So, firstly, Ann, the obvious question: what made you decide to change from traditional to indie publishing?
My first independently published book was THE TESTAMENT OF MARIAM, an unconventional retelling of the story of Jesus from the point of view of his fictional sister Mariam. It works in two time frames – Mariam in her old age, living with her children and grandchildren in Roman Gaul, and Mariam as a young girl, following her brother and her fiancé Judas, as they travel about the province of Judah under Roman occupation. I tried to get back to the real people, and it is a secular novel, though it has a numinous layer. My agent was terribly excited, a lot of editors were very enthusiastic and we came near to having an auction between three of them. Then the money-men stepped in. This was at the height of the recession and they gave Mariam the thumbs down. It wouldn’t sell, they said. I refused to give up, and decided to publish it independently. What has been interesting has been the reaction of readers. I had expected that many would read it simply as a novel, but I was afraid it might cause offense in some quarters. On the contrary, I have had letters from men of the cloth praising the way I have clarified the role of women in the story and saying that, having always been troubled by the Judas story, they found my version totally credible. All these responses made it clear that the commercial publishers were wrong, and I had done the right thing in going ahead with independent publishing.
I think my experience with THE TESTAMENT OF MARIAM explains one of them. Most of the traditional publishing houses are no longer run by editors, who care about books. Publishers have always had to survive financially, but in the past they were prepared to nurture an author’s career, supporting the small sales, while the author’s reputation grew, from the larger income earned from more established writers. Now the big publishers are strictly commercial organisations. Every book must be a guaranteed money-spinner before it will even be considered. They do not look to the long-term but concentrate on the quick earner. If an author doesn’t bring in a hefty profit with every book, he or she will be dropped with no apology. I know several well-established and popular midlist authors who have been dumped unceremoniously by their publishers in the last few years, something which would not have happened, say, twenty years ago. It has also led to frustration within the publishing industry itself. Many editors, disillusioned with their circumscribed role, have left to become agents, where they feel they can better serve their authors.
This is probably the first frustration, because it erects a barrier against an author being published at all. Related to it, and to some extent resulting from it, are the enormous frustrations of wasted time. Delays in seeking an agent, delays between agent and publisher, the sheer RUDENESS of many people in the publishing industry today, who cannot even be bothered to send a one-line standard email to acknowledge receipt of a submission. Those dreaded words on agents’ and publishers’ websites: ‘If you have not heard from us within three months…’
Then, even if you are lucky enough to be accepted for publication, you hand over control to people you may never meet, who will decide what cover your book will have, what format it will have, how it will be priced, where it will be placed on the list, how long it will take before it will be published – quite likely two years. You probably won’t receive the last portion of your advance until then, and will wait nine further months before you learn whether the book has earned anything beyond the advance. (Accounts are drawn up every six months, with an additional three months before you are notified.)
On top of all this, only the barest minimum of marketing will be done for you – an entry in a general catalogue, a few review copies sent out. Unless you are a ‘celebrity’ (the industry’s favourite class of ‘author’), you will be expected to do all the promotion of your book yourself, generally at your own expense.
If your book doesn’t sell well in the first month or six weeks, it will be regarded as ‘dead’ by both the publisher and booksellers, who will return their unsold copies.
Tell us a bit about your personal journey, from traditional to self publishing.
As I said above, it started with THE TESTAMENT OF MARIAM. However, I didn’t immediately abandon traditional publishing. After all, I had had three books published by Random House, though I wasn’t entirely happy there. My editor had gone on maternity leave, but in the end had not returned, and there had been a lot of internal disruption in the company. I wanted to move to a different publisher. My lovely original agent, Murray Pollinger, had retired. My new agent had failed to find a publisher for Mariam, but I thought, ‘Well, it is a rather unconventional book and it was the worst moment of the recession.’ I stayed with her, intending to remain within the commercial publishing world. I knew from my experience with Mariam that it is very, very difficult, as an independent publisher, to get your books noticed. Bookshops won’t stock them and literary reviewers won’t review them, though I was lucky enough to have two splendid newspaper reviews for Mariam.
My first three novels, published by Random House, were outwardly contemporary, but had their roots in the histories of the people involved, because I have always been fascinated by the way we are all products of our shared history. After writing Mariam – an idea that seized me by the throat and wouldn’t let me go – I wanted to write more historical fiction. I researched and wrote a novel set in the late sixteenth century, THE SECRET WORLD OF CHRISTOVAL ALVAREZ. It was fairly long and covered about ten years. When I was happy with it, I sent off the first three chapters to my agent.
And I waited. And waited. And waited. Remember, I was a contracted client of this agent. I would have expected at least an acknowledgement of receipt. (What was that I said about rudeness?) Eventually, after three months, I contacted her and asked politely whether she had received the three chapters. She replied within a few days and said she wasn’t interested in historical fiction at the moment. It took her three months to tell me this, and she probably wouldn’t have bothered to tell me if I hadn’t asked.
I then approached another agent I knew slightly. Within 48 hours he had read the three chapters and responded, ‘I love this! Please send me the rest.’ Which, of course, I did! A week later he got back to me, saying he loved the book, but in the intervening week the agency had had a meeting and decided they wouldn’t take on any more historical fiction, but just concentrate on their existing writers. He was very apologetic and clearly would have taken it on but for this collective decision.
While all this was going on, I had written FLOOD, my seventeenth-century novel set during the Fenland Riots. (Word of advice to new writers – Don’t let them get to you. However they treat you, whatever the setbacks, keep writing.) I decided to circumvent the agent route and make a direct approach to a very distinguished editor I knew. She was keen on FLOOD, but thought the long Christoval novel would work better rewritten as a series. I took her advice and started rewriting the first part (using the same title) to be the first book in the series THE CHRONICLES OF CHRISTOVAL ALVAREZ. She was on the point of offering me a contract for both when a new CEO was appointed at her publisher, who wanted to rethink policy and put a stop to historical fiction. I was out in the wilderness again.
One more attempt. In late 2013, I approached another agent, one I had nearly signed with after Murray retired, but she was ill for a time and decided not to take anyone on. As she was now back in the fray, I approached her. She responded in half an hour, saying she was really interested in the idea of the series. Later the same day I sent her the first three chapters of the rewritten book one. That was in November last year. I never had an acknowledgement. I’ve contacted her a couple of times since and have received no reply.
Well, that was the final straw.
It was a long journey, and a frustrating one, but it reveals a lot about agents (both the helpful and the indifferent) and editors (enthusiastic but powerless) as well as a generally prevailing attitude within the commercial publishing industry that authors are of no account and can be treated with discourtesy, despite the fact that the entire industry is built on their creative work. You’ll gather I feel rather passionate about it!
My editor friend had urged me to consider independent publishing. So I decided that this time I would embrace it fully, not simply for one book. I launched Shakenoak Press and I haven’t looked back.
How have you found the self-publishing process? Simple and straightforward, or a real headache?
It has been a joy! Once I had made up my mind to take on the role of publisher as well as writer, I consulted various other writer friends and friends-of-friends. Mariam had been published through an Arts Council supported scheme, called YouWriteOn, and I had also republished one of my out-of-print Random House books, A RUNNING TIDE, with them. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory. The printed books were high-quality, produced by Lightning Source, who also do print-on-demand for big commercial publishers. However, the scheme itself was rather amateurish and did nothing to publicise or market books. It required some money up-front and the payment of an annual ‘distribution fee’ for each book. They owned and controlled the ISBNs. And there was no way of checking sales – once again royalties were only paid every six months, considerably in arrears, and sums less than £25 were not paid but carried forward. In other words they were sitting on a considerable amount of money, cumulatively from all their authors, while it earned interest for them.
After getting feedback from other writers who were experienced in indie publication, I opted for CreateSpace, with Kindle for ebooks. I have found CreateSpace extremely professional to deal with. You can go through the production process a step at a time, checking the interior formatting of your book via an online viewer until you get it just right. There are a number of options for covers, with very clear instructions. (Design the cover yourself, use one of their designers or upload a professionally designed cover.) You have a choice of sizes, cover finish, paper (white or cream). You set your price and see what it will mean in terms of royalties. You can use a free ISBN (which belongs to them) or buy your own – which I chose to do. You set up your description (blurb), author biography, BIC category and keywords. Once everything, including your cover, is approved, you can order a physical proof. I did this for the first two books. The proofs are quite cheap, but postage from the US to the UK is very high. That’s one mark against them. The final books are printed in both countries. I think the proofs should be as well. For the two subsequent books, I just used the online proofer.
Another mark in their favour is quick response. I’ve made several queries and always received a response within a day.
Publishing with Kindle is much easier than it used to be. I had published one of my Random House books on Kindle a few years ago, but it was such a laborious process it put me off doing more. Now you can prepare your text in Word, avoiding anything too fancy in the formatting, and upload it straight away on Kindle, without any of the former intermediate processes. Once again you can check everything with an online viewer before you publish.
So in around two months I have published two new books, FLOOD and THE SECRET WORLD OF CHRISTOVAL ALVAREZ, and two out-of-print books, THE ANNIVERSARY and THE TRAVELLERS, and five short stories, ENVY, A MUTUAL SILENCE, A WALK IN THE WOODS, THE SECRET OF SANTA FABRIATA and THE SCENT OF ORANGES. The books are now available in print and on Kindle, the short stories just on Kindle. It would have been too expensive to commission cover designs for the short stories, so I did my own, as well a cover for one of the reprints. For the three remaining books I worked with three different designers and I’m pleased with all three results. For the Christoval book it meant also planning a ‘look’ for the series.
What are the advantages you have found in self-publishing, over traditional publishing? And the disadvantages?
The biggest advantage by far is the sense of control. As the publisher as well as the author, you can decided on exactly what cover you want, the physical size of the book, when it will be published, whether it will be in print or ebook form or both. And – not to be sneezed at – with both CreateSpace and Kindle you are paid every month! And it will stay permanently in print.
Independent publishing is very easy to set up. If you opt for CreateSpace’s ISBNs, your only essential expense is cover design. If you are a novice author, I’d recommend using beta readers and an editor. In another life I have also worked as an editor and I am a terrible nit-picker over text. If I allow a piece of my own writing to ‘rest’ for a little while, I can come back with an editor’s eagle eye, but I realise that isn’t possible for everyone.
Certainly many people complain about the way Amazon is beginning to dominate the market, but it is very helpful to writers, with its Author Pages, deals through KDP select, various promotions and so on. I have certainly found them very much more helpful than traditional publishers or booksellers.
I chose to own my ISBNs, but you don’t need to go to that expense. Again, it was a question of being in control. In the UK you have to buy them in minimum blocks of ten, which costs £132 including VAT. Per book that’s quite reasonable. I’ve already used four. When my distribution fee expires on THE TESTAMENT OF MARIAM and A RUNNING TIDE, I plan to reissue them with CreateSpace, so I will have used six in the first year. Not that I plan to continue that rate of production!
There are disadvantages, of course. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. It is a help if you have other writer friends to discuss things with. If you handle your own ISBNs, you have to register each book with Nielsen Book Data, but that does mean the details of your books are circulated to British booksellers. CreateSpace circulate these details in the US. Although CreateSpace is part of Amazon, I found the details went up very quickly on the Barnes & Noble site. Also, as an independent publisher you are responsible for sending a copy of each book to be lodged in the British Library. I’m not familiar with the American process, but I suppose something similar applies, perhaps to the Library of Congress.
Of course, THE big disadvantage for independent publishers is the difficulty of marketing. Most authors aren’t cut out for this and even find it slightly embarrassing to promote their own books. Above all, there are still huge barriers erected against us, barring us from booksellers, libraries, published reviews and literary prizes. One organisation working to overcome these barriers is the Alliance of Independent Authors, which we should all join. If we are united, our voice may be heard.
Having been “in the game” for a while now, what advice would you give to new authors starting out: try the traditional route, or go indie?
Things are so tough in traditional publishing at the moment, unless you happen to be famous for something else, that it is very difficult to break in. I think my advice would be to try out the indie route, but be professional about it. Edit your book until it is the very best you can do. Persuade some independent beta readers to go through it and give you their honest opinions. Get it professionally edited. Spend a reasonable sum on a professional cover. Choose your independent printer with care. I have found CreateSpace very good, but there are others. Ask around. I think one should have both printed and ebook versions, but it is slightly cheaper to publish only in ebook, as you will only need a front cover, though everything else should be done with the same care. Don’t produce a sloppy product, even if it is only in ebook.
There’s lots of friendship and support in the indie publishing community. Join in and share your experience.
How do you see the future of publishing in general?
I think you’d need a crystal ball to predict the future of publishing. Of one thing we can be sure: everything is changing so fast that even the big multinationals don’t know where they are going. And I suppose the other certainty is that independent publishing will hold a larger and larger share of the market. Because authors are becoming more skilled at publishing, I think we will also see greater recognition of quality in independent publishing, which will lift those books above the inevitable dross. As authors, I think we should welcome the move toward independent, author-controlled publishing. It’s what used to happen in previous centuries. Let’s seize the day!
Thanks very much for answering my questions, Ann, and Triskele Books would like to wish you all the best on your indie-publishing journey.
Goodreads: Ann Swinfen
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Review of Flood
For me, the sign of good historical fiction is being able to learn about a period of history while being entertained, and Ann Swinfen’s novel, Flood, does just that.
As the author transports us to the wild beauty of the fenlands, where the land-owners, and the fens themselves, are threatened by unscrupulous speculators, I learned what it was like to live in these remote fenlands of East Anglia; about the Puritan fanaticism of the seventeenth century Cromwell period, and the witch-hunting and corrupt political system.
Told through the eyes of the novel’s heroine, Mercy Bennington, the reader quickly sympathises with her, and her farming family, when exploitative and unethical drainers move in to drain the fens and enclose the common land, having no idea of the environmental impact of their actions. In the fight to protect their lands and homes, Mercy emerges as a feisty protestor, willing to risk her own life to protect the livelihood of her community.
Meticulously researched, and beautifully told, I would highly recommend Flood to historical fiction fans who enjoy an action-packed, suspenseful, and heart-warming tale. The novel's sharp environmental message, too, is very well-timed.