How I got published - and how you can too
*** Long post alert ***
How I got published
In 1998 I wrote a terrible book. It was called "The Temple of Truth" or something similarly trite. My lifelong ambition was to be a published author, and having recently joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I had discovered that there was a thriving market for clean LDS-based literature. I thought that writing for this market would be an easy way to get my first book accepted by a publisher, after which a mainstream publisher would surely snap up my second manuscript given that I was already a published author.
For the record, I was wrong on both counts.
My terrible book landed on the desk of Covenant editor Valerie Holladay. She read it and wrote to tell me that my book was terrible, but that she thought my writing style showed promise and noted that I lived in Wales. Many Utah residents had ancestors from Wales, she told me, and would love to learn more about it. Would I consider writing a book set there? She even gave me a few pointers regarding a possible story.
A bit of a fallow period followed (I was busy raising small children and ending a difficult marriage) but I did manage to get another book published by a different publisher (Honeymoon Heist published by Cedar Fort in 2011) and then was taken on by Walnut Springs Press with whom I have published another eight books. The most recent is Her Ladyship's Secret, a Regency romance. Although Walnut Springs is based in Utah and doesn't publish anything not in keeping with LDS values, these books are targeted at the general market.
Traditional vs. Self publishing
All these books were traditionally published. Ebooks didn't exist when I started writing so there was no real alternative to traditional publishing. Like everyone else, I sent my manuscript to a publisher (I have never used an agent, but if you're writing for the national market you will probably need to) and crossed my fingers that they liked my book.
You're probably aware that traditional publishing involves a lot of rejection. Harry Potter was rejected nine times. Many aspiring authors have hundreds of rejection letters and emails. I'm one of them - my publishers don't handle sci-fi or fantasy so I sent my fantasy novel, Kirk kills the King to over 60 agents and publishers and they all rejected it. A publisher has to be sure your book is so good, so original, so compelling, so brilliantly written, that it is worth the considerable financial risk they will take in preparing it for publication, printing and distributing it. Getting accepted by an agent is very nearly as difficult as getting accepted by a publisher. And the publishers and agents will be the first to admit that it's a pretty arbitrary business: your book could be great, but if it doesn't float that particular editor's boat the default position is "no". The standard of the query letter, especially in the US, can be as important as the standard of the book itself.
I have also self-published books. When Amazon launched the Kindle it made a whole new way of publishing possible - one without the agents, editors and publishers who previously served as gatekeepers to the rarefied world of publication. Now, anyone can publish anything, and the standard of the writing really doesn't matter.
I've self-published two books. The first, The Saved Saint, was written with a friend, Hellen Riebold. It's about religious conflict so we always knew we would have to self-publish it. My publishers wouldn't touch it because it is sometimes critical of the LDS church. Evangelical publishers wouldn't touch it because it is sometimes critical of Evangelical Christianity. Non-religious publishers wouldn't touch it because it's about religion.
The second, Midnight Sunburn, is a parody of Twilight, and that had to be self-published because no publisher would risk the possible copyright lawsuits (I didn't even ask them). It's my most successful book and part of my routine each morning is to log on to KDP (Amazon's publishing arm) to see how many copies I've sold. At the moment it's averaging 3 copies and 500 KENP pages per day. It's always a thrill to see this evidence of people buying and reading my book (even though I don't get any royalties from it - they go to charity).
If you've written a book and are wondering whether to go for traditional publishing or self publishing, which would I recommend?
Yes, it's much harder to get published traditionally. Yes, you get more royalties from self-publishing (70% compared with 10-15%) and self-publishing gives you more control over your book. But if you actually want people to read your book you need to be published by a traditional publisher.
It's a sad fact that the vast majority of self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies, and those are generally to family and friends of the author. The Saved Saint bears this out. Despite our best efforts at marketing I think it's sold 10 copies in the seven years since we published it. Yes, there are exceptions, and there are examples of self-published books which went on to become bestsellers, but they are few and far between. Midnight Sunburn is one of those exceptions: to date it's sold just under 3,000 copies plus half-a-million KENP pages read, but it's an exception because it's capitalising on the success of another book.
Publishers work with distributors and actually get books into bookstores. Even in this day and age, that's much more likely to lead to actually selling books. They also have the connections and expertise to help you promote your book (although sadly the days when they did all the promotion for you have passed).
Publishers also have the experts on hand. I think editors are wonderful, and I can't stress enough how important good editing is. I have been very lucky to work with three excellent editors. Sadly Valerie Holladay died a few years back, but I will never forget just how much she taught me about my craft. She took my sorry excuse for a manuscript and turned it into a bestselling (for the market) book. She changed everything about it - from the title to the chapter divisions, characters' names, and huge swathes of the actual text. She even wanted to change my bio (I put my foot down at that).
I think this is what people mean when they talk about "keeping control" of their book by self-publishing: they don't want to go through that stage where someone they don't know rips through their book with a red pen and forces them to make changes or the deal's off. But I can't stress enough how important it is to get your book professionally edited. These people are the experts and they know how to make your book as good as it can be so that they can bring it to market. For me, having access to a professional editor is a bit part of what makes traditional publishing so great. (Shout out here to the amazing Linda, and Megan too, although I only worked with her on one book.)
Remember I said "experts"? Publishers also have access to great cover designers (shout out to Tracey), typesetters, publicists, and many others whose sole purpose is to make your book take the market by storm. If you self-publish you have to pay for these yourself. And you must, at the very least, pay an editor.
Then there's the respect factor. I wanted to be a published author. To me that meant I was a good enough writer that someone liked my book enough to offer to publish it. I think ten-year-old me with dreams of being an "authoress" wouldn't think self-publishing counted. If I didn't have a publishing contract (several, in the end) with an actual bona fide book publisher (albeit a small one) I don't think I'd feel able to describe myself as a "published author". In a world where literally anyone can get their book published easily, being traditionally published still says, "Actually, I am good at this."
Still want to self-publish?
Despite my extolling the wonders of traditional publishing, I know that I was extremely lucky to get published in the first place, and I know that an endless stream of rejection emails isn't for everyone. Many author friends have decided that self-publishing is their preferred option, and I do wish them every success. A few tips:
- Get your manuscript professionally edited. I can't stress enough how important this is. And trust your editor. Yes, editing costs money, sometimes quite a lot, and you almost certainly will not recoup that in sales, but you want your book to be error free and actually good. Don't forget to have your editor check over your back cover blurb too.
- You don't need to get an ISBN - those are provided by Amazon (or the platform you choose) but you may need to get an ITIN for American tax if you book is going to be for sale in the US.
- If you can afford to, get a professional cover designer. They will do a far better job than you ever could.
- The easiest platform for self-publication is Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. There are lots of guidelines and explanatory videos on there. KDPs home page says that it takes just five minutes to publish your book. Don't let it. You need to take much longer than that to get it right - to ensure you have no widow or orphan lines, that your chapter headings align, and that your book looks professional.
- Set the right price. Self-published ebooks are generally cheaper than traditionally published books. While you can't offer your book free (except during a promotion) you should price it low enough to generate interest, but high enough to reflect its worth as a quality product.
- If you also want paperback copies to be available, be sure to order a proof copy. Again, it costs money, but it will help you to see what is wrong in your book.
- Have a marketing strategy in mind. I always find marketing really hard - it's just somehow not British to say, "I've written an amazing book and y'all need to buy it! Yay me!" Nevertheless, that's what you need to do right from the start to get people interested in your book. At the very least you need to line up people who will post reviews for you (usually in exchange for getting the book for free) and you need to share a lot of social media content.
There is so much more I could say - in fact, I'm thinking of holding online workshops about writing and publishing. Let me know if that's something you'd be interested in. And in the meantime, good luck with your writing, and remember to enjoy it!