I’m pleased to hand over the blog today to Sue Hepworth, author of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You, which I reviewed yesterday. I asked Sue to write about her decision to self-publish her new novel & her post will remind many readers of Linda Gillard’s similar experience that she wrote about here.
My decision to self-publish But I told you last year that I loved you
You’ve no idea how I’ve wrestled with this post. It’s been so hard to choose which version of my story to write: the long one, the short one, the upbeat one that’s good PR, or the totally honest one.
It is a writer’s first duty to be honest, so…
It begins with my huge upset over the cover my publisher used for my last book, Zuzu’s Petals. The book has two strands – it is a love story interwoven with the serious and realistic story of a forty-something woman’s grief over the death of her elderly father. There was certainly comedy in it, but it was a serious book, and yet the big retail chains would not stock it as a paperback unless it had a chick-lit cover. Did you read on this blog what Linda Gillard said? “Authors are trying to sell their books to readers. Publishers are trying to sell their books to retailers.” My publisher’s solution was a pretty pink cover sporting a vapid cartoon bimbo who looked as if she was on her way to a garden party. She had nothing to do with the story or the main character, but worse, the cover misrepresented the tone of the book. I thought that many readers who would enjoy it would shun it because of the cover. But it wasn’t just lost sales that upset me: the cover lacked integrity and demeaned my story.
My publisher and I parted company.
In order to find another one I needed a literary agent. For 18 months I wrote to agents, and received some wonderful rejections. An agent would say something complimentary about my writing, my dialogue, my characterisation, the idea, etc, etc, and then came the BUT. There was a mantra running through the rejections – “these difficult times,” “the toughness of the current market,” “it is so tough at the moment,” “today’s very difficult climate,” “what is the most difficult market I’ve ever experienced as an agent of 15 years’ experience.” One agent told me that in the last year she had had 30 manuscripts she had really believed in, and had only managed to sell 11 of them to publishers.
The last agent to read my novel loved it. She said, “It’s clever, funny, subtle, wry, sad and uplifting all at once.” She thought I wrote “thoughtfully and insightfully, and with such tenderness and humour.” Then she said she could have sold my book five years ago, but not today, and she wanted me to change it. She said that publishers now want books that sell to wide swathes of the reading public, not to smaller subsections. I did change it, but if I had made it into what the publishers wanted, it would no longer have been my novel.
It takes emotional energy to try to sell yourself and your work to one person after another. And the whole process takes so long. You send off your package: you wait, you wait. I was demoralized, but I never, ever, lost faith in my book. But I told you last year that I loved you is my best – my critical readers have told me so – and I knew that the readers who loved Plotting for Beginners and Zuzu’s Petals would love this one too. And it is very dear to my heart. They all are, of course, but this one covers a subject (not mentioned in the blurb on the back) that I want more people to know about and to understand.
I decided to publish the book myself and seize back the power from the publishing establishment. I had oceans of help. My sister and a writer friend copy-edited the book, my husband typeset it, a friend suggested the cover idea, my daughter created the art work, my son photographed it, and he and his friend completed the cover production.
I now have a book with a cover that is striking and pretty, but more importantly, the combined package of cover and title work well as a fitting advert for the book. The book looks professionally produced, and when I sent it to the largest wholesaler in the country the buyer was impressed with my book, my previous sales record and my marketing plan. He agreed to stock the book. This is a huge breakthrough for a self-published book. It means that anyone anywhere can buy it – online, or through their local bookshop. It is now out there for people to read.
It hasn’t been easy. At times it has felt like stumbling through a dark forest with no guide and no torch, only discovering I was going the wrong way when I bumped into something. There was so much to learn, and although there are guides to self-publishing (that tell you, for instance, that you can only buy ISBNs in batches of 10, costing £118), there is a lot of specialist arcane information that you need that is specified nowhere. Thankfully, an independent bookshop owner, herself a small publisher, has been a generous helpline.
I could have simply brought out an ebook, which would have been much less trouble and vastly cheaper. But my books especially appeal to women over 40 and I only know one such woman who reads books on a Kindle. Also, I wanted an actual book for myself that I could be proud of, a book with a cover I didn’t feel embarrassed by. Now I have it. I was so delighted with the first perfect copy that arrived from the printer that I took it to bed with me.
Making the book available is just one part of the process, of course. I need to market it, or how will people know it is there? I’ve always worked hard at PR for my new books, but this time I am trying even harder to get the book some national coverage – on BBC Radio 4 and in the national press. This work is ongoing. Watch out for me and my book!
Thank you Sue for sharing your experience of self-publishing. Have a look at Sue’s blog for more information & you can buy But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You from bookshops in the UK, the Book Depository or Amazon.