Copyright © Brian S John -- not to be reproduced without written permission
THE GREENER GRASS
Brian John considers the relative merits of self-publishing and selling out
This article was published in the Summer 2007 edition of
The Author, pp 59-60
I suspect that there is not a self-published novelist anywhere who would not have been flattered by a surprise fax message from one of the biggest publishers in the world which said “Please may we buy your books?”
I also suspect that if said publisher had refused, just five years earlier and in a time of different priorities, to read the first chapter of your first novel, you would have been even more likely to sign on the dotted line. With a grin on your face. Of course, you would have played hard to get, with the excellent assistance of this Society. But your signature would never have been in doubt.
Well, it happened to me. The coveted books were my Angel Mountain novels, first published under my own Greencroft Books imprint and already best-sellers in Wales. A total of 30,000 copies shifted thus far, without a single review in a quality Sunday or daily paper and without a sniff from either Richard or Judy. No taste, some people. But thousands clearly do feel passionately committed to the books, and this was picked up on during my publisher’s routine trawling of the literary waters on the far-flung shores of the British Isles. The company, to its credit, has an imaginative policy of using its reps to find new authors and new titles that have already been edited, published and market tested; and that is something that many “discovered” authors have reason to be thankful for. In my case, rep Ian Tripp conspired with bookseller Marley Davies to send my books secretly up to headquarters, where the editorial team was discerning enough to fall in love with my heroine Martha Morgan.
The first three of the five novels were bought for a modest advance, and all three are now published by Corgi Books. Fifteen months have elapsed since the appearance of On Angel Mountain as the first of my titles, and I have had time to assess the relative merits of small cottage and big house. I still ask myself whether I did the right thing by signing on that dotted line, although I am only too aware that without a contract with a big publishing house I would not have had the remotest chance of breaking into the big-time in a world dominated by key account managers, celebrities, EPOS and BookScan, and brutal price competition. For better or for worse, my old editions have become collectors’ items as the Corgi volumes take their places on local as well as distant bookshop shelves. The fans of the series are confused, but they will adapt over time.
The pros and cons? Self-publishing is a grind, but there are great joys too. Once you have been rejected by 53 publishers and just as many agents (as I was) you are driven by the desire to show them all how wrong they were. You can create without constraint, to your own timetable. Writing, editing, format and cover design remain under your own control. You need to organize refereeing, if you are not to slip into the shadowland of vanity publishing. You have to do all of the publicity yourself, and force yourself into the terribly unBritish business of self-promotion. You must choose a printer and work with him. Then you must use the house as a warehouse, and try, under pressure from your loved ones, to move the stock fast into whatever outlets you can find so as to recover your living space. Paperback novels are the bane of self-publishers, since they are light and bulky and may be packed only fourteen to a box. Gain some comfort from the fact that boxes stored in every spare space will make your house cosy at a time when we are all exhorted to improve our domestic insulation. Eighteen months ago I had five Angel Mountain novels in print, and around 1000 full book boxes in the house. Thankfully, most of those have now gone, and my wife is recovering her sanity.
As a self-publisher for 33 years, I have made a reasonable living. I know my local readers, book trade and media well, which guarantees press coverage and also rapid sales through visitor centres, gift shops and other “non-trade” outlets whose owners have never even heard of Nielsen BookScan. My five best-sellers have not registered on any system other than my own sales record -- if they had, each one of them would have made an appearance on the Fiction Heatseekers lists. I’m not complaining -- it’s fun to be a big fish in a small pond.
But self-publishing is undoubtedly a lonely and vulnerable business. You spend long hours in the car on delivery runs, and make many sales journeys which are fruitless. You have hardly any money for advertising. You have to budget for the payment of hefty printing bills, and that involves careful planning. I have done that without ever taking a loan, always using part of the income from one book to finance the printing of the next. You can become isolated, and unless you make an effort to involve family and friends in refereeing, editing, proof reading and delivery runs you can become discouraged by your failures or deluded by your little successes.
Life with a big publisher is very different. For a start, you get paid your advance up front. You deal with an experienced editor, proof-reader and publicist, and work with reps who know the trade better than you ever will. The feedback between you and your team is stimulating and creative. Your book is professionally produced to an exacting standard, with (as in my case) a wonderful jacket. You do not have to worry about holding stock, and are relieved that somebody else looks after sales and record-keeping. Weeks pass. With the book in print, and in the shops, and with initial signing sessions and author tours out of the way, you can get stuck into the next book. That’s the theory, anyway.
However, there are several interesting things that emerge over time. First, that if your book has been bought cheaply less money is spent on promotion, with little trace of a publicity “campaign”. Second, that in some areas of publicity, particularly at a local level and outside London, your own knowledge and contacts may be greater than those of your publicist. (That may be unfair -- the truth may be that publicists are rather good at their job, but that they are also publicising 30 other books at the same time as yours.) Third, that the post-publication promotional effort (which you want to last for ever) actually lasts for maybe a week or two, after which time your publicist has become preoccupied with the next blockbuster. Fourth, that ongoing publicity work is really down to you as the author, and if you are of a retiring disposition that may cause considerable stress. Fifth, that you are not always as well informed about strategies and developments as you might wish to be. Sixth, that the publishing house has bought your books because they were local successes, and because it assumes that local sales will continue at an acceptable level. Your publisher can settle into the comfort zone in the knowledge that the company is unlikely to lose money if you, the author, continue to work the sales network which you have already established. To emphasise this point, my first novel in the new edition has now sold around 5,000 copies, and I have personally sold 1,000 of those to non-trade outlets.
Finally, the matter of finance. When I self-published my novels and distributed them myself I cleared £3 per copy sold, on a £6.99 cover price. With the “big house” editions, I now earn an average royalty of 50p per copy sold. That is down to the pressure of massive discounting. You do not need to be a genius to work out that I need my publisher to sell 36,000 copies of On Angel Mountain to give me the same earnings as I obtained originally on 6,000 copies of my self-published edition. The new edition has already earned out its advance, which is I suppose something of an achievement, but the quantum leap in sales which I hoped for has not happened, because the publisher is concentrating on selling into precisely the same market as that which I originally carved out as a self-publisher. That is a disappointment to me, since I had hoped for something more imaginative.
But I went into this with my eyes open, and one has to take risks in writing and publishing as in any other field of human endeavour. I was probably right to sign on the dotted line. One day Judy (she of the TV show) will have On Angel Mountain pushed under her nose, and she will become entranced by Mistress Martha Morgan, super-heroine, just like everybody else. Look out, Lizzie Bennett and Dan Brown.
BRIAN JOHN’s three titles published by Corgi are On Angel Mountain, House of Angels, and Dark Angel. All other titles in the Saga are published by Greencroft Books only.