‘Being an Irish author is more of a Grimm fairytale than a Cinderella story’
Self-publishing has swung the pendulum back in favour of the author and for me that is a fairytale ending
Evie Gaughan: “as a self-published author in Ireland, I am at best ignored and at worst, not taken seriously”
Signing with a publisher is the ultimate fairytale for every new writer. We slave away like modern-day Cinderellas on our manuscripts, not entirely sure of what our happy-ever-after will entail, but still we long for the day when we can squeeze our toes into that glass slipper.
However, a recent article by Donal Ryan on the harsh realities of being a published writer in Ireland has put paid to the fairytale notion of big advances and handsome royalties. Ryan revealed that for the first contract he signed he earned a sobering 40c per book, which left a lot of people asking, where does the rest of the cover price go?
Most people outside of the industry assume that once you have a contract and your book is in the shop window, you’re on the pig’s back, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Traditional publishing is a bit like fight club – nobody really knows what goes on because nobody talks about it. So for new writers, it can be a bit of a blow to discover the truth.
In an Irish Times article, Ruth Hegarty, managing editor at the Royal Irish Academy and president of Publishing Ireland, stated that if you made between €1,000-€2,000 a year, you were doing well. A survey of author earnings in Ireland also revealed that a quarter of authors earned just €500.
Honestly, if that had been my experience with my first book, I think I would have given up then and there; which makes me wonder how many other authors have walked away from writing? I would have seen it as a failure, but that’s only because I had no idea what the average sales figures were.
When I began submitting my debut novel back in 2013, while quietly humming “Some day my prince will come”, my expectations of the publishing contract were embarrassingly Cinderella-like. I may not have been expecting a gilded carriage, but I assumed that they would take care of everything and more importantly, take care of me. This is why I am so glad that I didn’t get that publishing deal, because I would have naively left everything in the hands of the publisher.
Becoming a self-published author has forced me to take sole responsibility of my writing career by learning everything I could about this industry from the ground up. If you want to be an author, you have to focus on the long game and I’m not sure that traditional publishing can give authors that kind of luxury anymore.
It’s clear that publishing houses are under pressure and are limiting their budgets for editorial and marketing. Authors are now required to do most of their own promotion, just like self-published authors have always done. Publishers save their money for their top 1 per cent of authors and there is little left in the kitty for newcomers.
There is still a lot of snobbery around self-publishing and while there are those who still view it as the poor relation, statistics show that the popularity of indie books is on the rise. A new report from Enders Analysis found that 40 of the 100 top-selling ebooks on Amazon US in March 2016 were self-published.
While self-publishing also has its fairytale stories, don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy route to fame and fortune. Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot more to self-publishing than merely uploading your book and hitting publish. Successful authors invest heavily in their books; hiring freelance editors, cover designers and proofreaders, just like a regular publisher. Along with creative freedom comes the responsibility of setting your sales price, garnering reviews, running promotions and building an author platform. Most successful self-publishers are professional authors who take their careers very seriously. Readers are exceptionally discerning and can separate the amateurs from the professional authors very quickly.
The publishing world is in flux. More and more, we are seeing traditionally published authors moving into self-publishing. Polly Courtney, author of Feral Youth, decided to ditch Harper Collins because of what she felt was their chick-lit marketing approach to her books. Claire Cook, author of Must Love Dogs, left her publisher and her agent once she realised she could earn more through self-publishing: 70 per cent royalties on ebook sales compared to the standard 25 per cent a traditional author receives is hard to ignore.
Conversely, many self-published authors have been picked up by traditional publishers after achieving success themselves. Names like Hugh Howey, author of the Silo series, and Andy Weir, author of The Martian, come to mind. If these names are not familiar to you, it’s largely due to the fact that indie titles receive little or no coverage in traditional media. This, despite the fact that indie authors sell copies in the millions online and enjoy a robust social media following. Recognition and validation from the traditional literary community is rare and as a self-published author in Ireland, I am at best ignored and at worst, not taken seriously.
There has always been a debate over whether authors are better off self-publishing or going the traditional route. However, publishing doesn’t need to be an “either/or” decision anymore. We have now entered the age of the hybrid author; someone who is published both traditionally and self-published. It’s clear that authors can earn far more lucrative royalties through self-publishing, but the exposure and distribution of print books that comes with a mainstream publishing deal drives your brand as an author. One feeds the other and not only that; it places you in a much better position to negotiate with publishers if you already have a good author platform.
Hybrid authors have the best of both worlds and to be honest, I’m surprised that more Irish authors aren’t taking this route. Some books are more suited to self-publishing than others (as are authors) but at the very least, authors have the choice to pursue a more tailored approach to getting their book out there. Self-publishing has opened the door for a new kind of publisher/author relationship. American bestselling indie author Shannon Mayer recently signed a deal with Skyhorse Publishing that has allowed her to retain her ebook rights, while signing the print rights over to them. As she said herself in a recent podcast, it’s the holy grail of deals for authors.
I know all of this seems light years away from the world of Irish publishing, and while these kinds of deals might be the exception (Hugh Howey brokered a similar deal with Simon & Schuster) publishers need to start thinking outside of the box. This new kind of partnership is the way forward in my view, allowing publisher to collaborate with authors, rather than feeling as though you are handing over complete control of your work.
Traditional publishing is positively glacial in its approach to change. Digital publishing is a fast-paced environment and Amazon has responded to that. They have even created their own imprints for agented authors, showing that they can evolve and respond to the market. I believe it’s time for traditional publishers to do the same and put the author at the centre of the industry. Authors need a fair return for their work and it just doesn’t seem right to me that they are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to earnings. And yet, that is how the publishing industry is structured. As an author, you are advised to submit primarily to literary agents, as most of the bigger publishers will not accept unsolicited material. However, landing an agent also means parting with another 15 per cent of your earnings, so even though you are the one who has written the book, everyone else seems to be benefiting. But that’s how it works; the odds are skewed in their favour and as an author you just have to be glad you got published at all.
Being an author in Ireland seems to be more of a Grimm fairytale than a Cinderella story, but self-publishing has offered writers an alternative ending. While there are success stories, like newcomer Adam Croft who managed to pay off his mortgage in 20 weeks when sales of his crime series “went a bit mad” as he put it in a recent interview, most self-published authors have more modest sales. But at least they are no longer dependent on the “gatekeepers” or wondering how much longer their manuscript will wallow in the slush pile. Self-publishing has swung the pendulum back in favour of the author and for me that is a fairytale ending.
Evie Gaughan is a Galway author and her debut novel, The Heirloom, is set in her hometown. Her second novel, The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris is not, but both are available on Amazon and Kennys Bookshop