Publishing is changing and there are going to be casualties. Equally there will be victors – and that could include you, my 50-something budding-author friend.
Just as the internet revolutionised the way we consume music – bringing down record companies in the process – so self-publishing, in paperback and as eBooks, is challenging the traditional publishing model. No longer does an author have to endure the bloody, drawn-out process of manuscript–publisher–rejection. Self-publish and be damned!
Former Sex Pistols roadie, copper and vicar, Graham Taylor, 53, who writes under the pen name GP Taylor, famously sold his motorbike to finance the self-publishing of his debut fantastical novel, Shadowmancer, in 2003. Through word of mouth, his print run of 2,000 sold out within a month and copies began appearing on eBay, selling for up to £6,000 a copy. (One recently sold for $43,000.)
“It got to the point where I couldn’t cope, so I found an agent who took it off to several publishers and Faber & Faber won the bidding war,” Taylor says. His six-book deal netted £3.5 million. The film rights went for a further £2.5 million. His 13 published books, including the Mariah Mundi trilogy (labelled ‘Hotter than Potter’), have sold nine million copies worldwide.
“I am so excited by what is happening now, because people who want to write, can write and can be published. They don’t have to get agents,” he says.
“Especially people in their 50s. I’m 50-something and these are the best days [of my life]. I’ve just set up a film production company, I’ve produced my first TV series [a Last of the Summer Wine sequel – proof that there’s life in every old dog] and my first film [20s thriller Jack Dark].
“Just because I’m past 50 doesn’t mean my life’s over. I was a middle-aged guy when I wrote Shadowmancer and people were saying, ‘You’ll never do it’. I proved them wrong.”
Neither is his stunning success a one-off. Self-published crime-fiction writer John Locke this year passed the million sales mark on Amazon’s Kindle in five months. It’s a feat managed by only a handful of authors, including Lee Child and Stieg Larsson.
But it isn’t always that simple.
Kindle, Lulu and Smashwords
I, too, am a self-published author. My 2008 Doctor Who-based memoir, Dalek I Loved You, was published in hardback and paperback by Gollancz. It sold several thousand, though not enough to light up either my bank balance or the publisher’s eyes. It was quietly dropped last year and I took back the rights.
I self-published it as an eBook, via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service, and for iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Borders using the Smashwords website, which converts a Word file, via html, into a variety of electronic formats. Total cost of these procedures: £0. Dalek I Loved You is currently selling about 30 copies a month. There are no guarantees.
Would I self-publish again? Like a shot. Publishers hand out royalties of around 10 per cent; Amazon’s KDP offers up to 70 per cent. And I get to call the shots. All I need is self-motivation, and a decent copy editor. What’s to lose?
Chris Westwood, 51, carved out a hugely successful career during the late 80s and into the 90s, with his fantastical books for children. He was published by Penguin and Harper Collins, and had one of his titles, Calling All Monsters, optioned three times by Steven Spielberg. He recalls being woken in the early hours of one morning with the news: “Wake up! Your life has changed!”. The film never happened, but the option money went a long way to quelling his disappointment.
Family problems (Westwood became full-time carer for his father) meant he wrote only one book in seven years, Profile, concerning internet stalking. It was too dark for publishers’ tastes, so he self-published, in the familiar paperback form.
“It was quite a learning curve, in that I had to figure out how to produce a book,” he recalls. “I had to calculate the page numbering, do the artwork and blurb myself. But I did it through Lulu (a rival to Smashwords), who made it pretty easy.
“The only cost incurred was £8 to buy a proof copy of my book, to make sure it looked OK. After that I took a percentage of the revenue. I chose a fairly low percentage. A lot of people who self publish, who don’t have much experience, go a bit nuts and think they can take £5 or £6 from every copy they sell, and put out a 50-page pamphlet for £15.” To keep pricing realistic, Westwood took about 30p per copy, priced at £7.99.
Lulu has published more than 1.1 million eBooks, and adds 20,000 titles to its catalogue every month.
According to industry figures from Bowker last year, non-traditionally-produced titles (self-published, essentially) outstripped those produced by traditional publishers by three to one. What used to be known as vanity publishing – paying big bucks to see one’s book in print – is now perfectly respectable, since the costs are low to zero.
“I think it’s a really good option,” says Westwood. “And age is no barrier. Everyone has a voice. [Success] is really down to good writing. You have to address things like copy-editing and the whole production thing [if you’re publishing a paperback], but if you’re unsure there are sites that tell you exactly what to do.
“There will always be young, trendy writers but the rest of us have to rely on what gifts we have. I’ve been doing school visits [publicising his latest book, Ministry of Pandemonium] and I didn’t get the impression my age had any bearing on the pupils. What grabs them are the stories, the world of imagination. I always think: Mary Wesley started writing at 70.”
Your book’s out there, then. So, however, are a lot of others. Now what?
Facebook followers and favourable quotes
Former Fleet Street journalist Walter Ellis, 63, had been published previously by Penguin Books. One summer afternoon this year he uploaded a new novel that could not find a publisher, London Eye, as an eBook on Amazon’s Kindle. “Uploading it was tricky but not impossible,” he says.
But how to publicise it? “I wrote a piece for The Bookseller, which they published, built a somewhat static website and have worked steadily to build myself a following on Twitter.” He has amassed 1,169 followers, myself included. (He followed me back, which is often how it works. I won’t mention how many followers I have.)
Generating sales means generating word-of-mouth publicity, which means social networking, blogging, getting reviewed, finding celebrity backers. (Did I mention that David Tennant read Dalek I Loved You and provided the quote for the cover? He said: “A very funny book for anyone who grew up wearing Tom Baker underpants – I know I did.”)
Westwood says: “I’m a reluctant blogger and I do a bit of Facebook and a bit of Twitter because I know I have to. That’s the thing with being published by a big publisher; they take the publicity side out of your hands. But if you’re outgoing or if you’re a blogger, someone who has an audience online, that’s a really good place to start selling. I’m a reluctant networker and that is why I write books – I say my piece in that way, in a quiet space.”
How is Walter Ellis doing? “I would have to say that the results so far have not been encouraging. Since going ‘global’ I have sold precisely 36 copies of London Eye on Kindle.
“People, including a leading British publisher and Matthew D’Ancona, a judge of this year’s Booker Prize, have spoken highly of the book, but there has been no sign so far of the broader word of mouth that I am told precedes a surge in sales. Is it possible that, at the age of 63, I am about to become an overnight success? I wish I knew.”