I was chatting to a friend the other day – my sister went to college with her so she’s about my sister’s age (which is to say about a decade older than I). We got to talking about books and writing, and she told me that she too is in the throes of polishing her own story, which is more fiction than fantasy. She is submitting it to all sorts of publishers and agents and was getting the most encouraging letters gushing about her story in terms that made it clear that they hadn’t even read the damn thing – and of course when she looked into it further, it became clear that the publishers in question were vanity publishers. I asked her if she had considered self-pub, and the following conversation was something of an eye-opener to me.
Since the iPad came out a year back, I’ve been really interested to watch the growth of awareness of ebooks in the UK, but I am always aware that it is difficult to tell when it’s only your own growing knowledge and what is general knowledge; but as far as I can tell, very roughly it’s been along these lines – in London, at least!
Spring 2010: ebooks? Whohellhe?
Summer 2010: Apparently you can read books electronically on the iPad, you know. Like pdfs or something.
Autumn 2010: Have you seen all the ads around the Tube and on the telly for the Kindle?
Winter 2010; I’m getting an iPad / Kindle for Christmas. Can’t wait!
And by January 2011 (ie now) Waterstones are putting out their own ebook-specific newsletter, a lot of people are discussing agency pricing and ebooks are taking off slowly but surely. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before you start getting a regular ebook review in one or other of the big papers if there isn’t one already, as the Times (to name only one) did a review of the top ten bestsellers of 2010.
So in London at least, ebooks are getting more accepted. You see people reading Kindles on the train, the Tube, the bus all the time where this time last year it was something of a novelty. There are adverts on the telly for Kindle, and most of the big publishers are bringing out books simultaneously on both media. Fairly main-stream, I thought; then I went back ooop North at Christmas and of course they haven’t had the saturation you’ve seen in the South. As always, London leads the wave because London has the information and the disposable income; no-one bothers to plaster the North with Kindle posters with the result that they might see the odd advert on the telly but there seems to be no real recognition of the sort of step-change that is going on.
My lot are fairly bookish and they were all giving paper copies at Christmas. I got a Kindle for Christmas and none of them had seen one before or knew anyone else who was getting one for Christmas. Apple managed to cover the whole country but Kindle, bizarrely, appear to have missed a significant chunk out. Oh, they’ll get there in a few months – summer will see them as Kindled up as the rest of us – at least the more techtastic ones with the spare income to actually buy it in the first place – but it was an interesting check to my views.
These were further drawn back when I talked with my sister’s friend. Only ten years older than me and living more centrally than North, still she was not particularly knowledgeable about ebooks or epublishing; in fact it took me ten minutes to explain the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing. POD was something she hadn’t heard of and ebooks seemed intangible and basically a step up from a blog, I suspect; she was interested to hear what I had to say but knew that she wanted to be traditionally published by a “proper” publisher.
I told her about my own research into it; how my partner used to work in the bookselling industry and where there used to be hundreds of new books published every year, now there was hardly a tenth of that number, and a lot of those seem to be by reality stars or popsters or other people who have had their fifteen minutes’ fame and want to cash in on it while their name is still recognised. In my view, in hard economic times, the chances of being picked up by a publisher are small and by all accounts the chances of being given the time to build up a following are minimal. A literary friend talked of her colleague who had been picked up by a publisher and had books on the shelves of every bookshop in town for maybe six weeks; after which the publisher decided it wasn’t selling fast enough and pulped the lot, leaving the author stuck in a contract with no books to sell. Another author tells of an editor agreeing to publish the book if she changed the ending to an anodyne happily ever after which would have totally changed the character of the book, destroying the whole point of it.
Now, I don’t think my story is by any means flawless – that why it’s in the process of going through an editor and a proof-reader before being released to my beta-readers – but I would be seriously cross if they carved it up in a manner that meant they missed the point. So far all my edits have been great, carving off the excess or superfluous bits and tautening up the action. But that said, neither do I expect to be an overnight success – in six weeks if I’ve sold twenty-five copies I’ll be chuffed, not least because I don’t have much in the way of time to spend publicising it. I wish I did but alas the day-job has to pay the rent so the day-job wins on that front, especially in a time of cuts and down-sizing.
So for me, all the downsides of trad publishing overmounted the plusses – and when I knew that self-publishing seemed to be such a viable option, I went for that instead. I’ve never submitted my stuff to an agent, so it’s not a case of having been turned down by everyone else; I just did the research and thought that I could envisage my little story pottering along in Kindle-form and selling the odd one here and there; hopefully eventually selling enough to pay for itself and for the paperback form that will follow afterwards. I don’t have much time full stop so devoting time to the writing and the editing and the input and the formatting is proving difficult, never mind the publicity; but I have always known that if ever I am to make my mark on this world (and that’s not a given by any means) – that IF I ever do, it will be via my writing. This seems the simplest and most logical way to start undertaking just that.
I also think that the advent of ebooks is a complete game-changer and I want to be in on it. All my instincts are telling me that if I can just get a foot in the door at the right moment, it may be that I can go part-time with the day-job, or even go onto writing full-time and really put a bit or work into my writing. I think ebooks are going to go as far as mp3s have, and I think if you can make a name as someone whose books have been edited, proofed, properly formatted with a full active Table of Contents, and all the other technical quirks required by Kindle, Apple and the rest; if you can do that NOW while the market is in its early days, then the possibilities are very good. So that’s what I aim to do; to make my books as professional as anything you might find in a bookshop or from a trad publisher. (Of course, all I have to do now is magically find an extra couple of hours in every day, but that’s by the by!)
A year from now, my sister’s friend and I will be coming back to take stock of progress. You can’t really draw direct comparisons, of course, but it will be really interesting to see how each of us fares. It may be that she is agented up, with a contract and the first hardcopies rolling off the press and hitting the shelves at bookshops across the country, while I am still lurking on Twitter saying “Anyone want to buy a book?!”; or it may be that my ebooks are flying off virtual shelves to the extent that my hardcopies will be merrily rolling off the POD printers, who knows?
At all events, I think it’s going to be fun – hard work, granted, but hopefully fun too – finding out.
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