My first novel, The Tears of Boabdil, will be published in September. Navigating the swamp of vanity publishers, charlatans, hybrid publishing, and cheap-and-cheerful self-publishing isn’t easy. This post shares my experience, which may be helpful to you. Even if you make different choices, the questions I asked may be useful.
I had always said I wouldn’t self-publish. Not because of any snobbery: self-publishing is no longer synonymous with vanity publishing, but is a way for writers to get their foot on the ladder. I knew, though, that while it’s easy to physically produce a book, the average self-published book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime. This compares, according to the Publisher’s Weekly in 2006, with an average of 3,000 lifetime sales for traditionally published books.
Of course, a few self-published books break through and sell tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies. But 250 is an average. Some sell less. One self-publishing company achieved an average of 2.3 sales per title over a million books.
Producing a book isn’t the problem—letting people know it’s there and persuading them to buy it is.
It’s all about the marketing
What changed my mind about self-publishing my novel, The Tears of Boabdil, was an upcoming marketing opportunity. The novel deals with an undercover cop having a relationship with a woman who is his target. The delayed Undercover Policing Enquiry, set up in 2015 following revelations about just such a scandal, is due to start hearing evidence in the summer of 2020. Mired in controversy, with victims’ groups having withdrawn their participation when the chairman decided to grant anonymity to the policemen, this event seemed certain to generate news interest.
The time scale had become too short to conventionally publish.
The starting point is, of course, the manuscript. Unless you have a good book, it’s unlikely to sell. I had a manuscript that had been through extensive critique, editing and revision and had been pored over by beta readers. And I am very proud of it.
But the next step was to consider whether I could sell at least 2,000 copies. By myself, obviously not. I was less interested in the usual publicity route of review copies and blog tours than I was in achieving substantial news and features coverage. Given that some 190,000 books a year are sold in the UK and 173,000 new titles launched traditional PR for an unknown author was going to be wasted effort.
I scrutinised lists of publicists and short-listed three. I went with Palamedes PR an award winning agency run by ex-journalists who offer money-back guarantees on achieving press coverage.
It took several days of consideration and discussion before they agreed to take me on. They offered opinion leader articles, but I wanted news coverage. Quite reasonably, they wanted to know what the news angle was. I simply hadn’t considered the possibility that the book might not be news in its own right, but it was blindingly obvious when the question was asked.
We settled on the strategy of using my career in the field of human rights and international aid. That would give me the credibility to make statements about intelligence services infiltrating charities and misusing aid as an instrument of counter-insurgency and espionage.
Production quality is paramount
Quality matters in the book trade. Print on demand technology and the rise of self-publishing companies like Lulu and Amazon’s KDP have revolutionised the ease of producing your own book. But nothing will turn readers off more quickly than a book that looks amateurish. A standout cover, professional layout, close proof-reading to spot errors, and quality printing were essential to me. All of this, along with the PR, costs money.
I considered using Lulu, who quoted me the dollar equivalent of around £1,500 to manage the design, proofing and printing of the book. In the end, after comparing prices and listening to the experience of others, I decided to pick a print firm with recommendations by the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Publishing Service Index. That led me to the Index’s top ranked company, Matador. They also have a distribution arms, supplying major bookshops.
Being clear about objectives
There was never going to be a simple return on investment calculation. My main objective was to achieve creditable sales of a quality product that would advance my writing career. Hence the expenditure on PR. I am prepared to lose money on this in order to improve my chances for the future.
As a very rough rule of thumb, independent authors are likely to be approached by agents and traditional publishers when they achieve sales in excess of 5,000 copies. They are likely to be written off as proven failures if they sell less than 2,000 copies. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.