Self Publishing - Finding the Right Help

Original cover art for Ice Dancing

I don't normally write 'how to' posts, these days . But I keep meeting writers who want to dip a toe in self publishing waters, either because they have old out-of-print books nagging away at them, or because they've written more than their publisher can reasonably cope with, or because they are tired of the long slog towards traditional publication, or because they have a project that they just want to get 'out there'. 

As well as researching a new project for my traditional publisher, I've spent some time during lockdown  revamping a couple of older books. I'd already published both of them as eBooks on various platforms, but I wanted them to be available in paperback. Both of them were well reviewed, and when I went back to them I still quite liked them. Always a good sign. Like most writers, I have several bottom drawer 'practice' novels that ought to stay just where they are - but these had fallen into the gap between publishers.

First I tackled Bird of Passage, and then moved on to Ice Dancing. Let's face it, most print on demand paperbacks are never going to be as lovely as the books my publisher, Saraband, makes. They've produced some wonderful covers and beautifully designed books for me. On the other hand, if you want only a few copies, and also want your books to be available in paperback for those who can't cope with eBooks, then you might well want to look at POD paperbacks. 

My advice to anyone with even a modicum of tech skill - by which I mean if you can handle a blog like this one or sell on eBay - would be to publish your own edited eBooks, but get some help with formatting the paperback. As long as you're thinking of a normal novel or collection of short stories, it has become easier and easier to publish an eBook. I use Amazon to start with, and D2D for every other platform. You need a good clean edited Word document, and a cover, or a good cover image - and that's about it. 

I'm lucky in that my husband Alan Lees is an artist, so I can pinch his images for some of my covers. He painted the cover image for Ice Dancing, for example. Sometimes I use my own photographs. Amazon itself will give you basic cover design for eBooks, and if you're only going for the eBook version, and have a good strong image in which you own the copyright, that's probably all you'll need. But there are excellent freelance designers out there as well and you could and should think of commissioning them. 

Paperbacks are much more tricky. The paperback will demand a formatted PDF and a specific cover design, and if it's not done properly, the upload process will be fraught with difficulty. I took one look at the 'easy' instructions and realised that it wasn't for me! But I didn't want to hand over control of these two books to anyone else either. A friend suggested a company who had published her paperback, but I bought a copy and although I loved the actual book, I found the formatting, both for eBook and paperback, not as good as it might have been in return for quite a restrictive contract. There seems little point in doing self publishing, only to lose control. 

Then I found the excellent Lumphanan Press  here in Scotland. And I've been more than pleased with the service they offer. They will give you the help you need, without the hard sell so often associated with other companies. I wanted a decent cover design, for which I supplied my own images and blurbs  - and I wanted a formatted PDF that I could upload smoothly and that would produce a reasonable book. Both of these were supplied at a price I could afford. Both uploaded without any tears. I tweaked the blurb myself, realising that my original draft for one of the books had been far too long for a paperback cover - something you tend to notice only when you actually see it. 

The other error was entirely my own fault. Post edit, I had managed to delete a whole chapter from one of the novels, and then foolishly reformatted the chapter numbers so that I spotted the omission only at the last minute, when I was doing a final proof check of the PDF. Fortunately, Duncan at Lumphanan came to the rescue immediately and inserted the missing chapter without any fuss. (I always save many drafts so the chapter was still there of course!)

Realistically, I'm not expecting to make much if anything in the way of profits from these two books. And there will be a third that I'll bring out once I've completed my current traditional mega project. But they always felt like unfinished business, a few people had asked for them - and for all that I do most of my fiction reading in eBook form, these days, it's still good to hold the solid reassurance of a paperback in your hand.

If you want more distribution without being tied to that big river place, there are other print on demand options. I have friends who sell large numbers of their very popular self published paperbacks at fairs and shows, and whose local bookshops will stock and publicise their books. There is, if you look for it, a great deal of help out there, plenty of people who know more than I do about this, and are generous with advice.

Just make sure you don't sign away your rights to somebody who will then go on to demand large sums of money for doing many of the jobs you can either do yourself, or sub contract to experts. That's vanity publishing, and still a bad idea.

No More Crime (For Now) Thank-You.


I apologise in advance to all my writer friends who work in this genre, but I've had it with crime fiction. This is probably a temporary state of affairs, but I know what brought it on. A little while ago, a friend who often has similar tastes in books, recommended Fred Vargas's 'Commissaire Adamsberg' novels. I read one from the middle of the series, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. I was captivated from the first few pages, and then I went back and read the whole series, obsessively, far into the night. 

Feeling absolutely bereft when I had finished - and I may even go back and read one or two of them again - I read Vargas's three 'Evangelists' novels. I wasn't quite so captivated by them, but I still liked them very much indeed, especially the last one: The Accordionist. 

Then, as you do, I went on Facebook and asked for recommendations for similarly captivating novels. They flooded in. 

And you know what? I haven't really liked any of them. 

One, I bought on Kindle, read several chapters, and then sent it back for a refund. It was much too violent for me. It began with a woman being tortured in graphic detail, and went on with the murderer fantasising about torturing and murdering the torturer. 

I tried again. I bought a couple more, read about fifty pages, and nearly died of boredom. I downloaded samples of various recommendations. Just couldn't get into them.

Fred Vargas, incidentally, is female, and the string of books I've started and discarded this week are all by men. Does that tell me something? Maybe. But I love Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, E F Benson, China Mieville, James Joyce, Phil Rickman (especially his standalone paranormal books) and many many more. I'm nothing if not eclectic in my reading. And many of my favourite writers are men.

I need to move on. But partly, as the same friend who recommended Vargas pointed out today, it's that Adamsberg was a kind of watershed. The books were so original, the characters so vivid, the settings,  even the police station concerned, so wonderfully quirky and yet real, in the way that real life is so often bizarre and funny and strange, the plots so clever, and Adamsberg himself so engaging that everything else pales by comparison. There's a pedestrian, box ticking quality about so much of what I've been trying and failing to read. 

I wonder if it's the publishing industry itself? Maybe they're right, because all of these books had many glowing reviews. It wouldn't do if we all liked the same thing, would it? And people must be buying them, reading them, loving them. So who am I to complain?

But for the moment, I really have to give myself a break and find some other fiction to immerse myself in. I need somebody like Barbara Pym. Or Shirley Jackson. Or Rumer Godden (a recent discovery for me) or even - back to crime again - a Margery Allingham. 

Oh go on then. 
Any recommendations? 

We Need to Talk About Hierarchies

Riding the waves ... 

Over lockdown, I've been having some online conversations with fellow creatives about what we want from our work, and how that changes as we grow older. How we manage our expectations. How we deal with disappointment. How we navigate the line between working at what we love and getting reasonable payment for that work. 

The real trigger for this post, though, may have been somebody referring to 'writers lower down the ladder'. It is a common enough expression and one that we often find ourselves using or implying. I've probably used it myself.  But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that the hierarchical model is useless where creative careers are concerned. If you see your career progression in terms of some hypothetical hierarchy, where you're aiming for status, authority, celebrity and massive remuneration, you will almost certainly be doomed to disappointment. 

Worse than that, you may waste good writing time hoping for your big breakthrough, when you should be getting on with writing. This isn't a counsel of despair. Nor does it underestimate the skills required, skills that you'll mostly acquire by practising every day. Reading a lot and writing a lot. 

The truth is that there is no single ladder. For the vast majority of people, a creative career is a giant game of snakes and ladders, with most of the ladders turning out to be more like step stools - and a whole lot of snakes of varying lengths, some more deadly than others. 

There are exceptions. There are wildly successful people. Some are fine writers. Some, not so much, but they have tapped into something in the popular imagination, and good for them. I may envy their success, but I don't begrudge it. But they are all outliers. You may as well go and buy a lottery ticket. The odds of mega success are pretty much the same. Somebody will win big every week just as somebody will achieve genuine, enduring, multi million pound worldwide best seller status. But if you do the lottery, the most you stand to lose is a couple of quid a week. If you waste a lifetime pursuing mythical best seller status as a writer, you may well lose a whole lot more: the joy of writing, of loving what you do, of honing your craft, of - yes - making as much of a living as possible along the way, but of not letting the pursuit of somebody else's expectations or fashions impinge too much on what you feel in your bones you should be writing. 

Besides, as the wonderful William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'nobody knows anything' - so you're just as likely to make it big following your heart as you are following somebody else's 'how to' prescription. Or last year's fashion.

The myth of the ladder to success - if you try hard enough and climb long enough you'll make it - is such a powerful one that all writers seem to subscribe to it when they're starting out. Me too. But it's demonstrably untrue - a tale usually told by those who have already made it big, often more by good luck than good management. 

With experience comes the harsh but liberating truth. Experienced writers often make judgments based on all kinds of things, often conflicting things that we would do well to acknowledge. Do we want to get this book or play or other piece of work out there? Do we want to communicate? Are we working on something for ourselves alone? Do we trust this person with this project? Do we believe in the project? How much are we prepared to sacrifice? Do we feel exploited or are we - as is so often the case - partners in some worthwhile but not very lucrative exploration. 

Everything is a negotiation between what we want and what is possible. Which in turn makes us think about how we can manage a career and how our aspirations can change over a lifetime. There is no ascending curve that you can plot your position on at any one time. We are, lets face it, all at sea, almost all the time. Sometimes our little craft is riding the waves beautifully. Sometimes we're rowing like mad and getting nowhere. Sometimes we're clinging to the wreckage and praying for help. Just occasionally, the million pound yacht looms on the horizon and we dream of climbing on board but more often than not, it motors on by. And sometimes, in the words of a very fine poet indeed, we're not waving, but drowning. And even then, we'll probably write about it.