132. Threading the Needle—my journey to publication 1: The basics

The urban dictionary defines threading the needle as “While driving, walking, or running you weave in and out of obstacles (other cars, people, etc.) in your path.”

threading the needle

The road to self-publication involves a lot of weaving in and out. In a previous post, I described how I chose my publisher and publicist for my literary thriller, The Tears of Boabdil.

That was only the first of many decisions. Next came:

  • Distribution
  • Pricing
  • Page design and cover design
  • Promotion
    • News coverage
    • Review strategy
    • Advertising

Each of these decisions will have huge influence on the book’s success. There will certainly be a lot more to research, think about, and decide on. The book is now typset in its first proof stage, and so I’ve been proof-reading.

I can’t pretend to be an expert (I’m learning as I go) but, as a writer, I know the importance of doing my research.


This one was easy, since part of the reason for choosing Matador for the production of the book was that they also have an effective sales and distribution arm which can get books into major retail outlets.

Blue Bear bookshop
The Blue Bear, my local indie bookshop

Matador’s distribution service produces an Advance Information sheet to publicise the book for booksellers, arranges all bibliographic data management for wholesalers including Nielsen and Gardners, and distributes to retail physical and online bookshops. This service, which costs £300, requires a print run of at least 100. I also contracted their representatives to hand-sell the book into high street retailers. This service costs £250 and requires a print run of at least 300.

Book categories

How you categorise your book affects how easy it is for readers to find.


The online seller Amazon dominates the market with over 33 million titles, and understanding the way it classifies books is important to success. Amazon Kindle lists only the top 100 books in each category. That means in a highly competitive category like Romance your book may sink without a trace unless your sales figures are really good. But Amazon Kindle has 10,849 bestseller lists. So, if you expect to be getting sales in the hundreds, it pays to pick a less competitive category. If there are no more than 100 books in your category, you’ll automatically make the bestseller list with a single sale.

Here’s a really useful tabulation of how different categories sold on Amazon Kindle in 2019. It shows Amazon’s overall sales ranking for bestsellers in each category.

Amazon book categories

My book is literary with thriller elements. So, if I marketed it as Literary Fiction/Literary, I’d have to be at least number 3,754 on the Kindle rankings to appear on a bestseller list. But if I marketed it as Literature and Fiction/Literary Fiction/Mystery, Thriller and Suspense, I’d only have to reach number 18,717.

To translate these rankings into estimated numbers of books sold, you can use this Kindle Best Seller Calculator or this one.

To achieve a sales rank of 4 (the #1 spot in the most competitive category, Romance/contemporary), the author will be selling around 5,360 e-books a day. To achieve a sales rank of 18,718 (the 100th spot on the bottom row), the author will be selling around 13 e-books a day.

The rankings change over time, so it’s worth checking just before you release your book. In April 2020, the number 100 spot for Literary Fiction/ Mystery Thriller and Suspense had a sales ranking of 4,058.

Most physical booksellers use the more restricted Thema categories. There, my best choices were either Fiction General and Literary, or Modern and Contemporary Fiction, or Thriller/suspense. On my publisher’s advice, I went with Thriller/Suspense, since there was no Literary Thriller category.

So, hopefully, the book will be available through all major retailers. All I need to do is make sure readers know about it and want to buy it.

130. Who do you turn to? Choosing self-publishing help

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.

lifetime book sales

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.

107. Do Readers Prefer Long Novels?

I am cursed with brevity. It’s really hard for me to write a long book. My novel is currently a svelte 40,000 words. Yet the trend is against me. With long-haul holidays comes the “airport blockbuster”, a novel massive enough to last a flight across the world.

Blockbusters aren’t new. In the days when the reading classes tended to be the leisured classes, blockbusters were de rigeur. Think, for example, of what may be the longest novel in the English language, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa, weighing in at 467,870 words. It’s a Sumo wrestler of a book.


Not that shorter books haven’t made the literary prize list. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1818 novel Nightmare Abbey is an anorexic 18,300 words and John Buchan’s 1915 The Thirty Nine Steps is a skinny 29,725 words.

Ian McEwan says “I do love this form, the idea that we are sitting down to a book that you could read at one sitting, or within three hours much as you might go to a movie or opera or long play.”

From the author’s perspective, a book should be “as long as the story needs”. But publishing is a business, and has to respond to market trends. So what are those trends?

Current advice is that fiction for adults should be somewhere in the 70,000 to 110,000 word range, a little longer for fantasy and sci-fi. (See for example Harry Bingham and Chuck Sambuchino)

I took a look at how the trend changed over time, using the Guardian 100 best books list and, for the twenty-first century, the winners of the Man Booker Prize.  The trend indicates that the heyday of shorter books was in the hundred years between 1851 and 1950.

novel lengths table

From Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1615 (and arguably the first novel) to Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons at the end of the eighteenth century there are eight books, with an average length of 213,966 words. Only one book is less than 80,000.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there are 11 books, averaging 130,228 words, with two below 80,000. In the second half of the nineteenth century (16 books) the average rises a little to 176,680 words. But, at the same time there are more books (six) below 80,000 words of which half are below 50,000 words. This may reflect growing literacy among the “lower” classes and tastes for stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

1880s poster

Come the first half of the twentieth century, and the average of the 23 books falls to 104,189 words. Books below 80,000 words make up over half the list, and books shorter than 50,000 words are over a fifth. Oh that I were alive and writing then! The average length for the 39 books in the second half of the twentieth century doesn’t change much, but the proportion under 80,000 words falls to a third and under 50,000 to a tenth. The airport blockbuster had arrived.

In the twenty-first century, this trend seems to have continued. The average length of the 18 Man Booker winners shows a 13% increase compared with the previous half century, and the proportions below 80,000 and below 50,000 words have continued to drop.

This seems to be at odds with some claims that readers’ attention span has fallen and that there is a trend for shorter books. There is some indication of a rebirth of interest in short stories and other short-form styles, particularly in digital format. Agent Clare Alexander says that the marketing challenge may be that of selling middle-sized works.

However, few publishers are seeking novellas. A quick search unearthed:

So the idea of a growing market for short forms may be an urban myth rather than a reality. Agent Kristen Nelson in 2006 noted a trend for authors submitting shorter books, rather than a trend for publishers wanting them. In fact, other surveys have also noted a trend to increasing length. A study of 2,500 titles on the New York Times bestseller and notable book lists found that between 1999 and 2014, average length increased by a quarter, from 320 pages to 400.

Only in non-fiction is there evidence of a trend towards brevity. A study of 272 non-fiction bestsellers on the New York Times list between 2011 and 2017 found a downward trend in average length, from 467 pages to 273 pages.


Do you suffer the curse of brevity? What do you do about it? Do you enjoy short novels? Where do you find them?

96. A Mentor to walk with me

What a great end-of-year present! I got an e-mail today telling me I’d been selected for a place on the Cinnamon Press mentorship programme.

Photo © Static TV Tropes

This is the second accolade I’ve won for the novel I’m working on, The Tears of Boabdil.  Earlier in the month I won the Plot of Gold competition for the book’s outline.

There are about 20 places in the Cinnamon scheme, run by this independent Welsh press, offering a year’s one-to-one support, with a mentor matched to your project.  Mentors work closely with your manuscript, offering feedback, looking at revisions and advising on structure, etc, offering around 32 hours over the course of the year. I don’t yet know who my mentor will be. I expect the coming year to be exciting and challenging.

The scheme also offers slots for publication of two books by mentored students, and in general students achieve a high rate of publication, around 70% acccording to Cinnamon.

Cinnamon’s is not the only mentoring scheme available in the UK. The Word Factory apprenticeship scheme for four writers is now open for 2018. The highly-respected Cornerstones agency, which I have used and can recommend, offers mentoring at a cost of £50 an hour. There are other commercial schemes that I can’t vouch for, such as Adventures in Fiction which costs £2,125 for around 78 hours, working out at just over £27 an hour.

I’ll keep you posted on how the mentoring goes.

92. How to succeed as a novelist – more facts

In a previous post I summarised Jim Hines’ fascinating survey of the success factors for 246 authors. Now I’ve come across another survey of 150 authors by Graeme Shimmin.

Photo © Graeme Shimmin

The conclusions of the two studies are remarkably similar, despite Hines being from the US and Shimmin from the UK.

Success factor Jim Hines (US)

246 authors

Graeme Shimmin (UK)

150 authors

Average time writing before publication 11.5 years No data
Previous publications track record Only half (52.8%) had published short stories prior to first novel publication Only 28% had published short stories but 86% had some form of prior publication including:

  • 10% self-published novels
  • 11% internet publication
  • 21% journalism
  • 9% non-fiction books

However, paradoxically, 54% said they had no “platform” or that a platform was not a factor in their success

Creative writing qualifications Just under half (48%) had a  relevant degree A third (34%) had a relevant degree.

But 86% had done some sort of writing course mostly non-academic courses or retreats

Networking and contacts  61% had attended a writer’s convention and 59% were members of a writing group.

Three quarters had no contacts before publication.

Less than a quarter of agented authors had been recommended by a friend, and only 5% knew the agent beforehand in a personal capacity.

A quarter (26%) used contacts (of which over half came from working in publishing or a literary agency and a fifth from knowing a published author).


Most had some contact with the literary world



Route to publication Over half (55%) went through an agent. For those achieving breakthrough in the 21st century, agents were involved in two thirds (67%) of the successes


No data on competitions or other routes

No specific data on agents

A third (32%)  succeeded with unsolicited submissions (key success factors were the quality of the writing, the commercial nature of the text and the quality of the pitch)

A quarter (26%) went through open submissions or competitions

A quarter (26%) used contacts (see above)

16% were approached by an agent or publisher and asked to submit


  1. Time spent learning your craft is essential. Expect to struggle for years. Joining writing groups, non-academic courses and writers’ retreats may help. Creative writing or English degrees are not necessary.
  2. A track record in publishing short stories is helpful but not necessary, though some form of publication track record may help to create profile and credibility.
  3. Having an agent is increasingly important according to Hines. Shimmin’s survey has no data on agents.
  4. Unsolicited submissions can succeed in a significant minority of cases, especially where the writing has commercial prospects. Entering open submissions and competitions can help, as can working your contacts.
  5. Building up your networks and experience of the writing world may help, though don’t over-emphasise the importance of developing your “platform”

The main difference between the two surveys is Shimmin’s emphasis on networking and contacts, which Hines concludes is not so important. However, this seems to be a question of interpretation, rather than numbers. Their data is similar, indicating that around a quarter of successful submissions went through contacts.

91. The Farnham Short Story Competition

The Fellowship of the Pen, a writers group, meeting in Farnham Surrey, is organising a short story competition in association with The Farnham Herald and Waterstones, Farnham.  The winner will receive an engraved trophy and their story will be published in The Farnham Herald.  The competition opens on 7 September and closes on 2 November.  Names of those short listed will be published on The Farnham Herald website on 7 December.  The winner will be announced at a presentation at Waterstones, Farnham in the middle of December.

Farnham Short story competition

The competition rules are as follows:

  1. The Farnham Short Story Competition is open to anyone in the UK aged 16 or over on 7 September 2017. Members and families of the sponsoring organisations (The Fellowship of the Pen, The Farnham Herald and Waterstones Farnham) may not enter.
  2. The competition opens on 7 September and closes on 2 November. Entries received after this date will not be included.
  3. Stories should be no longer than 1,000 words, excluding the title. Any story exceeding this limit will be rejected.
  4. Stories should be original, have not won a prize in another competition and have not appeared in print or on-line (excluding your own blog).
  5. There is no theme or genre.
  6. Entry to the competition is free. All entries should be sent as an e-mail attachment in Word or PDF format to: farnhamshortstorycompetition@outlook.com. The e-mail must include the title of your story and your name and contact details.  No identifying information must be included in your story.  Please also confirm in the e-mail that you are over 16 years old.
  7. The competition will be judged by the novelist Claire Fuller and writers from The Fellowship of the Pen. All entries will be judged anonymously.  The judges’ decision is final.
  8. The Farnham Herald and The Fellowship of the Pen reserve the right to print the short listed stories. All other copyright will be retained by the entrant.

87. How to succeed as a novelist – the facts

At last, there’s some real data, which busts a lot of myths. Jim Hines, a fantasy writer, published a survey of 246 novelists and now we know what the elements of success look like. The sample is probably not representative, being made of people who chose to respond to Jim, and it seems to be biased towards writers of YA, fantasy, sci-fi and romance. It also defines a successful author as one who earned an advance of at least US$2,000. Though the data is far from clean, it’s a great deal better than the hunches, prejudices, and sheer opinions that I’ve had up till now.

People tell you all kinds of things about how to succeed. Get an agent. Self-publishing is the way to go and you’ll net an offer from a traditional publisher. Others folks say, put in your time publishing short stories to earn your spurs. Do an MFA. It’s all in who you know. There’s no shortage of contradictory opinions. But which, if any, are true?

What the data says is:

  • You do need to put in the time learning your craft. The average time writing before first getting a novel published was 11.5 years.
  • The average age of debut novel publishing was 36.
  • A track record in publishing short stories is not necessary. The average number of stories sold before their novel was accepted was 7.7, but fully 116 of the 246 authors had zero prior sales of short stories. It looks like a portfolio of short story publication hasn’t been necessary since the 1980s. This was a revelation to me, since I decided last year on the basis of good advice to stop writing novels and concentrate on building up a track-record in short stories first.
  • Getting an agent helps a lot. Most of the sample (55%) achieved publication through an agent. Selling the first novel without an agent increased the time spent writing before breakthrough by 3.3 years
Hiines publication survey
Steve Saus
  • Having an agent is not completely necessary. 29% of the sample successfully submitted directly to a publisher. Direct submission to publishers was more common in the past. 100% of those who first published in the 1970s went this route. This dropped in each decade, particularly for YA and fantasy novels, while romance novels showed a small increase in direct sales to publishers. By the 2000’s only 27.7% of the whole sample successfully submitted directly to a publisher, while 67.3% went through an agent.
  • Self-publishing is not a good route to getting an offer from a mainstream publisher. Only 1 of the 246 authors self-published their novel and went on to sell it to a publisher. This is not to say it isn’t a valid route to making sales
  • You don’t need a degree in English or Creative Writing to get published. Only 38% of the sample had such an undergraduate degree and only 10% had a Masters.
  • Networking may help, though the effect isn’t clear. 61% had attended a writer’s convention and 59% were members of a writing group. Having attended conventions reduced the number of years spent writing before publication of the first novel by 2.5.
  • You don’t need to know an agent or publisher beforehand. Less than a quarter of agented authors had been recommended by a friend, and only 5% knew the agent beforehand in a personal capacity. 


    For those of you who’re interested, there’s a detailed statistical analysis of his data by Steve Saus

86. Rejection is your friend


Rejection can be hurtful. But all writers have to learn to accept it. It seems like someone is telling you that your writing is no good. But there’s a huge amount of subjectivity in the decision-making process, which a writer doesn’t normally glimpse.

I just had a story rejected by Every Day Fiction with enough feedback to illuminate the process of decision-making. There are several reasons why a story might get turned down:

  • The writing is no good
  • The writing is good, but the story doesn’t work
  • The writing is good and the story works, but it’s not what the editors are looking for

The first two reasons are objective, the third is subjective. But, of course, the first and second reasons also involve judgements by people and can also be subjective. You rarely discover what has led to a rejection.

In this case, the magazine sent me the reports by the four readers. They had to score the submission between 1 and 5, and their scores varied between 1 and 4: a 4, a 3, a 2 and 1. If scoring were purely objective, this would not be possible.

The reader who scored me 1 said “This is an interesting beginning to a story but not a complete short tale as yet”. So that was a rejection reason two.

The reader who scored me 4 said “I love it when a story takes me by surprise, as yours did. Usually I find the ‘it was a dream’ motif a pretty hard sell. But here, the dream (or initiation) was an integral part of the narrative. Also, you capture quite a story in very few words. Nice. Your prose is gorgeous, too. I was taken in by its imagery and sound quality”. So that was an acceptance.

The remaining two readers also offered variants of rejection reason two. “The ending was a let-down” said one, who also commented “very strong writing”. They offered me the opportunity to rewrite and resubmit. Confident that the writing was good, I looked again at the structure.

I know enough about reactions to my endings to understand I have a problem here. I like open-endings. Readers, by and large, don’t.  I’m working on beefing up the ending now.

Rejection, as Sylvia Plath once wrote, shows that you’re trying. Make rejection your friend. It can help you try better. And editors who tell you the reasons for the rejection are priceless.