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Self-publish and be damned (Part Two)

A short while ago, I made the decision to self-publish my first novel The Butterfly Collector. Far from being a whim, or the result of excessive vanity (although I have enough of that), the decision was taken after some consideration. Prior to this, my novel had undertaken an extensive tour of agent’s offices and publishing houses without any offers. The waiting time for a response varied from two days to six months. Sometimes, I’d forget I had a proposal out there at all, and would come home to find not one but two brown envelopes lying on the mat!

This process continued for two years. In that time, I racked up over seventy-five rejections and spent a small fortune in post and packaging. There were, however, the occasional glimmers of hope. Among the raft of standard rejection letters, I would occasionally receive a personal reply. ‘Well written, literate and with a great deal of charm’, said one. ‘Well-crafted and entertaining’, said another. And perhaps the most encouraging of all, ‘Potentially very commercial’. These comments, from professionals in the business, inspired me to keep trying and to develop the necessary resilience to carry on.

But it didn’t get me the one thing I desired most of all. Publication.

Self-publishing is big business.  It is also relatively cheap for the unknown author with limited funding. These days, you no longer need a second mortgage to see your work in print, but can upload it to Amazon (or any number of similar distributors) for free and sit back to await the profits. These, as any expert will tell you, are unlikely to amount to much. Most new e-books, especially novels, fail to sell more than a few copies and, after the initial unveiling, are consigned to digital obscurity to gather virtual dust. This, we’re told, is the result of several factors, not least of these being poor quality and a distinct lack of marketing. Occasionally, authors get lucky and manage to sell in large enough quantities to attract attention from the same publishing houses they were previously shunned by – the literary equivalent of striking gold in the Black Hills.  Authors like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howie have become bywords for e-publishing success. And while they remain exceptions to the rule, their example proves that the transition is achievable.

But what of the stigma? Does self-publishing equate with failure or poor quality, as some critics maintain, or has this concept  been disproved by the rise of the online entrepreneur? The critics are often harsh in their denunciation.  Self-published novels in general,  they say, are amateurish and full of errors. Rather than being subjected to the tried and tested formula of editing and proofreading, the homespun manuscript tends to be thrashed out in record time and uploaded onto the web without a second thought. This charge isn’t true of all self-published novels, of course, but it is indicative of the vast majority.

Catherine Ryan Howard self-published her first novel Results Not Typical after failing to land a mainstream publishing dealIn her blog post entitled ‘Why I Unpublished My Self-Published First Novel’, she describes the initial decision to self-publish as being taken in a ‘moment of weakness.’ Unable to find a home for her book, in spite of several assurances from professionals that it was polished and well written, she gave in to temptation and published online.  Unfortunately, for Catherine, sales for her novel failed to match those of her non-fiction books (also self-published) and, after months of trying, she gave up. The decision to withdraw was the right one, she claims, sparing her the humiliation of pushing a product no-one wanted and the thankless task of going it alone.

There are no easy answers to the problems Catherine and thousands of others face in the bid to become established. But the ways to gain a foothold have changed significantly. Touting your manuscript around for years in the vain hope it will be picked up by an agent or publisher, is no longer the only option.  Authors can simply upload a Word document to Amazon and be published in a matter of minutes. Royalties are a huge incentive too, sometimes in the region of 80 percent, compared to the paltry 8 percent offered by traditional publishing houses. But the vast numbers of ‘indie authors’ that have flooded the market place are making it harder than ever to become known.  Instead of competing with the relatively small number of books printed by mainstream publishing houses each year, self-published authors find themselves up against a relentless tide of e-books, with little or no chance of gaining recognition.

My novel The Butterfly Collector took several years to complete, from the first draft written in longhand, to the final edit. Having been through several rewrites and countless structural changes, it resembles the original draft very little. But it does represent the culmination of my best efforts over a period of time. It currently sits ‘pending review’ on the Smashwords site and is available for samples and downloads, along with all the others. Unlike many writers, however, I have not given up entirely on the traditional route and continue to send proposals to agents and publishers. Over the years, I have developed a certain doggedness of spirit, coupled with a strong belief in my work. The novelist Nigel Watts once declared ‘If your book is good enough, it will find a home’. Perhaps he hadn’t reckoned on the siege mentality of today’s publishing houses, swamped with unsolicited manuscripts and threatened by the rise of the World Wide Web, but I’m sure his advice holds true.

No-one can predict the next bestseller. Agents and publishers remain, at best, informed gatekeepers, sorting through the dross to find the real talent. But they don’t always get it right. One thing is certain. If you have written a book and you would like as many people as possible to read it, you’ll need three indispensable assets. Courage, tenacity and an extremely thick skin. You will also need, to coin the business term, a saleable product. Without that you’re dead in the water anyway.

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