The fallacy of making a fortune out of self-publishing

E L James has made a reported US$50M from her Fifty Shades Of Grey series of books, so is self-publishing now the new money making goldmine for aspiring wealth hunters?  As a first time self-published author, I can safely conclude that it’s not.

It’s a fairly safe bet that in any guide to the top ten ways of making money self-publishing wouldn’t be one of them.  It wouldn’t even make a list of the top 100 ways.  For every E L James there are a million frustrated self-published authors wondering ‘when am I going to be discovered?’  I know.  I’m one of them, having just self-published my first novel, A Matter of Life and Death.

Of course, like many self-published authors I can claim that my writing is inspired by the need to create and inspire – art for art’s sake – rather than earning a good financial payback from it, but who am I kidding?  At least I’ve had my first royalty cheque, which shall we say was ‘modest’ (and that’s ignoring what it cost me to get my novel on to the market in the first place).  At the current rate of sale I calculate I should break even around 2017.

So why self-publish?

Producing your own book used to be called vanity publishing, and with good reason. You’d have been considered rather self-regarding to fund the printing of your own works when a publisher wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. So what’s changed?

The digital age is what.  Now, any self-professed writer can knock out anything they like and stick it online – hey presto, they’ve written a book.  It may not matter that the book isn’t very good, is derivative, is badly spelled and pays no heed to the normal rules of grammar.  It’s a book, and that’s what counts.  To the ‘author’ at least.

As for needing deep pockets to bring a literary baby into the world, you can effectively publish an e-novel for less than £100 these days.  Just process your copy through a proprietary software package, and within minutes it’s online.  It’s so easy, why not?  But does anyone want to read it?  A cursory glance at the best seller lists reveals that a lot of self-published books, only available as e-versions and not in paperback, can be acquired by the experimental reader for as much as 1p.  Or for no cost at all.  In many cases that’s just about what the book is worth.

Other self-published authors, myself included, aim a little higher and opt for a paperback version, more on the grounds of authenticity than anything else.  This approach brings a higher price tag, as the author not only has to pay for the typesetting, cover design and printing, he or she will also have to fund distribution via book wholesalers, and then become a marketing expert overnight in order to promote the work (unless, of course, they pay extra for someone else to do it for them).

I calculate that to print a thousand copies of a paperback, generate an e-version of the book, and secure distribution via the usual online channels costs around £4 per book.  If the book sells at say, an £8 cover price, the author can expect to net around £2 per book.  You don’t have to be a genius at maths to work out that’s not exactly a brilliant business return.  The commission on an e-book sale is more attractive to the author, and if you make print run number two then unit costs will reduce significantly.

Will a typical self-published author sell a thousand copies?  Will he or she ever need to sign that ‘reprint’ order form?  As a rule of thumb, I’d suggest counting the names in your address book to forecast sales, because the self-published author is going to inveigle everyone he or she knows to buy a copy.  Do you have a thousand friends in your address book?  How do you get beyond that to people who’ve never heard of you, who may like to try your book if they knew about it?

Much was made of E L James’ mastery of social media in the success of Fifty Shades, but it’s a crowded space, and you need to know what you’re doing.  The key to sales is good critical reviews, and to get those you need to get to the reviewers, naturally. Who has the better chance of that?  A first time author no-one has ever heard of or a publisher who can use their established contacts to say ‘you should read this…’?

For most self-publishing authors, writing the actual book is about half of the process  - they have to then take on all of the duties an agent and publisher would normally have responsibility for – and with no previous experience or expertise to hand.  But self-published authors are not short on passion or self-belief – he or she will convince themselves that the world has been waiting for their opus and, with a lucky break, it will get discovered and the film rights snapped up before the ink on the first print run dries.  But, E L James and a small handful of others apart, it’s not going to happen.

But hang on; I’m a self-published author, so why am I being less than reverential about the whole process?  I think my novel is great and would hope you think so too if you took the time to read it.  So, why did I self-publish?

The answer to that is easy – I couldn’t find a literary agent who’d take on my book.  Now it’s easy to say that literary agents wouldn’t recognise talent if they fell over it, and that my manuscript represents pure gold to them if only they could see it, but let’s face it, they probably can’t move for all of the other manuscripts they’re receiving on a daily basis.  And an author needs a literary agent because publishers don’t deal with authors directly in 99 per cent of cases.

So, in my view, the real aim of self-publishing is for an author to raise his or her book to a place where it more easily attracts the attention of literary agents and publishers, creating a sales or critical spike that elevates their book above the rest.  Look at a number of recent first time authors, E L James included, who’ve been signed up by publishers after self-publishing first, and you’ll discern this contemporary pattern and route to respectability.

Perhaps an even more compelling example of self-publishing success than James is that of American author Hugh Howey.  Howey is a name you may not have heard of but his Wool post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel currently sits atop the New York Times bestsellers list.  As Howey’s self-generated sales came to attention he was inundated with publishers desperate to sign him, and he declined all overtures – after all, he was doing very well by himself, so what did he need one for?  Eventually he did sign a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster, but only after negotiating to retain his own highly lucrative e-publishing rights in a breakthrough agreement for the literary world.

While the James and Howey examples – exceptions – demonstrate how self-publishing can act as a launch pad for aspiring authors to make a breakthrough, in the majority of cases to be a serious player an author still needs the support of an agent and publisher, bringing their books to the market in the traditional time honoured way.

Once signed up, they’ll receive the full backing of their agent and publisher throughout the process from feedback on story development to editing, from sales and distribution expertise to marketing support – unlike the self-published author who has to depend on their own judgement time and again.  After all, writing a book in the first place is hard enough for authors without them having to sell it as well.

Harper Lee, author of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird (sales of over 30M) probably had it right when she said ‘People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing.  They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers.’ It’s hard to disagree with her, particularly as she only wrote that one novel in her lifetime.  Lee, incidentally, was full of praise for her editor who mentored her through two years of rewriting until the novel was ready.

Apart from the odd author, does anyone make money out of self-publishing?  The answer is yes, because now there is a whole superstructure of support, available at a price, to get you into print.  Self-publishing companies vie with each other to turn your manuscript into the finished product.  Surprisingly they don’t bother to actually read the manuscripts – they’ll print anything if the author pays.  Then they’ll sell you marketing support, cover design and proofreading services.  If you’re minded, there’s a plethora of ‘how to become a better writer’ courses and workshops available, or perhaps you’d like to buy a book on ‘how to get published’?  The self-publishing author is the market being sold to – not the one who’s selling.

Will self-publishers displace the traditional publishing market in the near future?  I doubt it. Publishing is a quality game by and large, and in the end, quality will out.  Self-publishing will continue to flourish, but it will be a largely self-indulgent and financially unrewarding pursuit for the majority.  A bit like blogging.

Is A Matter of Life and Death a self-indulgent and financially unrewarding exercise for me?  It certainly is the latter.  I’ll still continue to knock on the doors of literary agents in a bid to seek a deal, and in any event I’m already halfway though my next novel.  Maybe that will be my breakthrough into the big time?  In the meantime I’ll content myself with Harper Lee’s wise words – ‘Any writer worth his salt writes for himself’.

An edit of this feature first appeared in Gafencu Men’s magazine, Hong Kong, May 2013

Where would you like these?


A Shining Example On How Not To Write A Novel?

Stephen King’s On Writing is often quoted as being the essential book for would be authors to read before setting out on their virgin manuscript. It’s good fun too, with the first half comprising a very amusing biography before the second half tells you all the dos and don’ts of writing a book. Did it help me write my first novel? Well, yes, I found it very reassuring, not least because SK is straightforward, unflappable and the master of common sense. But on one area, I definitely had to say, ‘come on Stephen, you’re joking, right?’ Why? Because SK thinks plot is something you should develop as you go along.

At a conservative estimate, King has sold over 300 million books, and what the hell do I know, but come on – writing a book without a clear plotline is a bit like setting off in a car with a full tank of petrol and seeing where you end up. It may work out, but more than likely you’re going to end up at the equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. In winter. Without a toothbrush.

There are a lot of ‘how to write a novel’ guides out there (The Guardian published an extensive supplement recently on how to write the first draft of a novel in 30 days which I reckon would have taken 29 days to get your head around) and there are endless courses where you part with your money to discover you haven’t got what it takes (but thanks for coming, anyway).

But isn’t writing a book predominantly a logical process? In AMOLAD’s case, I started with the blurb – 120 words. All I had to do then was stretch it to 80,000 words. Before I started writing the book I roughly planned what happened to each of the key characters and working from that I gridded up a rough chapter guide.

The route was mapped out – I knew pretty much where Z was before I embarked from A; all I had to do then was write it, and from that blueprint the characters and action took on lives of their own. I also stuck at it – 1500- 1800 words a day, Monday to Friday, mornings only. They soon add up, particularly when you don’t have to stop to think ‘where’s this going next?’

Or look at it another way. Writing a book is like cooking a meal. You have a recipe, you assemble the ingredients, you do the preparation. Then you cook it. Name a famous chef who doesn’t operate that way? If Stephen King ever invites you to dinner discreetly enquire whether he’s cooking before you accept?

So, Mr King, forgive me, but my advice to any would-be author – and I’m not charging for this – is to get your finger out, get a plan, get organised and get on with it. And we all know what happened to Jack Torrance in The Shining after he lost the plot.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy 


Attending your own funeral? Coming Soon.

Mark Twain may have had the opportunity, but it’s fair to say being able to attend your own funeral is not something that happens every day. Premature obituaries do happen in the case of mistaken identity and misreported deaths, but it’s relatively rare.

Twitter, of course, seems to be doing its best to despatch the still living to the great beyond, with rumours of the deaths of pop stars, film actors and politicians regularly reaching halfway round the world before the ‘mistake’ – for which read ‘spoof’ – is unmasked. Margaret Thatcher has already died ten times this year in the bubble of social media.

Attending your own funeral could be called a once in a lifetime experience, except, of course, you’ll be dead by the time the occasion arrives. What a waste of a day.

Undertakers have hit upon the perfect way of getting your money upfront by encouraging people to plan their own send off; after all, it’s your big day and you can’t always rely on others to get the small detail right. The funeral trades call it ‘pre-need’ planning, but they still ask for a deposit once you’ve got your perfect send off mapped out.

Do you want to be buried or cremated? Check. Limousine or horse drawn carriage? Check. Traditional casket or wicker basket? Check. Church or humanist service? Check. And that’s before you get on to music, memorials, venue for the reception, catering, free bar and whether to have donations instead of flowers.

Let’s face it, most weddings are easier to plan if you think about it, and at least if wedding arrangements go awry most participants will always have a second chance.

So, if a funeral is such a big occasion, and if you’ve put your heart and soul into planning it, why miss it? Have it before you die. We Brits appear to have abandoned the stiff upper lip when it comes to funerals anyway, so what’s the harm? If a funeral is, as the common parlance goes, ‘a celebration of life’ then pop that cork, get a cake baked, and stick the invites in the post – ‘what are you doing Saturday?’

And think, you get to hear the eulogies, maybe say a few words yourself, receive pats on the back, and nobody will dare interfere with your specially compiled music playlist. Funeral companies are definitely missing a trick here – they’d be effectively doubling their market overnight if they could persuade people to opt for two send offs instead of the traditional one.

‘Living Funeral Therapy’, where people attend their own funerals to get a fresh perspective on their lives, is already practiced in South Korea as an anti-suicide measure. Participants report a feeling of greater self-worth and renewed motivation.

Some details may need second thoughts though. Harry Secombe famously received a message from his fellow goon, Spike Milligan: `I hope you go before me because I don’t want you singing at my funeral.’ If you only die twice, that could be a bit of a problem.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK website:

Spike and Harry – not on song for once…

Why I had to kill Margaret Thatcher

In ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ street artist and prankster Smudger sets Twitter trending with a spoof announcement that Margaret Thatcher has died.  Well, that’s not the first time that’s happened, but Smudger also sets up a fake in-memoriam site for tributes to be left for the former – PM.  Inevitably, the site is targeted with less than complimentary comments before it is swiftly shut down. Smudger strikes again.  The scene highlights just how Twitter can be manipulated and used as an anti-news medium.

But why poor Mrs Thatcher some may ask? Given the context of the spoof was a party political conference, then obviously she was ‘fair game’ for the purposes of the book, but it also raise the issue that, love her or loathe her, when the day of her passing does arrive, Baroness Thatcher is once more going to divide the nation as virulently as she ever did in the past.

As the recent furore at the TUC annual conference over the sale of t-shirts and party kits rejoicing in the future death of Mrs Thatcher demonstrated, for every commentator professing abhorrence over ‘tastelessness’ and ‘inappropriateness’, there was an equal number of unabashed detractors still keen to profess their ongoing opprobrium towards the so-called ‘Iron Lady’.  Incidentally, AMOLAD was finished and at the printers before that particular story went national.

The TUC conference  ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ episode is going to be a storm in a teacup compared to what will happen when Margaret Thatcher finally does slip this mortal coil.  The rumour of a state funeral being planned for her will inevitably lead to considerably stronger protests than T-shirts bearing unsavoury slogans.  As for what songs will be played at her funeral the mind can only boggle….

Bad taste, or amusing?


Little Wonder captures Manchester launch on film

Guests arriving

Launches in Manchester and London saw AMOLAD make its official debut in October, with numerous friends and associates hearing readings from the book and seeing the paperback version up close and personal for the first time.

The Richard Goodall Art Gallery in Manchester hosted the first launch, and Little Wonder Television was on hand to record proceedings and to conduct an interview with author Paul Carroll. Proceedings moved on to London, and hosts House PR, the following evening.

First sales

Over the two nights an impressive number of books were sold- the first of many it is hoped.

Judging a book by its cover

We hear you – Nicholls has it covered

Apparently, the cover of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ went through fifty incarnations before they settled on the final treatment.  Of course, once launched there was no getting away from the block orange silhouetted faces, the black asymmetrical title typeface and the concise tagline which seemed to peer out from every book shop and airport display in the world. Classic design.

Not what you’d call a wizard design…

Coming up with a cover for your own book is not an altogether different task. The aims are the same as for Nicholls’ publishers (even if it won’t need to be translated into fifty languages): grab attention, convey the story, create instant empathy and scream ‘buy me’.  What you may be missing is the resource, budget and expertise Nicholls had at his disposal.

No matter.  Remember many book covers have had more thrown at them than Nicholls’and still came out looking awful.  J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy anyone?

The cover for A Matter of Life and Death went through the same process as both Nicholls’ and Rowling’s latest efforts – well, through three or four incarnations, rather than fifty, but the objectives were the same.

Authors are not designers: Repeat.

First, the author’s idea: a library shot edited to depict a ‘jolly’ funeral.  Nope. Time to get the professionals in.  Immediately, we were leaving library shots behind – the refuge of the lazy – and aiming a little higher in our cover aspirations.  The addition of a tagline – ‘Everybody should be famous for fifteen minutes. After they die’ – lent confidence to the hope we were getting the message across.

Writing’s on the wall for this treatment?

Next, a Banksy type treatment, referencing one of the characters in the book.  No – too misleading.

Then left-field abstracts – a pint of milk , referencing the song ‘Ernie’ in the book.  Forget that – too obtuse.

No milk today, thanks.

Back to the literal and an illustrative treatment of a skeleton in a coffin that urged a second look.  Yes, we can build on that.  But nothing too gothic.  So, change the colours to fluorescents for modernity and add a jaunty flourish by giving the skeleton a party hat and an iPad  – all that’s left after the ‘celebration of life’ has concluded.
Does it work? Time will tell but remember, appearances are rarely misleading….

Getting back to basics

Drop the gothic, splash the dayglo, add a hat and an iPad – print!

Funerals Top Ten goes on and on and on…

Co-operative Funerals ran a ‘most popular songs played at funerals’ story this week – only 16 years after I first came up with the idea for them whilst at Communique PR.

Back in 1996 it was relatively rare to hear popular music tracks blaring out of crematoria and chapels, so we knew we were on to a winner with the story – we were right; it grabbed a lot of coverage.

While we repeated the top ten idea for the following five years, I don’t think anyone really expected it would be running nearly twenty years later.  Some would accuse the Co-op of a total lack of imagination in their annual recycling of this old story, but isn’t the main point that a funerals top ten is still ‘news’? – it chimes with the public’s understanding of bereavement now probably even more than it did back in the 1990s.

Having said that, I wonder how much of the Co-operative’s 2012 top ten is actually based on statistics ‘from 30,000 funerals’ – we, shall we say, tended to be more ‘creative’ in our compilations in order to get in more comedy value (I mean, has anyone ever actually heard ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ or ‘Knock on Wood’ at a funeral?)   Mind you, we made sure ‘My Way’ and ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ were always in there.

In writing AMOLAD I knew from the outset I wanted to use song titles that could be played at funerals for chapter headings.  I also wanted to avoid the over-obvious, so selected songs that had resonance to the action as well as being poignant and stirring in their own right. Not one of my chapter headings makes the current Co-operative chart.

Which songs would I have played at my own funeral? I think it best to just stick the AMOLAD playlist on random shuffle and see what pops up.

Check out the songs featured in the AMOLAD chapter headings here or listen to them on Spotify here.

Communique’s Co-op Funeral Top Ten, Daily Mail, 1999


Music lyrics in novels – have I the right?

Music is a very dominant theme in AMOLAD – each chapter heading is the name of a song, so using a couple of lines from a song here and there surely wouldn’t be a problem? After all, an author may even be helping to flag up some tracks to new listeners.

In journalism the code of ‘fair usage’ covers the reproduction of song lyrics and quotations from literature and films – it’s rare for copyright infringement to be raised particularly if lyrics/quotes are credited.

But books are different – here if you use a finely honed lyrical couplet from a song to neatly nail a point or underline a motif, you’re asking for a sizeable bill to go with it. In almost every case. Plus, even if you deigned a lyric essential to your work and were prepared to pay, applying to a copyright owner to use a line could result in a considerable wait – adding yet more months to an already extensive production process.

Many first time – and not so inexperienced – authors take the view that it’s worth taking a gamble – nobody will ever find out and why would a music copyright owner bother chasing a low selling author anyway?

I was indebted to Blake Morrison on the subject who related how he picked up a bill of almost £4,500 for unauthorised use of lyrics in his novel South of the River, each line of a lyric costing between £200 and £1,000. On AMOLAD, I could have been looking at a bill of £40,000 before I’d even sold a copy. Cheers, Blake!

Thankfully, you can use song titles without any issues even if you can’t use lyrics for free – check out the songs featured in the AMOLAD chapter headings here or listen to them on Spotify here.