly giving bunch. They know a lot about self-publishing well and reaching readers - and they share everything they know,” she wrote.
"We are also having a day conference in Foyle's, Charing Cross Road, London on April 17 that you might like to attend. There you can meet some of our members who have sold more than three million books! And lots of people in the publishing and self-publishing industries here in London.
Charing Cross Road! London! Anne Bancroft! Books! I know, Anne Bancroft wouldn’t be there, especially having died in 2005, but remember the film 84 Charing Cross Road with her and Anthony Hopkins? Brilliant! But back to the business at hand… Aine/Orna is telling me about a place where a host of writers who’ve been through the self-publishing route would share their experiences, giving ingénues like me a road map. I no longer have to wait in hope for Cupid’s arrow to pierce the heart of a publisher or agent. I could learn how to publish my own book. It’s a no-brainer.
I'm lucky. I have a daughter living in London and she offers to put me up. In the weeks leading up to the conference, I read oodles of articles, blogs and posts about self-publishing written by ALLi members who've been there. I watch YouTube video discussions of ALLi stalwarts Orna Ross and Joanna Penn, thriller writer and author of The Creative Penn. I follow a fabulous set of tutorials called 'How to Get Your First 10,000 Readers' created by bestselling author Nick Stephenson.
“Build an author platform,” he says. A what?
“You want to get readers to your own email list so you’ll have a ready audience for your next book, but you mustn’t be too salesy, and don’t expect people to sign up if there’s nothing in it for them. Offer them something of value, something to make it worth their while subscribing to your list. Maybe give them another of your books free.”
Ah here, I haven’t got another book to give away. As for the next book? I haven’t even got this one out yet!
“If this is your first book, offer a free short story, or a bonus chapter,” he suggests, as if reading my mind. God yeah, I could do that. I love writing short stories. Clever Nick!
And the more I learn from Nick and Joanna and Orna and loads of other writers, I realise self-publishing is not as simple as I thought. And yet, and yet… It’s starting to make sense. One book does not make a career, not unless you’re Harper Lee and even she wrote a second, albeit more than half a century after To Kill A Mockingbird. And even though I’m no Harper Lee and my little masterpiece will never win prizes, there must be in the grand scheme of things a few hundred people in the whole world who might read it and say, ‘You know what? I’ve read worse.’
But even with such modest ambitions, it becomes clear to me that having a word-perfect book is only half the story. Not even half. A tiny bit. It’s the creative, artistic part of the process. Now it’s down to business – but hold on, I read the book again. Damn! Did I say word-perfect? I spot two typos in the first 40 pages. How did they sneak in there? Undoubtedly when I rewrote bits and didn’t run the changes past the editor. Typos make me cringe. I and/or the editor will have to go through the entire manuscript again before it goes near Amazon Kindle. There will be no typos.
And one thing I know for sure – I will do nothing with this book until after the Indie Author Fringe Fest in Foyle’s on April 17th. It’s a global event being live-streamed so that those who can’t attend can follow it wherever they are in the world. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I got a golden ticket.
I now have my lovely primped and set to go. She even has stylish gladrags to wear (“Yes, readers do judge a book by its cover” – Joanna Penn) but where would be the sense in sending her out into the big wide world without first getting the street smarts from those who’ve been around the block? I will wait, and listen, and learn; I will go to London and get the knowledge and then I’ll send her on her way and fret like I did when my human babies left to make their way in the world as independent beings. I hope she finds her place and develops a thick skin to protect her against the slings and arrows that will inevitably come her way and is, if not deliriously happy, at least content; and eventually, I will let her be because, as my daughters would each remind me, it will be her life, and I will start a new chapter.
It’s a bright morning and I walk with as much purpose as the next person until I reach Foyle’s, the famous bookshop now. It’s spread over five floors and on the sixth, the ALLi-IndieReCon Indie Author Fringe Fest is already underway. I get into the lift with another latecomer and then the doors open at the next floor and who should walk in only Orna Ross herself. I’d know her anywhere – she’s barely aged a minute in the last 25 years. We hug and the other woman and I twitter on about being late and Aine says not to worry, but as the lift stops on the sixth floor she urges us to be quiet as there is a session in full flow, so we sneak in quietly behind her and take our seats.
The discussion is about opening the purse to public funding for indie authors. Peter Urpeth from XPO North helps indie writers develop their product “to maximise economic return for your effort”. Unfortunately for me, his service is restricted to writers in the highlands and islands of Scotland. Maybe I should move. My friend Adrienne has family in Fort William – I could lodge with them. Okay maybe not. But he’s compelling, this Peter Urpeth. He says it like it is.
“I won’t judge the quality of your work, I’ll judge the quality of your business plan,” he says. “That’s where I want to see great writing.”
Somebody asks what are the hallmarks of a good case for public funding. John Prebble from the Arts Council of England says, “What on earth…!” is a good start. He looks for exciting, provocative ideas, things that may not be to everybody’s tastes.
“You could combine an arts council grant with funding from local authorities and business,” he says. “Often the emphasis is on reaching lots of people, but you can be specific and think about making meaningful connections with a niche market.”
Nicola Solomon, CEO of the Society of Authors, points out that not every funding source requires the same level of business plan.
“There are Funds in Need, if you’re ill, for instance,” she says. “Applications for these can be quite informal. Just apply! What have you got to lose?”
They talk about a specific project whereby a perfumerie was sent a number of anonymous pieces of writing and had to develop a perfume around each of them, while writers were each given an anonymous scent to write about. I don’t know who sponsored it, but decide to sniff out public funding opportunities on my own patch when I get home.
Then poet/novelist Dan Holloway delivers a brilliant poem he’s written about the need to protect poetry and literary fiction and the standout line for me is: “Tomorrow’s books are written by the choices we make today.”
It’s followed by a meaty discussion on how to sell more books, chaired by ALLi’s literary agent, Toby Mundy of TMA. Panelists include Scott Beatty of Trajectory, a company that has developed a new way of analysing a book’s content to match it more accurately with readers; book-scout Sharmaine Lovegrove of Fremantle Media, and Katie Donelan of BookBub.
Scott Beatty has a wry, laconic delivery, with more than a touch of the cat that got the cream, and it’s no wonder – his company has been likened to a “rocket booster for metadata”. Choosing a book used to be about browsing through a book store; now it’s all about discoverability. Trajectory uses algorhithms that break a book down, chapter by chapter, picking up the book’s mood, tone, likely age of reader, locations, gender, intensity, dialogue, sentiment, pace and other attributes to distribute that book throughout the world.
He calls indie writers “authorpreneurs,” but adds it’s not enough to upload an ebook and hope for the best.
“An ebook is a website that doesn’t do anything,” he says. “Participate in the algorhithmic world and benefit from it. Self-publishing is pushing change. We put a book everywhere in the world within three days.”
Nuggets of wisdom, things I hadn’t thought about, come tripping off the tongues of this group of experts and I take copious notes, like a starving waif scrabbling to pick up crumbs falling from a giant table of knowledge. Only instead of scrabbling, I’m scribbling. Furiously.
Things like: “When your book goes out, advertise that the rights (translation, international, film/TV etc) are available. It’s a cheap form of advertising.” (Scott Beatty). Followed by his top tip:
“Build your own author platform. Own it, develop it, manage it, control it. That is the single most important branding opportunity you have.”
And when he’s asked about the difference between trade publishing and self-publishing, the answer is classic Beatty.
“It’s never either/or in my world, it’s and, and, and,” he says. “Indie writers, traditional publishers, Amazon… I love all the children.”
Sharmaine Lovegrove used to work at Random House among other places before moving to Fremantle Media, the company responsible for X Factor, Pop Idol, The Apprentice, The Bill, Four Rooms… She’s been on both sides of the fence in monstrously successful organisations.
“Where traditional publishing is strong is their editors are passionate and good at their job,” she says. “However, there are too many people in the middle spending 80 per cent of their time on 20 per cent of authors.”
She goes on to talk about rights and why indie writers need to be serious about the business side of things, a recurring theme that is emphasised repeatedly by the majority of speakers throughout the day’s discussions.
“Rights are constantly changing,” says Lovegrove. “Digital, international, translations, TV/film rights… Authors need to understand the business they’re getting into. You need to retain or secure your rights.
“If you come and talk to me you need to have a lawyer in place to ensure I’m not going to take advantage of you, because that’s my job and I’m really good at it.”
The audience laughs at her honesty and I see a host of different expressions on the faces of those around me, from the bemused “Chance would be a fine thing that I’d be sitting in an office in Fremantle being taken advantage of,” to “Note to self: call my lawyer.”
The conversation moves on from rights to marketing and the general consensus is that authors need to market themselves as well as their books, but that doesn’t mean creating a new persona.
“You can only be yourself,” says Lovegrove, “so decide what self you want to put out there and make that self bigger and shinier and bolder. The brand and the story have to work in tandem. You have to learn how to sell yourself. Carve out the time to do both writing and selling. You must work out who you are and what the story is that you want people to read.”
Katie Donelan of BookBub explains her company alerts readers to discounts on ebooks.
“We have 30-plus categories and sub-genres within those categories,” she says. “We have a hands-on editorial team and send daily emails. Indie authors are more willing to experiment with pricing. Setting a really low price allows readers to take a risk with a new author – and then they can love that author and buy more books.”
She also echoes one of Nick Stephenson’s frequent messages to his followers: “Capture readers’ emails at the front and/or the back of the book.” It’s all part, she says, of the need for authors to embrace being an entrepreneur.
We break for lunch and I'm over the moon to meet another old friend from Back in the Day, the talented and lovely Valerie Shanley who, like Aine, clearly has a picture in the attic. I don't know what their secret is. Maybe they're tee-total. Over tea and sandwiches Valerie tells me she's got a blog called Looking Our Best, "Grown-up style for well-dressed mid-lifers". Later I check it out and discover much more than a style guide; it's a compelling collection of art, culture, beauty and fashion, with profiles of inspiring women and well-crafted pieces with that wry Shanley humour running throughout. She's already had over 15,000 viewers while I have yet to set up a blog. Not comparing or anything, but she's streets ahead of me.
Now Porter Anderson of SELF-e has taken to the podium and opens our eyes to another way of reaching readers - through libraries.
“Libraries are a form of free marketing,” he says. “SELF-e from Library Journal and Biblioboard lets indie authors get their ebooks into libraries across the US. And you don’t have to be American to get into the programme. You can subscribe to SELF-e from wherever you are and there is no cost to authors. Libraries subscribe to SELF-e.”
He mentions a new library in Texas that deals entirely in ebooks. The times they really are a-changing. But hold on, getting a book into a library might get you readers, but readers borrowing books for free won’t win you sales, right? Wrong.
“In the last six months, 73 per cent of print book library borrowers and 78 per cent of ebook library borrowers bought a book,” says Porter. “They might buy it as a gift, or because they want their own copy, or because they read a previous book by the same author.”
Anderson then goes on to chair a panel discussion on how self-publishing affects the way trade publishers, editors, agents and bookshops do business. He’s joined by panelists Robert Caskie, Senior Agent at Peter Frazer Dunlop; Dr Alison Baverstock, Associate Professor, Dept of Journalism and Publishing, Kingston University, and Robin Cutler of Ingram Spark.
Alison Baverstock defines self-publishing as “the self-management of production and content of a book.”
“Publishing used to be a mysterious art, but with today’s technology authors have become empowered, and more bolshy!” she says. “The author is the central person, deciding what to spend on editorial before publishing, working with editors, designers and so on. It’s a new order.”
Ingram is the largest book distribution firm in the world, and Robin Cutler explains how they launched Ingram Spark 18 months ago to create a model that an indie author could use to upload as a print-on-demand or ebook and have exactly the same distribution as a Random House author would have. The company’s e-book distribution network has 40,000 partners in retailers, libraries, airport shops, gift stores and so on.
Cutler advises: “Connect with your local librarian and book store, and not just to talk about your writing. What’s in it for them? Get local press in, for instance. Build relationships and the book store will support you.”
We break again briefly and I find myself standing next to Nick Stephenson, he of Your First 10,000 Readers fame. I can’t resist it.
“Aren’t you Nick Stephenson? I did your 10,000 Readers tutorials,” I tell him. “They were great, really full of sound, concrete advice.”
“Thank you,” he says, shaking my hand. “What’s your name?”
God, I feel giddy and realise I’m behaving like a star-struck fan, but you know, he’s a big deal. And then I meet a woman who’s had several books published, who advises me out of earshot of Robin Cutler, “First put your book up on CreateSpace, then Kindle and then on Ingram Spark in that order. Ingram Spark is good and costs only about £40, but you want to control the first two yourself.”
I make a note of it and then she’s gone, vanished into the crowd and I’m reminded of what Aine had told me about what a giving lot these indie authors are.
But what Robin Cutler mentioned about bookshops is salient. Ebooks may be the lifeblood of an indie author – Piers Alexander, author of The Bitter Trade, says, “I sold more paperbacks than ebooks, but 63 per cent of my royalties come from my ebook sales” – but they are in danger of annihilating the very thing that spawned them: bookshops.
“The UK lost one-third of its high street bookshops in the last 10 years and as authors, we have a duty to redress that balance,” says ALLi’s Debbie Young, launching the Authors for Bookstores campaign. This includes a five-point manifesto:
1. If you buy a print book, buy it in your local bookshop, not online.
2. On your author website, suggest your readers shop local.
3. Show your local bookseller some online love. Follow him/her on Twitter, like him on Facebook, bring her a cup of coffee (but you’ll have to leave your desk to do that)
4. Sign up for your local bookseller’s loyalty card.
5. Ask not what bookshops can do for you, but what you can do for your bookshop.
Next it’s a rapid-fire Q and A session chaired by Joanna Penn with authors Rachel Abbott, Steena Holmes, CJ Lyons, Mark McGuinness and Nick Stephenson. Penn begins by asking each panelist for his or her top tip and then they answer questions from the floor. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom from each of these amazing authors.
CJ Lyons (paediatric ER doctor turned award-winning bestselling author of 26 novels): “Never forget, the reader is god.”
“I had a book called Blind Faith that retailed at $4.99. It sold like hot cakes. After 10 months I decided to give something back to my readers and for the first time I dropped my price. To promote that sale I emailed my readers and asked them, ‘Help me make my dream come true. I want to hit the Amazon Top 20. Tell a friend.’ That series went on to sell over half a million copies.”
Steena Holmes (Bestselling romance author): “You are an entrepreneur. Take chances. Do things others are not.”
Mark McGuinness (Poet & creative coach): “Get a designer who will make the inside of your book look as good as the outside.”
Rachel Abbott (Bestselling thriller writer whose first novel rocketed to Number One in the Kindle store after only three months): “Define what success looks like to you. For instance, is it selling books, or getting good reviews? Then go after it.
“Write a marketing plan and follow it through. In January 2012 I found I had sold six copies of my book the previous Christmas Day. After writing a marketing plan and following it to the letter, I sold 3,500 copies a day and became a top seller on Amazon.”
For a copy of her marketing plan, click here.
In a hastily written blog post after the conference, Rachel writes: “Bear in mind is that while a fair amount of this information is still absolutely relevant, some of it is also out of date. Things move so quickly that some of the techniques (particularly those with Twitter) are no longer functions that are allowed. So the plan is to revamp all the information and advice – starting very soon. Please feel free to use the options to follow the blog so that you will be updated when I have published new information.”
Other top tips from Rachel include:
“If you’re planning on creating an audio book, read it aloud. You’ll know what sounds good. You might need to change it a little for the audio version.
“Put a link at the back of the book: ‘If you like this book please join my email list.’ Keep a conversation going.”
Nick Stephenson (bestselling thriller writer and author of Your First 10,000 Readers): “Build your email list and discover how to scale up your book.
“People listen to audio books in their cars, for instance: ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) is a good platform for this, and you can arrange royalty shares with narrators.”
Joanna Penn (bestselling thriller writer and author of The Creative Penn): “Take little steps every day, be consistent, and over time you will get places.”
The show was nearly over, but not quite. Porter Anderson interviewed the woman without whom… the inimitable, pioneering, wonderwoman that is Orna Ross:
Orna: The indie spirit is co-operative and supportive. Many indie authors are opinionated, yet they come together and co-operate in a way that’s mutually beneficial. There’s a cohesion between writers working together for each other.
Porter: Why did you set up ALLi?
Orna: “I spent 10 years trying to get legal reproductive rights for women in Ireland, and in a similar vein, I felt there were things in publishing that were not right or just.
“There are currently 25,000 people who are members of ALLi. It is creative and organic… We make it up as we go along, a bit like writing a book. Things go wrong, but we’re resilient. People in the US often define ALLi as a UK operation, but it’s not. It’s one-third UK, one-third US and a third from everywhere else. We are writers and friends who help each other.
“I don’t like the term ‘traditional publishing,’ as if it’s gone away. It hasn’t. I prefer ‘trade publishing.’ Equally, I refer to ‘authors who self-publish’ rather than ‘self-published authors.’ It is a different definition. I look forward to the day when we’re all authors, not hybrids.
Porter: What are your goals? Where do you go from here?
Orna: “My goal is to make self-publishing available and comfortable for people whose voices are not heard. I don’t like the term ‘marginalised,’ but we know how to reach an audience and I want to use that knowledge to hear what people who are not heard have to say.”
Information, education, entertainment… the holy trinity of communication had hit the mark throughout the day’s events and it wasn’t quite over yet. We flooded the five floors of Foyle’s bookshop while the room was converted into a space for indie authors to display their wares. For anyone who hasn’t been to Foyle’s, it is a mecca for readers, with books on every subject in every category imaginable. There are seating areas, a cafe, spaces for art and places to browse. It’s more than a bookshop, it’s an oasis of arts and culture.
I sit and realise I am nowhere near ready to launch my novel. I have to start a blog and/or a website, have some kind of online presence at least. I have to build a platform and write a marketing plan. There is much work to be done.
Returning to the sixth floor with its showcased indie books and authors, I share a glass of wine with my old-new friends Aine and Valerie (clearly not teetotal; definitely pictures in the attic) before retreating downstairs to ask a man where to get the number 12 back to Peckham Rye.