A children’s author’s revolutionary approach to Easter Rising
SP McArdle recounts the ups and down of self-publishing – resistance from bookshops and reviewers but also the satisfaction of complete control
SP McArdle on The Red-Letter Day: I began to have fun, laughing out loud as I tweaked the book’s crazy outline, including early-teens heroine Jenny and her offbeat wordsmith guide O’Flahertie stuck inside a tree watching ninth-century monks play in a band, famous ink-spattered English and Irish writers coming to blows in Trinity College, an evocative escape from Kilmainham Gaol, and a rousing GPO finale in 1916
This article comes with a health warning – although I wish it needn’t.
Here’s the caveat: if you’re the creative, all-or-nothing type (as many authors are, this one included) you run a serious risk of burnout should you publish your work without established marketing or administrative backing (as many authors are doing, this one included).
The achievement of finishing a manuscript is one thing – one gut-wrenching, brain-swirling, cackle-inducing, wonderment-inspiring thing – but battling a slew of procedural obstacles as you strive to sell the half-decent (cue modest shrug) fruits of your labours is quite another.
And that’s the irrational equation this new author-publisher must try to balance on a daily basis.
On the one hand, a response from Fingal County Council’s Arts Office congratulating me on my offbeat new children’s history adventure, The Red-Letter Day (I’d dropped in a review copy three days earlier), and asking me to do library talks.
On the other, another review copy refused outright – albeit promptly and politely – by a prominent children’s author and reviewer, who replied thus: “I’m afraid I don’t read self-published books at the moment as I simply don’t have time.”
Apparently, my quirky time-travelling history adventure is automatically unworthy of comment because I also had the wherewithal and guts to produce it.
Having been a newspaper’s literary editor, however, and with over two decades’ experience in writing and editing news and features, and as a book reviewer for 15 years, once my hurt subsided I felt qualified to console myself that other influencers will think differently.
Not yet, but soon enough, as author-publishing wriggles into better shape, I also believe that internet-driven market forces will break through these unfair exclusion zones.
Plenty of duds from well-established publishers plopped onto my desk while a books editor, to be sold in bookshops because the marketing and administrative channels were already in place. So be it.
But with the ever-increasing facility nowadays for authors to publish and e-publish to high standards, and to run social-media campaigns driving readers to our websites for easy purchase, publishers and bookshops may soon feel an uncomfortable squeeze.
I’d be devastated to see bookshops die, and there are undoubtedly sound publishers doing sterling work to enhance authors’ lives.
But, as I have encountered here, if even independent bookshops won’t deal with new publishers, directing you instead through a wholesaler who then turns down your wonderful book, you’ll find other paths.
(For the record: Why would I fail to deliver on an order for my own books, for goodness’ sake? I have an honours Bachelor of Commerce degree and a first-class Masters in Journalism. I am even an avid fan of Lord Sugar’s The Apprentice – I get it!)
Some days I do consider trying other bookshops and wholesalers but my instincts tell me to invest my depleted resources elsewhere.
The bottom line is that if – and it’s a big if – author-publishers, like me, have relevant experience or can viably hire support to enhance their work (while keeping a stranglehold on costs), success is more possible than ever before.
Plus you get the ultimate satisfaction of control: control over your cover, illustrations and promotional material. You can benefit straight away from any income flow (publisher royalties are traditionally paid to authors twice a year, if applicable).
Aside from inevitable outlays on illustrations, cover, designer, printing, website, publisher set-up costs, stationery and any launch costs, the downside is the relentless after-birth marketing slog.
And please, please do not underestimate this slog.
In truth I never intended to become a publisher; in fact, I didn’t set out to write a book – never mind think up my wonderful, tongue-in-cheek Suitcases history adventure series for eight- to 12-year-olds.
I had actually attended a weekend writing retreat for a rest. But somehow the ideas flowed…
I began writing The Red-Letter Day – which features a quirky 1916 finale – early last year, in plenty of time for the Easter Rising centenary.
However, a number of setbacks left me feeling extremely unwell and low, and those promising first pages remained just that as I flailed about trying to juggle sporadic newspaper subbing shifts, the odd travel-writing trip and caring for my frail mother many miles away.
Then, last New Year’s Eve, a blessed switch flicked in my demoralised brain… and I clicked on the file marked The Red-Letter Day again.
Those first few days, writing and rewriting became a form of healing, a welcome reassurance that everything would come right again.
Crucially, I began to have fun, laughing out loud as I tweaked the book’s crazy outline, including early-teens heroine Jenny and her offbeat wordsmith guide O’Flahertie stuck inside a tree watching ninth-century monks play in a band, famous ink-spattered English and Irish writers coming to blows in Trinity College, an evocative escape from Kilmainham Gaol, and a rousing GPO finale in 1916.
With the Arts Council’s mid-January deadline looming, however (having been shortlisted in 2015), the real-life plot turned serious: my journalist’s brain realised The Red-Letter Day must be published by Proclamation Day – April 24th.
While used to tight editorial deadlines, it was nonetheless terrifying to negotiate with illustrators, printers, designers et al while I hadn’t come close to finishing the manuscript.
But I worked 20-hour days when necessary and, coming up to the final push, laboured all through the night three times over five days.
The Red-Letter Day went for printing, on schedule, on March 18th, and landed back on April 13th.
Each time I look at its enticing cover I smile; illustrator Kerry Hugill also did an amazing job throughout the book, which features seven full-page cartoons.
All I have to do now is launch Facebook and Twitter campaigns which convert to sales, learn how to update my website, most especially with my travel articles and book reviews, make sense of the terms and conditions of online marketplaces so I can consider agreeing to them, design an ebook, and… and… and…
You have been warned.
SP (Síle) McArdle (www.facebook.com/spmcardleauthor and @SPAuthorHack) is an award-winning journalist brought up in Northern Ireland who now lives in Dublin. The Red-Letter Day is available from www.sppublishink.com