CITY UNIVERSITY LONDON, 22.10.15
Authors, however their work is produced, need to act more like businesses than Romantic poets, although as we learned the two are not mutually exclusive. As part of City University London’s Inside Out Festival, three experts in this area, Heather O’Connell, Katy Darby and Mark Edwards explained how.
Heather O’Connell is a consultant with twenty-five years’ experience in professional publishing. She encouraged the audience to think about the basics first of all, such as how much money they wanted to make. Traditional publishing routes may appear to pay more at the outset but a book can take two years to get onto the bookshelves after completion. If self-publishing it the preferred route, then what is required to get that book to the required standard? An edit, for example, is an essential part of any publishing process regardless of route but will cost between £400 and £1000. The cover too is an essential outlay and covers can be even more. Of course there’s the option of a budget approach but what is the quality likely to be? The more books an author produces independently, the more they are going to need to fund these critical services.
There is also the time investment in metadata, which is the available information about the book, from supporting information like blurb and reviews to sales data and its influence on the mysterious algorithms. The latter are merely proportionally reactive to the amount of work we put in, books we hand sell and reviews we manage to get, so in order to stand out the quality has to be high. It’s about confidence; readers need to be confident that our work is worth engaging with and we must be confident that we have made our book as well as we can. But what then?
Katy Darby runs the short story spoken word night Liars League, has had stories on BBC Radio 4 and has written a very well received novel called ‘The Unpierced Heart’. Her key message was to approach the selling of your work with the same level of creative commitment as you do the writing itself, because the authorpreneur is an author who understands that writing and selling a book are not independent but are part of the same process. How much authors do themselves and how much is outsourced is dependent on skill and resource. Put like that it can sound soulless, even mechanical but Katy’s example proves the opposite.
Liar’s League, a successful event in itself, has also inadvertently enabled Katy to engage with a network of people who have been able to support or assist her in other ways. I use the word ‘inadvertently’ because the aim of Liars League is to be a great spoken word night rather than a calculated means of self-promotion. If you do things you enjoy doing, which are in some way related to your core aim of being a professional writer then the chances are that by goodwill osmosis you will either enhance or create your own community. They will then support you as a matter of course simply because you support them. It comes down to you, as an individual and how you personally interact with your people. You know who they are: they’re the ones you can actually be yourself with and talk to. There will always be more of them than you think.
Katy’s stories for BBC Radio 4 are another great way of literally spreading the word; in addition, the BBC brings automatic kudos as well as superb production values. There is also nothing quite as good as having your work performed and made into something else; here again, it’s about the joy of the process rather than feeling you have to start cold calling as if your books are double-glazing or PPI compensation. Like any hard work, you need love for what you’re doing to get you through, not just the inevitable tough times but the sheer grind of doing any job, properly, full-time.
Katy also encourages a positive outlook. There is tendency, more now than ever and especially online, to approach criticism as something negative or even destructive. In fact, true criticism is to do with opening out a book’s meaning as a way of sharing it with other interested readers. Sometimes creativity is interpretive as well as productive, and given the emphasis on the need to edit properly feels much like the same thing. “Be nice,” Katy says. Hear hear!
Mark Edwards is a prolific story-teller in more than one way. Yes, he was the first independent author to reach Amazon’s number 1 bestseller spot with ‘Catch Your Death’ in 2011, yes, his other co-authored book ‘Killing Cupid’ (with Louise Voss) happened to be at number 2 at the same time and yes he has, literally, sold a million books. He also has great stories about how he got there, from his years in the 90s turning out novel after novel, finally getting an agent, featuring in a TV programme about aspiring writers in which his book ‘The Magpies’… doesn’t get published, to that first phenomenal success with Amazon. Then there was the impressive book deal with a major publisher which led to fewer sales, the massive tax bill that arrived once he’d given up his job; the dusting down of ‘The Magpies’ for independent publication and its subsequent success as Mark’s second bestseller. That achievement led to a deal with Amazon and still more success, all the way to the million sold books including a number three spot in the US for ‘Follow You Home’.
Put like that it seems easy, almost inevitable the way these tales do but how did he do it really? An early adopter of social media and a professional marketer, he has always understood the relationship between author and reader to be a powerful two-way dynamic.
Before that relationship can be established however, there are a number of other steps to consider.
1. Write a great book. Seriously, this is vital. Consider especially the importance of the first chapter and remember that the first line is the most important one in the book. Agents and readers have a huge choice including the option to download samples so your opening words must stand out.
2. Have a great hook; ‘The Magpies’ is about neighbours from hell. How would you pitch your book in one line?
3. Consider how you would place it; ‘The Magpies’ is a psychological thriller and has been marketed as such first by Mark and now by Amazon. He wrote it with that description in mind, primarily because loves the genre and reads it avidly
4. Invent ways of keeping in touch with your readers. Mark spends most of his promotional time retaining the readers he’s already got, via Facebook, Twitter and an email list. The latter is invaluable and people are encouraged to sign up via a Mailchimp function on Mark’s website that dispatches a free collection of short stories in return
To achieve that first success, Mark was putting in around four hours a day on top of his day job. He spent those four hours engaging the independent crime writing community by reviewing and doing guest blogs for more established writers. Those writers’ followers would be intrigued by what Mark was doing and check out his book. He also rewrote the sales blurb on the Amazon book page, which was key to moving ‘Catch Your Death’ from where it was hovering outside the top 100 to the number one spot. He also benefitted from having another book ready to go, effectively doubling his sales.
Mark advised against trying to sell directly to a hard-earned network; if they like what you are up to they are likely to make the leap to buying your book anyway. If you engage other people over time in a way that lets your enthusiasm show through in, for example, online forums or live conventions then you are more likely to find ways to achieve your mutual goals and do what you love in the process.